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When is it required for a game to receive a rating by an official or quasi-official rating board like the PEGI or the ESRB? I know that almost every game which is sold in a brick-and-mortar store almost anywhere in the world must have an age label. But what about games which are distributed globally as download or browser-based games? Is there a reason to get a content-rating for such a game? When yes, which rating board(s) need to rate it, considering that anyone in the world can play it and each country has its own local rating system with different criteria?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you talking about "indie" produced games there, or "nonindie" companies? I'm asking there as from what I saw many in the indie scene take one rating agency from the country where they want to sell their game at mostly, and then use the guildelines those have to rate the game themselves (thus the game is rated according to the guidelines of the rating agency in question but not BY the rating agency). Also complicating matters many countries like the US have more than 1 agency there with quite different guidelines each (looked about a bit into guidelines how tihngs are rated in the past). \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas E. May 8 '14 at 11:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasE. Personally I have an indie perspective, but considering that "indie" and "nonindie" game publishers are bound to the same rules and regulations, I don't think that this distinction is useful for this topic. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp May 8 '14 at 11:24
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Game ratings are not enforced by any country for any kind of game. They'll just ban your game, if they found it objectionable enough. The rating is more of a de-facto standard used to make the end-user aware about the content of the game, so that kids do not play games containing extreme violence.

You'll be required to submit ratings only if you're making games for major consoles, such as PlayStation, XBox or Wii. Microsoft accepts ESRB and few other ratings for games in Windows Phone and Windows RT platform too, although it's optional.

Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft will fail your game unless you have a proper age rating, as this is a major compliance criteria for any game submission. The compliance is known as TCR for XBox, TRC for PlayStation and LotCheck for Nintendo Wii/DS/DSi.

Update:-
There're few countries which requires explicit rating by one of the approved rating agency to be eligible for distribution. As found at WP game rating guidelines Brazil, Russia and South Korea requires game rating from one of their approved rating agency, while in Taiwan you need to self declare the age rating yourself. If you don't put any rating while submitting your game, Microsoft will not distribute your game to these countries. Apple in this case asks developers to rate their own game and checks thoroughly if they put it correct as part of their submission process.

India on the other hand use their own Govt. agency CBFC to rate a game. However CBFC is primarily for movie ratings and they generally don't enforce any publisher to make a rating submission, although they can use their own discretion to ban a game. Also as mentioned by Andon M. Coleman in the comments below, Australia doesn't enforce you to make a rating submission, however that's only if your game doesn't have any adult content. If it does, then you'll have to submit it for rating analysis or else it'll be banned till you do.

In short the the ratings are enforced mostly by the distribution channel you're using, since they don't want to lose their credibility and would like to keep their customers happy. Govt. doesn't have anything in that(except for few countries such as Brazil, Russia and South Korea). So to answer your question, when does a game need an official age rating, it's when your distribution channel requires it and that's too dependent on the region where you want to distribute your game.

More info about the rating system being used in various countries can be studied from this wikipedia link.

PS: I've tried to put as much info as I could get for the countries which I got to know about. This answer might not be true for few other countries which actually requires the game to be rated. Feel free to let me know if you know something which I've not mentioned here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Australian government actually requires games to be classified for them to legally be sold and the rating board itself is a part of the government. They do not, however, require retailers to enforce any sort of implied age restrictions based on the rating. In other countries ratings are completely optional for the purposes of commerce, though retail chains themselves may adopt a policy wherein they will not sell any unrated digital media or will establish a maximum rating that they are willing to sell (which kind of requires all products to be rated). \$\endgroup\$ – Andon M. Coleman May 8 '14 at 18:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you happen to know how it is with the US if a kid there gets the wrong game because no age restriction was given but the game itself was not meant to end up in the hands of someone of that age? (thus if you can be held liable there for that and brought to court) \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas E. May 9 '14 at 6:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AndonM.Coleman Thanks for the info, I've added it to the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – noob May 9 '14 at 6:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasE. I believe that the publisher and distributor both will be held liable if they failed to mention who'll be the target consumer. They can put a warning such as not to be sold to below 17 years of age. Although the distribution channel will be more responsible than the publisher, since they were the ones who sold it. An official rating would not require in this case by ESRB. I am not into game laws, so can't actually commit on it. However after reading few articles and wikipedia links I believe my statement is correct. \$\endgroup\$ – noob May 9 '14 at 6:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to add that any enforcement of rating system for games was declared unconstitutional by US Supreme Court after several attempts were made at both the state and federal levels to pass bills that would make it illegal for retailers games which are not rated by ESRB, or to sell games rated M or AO to minors. \$\endgroup\$ – noob May 9 '14 at 6:47

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