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How to Pick Suitable Video Games for Different Ages

Updated on July 5, 2015
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Dreamhowl has played video games since childhood. She owns a PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo 3DS. She prefers roleplaying and adventure games.

Video games are played and enjoyed by people of all ages. That doesn’t mean, however, that all games are suitable for all ages. When video games are released to the public, they are usually labeled with ratings pertaining to different age groups. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a non-profit organization responsible for rating video games based on content and interactive elements. These video game ratings make it easier for parents and others to discover how age-appropriate a game is.

How to Understand Video Game Ratings

The ESRB provides ratings for video games and apps based on three things: rating categories, content descriptors and interactive elements. Some video games also have summaries concerning the rating of video games. Rating categories determine whether or not kids of certain ages can purchase and play a video game. While also based on the content in video games, however, rating categories can also be based on the minimum age requirement of a particular app or game.

Rating Categories
Definitions
Early Childhood
Content is intended for young children.
Everyone
Content is suitable for all ages. May contain mild violence or language.
Everyone 10+
Content suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more mild violence, language or minimal suggestive themes.
Teen
Content suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor or some strong language.
Mature
Content is suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood, gore, sexual content and strong language.
Adults Only
Content suitable for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, sexual content and gambling.
Rating Pending
Not yet assigned a final rating. Appears in advertising and marketing related to a game expected to have a rating.
A video game's rating category is found on the front of the game box.
A video game's rating category is found on the front of the game box. | Source

Content descriptors are applied alongside rating categories on video games; if a video game is suitable for all ages but contains mild references to violence or alcohol, it may have the descriptor “Mild Lyrics” next to the “Everyone” ESRB rating. Content descriptors do not list all of the game content, only the content most significant to the game’s rating.

Content Descriptors
Definitions
Alcohol Reference
Reference to and images of alcohol
Blood
Depictions of blood
Blood and Gore
Depictions of blood and mutilation of body parts
Cartoon Violence
Violent actions with cartoon characters and situations
Comic Mischief
Depictions involving slapstick or suggestive humor
Crude Humor
Depictions involving vulgar antics
Drug Reference
Reference to and images of drugs
Language
Use of profanity. Can be "mild" or "intense"
Lyrics
References to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music. Can be "mild" or "strong"
Mature Humor
Depictions involving adult humor, including sexual references
Nudity
Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity. Can also be "partial" nudity
Real Gambling
Player gambles real cash or currency
Sexual Content
Depictions of sexual behavior or partial nudity. Can also be "strong" sexual content
Sexual Themes
References to sex and sexuality
Sexual Violence
Depictions of rape and other violent sexual acts
Simulated Gambling
Player gambles fake currency
Suggestive Themes
Mild provocative references or materials
Tobacco Reference
Reference to and images of tobacco products
Use of Alcohol
Consumption of alcoholic beverages
Use of Drugs
Consumption and use of drugs
Use of Tobacco
Consumption of tobacco products
Violence
Scenes involving aggressive conflict
Violent References
Reference to violent acts
A video game's rating, content and more are found on the back of the game box.
A video game's rating, content and more are found on the back of the game box. | Source

Interactive elements are shown when a video game or app has the ability to share information with the game and other players. Some online interactions are not rated by the ESRB; this text simply warns the user playing the game about exposure to chat and other user-generated content not considered when rated by the ESRB. Interactive elements include:

  • Shares Info: personal information provided by the user is shared with third parties
  • Shares Location: ability to display location to other users of the app
  • Users Interact: exposure to unfiltered user-generated content, user-to-user communication and media sharing via social media and networks

Interactive elements are usually assigned to digitally-delivered games and apps, but there are console video games where users have the ability to interact with others; a popular example of user interaction in video games is the microphone option in the Call of Duty video games. It is impossible to control what other players will say during a multiplayer game.

What is the most common rating category of your video games?

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If you are looking to purchase a video game for yourself or someone else, you can find out the game’s rating on the ESRB website. Typing the title of the video game into the site’s search bar will show you the video game’s title, gaming platforms (such as the Xbox 360), rating, content descriptors, developing company and a rating summary for further information. This is an especially useful resource for parents who are unfamiliar with a video game title or rating. Try looking up your birthday or holiday presents here before buying them for younger children, siblings and cousins!

It is easy to research video games and ratings on the ESRB website!
It is easy to research video games and ratings on the ESRB website! | Source

How to Enforce Video Game Ratings

If you have children, it’s very likely that they’d rather not follow many of the video game ratings out there today. Shooter games are popular for children to play with their friends on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, even though they often have very high ratings. For example, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a popular video game among young teens, but is rated M for Mature (17+ years). The content descriptors include:

  • Blood and Gore
  • Intense Violence
  • Strong Language
  • Suggestive Themes
  • Use of Drugs

Despite the ESRB rating and content descriptors, many players of the Call of Duty video games are younger than seventeen. How do younger children get video games with a rating higher than their age group? Many stores won’t sell Mature-rated games to a younger audience without an adult present; if a parent is with their child, they can purchase the game no problem. Parents who don’t research video game ratings or don’t care might simply buy a Mature-rated video game for their children as a birthday or holiday gift.

In the end, the ultimate judge of whether a video game is age-appropriate for your child is you. If a teenager is only one or two years younger than the ESRB rating, buying them a video game with a 17+ rating isn't as big of a deal as buying the game for a 13-or-14-year old. If you are a parent or guardian, talk to your children about it; many teenagers are mature for their age. Listen to their reasoning about why they want a more mature video game. Try watching them play video games or playing the games with them! Experiencing the video game may help you determine if they should be playing it or not.

How to Use Parental Controls

If you feel the need to restrict your child’s video game time or usage when you aren’t around, you can always try setting parental controls. Most gaming consoles and computers have the ability to set parental controls and timers for video games. ESRB’s resources for parents has instructions for setting parental controls on the following game systems:

  • Xbox 360
  • Playstation 3
  • PSP
  • Playstation Vita
  • Wii U
  • Wii
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • Nintendo DSi
  • Windows PC

Parental controls allow you to ban games of certain ESRB ratings, as well as limit the time your child can play video games on a daily basis. If you are away from the house often and don’t have the time to monitor their playtime, this option may be for you. To help monitor game time, keep the video game system in the family room where everyone can watch the game being played. This way, you can keep an eye on your child’s behavior while playing, as well as the content of a video game. If the game allows socializing with other players, you can view your child’s interaction with other people.

Windows allows the restriction of games based on their ratings and rating system.
Windows allows the restriction of games based on their ratings and rating system. | Source

In the end, remember to communicate with children and teenagers. Explain why a video game may not be suitable for their age. Go over other video game options, and search for popular games for someone their age. Maybe you can even strike a deal or truce, such as a teenager agreeing to show more responsibility and maturity before being allowed to play a Mature-rated video game. While you should always keep ESRB ratings in mind, keep your child’s thoughts and and interests in mind as well.

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