What is the ESRB?
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is an organization that analyzes video game content and issue age ratings and warnings according to potentially offensive material. Established in 1994, the ESRB is a self-regulatory and non-profit body. It also oversees advertising guidelines for video games and helps enforce effective and responsible privacy practices for online titles.
The ESRB operates out of Canada and the United States, and its ratings generally apply to North America. Other game rating systems used throughout the world are the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) in Japan, and the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) in Australia and New Zealand.
The ESRB uses a unique letter scale to identify a game's appropriateness for an age group.
Why is the ESRB Necessary?
Video games have evolved rapidly over the past few decades to become a versatile form of entertainment meant to appeal to all age groups. Much like movies, video games cover a wide spectrum of genres, and not everything out there is suitable for children.
As video games became more realistic-looking through the early 1990s, parents and politicians became concerned about young kids having access to controversial games like Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and Night Trap for the Sega CD. The ESRB was formed in response to analyze video games and distribute extensive information about potentially mature content.
How Do I Find the ESRB Rating for a Game?
Every game sold in a North American retail outlet contains an ESRB rating. The rating can be found on the front and the back of a game's case and/or box, on a game's instruction booklet, and on the game disc or card itself. The rating box on the back of a game case contains a descriptor of potentially offensive content in a game: for instance, “Blood” or “Mild Language.”
The ESRB's website has an extensive database of rated games and detained descriptions of mature content.
Why Doesn't the ESRB Use America's Movie Rating System?
Offhand, it seems strange that the ESRB wouldn't adopt the same letter rating system as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA's iconic “PG” and “R” are arguably more familiar than the ESRB's letter ratings.
The ESRB explains its reasons for formulating its own system: “The two-part ESRB system was developed amid consumer demand for more detailed information than that which had previously been provided through other rating systems. Over 30 different content descriptors are used to indicate elements in a game that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern, and are as helpful and important as the six age-based rating categories.”
Read the ESRB's FAQ for more information about the development of its ratings.
What Are the ESRB Ratings?
Now we get down to it. The ESRB analyzes a game and issues one of six ratings:
Early Childhood (EC) - Games rated “EC” are appropriate for children three years of age and up. They contain no content that a parent would find offensive.
Examples of EC-rated games on the Nintendo DS: My Virtual Tutor: Reading Pre-K to Kindergarten, Wonder Pets! Save the Animals!
Everyone (E) - Games rated “E” contain content that is appropriate for players age six and up. E-rated games may contain cartoon violence (similar to what you'd find in a Bugs Bunny cartoon) and very occasional use of a mild swear word like “damn.”
Examples of E-rated games on the Nintendo DS: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Spongebob's Boating Bash.
Everyone 10+ (E10+) - Games rated “E10+” (pronounced “Everyone Ten and Up”) are appropriate for players aged ten and up. E10+ games contain more frequent and sometimes more intense examples of cartoon violence and mild fantasy violence present in E-rated games. Mild language (“Hell,” “Damn”) may also be present in dialogue.
Examples of E10+-rated games on the Nintendo DS: Battle of Giants: Dragons, Scribblenauts.
Teen (T) - T-rated games are suitable for players age 13 and older. There may be violence with minimal depictions of blood, crude humor, suggestive sexual themes, simulated gambling, and occasional use of strong language (“Piss,” “Bastard”).
Examples of T-rated games on the Nintendo DS: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Mobilized.
Mature (M) - M-rated games are suitable for players age 17 and up. M-rated games may contain blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, and marked use of strong language up to and including the F word.
Examples of M-rated games on the Nintendo DS: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Ultimate Mortal Kombat.
Adults Only (AO) - AO-rated games are suitable for players age 18 and up. They may include scenes of extreme violence, sexuality and nudity. AO-rated games are rarely found on game consoles, and are not normally carried by major retail stores.
Examples of AO-rated games on the Nintendo DS: N/A.
Occasionally, a game in development will bear an ”RP” rating when it's pitched in early advertisements. RP stands for ”Rating Pending” and simply means the game is waiting for a final designation by the ESRB.
Older games may also be marked with a K-A rating, which indicates that a game is appropriate for a Kids to Adults age group. The ESRB retired the K-A rating in 1998.