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A Handy Breakdown of Video Game Ratings for Parents
The Black and White Box
On the back of every game, in the bottom right corner is a black and white box. In this little box is a letter and a list of phrases called 'content warnings'. Together they make up the game's rating, appropriated by the ESRB. ESRB stands for Entertainment Software Ratings Board; they are responsible for going through the content of every game on every console and rating it for an appropriate audience.
The ESRB has 6 ratings in their system: EC, E, E 10+, T, M 17+, and AO (you can think of them in terms of movie ratings). They also have roughly 30 content warnings, which give further detail to the contents of the game. Does this system neatly place every game into an age appropriate category? No. Like movies, using judgment and being informed are key to choosing what is safe for your child to view.
EC (Early Childhood) – These games are meant for the 3 and under crowd and are typically of the educational variety. You'd be hard pressed to find any offensive content in these games, though they can grate on the adult nerves after a few hours of non-stop play. Personally, if you have young children I suggest you forgo a gaming console and stick with the plethora of free kids apps available on almost any smart phone and tablet. Kids at this age hardly have the attention span for an entire game anyway.
E (Everyone!) - A very flexible rating that includes titles that the whole family can enjoy, eg Wii Sports and the popular Mario titles. While these games can contain a little bit of violence, it is usually of the slapstick, Looney Toons variety, and generally harmless. E rated games are great for kids between 4 and 9.
E 10+ (for ages 10 and up) – The PG rating of video games, E 10+ games are still kid friendly, but may contain content not suitable for little ones. E 10+ games contain more violence than their E counter parts and while still easy to differentiate from real life, it can be more realistic (eg weapon use). They may also contain mild language (not cussing, but phrases like 'shut up' or 'idiot'; words you'd rather not have your 3 year old repeating), and suggested romance.
T (Teen) – Obviously meant for teenagers, T games are quite a step up from E 10+. They can contain a lot of content not found in the previous ratings including: some blood, realistic violence, reference and/or use of tobacco and alcohol, some cursing, a bit of vulgar humor, and mildly suggestive themes (pretty much anything you can find in a run of the mill action movie). Some T games are lighter than others. For example, the PS2 (Play Station 2) title “Justice League: Heroes” is rated T and only has warnings for Fantasy Violence and Mild Language, whereas the Xbox 360 title “Batman: Arkham Asylum”, also rated T, has warnings for: Alcohol, Tobacco, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. “Justice League” may be okay for the ten and up crowd, where “Asylum” may not be. In the end it's up to you, the parent.
M (17+) - Stores are supposed to card for these games, just like they do for R-rated movies, but that doesn't mean that they do. I, personally, consider M games more dangerous than R-rated movies, because not only is your kid watching these acts take place, they are directing the characters that are partaking in them. Most big titles (Halo, Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Gears of War) are in this category, and a large percentage of them are FPS, which stands for First-Person Shooters, and contain lots of guns, death, and blood. They also may contain other treasures such as sexual themes, frequent profanity, partial nudity, drug use, etc. I advise strong judgment when considering these titles.
AO (Adults Only) – If you're considering an AO title for your child, I'm calling Child Services. The title is pretty self-explanatory, they are usually sexual in nature with lots of skin, language, adult activities, and less savory things. But fear not! The majority of game retailers (Game Stop, Wal-mart, Target, etc) DO NOT carry AO titles. They are primarily purchased via the internet or adult-novelty stores.
For more in depth information I encourage you to visit the ESRB's website: www.esrb.org . You can search for games by console or rating, as well as download a handy rating app for your smart phone for researching games on the go.