With “The Last of Us” on HBO racking up viewers and “Hogwarts Legacy” smashing records, there is no denying that video game culture is having a moment. But what should we be on the lookout for when advertising our games online? The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is the self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings to video games in the United States and Canada. Other countries have adopted their own rating systems, such as Europe’s PEGI and Germany’s Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). For games being advertised globally, special care must be used to ensure proper localization and adherence to standards. The ESRB is an industry-created entity and as such does not have traditional enforcement powers. However, it may fine businesses up to $1 million if video game publishers are found to have misled reviewers or omitted content from the formal review process.
An ESRB rating has three components: the rating category, the content descriptors and the interactive elements. The rating category can be any of the following: Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, Adults Only, Rating Pending and Rating Pending Likely Mature. These rating categories allow consumers to know what they can expect from the titles they purchase and help parents make responsible choices when purchasing video games for their children. The content descriptors explain what content may have triggered a particular rating. These content descriptors can include anything from violence, adult language, gambling or nudity. Interactive elements do not influence a rating; instead, they provide additional context to consumers about features within the game. These interactive elements include things such as in-game purchases, interactions among users, location sharing or an unrestricted internet in the game.
ESRB’s Advertising Review Council is the entity responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the advertising guidelines. These guidelines are incredibly specific and require special attention to and review of any content used to promote a video game. Ads must display the rating icon and, if possible, should include the content descriptors and interactive elements with a line or separate space between them. For video advertisements shorter than 15 seconds, the ESRB rating must be displayed in the lower corner of the screen at a minimum of 10 percent of the height of the screen for the first two seconds, and videos longer than 15 seconds must include the ESRB rating for the first four seconds. Advertisers must be responsible when promoting video games and cannot use the ESRB rating to sell the product; for example, they can’t say, “We pushed the limit of our Teen rating.”
As video games continue to level up, advertisers need to ensure that they are being responsible with the marketing of their products. Video game advertising in the U.S. and abroad requires attention to the minutest details to ensure proper compliance.