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"I could have easily cut you to ribbons.""Not with a TV-Y7 rating, you couldn't!"
Ratings put in place by the local Media Watchdog to give consumers an idea of the content of a specific media product, often times encouraged by the producers of said media in order to avoid the alternative of a Censorship Bureau. The specific criteria for assigning are usually fairly secret, although the two biggies (sex and violence) are given different emphasis in different parts of the world, so one critique of the system is that sometimes the difference between two assignments is a single addition of a cuss word. Occasionally the rating system is so seemingly arbitrary that it's possible to wonder why one film got a '15' when another, more violent and with more sex and swearing, managed to be rated '12'.
In some parts of the world the ratings are enforced, while in others they are merely suggestions. For example a British retailer can be fined for selling a DVD rated '18' to a 15 year-old, while in the United States it's up to each retailer or theatre to choose whether or not to maintain the age restrictions, with the exception of selling or showing porn to minors. (Of course, any retailer or theatre that significantly broke these guidelines would immediately suffer huge backlash from the public, assuming they weren't some rinky-dink shop in a back lot too small to be noticed.) Canada is a special case: provincial ratings are enforced by their respective governments, while the pan-Canadian rating is only for home video, consist of the average of all the provincial ratings and is not enforced. Some US states have attempted to introduce ratings backed with the force of law, most recently California banning sale of M-rated video games to minors; as of June 27, 2011 this has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, so industry-run voluntary systems it is.
The most prominent and well-known ratings system for video games is administered by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (or ESRB). The ESRB is a volunteer organization that was created in the mid-90s after Mortal Kombat and Night Trap raised concerns about the content of violent or "mature" video games. The ESRB must review everything -- they see a full script, review all art assets, and even play through the game -- before they give a final rating, and they'll sometimes revise that rating post-launch if circumstances warrant.
Pretty much every country in the world has variations on the following classifications for film, TV or both:
Not classified or exempt from classification:
(In most places (with exceptions; see below), things like exercise and instructional videos go under this.)
- UK: E or Exempt (not an official mark and not always used).
- Australia: E.
- Germany: "Ungeprüft".
- In the United States, ratings systems are voluntary. Theaters generally enforce the movie ratings and most networks go along with the TV ratings, but retail-only videos are routinely sold unrated with no problems. In fact, some theatrically-released movies have "unrated" video editions to imply that they are raunchier or more violent, when it may only mean a minute of footage was added and the producers didn't pay to get the new version rated.
Suitable for young children (and often nobody else):
- UK: Uc (i.e. Universal: particularly suitable for children) – this rating was used for home video only and was discontinued in 2009.
- US: TV-Y (television).
- Germany: FSK0.
Suitable for everybody:
- UK: U (i.e. Universal).
- Australia: G.
- US: G (film); TV-G and TV-Y7 (television).
- Japan: G.
- Hong Kong: Category I
- Ireland: GEN.
- Canada: G.
- Quebec: G.
- New Zealand: G.
- Netherlands: AL.
Young children should watch with parents:
- UK: PG (i.e. Parental Guidance) and M.
- When the British ratings system was changed in the early 1980s, a lot of older stuff got chucked into this category, despite possibly not being suitable. Take, for example, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which features a background striptease, getting the PG rating. It was originally rated an A (a 15 today). The standards for stuff getting cut full stop back then were set by some very arbitrary means -- if it gave John Trevelyan (British Board of Film Classification head from 1958 to 1971) an erection, it was cut.
- US: PG and PG-13 (film); TV-PG and TV-14 (television).
- Japan: PG and M.
- Hong Kong: Category II and IIa
- Australia: PG and M.
- Germany: FSK6.
- Ireland: PG and M.
- Canada: PG and M.
- New Zealand: PG and M.
- Netherlands: 6 and 9.
People under X years of age need an adult:
- UK: 12A (12 Accompanied/Advisory, that is under-12s allowed in only if accompanied by an adult) – introduced in 2002 after a two-year trial period in Norwich, with The Bourne Identity the first to receive this rating. Still-playing '12' films already in cinemas at that point, such as Spider Man, had their rating altered to the new designation. Almost all films receiving this certificate go on to receive a 12 (see below) for home-media release.
- US: R (film; 17 years of age); TV-MA (television).
- Canada: 18A.
- Quebec: 13+.
- Japan: R15.
- Hong Kong: Category IIb (first used with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow)
- Australia: MA15+.
- Ireland: 12A, 15A.
- New Zealand: R13, R15, and R16.
- Netherlands: 12.
People between X and Y years of age need an adult
(certain movies require that people be over a particular age (usually 15) or with an adult (17 or 18 years old). Often overlaps with the above.):
- Australia: MA15+.
- Canada: 18A.
- Germany: FSK12 (over 6, under 12)
People under X years of age not permitted at all:
- US: NC-17 (film), TV-MA (television).
- The MPAA once used the X rating, but this quickly became associated with porn (especially since it wasn't trademarked). It was changed to NC-17 because serious movies labeled X would not sell. Since the box office failures of Showgirls and The Dreamers, NC-17 is rarely used. Most theaters are restricted from showing "adult" films in their lease agreements, making NC-17 box office poison. Generally, the producer of a film that receives an NC-17 either releases it unrated, challenges the rating, or edits it down to R to get it into theaters and releases the uncut version as an unrated DVD. However, the 2011 film Shame attempted to challenge this.
- UK: 12, 15 and 18.
- The '12' certificate is now academic as it is used only on home media, whereas '12A' (see above) is used in the cinema. In practice, 12 and 15 are loosely enforced. There is little equivalent stigma to the NC-17 situation above attached to the 18 rating, though directors may well still make cuts to seek a 15 certificate and so a broader potential audience.
- Australia: R18+.
- Japan: R18.
- Hong Kong: Category III
- Canada: R.
- Quebec: 16+ and 18+.
- Ireland: 16 and 18.
- Germany FSK16 and FSK18.
- New Zealand: R18.
- Netherlands: 16.
- (This and the 18+ PEGI rating are ones that can be enforced by law, the rest are "suggestions")
People Y or over, to be shown or sold in licenced venues only and not to be made available by mail order:
- UK: R18 – applies to material that can only be shown at licensed adult cinemas or sold at licensed sex shops.
- Germany: Indexed products – applies to games, books and magazines; can be ordered by special adult delivery.
Not to be sold:
- UK: R (Rejected).
- Australia: RC (Refused Classification)
One episode of Freakazoid had Jack Valenti giving a lecture of the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system as an interstitial, using a process of elimination on an example family as he describes the appropriate ratings. This speech is reprinted here for convenience:
"Now, if a family wants to see a movie and it's rated G, then everyone can go: Mom and Dad and Buffy and Jody and Grandma and Grandpa and even Sergeant Scruffy. If it's PG, then there might be something unsuitable for young or sensitive viewers, in which case Buffy will just have to stay home. Along with Grandma, who didn't wanna go to the movies anyway. Now if a movie's rated PG-13, it might have some material in there that Mommy and Daddy might not like some of the young kids to see, so Jody might just have to stay home. Now if the movie's rated R, then it's gonna contain some adult material. In which case Dad, who's got a lazy tummy, will probably wanna stay home. But if the movie's rated NC-17, that means that kids can't get in, only adults can get in. Mom doesn't wanna see adult movies, but Grandpa was in the army, and he's not bothered very much and so he decides to stay, along with Seargent Scruffy, who's just a dumb dog anyway."—Jack Valenti on the MPAA's rating system, Freakazoid!
You can find more about the American ratings process in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
Video game classifications
These are similar and yet slightly different:
ESRB (USA, Canada, Mexico)
- Ages 3+ -- eC (Early Childhood)
- Ages 6+ -- E (Everyone); originally known as KA (Kids-Adults) until 1998
- Ages 10+ -- E10+ (Everyone 10+)
- Ages 13+ -- T (Teen)
- Ages 17+ -- M (Mature)
- Ages 18+ -- AO (Adults only)
E used to be KA (Kids to Adults) up until early 1998. It was most likely changed due to the belief that it would be interpreted as being similar to the MPAA's G rating. E10+ was introduced in 2005 as an in-between rating similar to the PG rating (in concept, anyway) thanks to Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, which contained a heavy amount of brutal fisticuffs and yet was still a Donkey Kong game (do the math and go figure). It was quickly abused, turning into a sort of Spotlight-Stealing Squad for video game ratings - to give you an idea of how bad it is, loud noises are apparently a reason to rate a game E10+. There is also RP (Rating Pending), which is only used in advertising when a game has been submitted but hasn't yet received its final rating.
You might be confused as to why the top rating is only one year older than the second rating. Generally, only things with pornographic content, or at least borderline porn, give a game the AO rating, and it's quite possible the highest rating was made to conform with general pornography laws, when they otherwise felt that 17 is the true developmental cutoff. An AO rating is a death sentence to a game's financial viability, as pretty much every large retailer will refuse to stock AO games, and the current major consoles refuse to license them. The EC rating is also generally unused, with only 268 titles having that mark, and most publishers go for an E rating to avoid that Kiss of Death.
On the back of a game's box will be the rating, plus some predefined content warnings: Suggestive Themes, Animated Violence, Cartoon Mischief, et cetera...
Technically, getting an ESRB rating is voluntary, like a movie getting an MPAA rating, but in this case, it's voluntary in the same way as paying your taxes is voluntary. Not getting a rating is tantamount to being rated AO.
Predating the ESRB in the United States is Sega's V.R.C. [Videogame Rating Council], which used a system that was essentially a simplified version of ESRB's system:
- Ages 6+ -- GA General Audiences
- Ages 13+ -- MA-13 Mature (13+)
- Ages 17+ -- MA-17 Mature (17+)
In theory, the VRC was open to anybody, though it was overseen by Sega. In practice, it was only present on Sega games and third-party games for Sega consoles; most of the industry failed to rate their games until the formation of the ESRB a few years later.
Also co-existing for a short time in the aftermath of the senate hearings that prompted the creation of the ESRB was RSAC. Whereas ESRB was essentially console based, being headed up by Sega and Nintendo, RSAC was a system developed by primarily PC developers. For various reasons, RSAC never took off. It rated games according to thermometers - a thermometer for violence, sex, etc along with qualifiers.
PEGI (Europe except for Germany)
- Ages 3+ (4+ in Portugal)
- Ages 7+ (6+ in Portugal)
- Ages 12+ (used to be 11+ in Finland)
- Ages 16+ (formerly 15+ in Finland)
- Ages 18+
Add to this one or more icons indicating what gave it such a rating: language, discrimination, drugs, gambling, horror, sex and violence. However, those ratings are seemingly as random as those in the United States, as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess got 12+ for "violence". There's also the problem that it doesn't list what kind of violence is 12+ as opposed to 16+ violence. Perhaps it's due to a NICAM (the Dutch rating board that decides on these PEGI ratings) policy that also never seems to disclose why a movie is suitable for all ages despite it being about incest.
And as for visual novels, the PEGI doesn't consider them true games and as such will only rate their interactive parts; while this doesn't affect novels on the most interactive side of the spectrum such as Ace Attorney, this effectively skewers kinetic novels (visual novels completely devoid of interaction), leading to such hilarity as the official French release of the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni sound novels, completely uncensored, getting slapped with a 7+ rating. WHAT?
- Without age restrictions
- Restricted 6
- Restricted 12
- Restricted 16
- Restricted 18
The USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle) is the video game classification board of Germany, and it is legally enforceable. Games that are refused classification are placed on the "Index" and can only been bought on request to over 18s and cannot be advertised. Due to its strict censorship policies, many German gamers have had to import video games from Austria (due to the fact that it is another German-speaking country) due to the fact it uses PEGI.
It's seemingly random as to which games go before the British Board of Film Classification, with most titles carrying a PEGI rating. The difference with the ESRB and PEGI systems is that the BBFC has the law to back it up. If a retailer makes a sale against BBFC guidelines, he is in trouble. This is the same rating system as used in films, with the same classification criteria -- what gets a film a 15 also gets a game a 15. (Although, of course, this suggestion is generally up for debate, especially following the furor surrounding Manhunt 2.)
- FSK 0
- FSK 6
- FSK 12
- FSK 16
- FSK 18
Much like BBFC it is enforced by the law. Some people in Germany have problems with the last two 18 and Spio/JK as the controls are much too strict and often lead to Wallbangers such as Starship Troopers getting a Spio/JK rating because it is accused of glorifying war. Spio/JK rated films are rare and can only be sold at the check-out, which leads to most people thinking FSK 18 films are the uncensored versions. Most publishers just give out censored lower rated versions, leading some people to think that this is all German politicians' plan to cleanse the country from violent media. In truth they just don´t care.
- A (All Ages)
- B (Ages 12+)
- C (Ages 15+)
- D (Ages 17+)
- Z (Ages 18+)
Here, the only legally enforceable rating is the Z rating. So if you're under 17, you can get a D-rated game. As with the PEGI system, add icons that show why the game got this rating: romantic themes, sexual content, violence, horror, gambling, crime, use of tobacco and alcohol, use of drugs, and language. It originally had 4 age ratings when it started in 2003:
- Free (All Ages)
- Ages 12+
- Ages 15+
- Ages 18+
Since there was a gap between 15+ and 18+, the rating system was redesigned in 2006.
Anime & Manga
- A: All Ages, with absolutely nothing offensive whatsoever except maybe one obscure Parental Bonus.
- Y: Youth, 7 and up. Chaste kissing and monster fights go under here.
- T: 13 and up. Innuendo and blood.
- OT: Older Teens, 16 and up. Stuffed with Fan Service or Gorn. Some books may be shrinkwrapped at this rating.
- M: Mature, either really gory or Hentai, both (let's not think about that), other types of disturbing / heavy content, or gay relationships. Shrinkwrapped and usually not in bookstores anyway, but the papers are all too eager to inform you that some ten-year-old could pick it up in the library. (Which isn't too far from the truth. If a younger reader tries to check out Ghost in The Shell or Akira, libraries can't do much beyond suggest that it's inappropriate; it's not their job to decide what your kids are allowed to read, and without direct instructions from the parents many libraries won't deny materials to patrons.)
Mexico legally has only four alphabetical ratings, but most theaters make up for it with a couple of unofficial classifications:
- AA: Unofficial, usually means ages 3+. Also known as A3.
- A: All ages.
- B: Teenagers and older.
- B15: Unofficial, usually means older teenagers, 15+.
- C: Adults only. Theaters start asking here for voting cards (the official ID in Mexico).
- D: Contains highly graphic material. Usually means some softcore or a lot of Gorn. Hostel was one of the few films to receive this profitable honor.
In Australia, films and video games have six main levels of ratings:
- E -- Exempt from classification (documentary, sport, news)
- G -- for all ages
- PG -- Parental Guidance is Recommended to persons under 15 years old
- M -- for Mature Audiences
- MA (Restricted 15+) -- for Mature Audiences (Rating skipped for video games in South Australia; thank Mr Rau, attorney general)
- R (Restricted 18+) -- Adults only (Video Games rated this are banned in New South Wales)
- X (Restricted 18+) -- Porn (available only in Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory due to State Laws)
- RC (unofficial) -- Refused Classification; as such, it is unlawful to sell, import and exhibit.
Aussie TV uses a similar system, designed by Free TV Australia:
- P -- for ages 0-5
- C -- for ages 6 and older
- G -- for All ages
- PG -- Parental Guidance is recommended to young persons
- M15+ -- for Mature Audiences (Watershed 20:30)
- MA15+ -- for Mature Audiences (Watershed 21:00)
- AV15+ -- for Programs with a lot of Violence (Watershed 21:30)
United States Bishops
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has its own ratings system for films (detailed here). These are not binding on Catholics, and are widely unknown or ignored. The classifications are:
- A-I -- general patronage
- A-II -- adults and adolescents
- A-III -- adults
- L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling
- O -- morally offensive
The FictionRatings system is a self-imposed voluntary system used by online publishers, most notably Fanfiction.net and Fictionpress, who switched from the MPAA ratings when the MPAA objected. Very rarely used by other fanfiction sites since they're copyrighted to Fanfiction.net and because of the ubiquity and simplicity of the MPAA and BBFC systems.
- B -- ages 1-4 and preschool-level children, no violence, swearing, adult themes or ideas young children cannot comprehend. As anyone younger than five has no business being on Fanfiction.net in any way, and the majority of Fanfiction.net's stories involving preschool franchises and characters are very adult parodies which would scar any child for life, this rating was quickly phased out of the system entirely. Similar to the ESRB's equally unused EC rating.
- K -- ages 5+, no violence, swearing or adult themes. Similar to G.
- K+ -- ages 9+, mild violence or swearing and no adult themes. Similar to PG.
- T -- ages 13+, violence, mild language or mild adult themes. Similar to PG-13.
- M -- ages 16+, strong adult themes, language or violence. Similar to R. Filtered by default on Fanfiction.net searches.
- MA -- ages 18+, explicit adult themes. Similar to NC-17. Controversially not allowed on Fanfiction.Net, at least in theory; in practice the administration seems to turn a blind eye to M-rated lemons.
AdultFanFiction.net, an archive set up when Fanfiction.net banned MA stories, has its own system:
- Adult -- R
- Adult+ -- NC-17
- Adult++ -- porn
Kijkwijzer is the Netherlands' rating system for everything except video games, which are covered by PEGI. As noted above, the ratings are age-based and mostly self-explanatory. As with PEGI, Kijkwijzer uses pictograms to describe the reasons for content ratings: violence, fear, sex, discrimination, drugs and/or alcohol abuse, and coarse language.
- ↑ Long story short: When the MPAA instituted the original ratings back in 1968, they put all of the ratings under trademark, meaning that only the MPAA could legally administer them, except the X rating. The rationale was that producers of edgy content could self-apply the mark if they so chose. The only thing is that the MPAA was thinking of "edgy" being more Midnight Cowboy (to this day, the only X-rated film to win an Oscar) and less Debbie Does Dallas. The situation was so bad by the '70s that when Dawn of the Dead was produced, George A. Romero was told he'd have to cut it severely to gain an R rating, otherwise his only rating option would be "X", and it would just be a matter of the MPAA or himself applying it. Unwilling to cut the film, and not wanting it to be viewed as porn, he released the film without a rating, instead running all advertising with a disclaimer that said that the film had no sexual content whatsoever, but that due to the nature of the horror scenes, nobody under 17 would be seated. To rectify this, the MPAA, in the early '90s, replaced the by now completely discredited "X" rating with "NC-17", which was trademarked, ensuring that only the MPAA could administer it.
- ↑ formerly known as A-IV (adults, with reservations) -- "films that, while not morally offensive in themselves, require caution"