Why the ESRB Doesn’t Classify Thematic Material

To be clear, the overall theme of a game, according to the MPAA, won’t result in higher age ratings, though activities related to an adult nature will. While other rating boards consider thematic material as part of the rating process, how come the ESRB doesn’t? That’s what I want to explain.


Different families have different cultural and religious values. In the United States, families following any form of Christianity tend to be more strict on the content choices they make. Ever since the storylines of games started expanding in the 1980s, many games at that time began offering film-like experiences.

Just like film and TV, video games are no stranger to objectionable content, and that has also raised the concern of parents and religious advocates. Rating boards look at many things when classifying content, such as levels of violence, sexuality, profanity, substance use, and even thematic material. The MPAA does it all, but not the ESRB. Why didn’t the ESRB add thematic elements in their line of content descriptors?

The ESRB’s line of descriptors has changed over time since its founding in late 1994. Although they could, some advocates are lobbying for the ESRB to consider thematic elements in the rating process, since video games are considered a form of motion picture that tells detailed narratives.

Unfortunately, some activists claim that certain video games should not exist because of certain content, usually lobbying for legislation that would scrub those games off the market. While they have been successful in some degree, others have not and it only encouraged the original creators to keep pumping out content.

How Some Games With Cuteness Can Be Thematically Deceiving

So, you just found a cool new game with a largely female (and often colorful) cast and tons of cuteness. You may think it would be perfect for the kids, until you later learn it’s rated R and is based on a show that airs on Adult Swim at like midnight and the actual game’s fanbase consists of male players aged 13-30 years. While some games like this are targeted at a younger audience, most of the game’s intended players don’t play it, or the game caters to hardcore players.

Doki-Doki Literature Club is one of them, and it has become the target of taste and indecency complaints. The game as a whole is rated R for “disturbing thematic material, violent images, some language, and a brief suggestive reference”, if rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The thematic material and violent images in that game have led to controversy. Common Sense Media panned the content of this game. Some have criticized the ESRB for not including “thematic elements” in the game’s descriptors. Common Sense Media cautioned parents that due to the art direction, children could get attracted to the game.

Another game with this issue is Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Originally starting development as a family-friendly title for the Nintendo 64, it ended up becoming a mature title in the end, receiving an R rating for “violence and bloody images, crude and sexual humor, language throughout, and for drinking and drug use – all involving animals”, if also rated by the MPAA. Like the example for Doki-Doki Literature Club, the content was panned by some critics, and toy stores refused to sell the game, which was the reason it failed.

Accusations by Religious Groups and Activists

I can partly understand why some parents can be so strict. I grew up in a mostly Catholic household, and I never really cared for M-rated titles as I aged. But now in my adult years, I am aiming to preserve family-friendly values with my own titles.

Emiko Hosokawa of the Vietnam-based Studio Emiko (who has been a partner of Drillimation Systems since late 2021) is known to adhere to Catholic values and traditions, visiting Catholic churches on a regular basis and even attending Sunday school for the time being. By doing so, she has assimilated to its system of beliefs and integrated it into her philosophy. As what most Catholic beliefs teach, suicide is a grave sin that can hinder one’s chance to open the heavenly gates after death.

The teachings of Heaven and Hell are metaphorical, and she does not want to suffer the same fate. Following an incident where a boy committed suicide after playing the game, Studio Emiko wants to boycott Doki-Doki Literature Club.

FANDOM regarded Doki-Doki Literature Club as a “mindf-” in anime dating sims. The visual novel genre is targeted mostly towards older teens and adults. Doki-Doki Literature Club is a game for that audience, partly due to the violent images. Some of these groups have called the game “satanic” because of these images. It is possible this game may have inspired the RPG Omori, which is also rated R for “disturbing thematic material involving suicide and violent images, and brief strong language”, if rated by the MPAA.

One can’t simply realize the game’s true nature after downloading and doing one playthrough. That’s what happened with Emiko Hosokawa. The thematic images hidden within the game beneath its cute atmosphere can riddle one with post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to the concerns of what happened to that one boy.


Despite the concerns, many games that are controversial among religious activists still receive positive reviews from the mainstream press. Most rating boards are intended to educate parents, rating content based on parental values. They won’t pull the curtain on what they see before you do. Most ratings boards’ rules state within the content they rate, anything that is very graphic, brutal, grisly, or torture will get a restricted rating, but the overall theme of the game doesn’t usually impact the overall rating of the game. Sometimes the values of certain religions can impact how the game will be received by families.


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