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Video games have come a long way since the early days of Pong and Kong—and not just from a technical standpoint. These days the video game industry is as inclusive as the movie industry when it comes to the stories and themes, offering titles for kids, adults, and everyone in between.
Just as you wouldn't want your child to experience an inappropriate movie, you also don't want them to pick up a video game aimed at adults. Thankfully, the video game industry is equipped with a system of ratings similar to the MPAA's ratings for movies. In the United States, the organization we turn to for these ratings is called the ESRB.
The ESRB rating can be found on the box of every mass-market game on shelves. Here's what you need to know.
Since their creation, the ESRB's ratings have changed on occasion, but have more or less remained constant for several years now. The current rating categories are EC, E, E10+, T, M, and AO. Across the industry, both EC and AO are relatively uncommon compared to the other three categories.
· EC (Early childhood): This rating indicates that a game is free of objectionable content, but is aimed at young children. Although games with this rating are appropriate for everyone, they'll probably only appeal to the youngest kids in your household.
· E (Everyone): Video games with this rating are generally suitable for everyone. That said, according to the FTC and the ESRB, E-rated games may contain “minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or the infrequent use of mild language.” Basically, we're talking about the type of violence you might find in a Looney Tunes cartoon—nothing too intense.
· E10+ (Everyone 10+): The slightly-older sibling of the E rating, E10+ designates games that are appropriate for kids 10 years or older. These games might feature more violence, harsher language, and general crudeness than games with the basic E rating, but lack the type of suggestive content that would warrant a more restrictive rating.
· T (Teen): Think of this rating as the PG-13 of video games. For instance, violence might be more prominent (and grounded in reality), harsh language might be employed, and the game could feature some sexual themes. Video games with this rating are recommended for people 13 years and up.
· M (Mature): In sticking with the MPAA comparisons, an M rating is roughly the equivalent of a rated-R movie. Violence and blood are par for the course, harsh language is more or less a free-for-all, and heavy sexual themes/nudity could be in the mix, too. Several of the most popular video game franchises today carry an M rating.
· AO (Adults only): This is an M rating cranked up to eleven. These are video games suitable only for people 18 years or older. We're talking about intense violence/gore, incredibly mature themes, and graphic nudity. When it comes to an AO rating, everything is on the table. In most cases, this rating is only given to games that qualify as pornographic, and you won't see them on the shelves of most retail stores. In fact, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will not give AO-rated games an official release.
Along with the ratings themselves, each game also carries a summary of any/all suggestive content. These summaries can include descriptors such as "blood and gore," "partial nudity," "language," etc.
While most video games display this information on the back of the box, you might have to do some more research to get to the bottom of the game in question.
To this end, the ESRB offers a mobile app for Android and iOS that allows you to search for a particular title and read about its content. In addition, there's also information about the game's level of interactivity, like whether or not your child will be sharing their location or interacting with other players online.
This search can also be conducted right on the ESRB's website.
Perhaps you've noticed video game adverts carrying an ESRB rating of "RP." Although the RP label features a similar visual design to each of the other ratings, it actually stands for "rating pending."
In other words, these are games that have not yet been rated by the ESRB but are being advertised ahead of their release. As the release date nears, the game's RP label will change to one of the aforementioned ratings before it hits shelves.
· ESRB ratings do not account for online, multiplayer experiences. Most online games support either voice- or text-based player-to-player communication, and unsurprisingly, the general public isn't really big into self-censorship. If you're worried about your child being exposed to crass, often hateful language, you might want to limit their play to single-player games and/or games that only support local multiplayer experiences.
· If you're still unsure about a game's level of appropriateness, head to YouTube. YouTube is a fantastic resource for viewing trailers and footage from both old and new games. Seeing the game in action is a great way to gauge the maturity level of its content.
· When all else fails, play the game yourself! The only sure-fire way to examine a game's content is to do so first hand. The rating system is a great jumping-off point, but perhaps you feel that an T- or M-rated game is appropriate for your child even though they don't quite meet the age recommendation. Just as you might attend an R-rated movie with your kids, you might find supervision to be a generous compromise in lieu of outright restriction.