If you have a kid who’s into gaming, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board–better known as the ESRB. Founded in 1994, the ESRB is a non-profit and self-regulatory body that analyzes video game content and makes note of the potentially violent and/or offensive material within, just as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) does for movies. The ESRB also oversees advertising guidelines for games, and makes sure that online titles and videos (e.g. game trailers) adhere to responsible privacy practices.
Using the ESRB content rating and descriptors, shoppers can quickly determine at a glance whether a game or video trailer is age-appropriate, and what, if any, questionable content it may contain. Happily for prospective buyers, every console, PC, and handheld game that’s sold in North America is stamped with a letter that classifies the content within. These letters can be found on the front of the game’s package and the game card/disc (if the title is sold at retail), or in a game’s info summary (if the title is downloadable). Note that ESRB ratings don’t apply to games sold on Apple’s App Store, as the App Store utilizes its own ratings system, and many games sold directly by independent developers for digital download go unrated by choice. Similarly, Internet web browser-based social games and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games sometimes carry an ESRB rating, but not always, as doing so is optional for indie game makers.
Games sold outside North America are also typically branded with ratings that are drawn up by different organizations than ESRB. Games in Japan are rated by the Computer Entertainment Ratings Organization (CERO), and games in Europe are rated by the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system. The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) rates games in Australia and New Zealand.
While most American readers are no doubt familiar with the MPAA rating system, the ESRB’s rating system adheres to its own alphabet, and brands each game with one of six letters. These include:
EC for “Early Childhood” — Games that are suitable for kids aged three and up. These titles don’t contain any content that parents will find offensive.
E for “Everyone” — Games that are suitable for players aged six and up. These games sometimes contain cartoonish violence on the level of a Looney Tunes bit. There might also be a rare instance of a mild swear word like “damn.”
E10+ for “Everyone 10 and Up” — Games that are suitable for players aged 10 and up. These games sometimes contain examples of violence that are a bit more intense than what you’d find in an “E” rated game, including isolated splashes of cartoon blood. There might also be more frequent examples of mild swear words.
T for “Teen” — Games that are appropriate for players aged 13 and up. These games may contain violence, examples of sexual innuendo, frequent mild swearing, depictions of blood, and crude humor.
M for “Mature” — Games that are appropriate for players aged 17 and up. These games can have mature themes, strong language, strong violence, depictions of blood, gore, sexual content, and are not suitable for minors.
A for “Adults Only” — AO games may contain instances of extreme violence, sexuality and nudity, with the rating reserved for only the most questionable or controversial of video game titles. To date, AO-rated games aren’t sold at major retailers. Therefore, it’s extremely rare for a console game to achieve an AO rating, as publishers try to avoid earning one, so as to not inhibit sales.
Video games that are still in development sometimes carry an RP rating, which stands for Rating Pending. This means that the game is still under review by the ESRB. You may also someday catch a rare glimpse of a K-A rating, which means Kids to Adults. The ESRB retired the K-A rating in 1998 and replaced it with the E rating.
Every game that has been rated by the ESRB also has a detailed description of its classification (for instance, “mature content, cartoon violence”) that can be found on the back of the game’s box, or in the game’s download information.
The ESRB’s website also archives specific examples of mature content in the games it rates. If you’d like to know why a game was rated a certain way, you can look up the game on the ESRB’s archive and gain more insight.
The ESRB even has a smartphone app as well. You can snap a picture of a game box, and the app will quickly call up the rating summary for that game. The app is free, and is supported by the iPhone and the Android.
All solutions provide ready resources to help parents make more informed choices when purchasing video games for kids.