A Parents guide to the ESRB Rating System

In the United State, since the horrific events of the 1999 Columbine school shooting, the United States has seen a significant uptick in attacks on schools by students who attend, attended, or are in some way associated with people of that school. While in general, violent crime statistics show a decline from say the 1980’s to now, with so much information available to us at any minute, it gives an illusion that things are way worse than they used to be.

Reader discretion is advised for this article, as many subjects in it will not be suitable for children.

When violent tragedies such as the Columbine school shooting occur, people tend to look for something or someone to blame. In a country that is a melting pot of cultures, it’s very easy to place blame on something that cannot defend itself. The culture of the United States is unlike many other cultures around the world even among other first world countries. Much of the forms of entertainment in the United States that are widely consumed on television, movies, music, and video games glorify violence. The inverse of that is many countries in Europe are much stricter about the amount of violence that is allowed specifically on television, and are much more liberal about other things, such as sexual situations, than the United States is.

With the culture of the United States so saturated with entertainment based in violence, there’s no wonder that there’s a larger amount of violent crime that occurs in the country, right? According to most studies, violent crime is not a direct result of violent forms of entertainment. Violent forms of entertainment do have, however, a large effect on people, especially during their childhood.

A child is much more likely to become desensitized by the consumption of violent entertainment. This can lead to developmental deficiencies that as they grow older can lead children to acts of violence.

What we see in the United States isn’t exclusive to the country, and neither is the medium of entertainment most commonly blamed for violence. Video games are most often called out for being a direct cause, or sometimes part of the cause, of violent crimes. Usually this accusation is made with little circumstantial evidence.

The people that are most in charge of the development of a child is supposed to be their parent. The “nuclear family” is a mother, father, son, and daughter. It’s the job of the parents to control forms of entertainment that is consumed by their children, but not only the form but amount as well. In today’s age of technology, nearly every household in the United States has at least one of the following:

  • Television
  • Computer
  • Video game console
  • Smart phone
  • Tablet

Most parents already have an idea on what TV shows, movies, and music they’re okay with their children consuming, but the fasted growing and most interactive medium of entertainment is video games. Many parents I have spoken to are lost when it comes to identifying video games their children should be playing, from younger kids to older teenagers. It can be daunting to determine which game to get for your children.

It can be a much less daunting task once we as parents take the time to learn about the rating system that is in place for video games. Many times after explaining it, parents I have spoken to easily realize how vastly similar it is to the rating system used for movies or television. In North America we use the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to determine what games are appropriate for which age groups.

The ESRB has 5 game ratings and one place holder. The ratings are E for Everyone, E10 for Everyone 10 and older, T for Teen, M for Mature, AO for Adults Only, and RP for Rating Pending. From there, ESRB has about 30 descriptors that tells you what the game contains in general.

The E rating is described by the ESRB with the following information, taken directly from the ESRB website:

Content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language

ESRB Game Ratings - ESRB Ratings

What they mean is that games that are rated E may contain cartoon violence, fantasy violence, mild violence, and use of some language. Cartoon and Fantasy violence is defined similarly by ESRB, stating that violence is easily distinguishable from real life using characters that are clearly cartoon or fantasy-esque. The mild language typically includes word like damn or hell. Other much stronger language is reserved for higher ratings like T or M.

The E10 rating is described as:

Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.

Everyone 10+ Rating - TV Tropes

This means that the violence may be more intense but is still easily distinguishable from real life, the language may be more frequent, and sometimes may contain some “bathroom” humor or situations.

The T rating is described as:

Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language

What we’re now looking at are games that contain more violent situations that aren’t always easily distinguished from real life situations, more frequent language, situations that may include using in-game currency to gamble, and the occasional use of much stronger language, though rarely the most offensive of words. Some games in the past have received this rating while also containing the descriptor of partial nudity. This is a very similar rating to the PG-13 or TV-MA ratings for movies and television.

We’ve reached a point where we do need to understand that some games are much more mild than others receive this T rating. The T rating is amongst the most common rating and similarly to PG-13 for movies, as a rating many developers and publisher aim to get because it’s seen as a sweet spot. This is a spot where they can put out games that can tell more complex and adult stories while reaching a more widespread audience.

The M rating is described as:

Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intensive violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language

ESRB Game Ratings - ESRB Ratings

This rating is the biggest one. This is the one that parents absolutely need to be aware of. Games with this rating contain large amounts of violence in varying degrees, many contain various forms of gore. Some games include nudity even on or off-screen sex. The stories of these games are typically too complex for children to grasp. These are the games that Christians need to be wary of and use the discernment of the Spirit to determine if they should play or not.

The AO rating is the rarest rating available, and is almost never a target rating by developers. It is described as the following on the ESRB website:

Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency

Every video game that is rated by the ESRB has a set of descriptions that indicate what content is in the game. A full list can be found on the ESRB website, but most commonly I have seen on games, alcohol, tobacco, drug use or references, violence, comic mischief, blood, blood and gore, partial nudity, language, intense violence, fantasy violence.

Some well known games in each ratings category include for the E or E10 rating:

  • Super Mario Bros
  • Donkey Kong
  • Mario Kart
  • Lego Harry Potter
  • Pokemon
  • Portal
  • Most sports games
  • Little Big Planet

Some well known T rated games:

  • Castlevania
  • World of Warcraft
  • StarCraft
  • Final Fantasy
  • Fortnite

Some well known M rated games:

  • Call of Duty
  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Assassins Creed
  • God of War
  • Fallout
  • Elder Scrolls

One thing we need to ensure as parents is that children are not exposed to forms of entertainment, they are not mentally ready for. These ratings are all pretty cut in stone, but that doesn’t mean that someone who is 16 isn’t mentally mature enough to play a more mature game. This explanation is meant to help make decisions based on information that is available. Each parent’s situation with their children is different.

If you are not in North America, then you will need to find out what the ratings board is in your country. Europe has one that spans most countries called Pan European Game Information (PEGI) but other countries have different ones. Many of them are structured similarly to the ESRB or PEGI though.

Be sure to check out our list of recommended games also.

The ESRB website is https://www.esrb.org/

The PEGI website is https://pegi.info/

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