Last week, I spent two days training Ritual employees on the ins and outs of the various ratings boards across the globe.
What drove the training was that there is a lot of hatred in this industry towards ratings boards, including the ESRB, but not a lot of understanding.
On one side, we've got groups who see scandals like "Hot Coffee" and "Hot Mead" and think that the ESRB isn't doing a good job of controlling the content inside video games.
On the other side, we've got developers who see the ESRB as their enemy, with the looming threat of an "AO" rating or severe descriptors ready to force them to remove portions of their artistic vision and/or eliminate a massive chunk of sales.
To be honest, I see both sides, but I don't think that anyone really has stopped to look at things from the ESRB's point of view.
The ESRB was created as an independent ratings board in an effort to prevent the government from stepping in and ratings games themselves. In that way, the ESRB is identical to the MPAA.
There are other similarities to the MPAA. There is an ad code which says how you can and cannot advertise your titles, as well as limitations on marketing for certain ratings. The ESRB owns their rating mark and merely licenses it out, so if you violate the terms, they can force a recall or resticker of the title. The people who do the rating itself have no professional association with the industry. And finally, the ESRB is funded by the submission process.
How the rating system works is that if I want to rate my game, I get a submission packet from the ESRB. Based off of my knowledge of the content in my game, I fill out the submission packet. I also create some extra exhibits as necessary, be it a soundtrack CD and lyric sheet, the voice-over script, a list of cheat codes, etc. Finally, I create a video cassette that shows normal gameplay, as well as the worst items from the submission packet. Everything on the tape must be in the submission packet somewhere. I assemble all of this, pay a fee to the ESRB, and in a couple of weeks, I get my rating and descriptors. Outside of those two pieces of information, I receive no information as to why the ESRB granted that rating. After the product ships, I'm required to provide copies of the game to the ESRB. They double-check the rating at that time.
Movies work in a similar fashion. Ratings are granted several months in advance based off of a roughly-edited version of the movie, but movies are often edited up to the week before the movie initially screens.
In both cases, if something that would materially change the rating is introduced, a resubmission is required. In the film industry, "Snakes on a Plane" is a good example. They were initially shooting for a "PG-13" rating, but because fans were demanding Samuel L. Jackson to use some more...ahem...severe profanity, they added the scenes and the movie was upgraded to an "R" rating.
Likewise, if in "SiN Episodes: Emergence," we decided that we wanted Elexis to be nude, we'd have to resubmit because we don't have a "Nudity" descriptor.
I guess the point is that while everyone in this industry wants a say in how the ESRB rates our titles, we can't have a say. Our "say" consists of either accepting the rating, or making changes and resubmitting. If we were able to do any more than that, the ESRB would lose their biggest defense...that they are independent. They have to remain seperate, lodged between blockheads who would ban or regulate us, and the hard cases who believe that rating is equivalent to censorship.