Since it's 1994 inception, video games have been rated by in the US by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).
But the ESRB was not the first rating scheme established in the US.
In the early 90s, moral guardians were up in arms due to
what they perceived as an obscenity outrage. Thie was sparked off by the video games Mortal Kombat and Night Trap from Sega, with its misleadingly lurid cover art suggesting that it was some kind of sleazy sex-themed game.
was escalated all the way to the US Senate.
A 1993 Senate hearing heard from the boss of Nintendo of America, Howard Lincoln who said:
And let me say that for the record, I want to state that Night Trap will never
appear on a Nintendo system. Obviously it would not pass our guidelines. This game ... which promotes violence against women, simply has no place in our society
The outcome of the hearing, threatened that if the video game publishers
did not crank out a rating system by 1994, one would be imposed by the U.S. government.
So, in response Sega of America quickly formed their own self-censorship committee: the Videogame Rating Council. It established 3 ratings:
GA - Appropriate for all audiences.
MA-13 - Mature audiences. Intended for ages 13 and up. Might contain more violence than GA games, mild blood, mild suggestive themes, etc.
MA-17 - Not intended for minors. The game might include
graphic violence, blood and gore, sexual content, profanity, etc.
The system lasted barely a year. The MA-13 came in for particular criticism as being mature seemed at odds with being 13 years old (being mature at 14 seems OK for TV though).
In 1994, the major video game publishers formed the trade association,
the Interactive Digital Software Association (predecessor to the Entertainment Software Association) which eventually came up with an industry-wide ratings system: the ESRB ratings, which we still use today.
The ESRB doesn't actually play through the games it rates, but are sent a short video featuring the worst or most offensive content the game has to offer, and the rating is based on that See
article from oneangrygamer.net
An article about games censorship writes that the current trend is for female characters to be covered up but notes that there has been no suggestion that the depiction of violence is being reigned in.
In passing the article provides a few statistics
about the reluctance for the US games rating board to invoke the adults only AO rating. The article notes:
Since its formation nearly 25 years ago, the ESRB has only given 29 games an AO rating. Of those titles, only
two have earned the rating solely for violent content ( Hatred and Thrill Kill ), while 26 games on the list sport content descriptors such as strong sexual content, mature sexual themes or nudity. (The only remaining title on the list that
has neither violent or sexual content, 2003's Peak Entertainment Casinos , was given the rating for offering real-world gambling elements in-game.)
Receiving an AO rating has been called the kiss
of death by gaming critics and analysts, as it essentially makes the game unavailable for most players. The majority of retailers, such as Best Buy or GameStop, refuse to stock AO games; console giants Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft refuse to publish AO
games; and streaming platform Twitch has banned titles with AO ratings from being broadcast.
Of the 29 games that have received AO ratings, commercial hits are few and far between. The best selling titles on the list, 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
and 2007's Manhunt 2 , were both published by Rockstar Games and each game was edited down to an M rating after receiving the AO tag (in the case of San Andreas , the game only earned the AO rating temporarily, after the discovery of an
unfinished mini-game featuring a sexual encounter, titled Hot Coffee, was found. It was later patched out and the game regained its M rating). Most other games on the list were far from financial boons.