Understanding the ESRB rating system

Who and What is the ESRB?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board is a non-profit, self-regulatory body–BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.  Essentially, it’s a group of people who review the content of games (and, as of 2015, apps) and determine the recommended age for playing such content.  All of the ESRB raters are adults who have some experience with children (parents, educators and caregivers).  To prevent influence from outside sources, the raters remain anonymous.

The ESRB works with retailers, big and small, to ensure that your children are not purchasing these games.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games are a constitutionally-protected form of expression, and that laws restricting their sale or rental based upon violent content would be unconstitutional.  These retailers, like GameStop, Best Buy, WalMart and hundreds up hundreds of others are voluntarily restricting the sale of M and AO rated games.

What do the ratings mean?



You will see images like this on the back of videogame boxes.  This particular one is rated E for everyone and lists two factors leading to the rating.


There are 7 possible ESRB ratings that you may see:

Early Childhood Rating


Early Childhood – This content is intended for young children.


Everyone Rating


Everyone – This content is suitable for all ages.  It may contain carton/fantasy/mild violence and even some use of mild language.


E10 Rating



Everyone 10+ – This content is suitable for ages 10 and up.  It can have minimal suggestive themes.


Teen Rating


Teen – This content is suitable for ages 13 and up.  It can contain things like violence, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and some strong language.


M Rating


Mature – This content is suitable for ages 17 and up.  It may contain strong violence, blood and gore, sexual content and strong language.


AO Rating


Adults only – This content is not suitable for children under 18.  It can contain prolonged intense violence, graphic sexual content and real gambling (with real currency).


Rating Pending


Rating Pending – This is exactly what it sounds like, the rating has not been assigned yet.  It will be replaced with the appropriate rating once assigned.


There are many additional descriptors that can be used with these ratings.  Many are self-explanatory:  Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Nudity, Real Gambling.  There is no real question what these mean.  Others can be more ambiguous:  Mild/Moderate/Strong Language.  The word mild (according to ESRB’s own website) is intended to convey low frequency, intensity or severity.  Others that can be used include Sexual Content, Strong Lyrics, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol/Drugs/Tobacco and Violent References.  This list is not all-inclusive, but just offers a few of the warning descriptors you may find while browsing through the videogame section.


How do you decide if you should buy the game?

Those additional descriptors listed on the box are there to help you in making the decision to buy or not buy a game for a child.  Sometimes games are rated Teen, but they are suitable for some younger children.  You cannot lump every 12 year old together and say “NO!  You can’t play that game!  You’re not 13!”  Some children can handle things earlier than others and some cannot make the distinction between real and fantasy.  These ratings are not the end all be all of ratings; they are a guideline and should be used as such.  It very much depends on the child, which is where you, the parent, come in and make the final decision.

Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War are rated M for a reason.  If you have a 15 year old asking for an M rated game, do your research before you rush out and buy it for them because “Victor’s mom bought it for him!”  Maybe Victor’s mom doesn’t know what it is…or maybe Victor’s grandma bought it for him because Victor told her it was totally okay for him to play it.   My mom wouldn’t have a clue if my son wanted a game that wasn’t age-appropriate; she would buy it for him because he wants it.  Me being a gamer makes it pretty rough for him to sneak anything past me when it comes to games.

Hit up YouTube for a gameplay video, not a trailer.  Remember that trailers have to be suitable for all audiences or they wouldn’t be able to air them on basic cable.  If the game isn’t out yet, you will have a harder time finding content.  If the game is out…believe me, YouTubers are playing it and posting videos.  There is a kind of video called a “Let’s Play” video that is literally just some YouTuber playing the game.  YouTube is your friend.  Google is your friend.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…I don’t have time for that, right?  This could be the difference between your kid playing a game that condones the player killing cops and not playing that.  Take 15-20 minutes to make sure that you want your kid playing the game you’re about to buy.  Beyond that, ASK.  Asking the sales clerk at the store can sometimes tell you all you need to know.  Sometimes they’re useless and don’t know anything about the game, but if you go to a place like GameStop…they’ll know.

Online Interactions

One thing to note when purchasing a game is the online functionality.  I know, we’re getting into the deer in the headlights look territory for non-gamers…but stay with me.  Online interactions are not rated by the ESRB.  What does that mean?  It means that your kid could be exposed to who knows what online.  In this generation of gaming, people use headsets to communicate online.  Some of those people are not nice people.  Don’t ban all games with online-play; that’s not the answer.  Just pay attention.  Mature rated games will have much rougher online scenes than Everyone rated games just based on the median age of the players drawn to that type of game (there are some exceptions).


The Bottom Line

The bottom line on this is simple.  Educate yourself.  Know what the ratings mean and pay attention to the descriptors.  You are the only one who can decide if your child is mature enough to handle the situations in a game.  I cannot say it enough, education is the key here.  This should go without saying, but if you feel that your child is too young to play a game, it doesn’t matter what Victor’s mom thinks.

The ESRB has a Parent Resources Center that you should check out if your child has a console that you know nothing about.  The consoles have built-in options to help you restrict what your child can and cannot do and play on the system.  It varies by console, you should definitely give it a look.

Got a kid asking for a game and you aren’t sure about it?  Drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to help you out.

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