Regardless of what some people think, not all video games are appropriate for players of all ages. Some games are actually designed solely for adults and children should most definitely NOT be playing them. So when choosing a video game (or helping a patron choose a game), it’s important to check the ESRB rating of the game to determine if it is age-appropriate for the person who will be playing it.
ESRB ratings work very similar to the MPAA ratings given to movies. In fact, the ESRB originally approached the MPAA about sharing the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings, but the MPAA said no. Instead, games are rated by a panel of full-time ESRB raters who judge video footage of games supplied by publishers or developers that is supposed to include a general overview of the game including the storyline and any hidden areas.
The ESRB rating will appear on the front cover of every game and on the back cover along with additional “Content Descriptors” that describe events that will occur in a game. The rating of any game (along with more information on the ESRB as an organization, the complete rating process, and details of enforcement) can be found online at ESRB.org.
Below, you’ll find a quick rundown of each rating.
The Early Childhood rating is rarely used when actually talking about “video games.” Instead, the ESRB uses the Early Childhood rating to tag educational software designed for children between the ages of three and five. The vast majority of the titles that have been awarded an Early Childhood rating are only available on the PC and it’s almost impossible to find it on a game released for major consoles or handhelds.
Games rated E For Everyone are designed for players 6 years old and up. Content Descriptors commonly found on E-rated games include “Cartoon Violence” and “Comic Mischief.” An E-rated game will include content somewhere between a movie-rated G or PG. The Everyone rating was originally known as “Kids-To-Adults,” but the ESRB changed it to “Everyone” in 1997.
Games rated Everyone 10+ are designed for players 10 years old and up. Content Descriptors commonly found on E10+-rated games include “Mild Language” and “Fantasy Violence.” An E10+-rated game will include content roughly equal to a PG movie. The Everyone 10+ rating was created in 2005 after a slew of games based on properties popular with children (such as The Incredibles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) were given a Teen rating.
Games rated T For Teen are designed for players 13 years old and up. Content Descriptors commonly found on T-rated games include “Blood,” “Language” and “Violence.” A T-rated game will include content roughly equal to a PG-13 movie.
Games rated M For Mature are designed for players 17 years old and up. Content Descriptors commonly found on M-rated games include “Blood and Gore,” “Strong Language,” “Strong Violence.” An M-rated game will include content roughly equal to an R-rated movie. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2015 “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry” report, only 14% of all games received a Mature rating in 2014.
The Adults Only rating is a bit of a non-starter, as it’s only been handed out a few dozen times in the entire history of the ESRB and at least half of those were to pornographic screensaver collections that were released over two decades ago. It’s also important to note that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will not license a game for their systems that receives an Adults Only rating, but then, no console game has ever received an Adults Only rating prior to its release. AO-rated games are designed for players 18 years old and up and feature similar violence, language and sexual situations as an M-rated game, but for an “extended period of time.”