Guide to the ESRB Ratings System
For those unfamiliar with video gaming, the ESRB ratings system can be a great way to determine exactly what kind of game you're buying. Check out our guide for detailed descriptions of each rating and examples of games that fit into each rating category.
Concern about violent and objectionable content in games has been around since Pac Man gobbled up his first power pellet. Parents, apparently concerned that too much exposure to Super Mario Brothers might cause their little angels to go on a turtle-killing rampage, have often decried the violence in games as an unhealthy influence on their children.
Mortal Kombat was the first game to truly fall under heavy scrutiny, and for good reason. The extremely-violent fighting game saw characters impaling one another on spikes, being decapitated, and having their spines violently ripped from their bodies. Naturally, some parents took issue with their parents engaging in these types of behavior.
Out of this debate grew the ESRB ratings system. This system, similar to the one employed by the MPAA for rating movies, gives parents (or other concerned parties) an easy way to get a sense of the type of game their children are playing.
The system currently consists of six different ratings, and a series of “content descriptors" that indicate exactly what factors in the game have lead to a specific rating. The rating alone usually appears on the front of a game, while full content descriptors appear alongside the rating on the rear of the case.
EC or Early Childhood
Games given the EC rating are suitable for players 3 years of age and older. Usually, titles that fall under this rating have some kind of educational focus and utilize simple controls and mechanics that make them suitable for younger players.
Some examples of games rated EC include: Sesame Street Elmo’s Preschool Deluxe, Franklin the Turtle, and Dora the Explorer Animal Adventures.
Typically, you won’t find too many games with the EC rating in games stores.
E for Everyone
Titles that are rated E for everyone tend to contain content that is judged suitable for players over six years of age. These games sometimes include some mild violence of the cartoon or fantasy variety and a bare minimum of language.
Games rated E are generally not allowed to show any kind of blood or contain any foul language. Drinking and drug use are also strictly prohibited.
Sports games like Madden NFL 10 generally receive the E rating along with family friendly fare including the Legend of Zelda and Pokemon series.
E10 or Everyone 10+
The E10 rating is the newest addition to the ESRB system, and is reserved for games that contain some objectionable content, but not enough to warrant a rating of T. These games include slightly more pervasive cartoon or fantasy violence, some mild language, and minimal suggestive themes.
Games that have received the E10 rating include: Burnout Paradise, Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, and Need for Speed: Carbon.
T for Teen
Games given the T rating are generally judged suitable for players age 13 and up. Similar to the MPAA rating of PG-13, the T rating is given to games that contain some minimal blood, suggestive themes, some simulated gambling, or infrequent use of strong language.
The game that perfectly sums up the T rating for me has always been Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. You’ve got a group of guys that occasionally let slip a bad word, engage in mischievous behavior, and occasionally fall down and hurt themselves. Nothing major, no sex or hard drug use, just the elements that most of us associate with our adolescence.
Games that fall into the T for Teen category include World of Warcraft, Super Smash Brothers Melee, and the Tomb Raider series.
M for Mature
The M rating is for games that have been judged only suitable for players age 17 and over. Much like the MPAA’s R rating, these games can contain hardcore graphic violence, nudity, foul language, and drug use. The ESRB is very serious about properly rating games of this nature, and parents should be very careful about letting their underage children play these games.
M rated games contain all the elements of an R rated movie. Games like God of War have full-on animated nudity and explicit sexual elements. The Grand Theft Auto series contains very graphic violence and drug use, as well as a plethora of illegal activities.
Other games that have received an M rating include: the Resident Evil series, the Halo Series, and Prototype.
AO or Adults Only
The AO rating is reserved for those games with extremely explicit sexual elements or incredibly graphic violence. These games are only recommended for players over the age of 18.
AO rated games are extremely rare because most of the major retailers refuse to sell them. Game designers won’t release a game with the rating because doing so practically guarantees that nobody will be able to buy it.
A few notable games that have received the AO rating (there are only 23 in the history of the ESRB) include: Playboy: The Mansion Private Party, Thrill Kill, and Singles: Flirt up your Life.
More information on ratings, as well as a full list of content descriptors, can be found on the Official ESRB Website.
Screenshots from Madden NFL '10, Burnout Paradise, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Singles: Flirt Up Your Life.
Ratings images and information from ESRB.org.