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ESRB tweaks rating icons for digital and mobile future

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is altering the appearance of its most visible contribution to the game industry — the icons for its six video game rating categories — for the first time in more than a decade. The reason for the change? The organization is keeping up with the times as digital distribution continues to grow, tweaking the icons so they're clear and easy to understand wherever they appear.

The ESRB most recently undertook an overhaul of its rating icon design in 1999, getting rid of the old pixelated letters (like the now-defunct 'K-A' for "Kids to Adults" rating seen here) in favor of a cleaner look. The post-revision icons from 1999 featured the letter of the rating in black on a white background, surrounded by two elements in white text on a black background: the title of the rating above, and the phrase "content rated by ESRB" below.

This year's redesign is a subtle shift from the existing style, as you can see in the comparison image below. The ESRB has removed the phrase "content rated by," leaving only the ESRB name below the rating letter. The name of the rating now appears in black text on a white background. And the registered trademark symbol has been moved from the top left corner to the bottom right.


So what difference will these barely perceptible changes make for the ESRB?

"The goal is really to ensure that our symbols are displaying as clearly and legibly as possible in the increasing variety of environments that they're being displayed [in], including online and [on] mobile devices," said Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, to Polygon over email. The old icons were originally designed to appear in prominent locations on game boxes and in trailers and advertisements, and for the new style, the ESRB wanted a design that would be just as clear at a lower resolution.

"As our ratings are increasingly used in digital environments we've recognized the need to tweak them so they'd display a bit more clearly, especially on smaller screens like mobile devices," Vance explained. "So, for example, removing the small 'Content Rated By' text just helped create a cleaner look without losing any of the symbol's meaning."

Vance added that the ESRB didn't want to radically redesign the rating icons because they're "familiar symbols parents have come to recognize and trust."

The new icons will take effect immediately, but the ESRB doesn't expect the changeover to happen instantly. "Publishers are being asked to begin using the new icons going forward, and materials like retail signage will be swapped out over time as opportunities to do so arise," said Vance.

"parents have come to recognize and trust" the ESRB rating icons

The redesigned rating icons are a continuation of the ESRB's efforts to expand its services to the mobile market. Earlier this year, the organization added services for mobile apps to its Privacy Certified program, through which the ratings board helps developers and publishers ensure their apps comply with privacy laws. According to Vance, ESRB Privacy Certified clients run the gamut from indie developers to major publishers such as Activision.

The ESRB began rethinking its rating icons under its partnership with CTIA, the trade association that represents the wireless communications industry, said Vance. The two organizations announced a voluntary rating system for mobile apps in November 2011; the system is used on a variety of digital storefronts, including those run by AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless. However, the top two mobile marketplaces — Google Play and Apple's iTunes App Store — use their own age ratings instead of the ESRB system.

"We believe that consumers, especially parents, benefit from having a consistently applied set of ratings for games rather than a fragmented array of different systems," said Vance. "So we continue to keep a number of game and app storefronts apprised of our efforts and will continue to work toward broadening the use of our rating system.

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