ESRB Video Game Ratings Explained

It’s one of the toughest day-to-day problems 21st century parents face: choosing which video games our children should be allowed to play. Where should you start? With your own values, of course. Next, step back and look at your child: every child’s different. Then, get some help (heaven knows, these days, we all need as much help as we can get!)

Here’s one place to get the help you need: the ESRB rating system.

ESRB is the Entertainment Software Rating Board. It’s the self-regulatory body for the videogame industry (just like the organization that rates movies, the MPAA). Nearly every game sold in the U.S. and Canada gets an ESRB rating: many stores won’t sell an unrated game and the major console manufacturers (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony) won’t publish unrated games for their systems.

What the ratings tell you

ESRB’s ratings are intended to provide general guidance about a game’s content and age-appropriateness, but some games allow for online play that can let users add and change a game’s content in ways that may not be consistent with its ESRB rating. And, as soon as a player goes online, he or she might be competing with other players who don’t “fit the profile,” and might use the various chat features (text, voice, and in some cases video) available on many online-enabled games to harass other players, sometimes using harsh language.

Games that allow these types of online interactions among players carry a notice on the package as well as on the game’s opening screen that reads “Online Interactions Not Rated By The ESRB,” as a warning to consumers that these features may allow for the introduction of content not factored into the game’s rating.  All that being said, the ESRB ratings will give you a good general sense of whether you’ll be comfortable bringing a game into your home, just like the MPAA ratings do for movies.

There are six levels of ratings, from “Early Childhood” all the way to “Adults Only” games that shouldn’t be sold to anyone under 18. You’ll find these ratings on the front and back of the game box (and if you’re buying online, most e-commerce sites display them, too). Official rating category definitions are available on the ESRB’s website, but here’s our breakdown:

child Early Childhood
For age 3 or older; nothing inappropriate here! Example: Jumpstart Advanced Preschool Fundamentals
everyone Everyone
For age 6 or older: you might find a little “cartoon, fantasy or mild” violence and the occasional mean (but not obscene) word. Example: Super Mario Galaxy
everyone10 Everyone 10+
For age 10 or older: these titles are likely to contain a little more violence, a little tougher language, and maybe the occasional “suggestive” theme. Example: LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga
teen Teen
For age 13 or older: more violence and suggestive themes, crude humor, a little blood, some simulated gambling, and the occasional “strong language.” Example: Medal of Honor: Heroes 2
mature Mature
For age 17 and older: may have intense violence, blood and gore, and/or sexual content or significant strong language. Example: Halo 3
ao Adults Only
Should not be played by anyone younger than 18; may include “prolonged scenes of intense violence” and/or “graphic sexual content and nudity.”

There’s one more rating you might see, but only for games that haven’t been officially rated and released yet:

rp Rating Pending
Make sure to check back when the game goes on sale for its final, official rating

Why it got that rating

So why did that game get the rating it got? What type of content might we as parents be interested in knowing about?  Look on the back of the box for the details. ESRB uses over 30 “content descriptors”: everything from “Comic Mischief” to “Use of Tobacco” to “Strong Sexual Content.”  Using both parts of the rating (the age ratings on the front and the content descriptors on the back) helps to give good guidance as to whether a particular game is right for your child.  But again, use your own judgment and knowledge of your child to make the best choices for him or her.

Rating Summary

If you’d like to go a bit deeper, the ESRB also offers a supplementary source of information about game content called “rating summaries,” which provide a brief explanation of the context and relevant content that factored into a game’s rating.  They’re a straight-forward, objective snapshot of exactly what parents would want to know about when deciding if a game is one they deem suitable for their child.  Rating summaries are available when searching for games on the ESRB website, via the ESRB rating search widget, as well as right from the video game store by logging onto ESRB’s mobile website at m.esrb.org.  They’re also available through the ESRB’s free ParenTools newsletter, which provides subscribers with a bi-monthly list of recently rated titles complete with rating summaries and customized to their selected preference of rating categories and game platforms.

Finally, a tip: don’t let your child tell you “everyone’s” playing that M-rated game. It’s just not true. Six in ten parents “never” allow their children to play M-rated games, and another third of them only do so “sometimes.”  In fact, parents of children under the age of 13 are more than twice as likely as those of older children to never allow their child to play an M-rated game.  If they’re not ready, stand your ground!

And there’s no shortage of games rated for younger players, either. A couple of years ago, only 6% of all ratings assigned by ESRB were for games rated “M” for Mature, and those games were responsible for only 15.5% of sales. In contrast, more than half of the ratings assigned by ESRB were “E” for Everyone.  E-rated games dominate the top-selling games each year, so there’s plenty of game choices that are both fun and appropriate.

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