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The ESRB Ratings Process walkthrough describes the steps to get a physical boxed game rated:

Physical (e.g., boxed) games typically sold at retail are rated using a "Long Form" process whereby ESRB raters evaluate the content of each game in advance of its public release. In these cases the publisher must provide two key forms of content disclosure as their game is being finalized: 1: a completed ESRB online questionnaire detailing the game's pertinent content, which essentially translates to anything that may factor into the game's rating. This includes not only the content itself (violence, sexual content, language, controlled substances, gambling, etc.), but other relevant factors such as context, reward systems and the degree of player control; and 2 a video that captures all pertinent content, including typical gameplay, missions, and cutscenes, along with the most extreme instances of content across all relevant categories. Pertinent content that is not playable (i.e., "locked out") but will exist in the game code on the final game disc must also be disclosed. Once checked to ensure that all pertinent content disclosed in the completed questionnaire is reflected in the video submitted, the video is reviewed by a group of at least three trained raters who collectively deliberate about what rating should be assigned.

For digital games, the ‘Short Form’ process is similar.

Implicit in all of this is the idea that you will fill out the questionnaire honestly, and that you will submit video footage indicative of questionable game content.

But what if you didn’t? What if a game like, say, GTA ‘marketed’ itself to ESRB as an open-world life simulator, and totally left out the violence/theft/etc. when submitting their materials? When the organization found out the developers lied, what exactly would happen?

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The short answer is: it depends on the specific context of the situation.

The general scenario you described is addressed in their FAQ under incomplete / inaccurate disclosure:

... Where a game or app has been assigned a rating based upon incomplete or inaccurate content disclosure, ESRB works to ensure that the rating is promptly corrected wherever it is displayed to consumers, be it a game box, an advertisement, an online or mobile storefront. For physical (e.g., boxed) games, failure to disclose pertinent content during the rating process may also be addressed via formal ESRB sanctions and penalties.

Some specific sanctions and penalties are described on the ESRB enforcement page:

... with digitally delivered games and apps, the prompt correction of an inappropriate rating is technically feasible and serves as an effective enforcement mechanism. However, this and other remedies are less readily applied with respect to physical (e.g., boxed) video game products, where the ESRB enforcement system allows for the imposition of harsh sanctions (e.g., fines up to $1 million, product recall, the stickering of product throughout all retail outlets) for instances of significant or egregious content non-disclosure. Less serious violations of ESRB content disclosure guidelines can result in the assignment of points, fines, and mandated corrective actions.

Specific sanctions & penalties can be found in the ESRB Enforcement System Summary. It describes a range of violations & the point system used to determine penalty levels. Here is a summary of the fine schedule:

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Aggravating factors affecting judgments include gravity of offense (nature of content), willful intent, negligent actions, history of non-compliance, failure to cooperate with ESRB investigation (including fraudulent actions), and perceived damage to the ESRB system (including publicity).

This only covers the sanctions that you contractually agree to by using the ESRB system. It's possible that additional penalties may apply depending on the legal jurisdiction of the situation. When in doubt, ask your lawyer / legal team.

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The ESRB's enforcement process is described on an adjacent page.

Broadly, the ESRBs enforcement mechanisms are financial in nature. They can refuse to work with you in the future, they can directly leverage fines against you, and they can use their relationships with retailers to limit or outright stop the sale of your game.

It's worth noting that getting your game rated by the ESRB is entirely optional.

However, many retailers (including online stores) opt to only stock titles that have been rated, and many publishers will require your game to get rated as part of the publishing deal. In addition, the ESRB ratings are trademarks of the Entertainment Software Association, and one thus requires their permission to use them.

This gives the ESRB a de facto level of bargaining power that it can deploy via contractual agreements with developers and publishers.


One of the more famous incidents of ESRB enforcement is the re-rating of GTA: San Andreas in the light of the sexually explicit content that found its way into the shipping game. This involved pulling existing copies of the game from stores to re-sticker them or replace them with new copies that Rockstar produced (presumably on their own dime) with the offending content removed.

Somewhat less famous is the incident where Wartune used the ESRB's "AO" rating images without permission (or actually even submitting the game to the board). Wartune's developer or publishers were threatened with legal action for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that while it is true that it’s optional to go through the ESRB for PC games, this is definitely not the case for console games. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will not allow your product onto their consoles without having secured ratings relevant to the region you’re selling in. \$\endgroup\$ – Ed Marty May 18 '18 at 13:07

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