The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns ratings to video games based on their content. The ESRB rating system is designed to inform parents and consumers about the content and age-appropriateness of video games. The ratings range from “Early Childhood (which has since been retired) to “Adults Only” and are assigned based on factors such as violence, sexual content, and language. In this blog post, we will explain the ESRB rating system in more detail and provide tips for parents on how to use the ratings to make informed decisions about the video games their children play.
What Does the ESRB Stand For?
ESRB stands for the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
What is the ESRB?
They are a non-profit organization that assigns content ratings and establishes advertising and privacy practices for the “software entertainment” (Read: video game) industry.
The History of the ESRB
Video games started with very simple graphics because of hardware and software limitations. The first home console was the Odyssey, which released in 1972. (source History.com) That changed over time as computers and consoles became much more powerful. Eventually, games like Doom, Wolfenstein, and Mortal Kombat were on store shelves. These games, and others like them, featured more realistic depictions of violence than ever before and it definitely ruffled feathers among parents, educators, and politicians around the globe. Up until this point the console manufacturers did their own ratings for the games on their platforms. This led to inconsistency and confusion among parents.
The US Congress took action in 1994 and introduced the Video Game Rating Act. Its listed purpose was “to provide parents with information about the nature of video games which are used in homes or public areas, including arcades or family entertainment centers.”
This by itself doesn’t sound bad, but video game companies immediately took action to present consistent rating information themselves in order to avoid handing the process off to the government. (It is worth noting here that the film industry did the same thing with the MPAA.)
First, the major players in the industry formed the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). Then, the IDSA formed the ESRB later that same year with five rating categories and seventeen content descriptors. The goal was simple: to help consumers understand the content of the games they were buying and to help calm down the politicians.
Why is the ESRB Important?
The ESRB is considered important because it helps to ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate content by assigning ratings to video games based on their content. These ratings are prominently displayed on the game’s packaging and in digital storefronts, making it easy for parents and other consumers to determine whether a game is appropriate for children. The ESRB rating system assigns one of the following ratings to video games: Early Childhood, Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, Adults Only.
Additionally, the ESRB also provides detailed information about the content of a game on its website, including a content descriptor that indicates the specific types of content that prompted the rating. This information is intended to help consumers make more informed decisions about which games to buy.
Furthermore, the ESRB also offers an online service called “Privacy Certified” that helps developers to ensure that their games comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the ESRB Privacy Certified program requirements. This helps to protect children’s personal information from being collected and shared without their parents’ consent.
In summary, the ESRB is considered important because it helps to ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate content, it allows consumers to make informed decisions about which games to buy, and it also helps to protect children’s personal information when they play online games.
How does the ESRB Enforce Its Rating System?
Technically, participation in the ESRB rating system is voluntary. However, all of the major console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo), as well as all major retailers require that the games they sell be rated. This applies enough pressure to ensure that just about any game your kids want to buy will have been rated.
The ratings themselves are based on self-reporting though. This means it is technically up to the manufacturers to send complete information regarding the contents of the game. Failing to do so triggers different processes within the ESRB depending on whether the game is digital or physical.
Digital games are straightforward. The ESRB can rapidly update the rating information. This has proven to be a sufficient deterrent. These changes would be obvious and traceable which would create a PR nightmare for the manufacturers, and no one wants that.
Physical games are a different beast. Updating the rating information can be costly, and very confusing. The ESRB discourages this with sanctions and significant fines (That can be up to a million dollars!).
Advertisements and Marketing
The ESRB also has an Advertising Review Council (ARC) that ensures that accurate and appropriate rating information is displayed on the packaging and in marketing materials like trailers and ads. Publishers that participate in the ESRB rating process are contractually obligated to follow “Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices.”
The Principles are general rules that publishers need to follow with their marketing. None of them should really surprise anyone. They include things like:
- A requirement that advertising accurately reflects the nature of the game and its rating.
- A requirement that advertising for a game rated T or M may not be targeted to younger audiences.
The guidelines get much more specific and list content that needs to be avoided in marketing materials. Some of these guidelines include things like:
- Graphic and/or excessive depictions of violence
- Allusions or depictions of acts of verbal or physical abuse toward children
- Allusions or depictions of acts of sexual violence
- References to illicit drug use and/or depictions of illicit drugs and any accompanying paraphernalia.
The ARC performs what they call “compliance reviews” for marketing materials to ensure that the principles and guidelines have been followed. One key thing to note is that they don’t just perform these reviews with consumers in mind. They make their assessments with their eyes on the broader general public because public sentiment is important for the industry as a whole and no one wants an advertising campaign for one game to potentially impact another one.
The ESRB Rating Process
The rating process is detailed on their website (which you can find here), but largely consists of a group of trained reviewers looking over written documentation, early builds, and video footage of the most extreme examples of the content in the game. The game developers need to be careful to include everything; the ESRB makes rating decisions based on all of the content included on the game disks. This even includes game data that is locked out and unavailable for play.
After the content is reviewed, each game is designated with one of six rating categories and is assigned content descriptors. These descriptors document what parts of the game are responsible for the rating or may be a point of concern for consumers.
ESRB rating is not mandatory. There is no state or federal mandate (currently) demanding that all games go through the process. However, most major retailers, like Wal-Mart and GameStop, will not carry a game that has not been rated by the ESRB so it is encouraged in order to help games be commercially viable.
The Two Different ESRB Rating Processes
There are two different rating processes that the ESRB uses to rate games. The process used depends on whether the game will be released on a physical disc on store shelves or if it will only be released digitally.
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 review 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 rating summary that 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 to 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 is intended for games that will only be available for purchase online. It is aptly named 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.The short form process is intended for games that will only be available for purchase online. It is aptly named 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.
How Does the ESRB handle DLC?
Generally speaking, the rating of the “core product” applies to its DLC as well. However, publishers are expected to resubmit if it contains content that is different from the core game.
The Four Parts of An ESRB Rating\
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 (Everyone)
- E10+ (Everyone 10+)
- T (Teen)
- M (Mature 17+)
- AO (Adults only 18+)
- RP (Rating Pending)
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!
- Animated Blood
- Blood and Gore
- Cartoon Violence
- Fantasy Violence
- Intense Violence
- Violent References
- Comic Mischief
- Crude Humor
- Mature Humor
- Lyrics/Strong Lyrics
- Partial Nudity
- Real vs Simulated
- Sexual Content
- Sexual Themes
- Sexual Violence
- Strong Sexual Content
- Suggestive Themes
These are points 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 purchases
- User information being available to other users
What if the ESRB Makes a Mistake?
Mistakes can absolutely happen in any system. This is especially true for any system that involves people. Fortunately, the ESRB has systems in place to make corrections in the event that a game hits retail with incorrect rating information.
They also have processes in place to demand that a game be pulled from shelves in the event that the rating error was a result of a developer providing incomplete or misleading information
What if I disagree with the ESRB’s Rating of a Game?
The ESRB rating system doesn’t leave much room for interpretation on the part of the reviewers. They have a strict rubric for their ratings. It isn’t unreasonable to disagree with them though. I’ve gone on record as disagreeing with the ESRB’s rating of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I feel pretty strongly that it should have been rated M instead of T based on the consistent adult language and a scene with strongly implied sexual violence.
They have a contact form on their website where you could ask questions about a rating. This would be a good opportunity to provide feedback if you have it.
The ESRB president, Patricia Vance, was on the What’s Good Games podcast and said pretty clearly that they intend for their ratings to be guidelines. They know that there will be differing opinions from house to house and even by region.
ESRB Rating Categories in Detail
ESRB E Rating Explained
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) 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 even if the content itself is appropriate for them.
There used to be a rating category labeled EC for Early childhood, but it was retired in 2018. There just weren’t enough games in the category to justify it. Instead, these games are rolled up into the E rating.
ESRB E 10+ Rating Explained
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 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 game’s box or on ESRB.com. 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?)
ESRB T Rating Explained
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 remember being a father with young sons and there was a wide selection of games that are rated T for Teen that I played with them. Some specific examples are Street Fighter 5 Ratchet and Clank, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. 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.
ESRB M Rating Explained
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. It isn’t illegal though. The state of CA had passed a law making it illegal at one point, but this law was been deemed unconstitutional by SCOTUS. It is possible that CA or other states may attempt to pass similar laws in the future, but this ruling makes it less likely.
Perspective on M Games
I am regularly asked at what age-rated M games are appropriate for kids, and I always answer the same way:
“You know your kids better than I do. 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, however, 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.
Example to Consider
My favorite example of this is the level “No Russian” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (This was an Xbox 360 game… so I’m definitely dating myself here.) 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 at the moment, and 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.
ESRB AO Rating Explained
I’m only mentioning this rating because I don’t want to leave anything out. These are games that contain content that has been deemed inappropriate for anyone under the age of 18. They may include “prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual activity, and/or gambling with real currency.”
There is good news about these games though. Games that are given an AO rating are not sold in any retail stores, nor are they sold on any of the major digital games marketplaces like Steam, iOS, or the Epic Game Store. You won’t be seeing them on your kids’ shopping lists.
It is not unheard of for some games to be given an AO rating initially, only to have the game adjusted by developers to bring it down to an M. This is a similar process to the one that movies go through when they perform additional edits or reshoots to get a PG-13 rating.
RP and RP Likely Mature 17+
Video games are often announced alongside a wave of marketing material years before they are officially released. The ESRB rating process happens very late in a game’s development. Publishers will denote games that are in this gap period with a placeholder rating. These ratings are placed on all prerelease marketing materials and will be replaced on any packaging materials once the official rating has been released.
There are two placeholder ratings that get used currently – RP and RP Likely Mature 17+.
- RP: This placeholder rating is applied to any game that is pending a rating from the ESRB.
- RP Likely Mature 17+: This placeholder rating is used for games that are more than likely going to end up rated M. There are some games that are intended to be rated M from the start of development (Like Mortal Kombat or Call of Duty). They get this placeholder to help avoid consumer confusion as the release gets closer.
In conclusion, the ESRB rating system is an important tool for parents to use when assessing the suitability of video games for their children. By understanding the ratings and the factors that go into them, parents can make informed decisions about the games their children play and ensure that they are age-appropriate. Additionally, it is important for parents to monitor their children’s gaming habits and have open and honest conversations with them about the content of the games they are playing. By following these tips, parents can help ensure that their children have a safe and enjoyable gaming experience.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments and let us know your thoughts!
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