ESRB Ratings: Do They Work?

ESRB Ratings: Do They Work?

When you’re a kid, warnings of Mature Content exist to be skirted. Nothing feels cooler to a 12-year-old than chilling with your friends through a contraband R-rated movie. Never mind that the characters’ contorted expressions of agony are forever branded on the back of your eyeballs, or that you really have no idea what just happened between the male and female lead. You’ve initiated your own rite of passage. You are a grown-up. You can handle this stuff.

The ratings issued by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) carry some weight–and familiarity. Society has the mentality that a decent parent will think twice before letting their 10-year-old see a movie that’s rated NC-17. The ESRB, by contrast, seems to command far less authority and familiarity. It’s possible these two traits tie into one another, which would go a long way in explaining why many parents don’t know what each of the ESRB’s ratings stand for.

I talked to Chang Liu, a former employee at an independent game store, to see if his store had enforced the ESRB ratings during his time. Liu told me that his store would not sell, rent, or trade M-rated games to kids under 18, and since ID was necessary to do any kind of transaction at the store, it was not a system that minors could duck under very easily.

How did parents react to the store’s zero-tolerance policy on M-rated games? Apathetic at best, and hostile at worst.

“I never once had a parent ask me about the ESRB rating,” Liu said. “Nearly half of all parents didn’t care if what their kids were buying was mature or not. Most minors we turned away came back with a parent or relative over 18 who made never made a fuss about the purchase, though in one extreme instance I saw a kid grab a random passerby heading inside the store.”

“I’ve been yelled at on the phone by a mother for not selling her kids a mature game and how they were on spring break at home with nothing to do and she had to work during our business hours and we were horrible awful people for inconveniencing her.”

Liu admitted that he didn’t have many confrontations like the phone call with Angry Working Mom. Most parents who accompanied their children when they made M-rated purchases did so without a fuss, though it was impossible to tell if they trusted their young children with mature content, thought ESRB ratings were present for decoration, or didn’t care. “[It’s] not for me to decide.”

If parents did blacklist a game, Liu said, it wasn’t because of the ESRB; it was because of a news report about Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect.

So is the ESRB good for anything, or is it just a way to siphon a fee out of a developer’s pocket in exchange for a letter that, some players feel, doesn’t tell the whole story about the supposedly objectionable material in a game?

The presence of the ESRB itself speaks of an industry that has matured faster than any entertainment medium developed by humanity (hello, Custer’s Revenge). It’s a positive presence, though some retooling and more effective advertising wouldn’t be amiss.

Ideally, parents would probably pay a lot more attention to a game rating if the ESRB and MPAA shared a ratings system–G, PG, R, etc. The “M” sitting on the corner of that Dead Rising box is a pretty serious-looking fellow, but it doesn’t carry the weight of an “R.” And if there was an “R” in the place of an “M,” one also has to wonder – would it be effective in making parents stop and consider what their kids are playing?

Even if it was, neither the MPAA nor the ESRB are interested in a crossover. The MPAA is protective of its alphabet, and has reportedly sent cease-and-desist notices to and other fan fiction archives that employed their ratings as a means of evaluating content in stories. And the ESRB reports that using the MPAA’s ratings aren’t necessary, as parents are supposedly well-aware of the ESRB and find its ratings “very useful.”

Game store employees like Chang Liu might contest that, but one fact about the ESRB is incontestable: It could stand to beef up its advertising and clarity. Every so often, we see ads for the organization in game magazines. These feature a cartoon family member drawn by Mike Krahulik (Gabe) of Penny Arcade, and are therefore adorable. Less adorable is the tiny text that travels along the cartoon’s outline that explains what the ESRB does, and why it’s a good thing.

First of all, why is the ESRB advertising in a game magazine that mom or dad will probably never pick up? Second, I get crotchety over tiny text that I can only read by rotating my head like an owl. Mom and dad probably will, too.

So the ESRB probably doesn’t do much to keep mature games out of the hands of children. Maybe it never will, even with increased advertising and awareness. But its existence is important verification that adult gamers have options, and that the industry has potential to grow as a means of expression. The alternative–blocking the sales of all Mature games in lieu of formulating an appropriate rating, as is the case in Australia–is not at all favorable.

The ESRB should continue fine-tuning its system while educating parents as effectively as possible. In the meantime, we’ll have to trust that mom and dad know what’s best for their kids and hope for the best, even if it means a few angry phone calls.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. I find it perplexing that the MPAA would defend a set of letters-based ratings as if it is some sort of unique intellectual property.

    Let’s not forget that television has its own unique set of incomprehensible ratings lettering, representing not only the overall content rating of the program, but replete with individual letters representing the presence of violence, sexual content, etc. Would that we could gather hard statistics about how many parents are using their V-chips appropriately to screen out objectionable content. Certainly there is enough trash beaming through the pipeline of cable that cannot be regulated in any way. As games go digital, the same will be true of them.

    One simple set of ratings–the MPAA standard already best known–would in fact be most useful to help the restrictive parents who do not wish to invest the time to learn the ESRB system. Yet, why is it out goal to make these parenting decisions as low-effort as possible? Is this what is required to avoid the passage of laws to regulate the lowest-common-denominator of parenting, really?

    I am, and have been, a permissive parent. I am, and have been, an omnipresent parent. My kids play games outside of their recommended ratings, yes. I am aware of everything they play because I play with them in most cases. If they have encountered objectionable content, we have discussed it. I have established context for them: the most important of which being the distinction between “fantasy” content in the fictional world of movies, tv, and games, and the reality of these ideas in real life.

    And how they must be treated differently.

    They are now teenaged, intelligent, and fairly world-wise. We still play together. I have given their mental capacities respect, they, in turn, respect my opinions and viewpoints about their lives and life in general.

    I just wanted to mention all that because the depiction of a parent with a permissive attitude towards these ratings always seems to default to that of a busy workaholic, with no involvement in their kids life, annoyed at the presence of a system which prevents them from letting the games keep their kids distracted.

    I have taken advantage of the freedom in our society to expose my kids to advanced ideas when my wife and I believe they are ready, before their friends beat me to the punch, and in time to talk about it before their perceptions are cemented. I do not wish to have that freedom curtailed, to serve the needs of parents who are tuned out.

  2. I’m a teenager, 16 years old and almost 17. The ESRB doesn’t matter to people like me because we want to play the game. We don’t want to look through the store and find a game with explicit sex in it or over-the-top gore. I have no interest in playing games such as Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid. As to the idea that games make kids violent and act like the characters in the game, I believe this is only reserved to a few teens who have other problems (drugs, family, bullying, etc.)

    The other day, I went into a store to buy a new M game. I totally forgot that i needed an id so i called my friend who is 17. When we went back into the store, we were prohibited from buying the game at which point the clerk said “That’s how serious the ESRB is guys.” This sparked more anger as i questioned why it was so serious. I wasn’t trying to buy tobacco or liquor. Is the ESRB enforced by law? I seriously doubted it. We left and got the game across the street, thus making the ESRB totally worthless.

  3. i Agree alot with ZMAN, i am a 15 year old doing a school Project and i have found nothing except a few articles actually telling the truth about the rating system; IT DOESNT WORK! if a kid or teenager not of the age wants to play a certain game theyll do it anyway! and except for a few perverts then few teens actually look for the explicit Content: they just want to play the game for the sake of it being fun orto get the easy gamerscore or trophys. the point is that kids (and most parents) just dont care because they know that first of all, its not real and the blood in most games is visibly fake and fades momentarilly also secondly, only pervs play games for girls (althought theyre awesome)

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