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ESRB and You: A Guide to the Video Game Rating System

Updated on February 1, 2011
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer has been a gamer for more than 20 years, with a preference towards adventure games like the Legend of Zelda and Tomb Raider.

Not too long ago I was riding on a long car trip with my brother and his ten-year-old son. The topic turned to video games, as it often does, and once again my nephew began asking if he could have one video game or another. I believe the request came down to two games, one was Dragon Age and the other I don’t recall (it might have been Bioshock or Fallout 3). Either way, my brother said maybe to Dragon Age. For those of you who don’t know, Dragon Age is an M rated role-playing-game made by Bioware and is well known for the level of blood splatter during combat. I looked at my brother and said ‘are you serious?’ He had no idea what was in that game and tends to judge the appropriateness of a game based on how hard it is to see blood or the how far away the violence is from the camera. To his credit, he puts a lot more thought into it than others, but it was apparent that there are more things to consider than a lot of parents realize. Having spent many years playing video games, the rating system is perfectly clear to me, but it seems that it has become more complicated than simply slapping a letter on the cover. So not only will I explain each of the rating levels based on their intent, but also how they measure up in practice.

The purpose of this guide is to give parents a better understanding of the video game rating system with the hope that they will make better decisions for their children.

E for Everyone

Though the ESRB would like you to believe that this rating literally means everyone, it doesn’t. They’ve even begun to acknowledge this by adding ages (such as 10 and up) to clarify who the game is intended for. But there are a few things to consider here. The first is the general age of your gamer. I would argue that any children under age seven would have a very difficult time with any video game. I watched my nephew play video games at a very young age and I saw his frustration with understanding the basic concepts of the controller and commands in the game. And if he were to lose, whether it was against another player or just the game’s natural difficulty, it would result in angry tantrums. Certain age groups just can’t grasp the concept because they aren’t developed enough yet. I don’t believe any video game is appropriate for these children. And, even if your child is advanced enough to understand the basics of video games, should they really be playing them that young anyway?

The second thing to consider is a game’s difficulty, not considering the child’s age. Just because a game is rated E doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mario is a good example. Some of his more recent 3D outings can get pretty challenging in an ‘I’m-going-to-throw-my-controller-against-the-wall’ kind of way. A game can be entirely appropriate in terms of content, but is it okay to give your child a game that will throw them into tantrums? I understand the need to challenge your child, but do some research to see if the game will help them learn, or just frustrate them.

T for Teen

A lot of games in this category get their higher rating from non-bloody violence. Or, by replacing red blood with green blood (because that’s okay, for some reason) Or, in the case of Super Smash Bros, the fighting is okay because the characters are cartoony. Another interesting development for this category is that with more detailed graphics on the market, the ESRB has kind of forgotten about blocky violence. By that I mean, if a game has poor graphics, or less detailed graphics, it can get away with more. The perfect example is the juggernaut World of Warcraft. The original game, and all its expansions, are all rated T. Yet I just watched two instances of characters/monsters getting chopped up in propeller blades and one of the Death Knight’s primary abilities is corpse explosion which sends chunks of flesh flying in every direction. The only reason I can think of that Blizzard got away with this is because their graphics are stylized to a specific kind of art and because their graphics engine is mostly five years old. I say mostly because they’ve upgraded over the years. Another good instance is the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The game was originally given a T rating but it was later changed to an M. The developers claim it was because some user found a hack to take all the women’s tops off, but I believe it was because of all the excessive blood in the game. Enemies didn’t shoot blood when they died, but the walls and ground was often streaked with it after a battle (the arena quest line alone was a gruesome place to be in). So T is a very loose rating and it covers everything from a racing game with some crashes in it, to an MMO with corpse explosions. You are definitely going to want to do your homework for this one.

M for Mature

Let me start out this category by saying, if your kid is under 17, don’t buy them the game with this tag on it. I always get angry when I hear that a parent/grandparent bought their child Grand Theft Auto then is surprised when they discover that you can kill hookers in the game. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Just because it’s a video game, doesn’t mean it’s for kids. I don’t know how many times I can say that. M is another broad category. You could have a game like Halo which technically has very little human blood in it, but it’s all about war with aliens. Or you could have a game like Left 4 Dead where you and three other people can blow off zombie heads long into the night. Basically if your game has more than a few ounces of blood in it, it will get an M rating. If it deals with adult scenarios, like war it will get an M rating. As for nudity, the gaming industry is still struggling with it. As of right now developers can show naked breasts in their M games, but anything more than that and they’ll get slapped with the rating below.

AO for Adults Only

This final rating is really stupid, in my opinion. Most, if not all, video game retailers have refused to carry games with this rating so if you’re a developer and you get hit with an AO rating, the solution is to tone down your game rather than release it with this kiss of death. What’s the point of having it if nobody can use it? Also, for the most part, the only way one can really get this rating is with sex or nudity. I’ve already ranted about America’s fear of sex and nudity, but it seems to me that games like God of War and Manhunt should have been given the AO rating for violence, yet their over-the-top gore is totally acceptable under an M rating. Make sense of that one.

Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB

While this isn’t technically a rating, it’s a warning message that you should take just as seriously. This message is put on games that can be taken online and it basically means that some other person can cuss up a storm to your little 10-year-old and neither the game’s developer, nor the ESRB are responsible. Personally I don’t think children should be playing online games the way they do now, but that’s not going to change any time soon. So it is your responsibility as a parent to find this warning and use it in your judgment when you consider purchasing a video game.

I found this reference picture while writing this article. I focused on the most common ratings, but it seems the ESRB is at least trying to refine the system.
I found this reference picture while writing this article. I focused on the most common ratings, but it seems the ESRB is at least trying to refine the system.

Now, I could go on and on about what games fall under each category, but in the end, you are the only one that can do the research on the game in question your child wants. This can be as simple as typing the title into a Google search. Read some reviews of the game, look at pictures and get a feel for what it’s about. I know this requires more work but the more you learn about games now, the easier these decisions will be to make in the future.

As a final note, kids tend to get a hold of bad games anyway. If you limit what they can play, that doesn’t mean Johnny’s mom next door does the same thing, so then your kid goes next door and plays Murderfest 2011 without you even knowing. In this regard it is your responsibility again to teach your child why you don’t want them playing those games, and maybe speak with Johnny’s mom to tell her you don’t want them playing that game while your child is over.


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    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 7 years ago from United States

      Rusty - I'm not sure why the perception of video games is still so much different than movies or tv, but I think it has come a long way since the first Mortal Kombat (when there was no rating system at all.) But it still has a ways to go in the minds of parents. Thanks for the comment!

    • Rusty C. Adore profile image

      C Levrow 7 years ago from Michigan

      What a fantastic hub! I am with you 100% There are parents out there who speak out against their child seeing a PG-13 movie and yet they purchase an M rated video game for them! I'm not saying that every parent is out of touch with the game their children play, but I've seen way too many parents plop their kid in front of the TV as a way of keeping them quiet and that's really frustrating to me. Great hub. I voted it up!