As games got more sophisticated in the 1990s, the government began to get worried that the medium could have a negative impact on children. Before the ESRB, maturity ratings for video games were haphazard at best.
Following concern over its FMV title Night Trap, SEGA introduced its own three-tier rating system. However, the ratings only appeared on the boxes and were not made clear to retailers -- meaning that unlike a movie, a small kid could go into a store and pick up a game rated by SEGA as MA-17 without getting challenged.
The turning point came in 1993 when Senator Joseph Lieberman was informed by a concerned colleague that his son had asked for notoriously violent game Mortal Kombat as a present. Senators Lieberman and Herbert Kohl then held a Joint Congressional Hearing that sought to make the gaming industry create its own rating system – if it did not, then the government would intervene. The hearing looked at the most violent parts of Konami’s Lethal Enforcers (which was packaged with a toy plastic gun), Midway’s Mortal Kombat (which had blood in the SEGA version) and SEGA’s Night Trap.
Following the hearing, the Video Game Rating Bill was introduced on February 3, 1994. This gave the industry the kick it needed to work together despite its differences, and an Industry Ratings Council was set up in March 1994. SEGA proposed that its system would be adopted. But the Council instead decided to create an entirely new ratings system, as SEGA’s own had been criticized in the Congressional Hearing for being too vague.
Initially consisting of just 7 companies, moves by retailers such as Walmart and Toys R Us to only purchase rated games helped the Council gain recognition. The Bill was repealed following the success of the industry in regulating itself.
This Council became known later as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB. It has helped to enhance the legitimacy of the video games industry and allows parents to understand what games are suitable for their children.