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We talk a lot about ESRB ratings on all of our reviews and podcasts. Savvy parents are quick to check the game box for the rating to make sure their kids are playing games that are appropriate for them. ESRB ratings aren’t limited to just a letter though. There are, in fact, three different parts to every rating.

The three parts are listed below:

Rating Categories

This is the part we all know about. Each game reviewed by the ESRB is assigned a “Rating Category” that suggests its age appropriateness.

  • E
  • E10+
  • T
  • M

Content Descriptors

These descriptors are short phrases that identify what elements of the game caused an age rating to be assigned. Some examples might be Violence, Drug use, etc. These are, in my opinion, the most important part of the rating. Every family is different and every parent has different priorities regarding the kinds of content they want to let their kids see. These categories help with that!

Interactive Elements

These are point of interest in the mechanics of a game that are noteworthy, but don’t necessarily impact the age appropriateness of the game. Some examples of these types of elements are:

  • Online interactions
  • Online purchases
  • User information being available to other users

These three components make up an ESRB rating, and all of them are important for parents who want to control the games their kids play.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments and let us know your thoughts!

Make sure to keep your eyes on Engaged Family Gaming for all of the latest news and reviews you need to Get Your Family Game On!

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Super Mario Bros. Odyssey has been rated E10 + by the ESRB. This makes the title the first mainline Super Mario Bros. game in the franchise history to be given a rating greater than E. We don’t know any of the content descriptors yet since the ESRB hasn’t published any of the details yet. In fact, the only confirmation we have regarding the rating is the product page on the Nintendo website.

Odyssey is going to be one of the biggest games this fall and its rating probably isn’t going to affect that. But, it is interesting. What could set this game apart from the other Mario titles that would make it unsuitable for children under the age of 10?

There are a few possibilities.

First, the game does include New Donk City. This is a more realistic world than has ever been included in a Mario game. It features human-like people and a real world atmosphere (sort of). It could be that this level includes some more realistic dangers. Its possible that someone in one of those dark alleys, for example, is smoking a cigar or something similar.

Second, we don’t know all of the worlds yet. It is entirely possible that there is a kingdom that is based on the haunted mansion themes from previous games. Maybe those were deemed to scary?

Lastly, Mario does, essentially, fight like a Skylander in this game. It could very well be that the ESRB reviewers put Odyssey side by side with other kid friendly action platformers and decided to equalize them.

We won’t have to wait much longer for the details as I am sure that the ESRB will be releasing the information soon.

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I am asked questions by concerned parents and caregivers everywhere I go. One of the most common subjects that I am asked about is the ESRB and how it works. I talked about it in a general sense when I posted my articles a few years ago about each rating category, but I didn’t really get down into the nitty-gritty of the process.

There is no time like the present is there? Here we go!

In 1994 the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) established the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). This is a non-profit organization that assigns content ratings and establishes advertising and privacy practices for the “software entertainment” (Read: video game) industry.

There are two different ratings processes that the ESRB uses to rate games. They have a “Long form” process that is designed for games that will be sold on store shelves and a “Short form” for games that will be distributed on a digital platform (like the iOS App Store). The fact that mobile games are given a less thorough review is less than ideal, but the sheer volume of mobile apps released daily makes the Long form process impractical for use on them.

The Long Form Process

The long form process starts when the game’s publisher submits two key pieces of data to the ESRB for review. They are (quoted directly from the ESRB website):

  • a completed ESRB online questionnaire detailing the game’s pertinent content, which essentially translates to anything that may factor into the game’s rating. This includes not only the content itself (violence, sexual content, language, controlled substances, gambling, etc.), but other relevant factors such as context, reward systems and the degree of player control; and
  • a DVD that captures all pertinent content, including typical gameplay, missions, and cutscenes, along with the most extreme instances of content across all relevant categories. Pertinent content that is not playable (i.e., “locked out”) but will exist in the game code on the final game disc must also be disclosed.

Once this information is received a set of at least three ESRB raters reviews the content and they work together to decide what rating the game should be given. The ESRB staff will then review the information that the raters gave and might even do ANOTHER review to make sure there is parity between the recommendations.

Shortly after this is completed the ESRB will generate a ratings summary which goes into more detail and will include info about the contributing factors. This is where they get into the “why” behind the rating itself.

That rating is then returned the the publisher who has the opportunity to change the game to reduce their rating. If they choose to do so the process will start again. I would guess that HALO 5 went through a lot of these revisions as they deliberately went after a T rating.

Once the rating has been completed and the game is published the ESRB completes yet another review of the games to make sure that nothing snuck in and to ensure compliance with any of their changes. The packaging and the inserts are reviewed as well! (No stones are left unturned here!) A lot of the post release review comes in the form of playtesting which is really similar to what we at EFG do when we review a game. They, however, are mainly focused on the content of the game and whether or not it matches up with what they were told in the pre -launch screening process.

The Short Form Process

The short form process is intended for games that will only be available for purchase online. It is aptly names as it consists mainly of a questionnaire that is made up of multiple choice questions. The digital game’s publishers will answer questions similar to the above, but will also answer questions about location sharing, monetization and if the user is granted unrestricted internet access through its use.  These responses are used to automatically generate the rating category, content descriptors,  and interactive elements.

I’m sure a lot of you are wondering how the ESRB handles ratings issues. Mistakes can obviously happen since this is just a questionnaire and some people, are downright malicious. The ESRB makes use of a wide range of reporting tools through web based game distribution channels and reacts swiftly when games are rated incorrectly.

If the ESRB is made aware of these errors they will move swiftly to correct those ratings. In fact, if it is an obviously malicious act then they will move to have the game pulled from the stores entirely.


And that, my friends, is that. The ESRB Rating process in a nutshell.

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Batman Arkham Knight will release for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on June 23rd this year after having been delayed twice. The ESRB has announced that it has awarded the game an “M” rating. This is significant for a few reasons.

  1. This will be the first non-comic book Batman product that ever made that has ever had the equivalent of an “M” rating.  The Dark Knight wasn’t even rated “R” by the MPAA. Batman comic books have treaded in some very dark places, but the cartoons, movies, and video games produced so far have explored some darker elements but have been finely crafted to avoid the hard ratings.
  2. As a result, I am sure there will be parents that will forget about the ESRB rating and just see Batman as “safe.” This might not matter to some parents that would buy their child the next Call of Duty game anyway. But, it could be very troublesome to parents that want to be more careful only to find objectionable content.

Below is a video from our friends over at FamilyGamerTV.com. They have some thoughts about the upcoming game and what the rating could mean.

Below is the text directly from the ESRB website regarding the four different Batman games that have been released.  It is of particular interest that the four ESRB entries contain a lot of the same content. They all reference hand to hand combat, a short list of bad words, and some suggestive language. Batman: Arkham Knight received an M rating in spite of all of that. The video above provides some predictions, but no one has real hard data because the “offending” material is likely caught up in story spoiling cut scenes.

We can assume out of the gate that The Joker will play a role in this game much like he has all of the prior releases, and it would not surprise me to Rocksteady (the developers) wrote a darker plot for him to act out. Arkham Knight is, after all, intended to be the final game in the Arkham series.

Whatever it is, we do know hat Warner Brothers has signed off on it and are letting Rocksteady end their trilogy as they see fit. We will have to keep an eye out for more details as the game comes closer to release. (We will have a guest writer reviewing the game for us to make sure we provide whatever details we can.)

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Content Descriptors:

Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence

Rating Summary:

“This is an action game featuring characters from the Batman franchise. Players assume the role of Batman as he fights (never kills) his way through a psychiatric hospital populated by psychopathic criminals and humans infected with a toxic virus. Players can punch, kick, and use weapons (spikes, light beams, and other gadgets) to defend against the onslaught of enemies. Some attacks are highlighted by special effects, such as slow-motion hits and close-ups of damage inflicted. During the course of the game, players can enter rooms with blood stains on the ground and walls or witness the ‘infected’ twitching and screaming in pain. Some inmates and guards are strewn unconscious/dead on the asylum floors, while others are tied-up, strapped to torture devices, or are being tortured (e.g., a guard suffering in an electric chair). Two female characters wear provocative outfits that expose deep cleavage and/or partial buttocks, and one of them moans suggestively when she is in peril. Players are occasionally required to identify and track traces of whiskey/tobacco during missions. Some expletives (e.g., ‘b*tch,’ ‘damn,’ and ‘pissed’) can be heard in the dialogue.”

Batman: Arkham City

Content Descriptors:

Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco, Violence

Rating Summary:

“This is an action-adventure game featuring characters from the Batman franchise. Players assume the role of Batman as he investigates Arkham City, a neighborhood overrun by psychopathic criminals and former prison inmates. As players explore the city and infiltrate hideouts, they punch and kick criminals in melee-style combat, using various gadgets (e.g., explosive gel, smoke pellets, a grappling gun) to defend themselves against gun-wielding thugs and villains. The frenetic combat is highlighted by cries of pain, punching sounds, realistic gunfire, and slow-motion effects. In some sequences, players must solve puzzles or use stealth to incapacitate enemies and free hostages; when players fail a challenge, the hostage will lose his life. Some environments contain bloodstains on the floor or furniture; other cutscenes depict spots of blood on injured characters. During the course of the game, some female characters are dressed in form-fitting outfits that expose large amounts of cleavage; one background sign depicts the silhouette of a woman and the words “Live Nude.” The dialogue also contains some suggestive references (e.g., “The anger, the frustration, the hints of repressed sexual tension” and “Sure could go for some porn right now.”). One sequence depicts a character smoking a cigar, and there are various references to alcohol (e.g., “She got a little drunk and killed her classmates,” “I’d give anything for a nice cold beer right now.”). The words “b*tch,” “a*s,” and “bastard” can be heard in dialogue.”

Batman: Arkham Origins

Content Descriptors:

Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence


Includes online features that may expose players to unrated user-generated content (Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

Rating Summary:

“This is an action-adventure game featuring characters and storylines from the Batman universe. Players control Batman through urban environments as he solves crimes, battles thugs, and searches for villains. Players punch, kick, and use fantastical weapons (e.g., electrically charged gloves) to defeat enemies. Some characters use guns against Batman, and the game’s multiplayer mode allows players to engage in third-person shooter matches. During murder-investigation scenes, short animations depict various stages of the crimes (e.g., a victim’s head slammed onto a table; a character getting shot). A handful of scenes depict corpses on the ground, hanging on walls, or arranged in strange poses; some of these scenes depict bloodstains on the floor. During the course of the game, the camera pans on a villain briefly groping the posterior of a female character. The game depicts drug packets in one scene, and several characters discuss illegal narcotics and drug charges. The words “sh*t,” “a*s,” and “bastard” appear in the dialogue.”

Batman: Arkham Knight

Content Descriptors:

Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence

Rating Summary:

“This is an action-adventure game in which players primarily assume the role of Batman as he battles several villains spreading chaos across Gotham City. Players traverse a variety of locations around Gotham while battling thugs, examining crime scenes, and occasionally rescuing hostages. Players engage in melee-style combat using punches, kicks, and gadgets (e.g., batarangs, explosives). Enemies cry out in pain when struck, and some takedowns are highlighted by brief slow-motion effects and loud impact sounds. Some sequences allow players to use tank-like vehicles with machine gun turrets and rockets to shoot enemies; a vehicle’s wheels are also used to torture an enemy in one sequence. Cutscenes depict characters getting shot (on and off camera) while restrained or unarmed. Large bloodstains/pools of blood appear in crime scenes and in the aftermath of violent acts; one room depicts a person torturing a character on a bloody operating table. During the course of the game, players can shoot unarmed characters and a hostage. Neon signs in a red-light district read “live nude girls” and “XXX.” The words “b*tch,” “gobsh*te,” and “a*s” appear in the dialogue.”

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The ESRB and the remainder of the IARC (International Age Rating Coalition) announced last week that they are implementing a global rating system for digital media. They are implementing this program in concert with ratings boards from across the globe including PEGI in Europe, ClassInd in Brazil, USK in Germany, and the Classification Board in Australia.

The IARC has managed to get all of these different ratings organizations to “agree on a unified process that simultaneously generates ratings for multiple territories while preserving each of their distinct cultural standards.”

What exactly does that mean though?

The ratings themselves will ultimately be the same for each organization. U.S. parents, for example, will still use the ESRB ratings that they have trusted for the past twenty years. The changes will be two-fold.

First, the submission process will change. Developers will be able to submit information about their game to one authority who will assign ratings across multiple territories.

The IACS has actually provided several useful graphics on their website to illustrate the specific process that is followed and how the ratings are assigned.How IARC Works

Second, the rating system is being extended to include digital storefronts. The storefronts currently participating are the Firefox Marketplaces and the Google Play store. The PlayStation Network, the Xbox Live Marketplace, and the Nintendo eShop are all on the way at a future date. (The iOS app store and STEAM are noticeable absent from the list.)

We will report further as more storefronts roll out to include the IACS rating system so keep your eyes locked on Engaged Family Gaming!

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Games with this rating are a significant step above games rated T for Teen. They often contain more/more realistic gore. They may also have more significant sexual themes and/or vulgar humor. These are the games that we hear about on the news for pushing the boundaries of “appropriate.” Some of the more significant examples that have reached the mainstream media are games like those found in the Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto series.

Many major retailers have internal policies that bar the sale of games with this rating to any person age 17 or less without parental consent. But it is not illegal for them to do so. The state of CA had passed a law making it illegal at one point, but this law was been deemed unconstitutional by the SCOTUS. It is possible that other states may attempt to pass similar laws in the future, but this ruling makes it less likely.

A lot of parent’s ask me questions at what age rated M games are appropriate. I always answer the same way: “It depends entirely on the maturity level of your child, and what you feel comfortable letting them experience.” Some parents feel comfortable watching slasher flicks with their young kids. Others wouldn’t dream of watching anything other than Disney films until their children are ten. Video games are the same way.

I would like to say that many rated M games are rated as such because they tackle serious issues and require a more mature perspective in order to really understand them. But, I’m not going to smokescreen you here. The vast majority of M rated games are patently inappropriate for most tweens and young teenagers because they are mindless examples of violence and sexuality. That’s not to say that they are never good games (many of them are excellent), but a lot of them aren’t substantially different from something like Scary Movie.

There are a few that are legitimately thought provoking. They can be used as tools to help discuss very serious subjects with your son or daughter if you feel they are mature enough to handle it. My favorite example of this is the level “No Russian” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The players take on the role of a US agent who is deep undercover with a group of Russian terrorists. As the level progresses the player accompanies the terrorists as they assault a Russian airport that is teeming with innocent civilians. The player is not required to fire a single shot over the course of the mission, but they are forced to slowly walk through the airport while terrorist gunmen fire on, and kill, hundreds of civilians. The media immediately attacked this level as soon as it was discovered for glorifying violence and allowing children to virtually commit heinous crimes against innocent people. They were technically correct, but missed the point. I have played through the level and I felt suffocated. I was immersed in the moment. I imagined myself in that airport and wondered what it would be like near those victims. The level doesn’t glorify acts of terror. Instead it shines a spotlight on what they mean. I can’t imagine any other form of media giving as complete of an image as a video game. These are prime opportunities to discuss these types of events… if you are talking to someone who can really understand it.

Some excellent examples of games rated M for Mature are:


Bioshock Infinite

Spec Ops: The Line

Fallout 3

Red Dead Redemption

Grand Theft Auto IV

Metal Gear Solid series

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Games with this rating may contain content that is suitable for people age 12 and older. It is worth noting, however, that there is no restriction for children under the age of 12 from purchasing these games without an adult. The content in these games is a step above games rated E 10+ in that they have a stronger impact and often contain more intense violence, suggestive themes and crude humor (like in a Simpsons or Futurama episode). These games can also include simulated gambling. These games are rated similarly to moves that are rated PG 13.

Many parents dismiss games rated T for Teen by the ESRB outright, and I don’t think that is necessary. Many of these games are perfectly acceptable for young children with parental supervision. The “More intense violence” descriptor places most games that involve any sort of combat to this category. I am a father with a 7 year old son and there is a wide selection of games that are rated T for Teen that I will play with him. Some specific examples are Marvel vs Capcom 3, Ratchet and Clank: a Crack in Time, and Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions. The key here is to make sure you focus on the content descriptors and make sure that you only exclude games that include content you find questionable.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor


Muramasa: The Demon’s Blade

Monster Hunter Tri

Super Smash Brothers Brawl

Metroid Prime Trilogy

Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Valkyria Chronicles

Final Fantasy XIII

Batman Arkham Asylum

Batman Arkham City

Super Street Fighter 4

Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3


ICO/Shadows of the Colossus Collection

Dance Central (Kinect)

Dance Central 2 (Kinect)

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Games that are assigned the E 10+ rating by the ESRB contain content that should be suitable for children 10 years and older. The content is often described as “moderate impact.” These games may contain minimal cartoon or animated violence. There may also be animated blood, foul language and minimal suggestive themes. This roughly translates to the video game equivalent of most Disney films. You might see a fight, but it won’t be any more impactful than most Saturday morning cartoons.

Many games in this category can be classified as family friendly. As I mentioned above, these games are rated as the equivalent to most Disney films. If you are a more conservative parent, then it is best to check the content descriptors used on the back of the games box. You can use those descriptors to make decisions about what content you might want to exclude and what you find acceptable. For example, you may be fine with mild cartoon violence, but push a game aside because it contains mild language.

Trivia: This rating was implemented on October 1, 2004 by the ESRB. The first game ever given this rating was Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. (Who knew?)

Some good examples of E 10+ rated games are:

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Just Dance

Lumines II


Braid (XBL)

Final Fantasy III

Chrono Trigger

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Super Scribblenauts

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This rating is fairly self explanatory. The games themselves are generally appropriate for players of all ages.

They will contain no (or at the very worst: minimal) violence. Any violence that is depicted will be animated or fantasy violence. You might see Mario bouncing on a koopa’s head, but you won’t see anything much more intense than that.

Most games that I would consider “family friendly” will fall into this category by default. Board games, most mini game collections, and most mascot platform games (eg: Mario and Sonic) all fall here. Even the most conservative parents will have a hard time finding anything objectionable in these games. Many of them are tamer than an episode of Spongebob.

One thing that I need to stress is that ERSB ratings are rating the CONTENT. They do not rate difficulty. The perennial Madden series is a great example here. These games are rated E for Everyone. But, the game has a steep learning curve because it is a professional Football simulator. Most 5-6 year olds would have a difficult time navigating the menus and playing the game.

Some great examples of E for Everyone rated games are:

Mario Galaxy

Mario Galaxy II

New Super Mario Brothers Wii

Mario Kart Wii

Donky Kong Country Returns

Wii Sports

Wii Sports Resort

Kirby’s Epic Yarn

Super Paper Mario

Super Mario All Stars

Sonic Generations

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The ESRB rating eC is given to games that contain no content that could be considered questionable for anyone ages 3 and below. Most often these games are based on characters in children’s television like Nick Jr or Sesame Street. At the very least they will contain mascots and avatars that are cute and simple with colorful graphics

There are a number of barriers you might run into when looking at games this rating category. The biggest one is that our first instinct is often to look for games that we would qualify as “good games” or “quality gaming experiences” from our perspective as adults. The reality is that there is a large disparity between what makes a game “good” for the adult gamer and for children ages 3 or less.

Games rated eC are often grouped in with games rated E. This is generally fine from a content perspective. But, that does not necessarily mean that the game will be accessible. The most important difference between eC rated games and those rated E is the level of interactivity that they require. Games rated E are not necessarily simple. They can require timing, object recognition and the ability to react to changes in environment quickly. There are not many people who would make a reasonable claim that a 3 year old would be able to play Super Mario Galaxy. It is simply too complex and requires the use of too many concepts that they do not understand.

Most eC rated games require limited interaction. Meaning they are little more than mildly interactive movies or cartoons that give the children opportunities to experience if not actually “play” a game.

A great example of a quality game in this category is a title released on the Wii called “Learning with the PooYoos.” It is a WiiWare title and has a price point of 500 Wii points ($5) so no one should expect a blockbuster gaming experience, but for the price there is plenty of game play available. (Especially once you get a 2 year old to do one of the dances. That is worth the price of admission alone.)

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