Video Game Ratings: 10 Things Most Parents Don’t Know

Gone are the days when video games could show little more than blocky pixelated images on a screen. Games look nearly photorealistic nowadays, and many of them are full of violence, nudity, drug use, and all the other fun stuff that goes on in R-rated movies. The problem is that games appeal to kids, too. If you don’t want your children playing games made for adults, you’ll have to pay attention to what games they’re playing and what kind of potentially objectionable content is in those games.

Luckily, it’s easy to keep track of this stuff, thanks to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (or ESRB). The ESRB operates much like the movie ratings board, assigning each game a content rating that ranges from “Early Childhood” to “Adult.” If your child is a gamer, here’s what you need to know about video game ratings.

1. ESRB ratings go deep

Nathan Drake and Sam ride a motorcycle.

Source: Sony

For each game rated by the ESRB, you’ll find an official rating that lets you know which age group the game is appropriate for. This is indicated by a letter you’ll find in the lower left corner of every game’s case. Turn the game over, and you’ll find a shorthand list of “content descriptors,” for things like Language, Violence, and Alcohol Use.

If you go to the ESRB’s website, you can find a Rating Summary, which digs deeper into specific things in the game that may be objectionable for children. For instance, here’s the Rating Summary for Uncharted 4, a game that received “T” rating, meaning it’s appropriate for no one younger than a teenager.

This is an action-adventure game in which players assume the role of Nathan Drake as he searches for a long-lost treasure. As players explore ancient ruins, they use pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenades to kill enemy thugs, soldiers, and mercenaries. Players can also use stealth takedowns and melee attacks (e.g., choking, neck snapping, fist fighting) to incapacitate enemies. Firefights are highlighted by realistic gunfire, large explosions, and blood-splatter effects. A handful of sequences depict characters getting stabbed or beaten with clubs; one sequence depicts the shooting of a defenseless guard during a prison break. During the course of the game, characters can be seen smoking cigarettes or cigars; a handful of scenes depict characters drinking bottles of beer or glasses of scotch. The words “sh*t” and “a*shole” appear in the dialogue.

2. The ESRB doesn’t actually play the games

Smiling man playing video game

Source: Kickstarter

It’s a ratings board, so someone there plays through every game, right? Wrong. With games regularly offering more than 100 hours of play time, and with so many different paths and optional content, it wouldn’t be feasible for the ESRB to play through every game before giving it a rating. Instead, the makers of the games must disclose and show all potentially objectionable content to the ratings board before a rating is applied. 

3. Digital-only games get less attention from the ESRB

The Angry Birds Movie

The Angry Birds Movie | Source: Columbia Pictures

If a game doesn’t come out in a physical form — like all mobile phone games, for instance — the ESRB puts it through a “short form” rating process. The process boils down to the game’s maker filling out a multiple-choice form that poses questions about the game’s content, the presence of in-app purchase, and its use of information like the player’s location. The game’s rating is then determined automatically by the answers received.

4. Common Sense Media is another useful resource

Common Sense Media's logo.

Source: Common Sense Media

The ESRB isn’t the only organization that looks at video games from a parent’s perspective. Another helpful resource is Common Sense Media, a site that reviews games for content and offers even more granular age recommendations for each game than the ESRB.

Reviews here also highlights positive aspects of games, like whether it contains positive messages or positive role models for children. Each review also has a section suggesting talking points for families who play the games together.

5. ESRB has a searchable database

All categories in the ESRB.

Source: ESRB

If you know the name of a game your child wants, you can look up its ESRB rating easily from the organization’s website. The site also has a running list of games that have been rated recently, so you can keep an eye on what new games are available for your child’s age group. You can even limit searches to a particular platform and rating to find a list of games that are appropriate for your child. The ESRB also offers an app for searching the database.

6. Ratings are also listed on retailer websites

A Best Buy sign outside a store location in Woodbridge, Virginia, January 5, 2016.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Retailer websites like Amazon, Best Buy, and GameStop all list every game’s ESRB rating on the game’s listing. Just search for the game, and you’ll see it. Note that the information is usually limited to the game’s age rating, with none of the more detailed information you’ll find on the game’s box or on the ESRB’s website.

7. Online interactions aren’t rated

Gamer with headset

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Many games let players play online with other people. Often these games let players show each other user-generated content and talk to each other through headsets. Since the ESRB has no way of policing the open airwaves of online play, you’ll often see the phrase “Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB” on game boxes.

8. Ratings are voluntary

ESRB video game ratings.

Source: ArsTechnica

There’s no law that requires games to be rated by the ESRB. That said, you won’t find unrated games on any of the major game consoles because companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo require publishers to have their games rated before being allowed on their platforms. The same goes for retailers. Most major retailers won’t sell video games that haven’t been rated by the ESRB.

9. You can thank Mortal Kombat for the ESRB

Scorpio with his grappling hook.

Source: New Line Cinema

The ESRB was founded in 1994 in response to a couple of things. For one, numerous studies started coming out and showing that violent video games weren’t great for young children to play. That’s also around the time when graphics were becoming more realistic and excessively violent games like Mortal Kombat and Doom were coming out. Video games were growing up, so it was clear it was time to start giving them ratings. The ESRB was born.

10. It’s not illegal for children to buy M-rated games

Young man showing driver's license

Source: iStock

Contrary to what some parents might think, there are no laws surrounding what games children are allowed to purchase. Fortunately, all major retailers have in-store policies limiting what games kids can buy, and most cashiers check IDs before selling M-rated games.

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