Video Game Ratings

Time again for a bit about that other topic I write—Middle Grade Fiction. One of the things middle graders like to do is play video games. With the holidays fast approaching, and as parents race out to buy all those video games on their kids’ wish list, it might be a good time to reflect on just what’s in those video games and whether or not it is appropriate for the age of the person playing it.

mortal kombat 90s video game

You may remember Mortal Kombat and Doom from the early 90’s. Both were greatly criticized for their high level of violence and the ease with which minors could get their hands on these games. In response, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, was created in 1994 and founded an American video game rating system similar to that already established for motion pictures.

Why wasn’t there already a rating system for video games from the start? To understand that, you need to understand how far video games have come. The first video games weren’t very sophisticated and lacked the ability to realistically portray anything graphically. But with the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit in the late 80’s, it was now possible to more realistically portray gore, particularly blood, so that blood looked like a fluid instead of being pixelated. Before long, video game developers took advantage of the advance in technology to create games like Doom, Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers. As a result, the United States Government felt compelled to lead hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society. Thus, the video game rating system was born.

doom 90s video game

What impact do ratings have on the video game industry? Well, for one, many stores will not even consider selling a video game unless it has been rated; this also goes for all the major console manufacturers. Ao-Rated video games are also mostly banned. I say “mostly banned” because a game manufacturer is free to develop and release an Ao-Rated game, however, no console will sell you an Ao-Rated video game. Most major retailers such as Walmart, Gamestop, and others also refuse to sell Ao video games. Perhaps the strangest thing I found concerning Ao-Rated games was the fact that gambling with real money portrayed in a video game will get you an Ao rating. Huh? Extreme sex and violence, I can understand, but gambling? Regardless, the impact of this on the video game industry is obvious—Ao-Rated video games do very poorly.

M-Rated video games, on the other hand, do extremely well. Keep this in mind as you look at the definitions of the ratings below and realize that this rating system is completely voluntary. There is no penalty for a video game store to sell a child an M-Rated video game.

One point that needs to be made is that many parents do not even realize a rating system exists for video games. In a PBS Essay on the Impact of Gaming, MIT Professor Henry Jenkins states “A sizable number of parents ignore game ratings because they assume that games are for kids. One quarter of children ages 11 to 16 identify an M-Rated game as among their favorites.” But are games only for kids? Again turning to Professor Jenkins, he says “Already 62 percent of the console market and 66 percent of the PC market is age 18 or older.”

ESRB video game ratings

And since violence seems to be a huge concern in the realm of video games, I must ask, what impact does video game violence have on children? In response, because you know I adore fairy tales, I just love this quote from Federal Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner I saw in that essay by Prof. Jenkins: “Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. . . . To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.”

Feel free to read Prof. Jenkins entire essay on the Impact of Gaming here.

So just what are the ESRB ratings? They are currently broken down into 3 parts—Rating Categories, Content Descriptors, and Interactive Elements.

Rating Categories. This is the biggie. It is meant to give an idea of age appropriateness of each particular game. Categories are marked with the following letters and labels: eC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E10+ for Everyone 10+ (a.k.a. Suitable for ages 10 and older), T for Teen (a.k.a. Ages 13 and older), M for Mature (a.k.a. Ages 17 and older), Ao for Adults Only (a.k.a. Ages 18 and older), and RP for Rating Pending (not yet assigned).

What’s the difference between all these categories? Glad you asked. According to the ESRB website: eC is intended for young children; E may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language; E10+ may contain larger amounts of cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or minimal suggestive themes; T may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language; M may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language; Ao may include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency; lastly, RP appears only in advertising, marketing, and promotional materials on games that have not yet been rated. RP is replaced with a game’s rating once assigned.

ESRB 3 part video game rating system

Content Descriptors. All those ratings categories above? You know where in the descriptions many of them say “may contain” something or other? The Content Descriptors tell you exactly what is contained in that particular game. If you want the definition of each, you can go to ESRB’s website here. The complete list is as follows: Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Blood, Blood and Gore, Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief, Crude Humor, Drug Reference, Fantasy Violence, Intense Violence, Language, Lyrics, Mature Humor, Nudity, Partial Nudity, Real Gambling, Sexual Content, Sexual Themes, Sexual Violence, Simulated Gambling, Strong Language, Strong Lyrics, Strong Sexual Content, Suggestive Themes, Tobacco Reference, Use of Alcohol, Use of Drugs, Use of Tobacco, Violence, Violent References.

Interactive Elements. As suggested, this third part of the ESRB rating system alerts gamers to what other elements may be interacted with for this particular game. They are: Shares Info, which means that a gamer’s personal information (i.e. email, phone number, credit card) is shared with a third party; Shares Location, which means the game can show the gamer’s location to other gamers; Users Interact, which means the gamer may be exposed to uncensored content from other gamers via user-to-user communications and other social media networks; Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB, which means the gamer may be exposed to chat or other gamer-generated content that is not rated by the ESRB; and Music Downloads Not Rated by the ESRB, which is pretty much what it sounds like—music downloaded for a game is not rated for content by the ESRB.

There. Now you know everything you need to know when deciding what game is or is not appropriate for yourself or your child. Now go find a game you like and go play it!

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