Video game ratings are one of those facts of life which gamers have come to live with--so much so that it is hard to believe there was ever a time without the ESRB stamping various letters of the alphabet on otherwise unassuming game cases. Amongst the legions of modern gamers, there are surely a few who remember the glory days of un-rated freedom. After all, in that golden past, surely there was no censorship--or was there? Putting aside the rose-coloured glasses, an examination of the time before the ESRB yields some surprising findings.
Modern titles like Mortal Kombat: Armageddon and Grand Theft Auto III are notorious for their violence, resulting in restrictive M ratings from the ESRB. In theory, this rating prevents a game being sold to minors. These restrictive ratings have been praised by some and denounced by others. Many argue that the ESRB's system of ratings unnecessarily cramps the creative process of developers whilst at the same time not offering any real 'protection' to minors.
Despite these claims, any examination of the past will show that video games have become progressively more violent over time--and not exclusively due to an improvement in technology. There were controversial releases in the past--the original Mortal Kombat and the even earlier Splatterhouse--though these releases were less common than today. There was censorship in the past, too, as any devoted fan of Final Fantasy IV is sure to know.
So what has changed? In the past, console developers and game developers exercised a degree of self-censorship. Companies like Nintendo examined games slated for release on their system, requiring changes to conform to their policies. Each console had different standards, resulting in unusual circumstances such as those surrounding the release of the aforementioned Mortal Kombat. Nintendo's policy was more conservative than Sega's, in keeping with the former's goal of 'family-friendly' gaming. This led to Mortal Kombat being released on the Super Nintendo without gore effects, whilst it was released on the Sega Genesis with gore effects.
Now, instead of standards differing from developer to developer and from console to console, a single set of uniform standards is applied to games by the ESRB. Far from hampering the creative process, a developer can now create a game fully aware of what the standards are and how they will be applied. There is no longer an atmosphere of uncertainty or the possibility of capricious or arbitrary censorship--at least, in theory. Developers still retain their in-house examinations for objectionable material, but the prospect of sudden censorship is now diminished.
The ESRB may occasionally rate games M to the annoyance of some gamers. Yet, the possibilities of what might happen without its existence are even more worrisome. Without the ESRB, such games might never even be released--or might be released in a heavily censored form. Though the degree of 'protection' (or its necessity) is arguable, it seems clear that the creative process is more relaxed than it has ever been. And that, surely, is a good thing.