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The Entertainment Software Rating Board explained.
BY THOMAS L. McDONALD
and computer games are an almost inescapable element of life for any modern
child. Even parents who don’t have game machines and carefully control their
children’s media exposure will, at some point, have to make some choices about
Do you let your children play them?
What kind? How much? How can you know what’s good and bad?
First, we’ll explore the information
available to parents, and then we’ll look at how to use it to make the right
decisions for your family. Games are, in fact, one of the most transparent
media. Between the self-imposed rating system, game “descriptors” and various
parent- and values-oriented media sites, there is certainly no shortage of
The Entertainment Software Rating
Board (ESRB) was created in 1994 in response to concerns and criticisms about
violent game content. As with the motion picture ratings system, it is a
completely voluntary system in which publishers pay to submit their games for a
The rating board does not usually
play the games, relying instead upon responses to a detailed questionnaire and
video of all possible areas of concern.
This process works most of the time,
and major publishers do not attempt to deceive the rating board by hiding
content. It’s a flawed system, but it usually works.
There are six ratings:
EC (Early Childhood, age 3 and up)
E (Everyone; no content worries)
E10 (Age 10 and up; may contain cartoon or fantasy violence and some crude
T (Teen, age 13 and up; may contain violence, crude language, minimal blood,
some sexual themes)
M (Mature, 17 and up; intense violence, strong language, sexual content)
AO (Adults Only, 18 and up; prolonged violence, strong sexual content)
Basically, E is rated “G,” E10 is
“PG,” T is “PG-13” and sometimes “R,” M is always “R” and sometimes worse, and
AO is “NC-17/X.”
Retailers will not carry unrated
games, and most will not carry games with the AO rating. Sony, Microsoft and
Nintendo have all barred AO games from appearing on their systems.
The ratings themselves are helpful
at a glance, but the 30 descriptors are what make the ESRB system truly useful.
Some may find them confusing at first, but a quick trip to ESRB.org will
clarify the nuances and meanings among the various categories.
Every element that might be of
concern is addressed: humor, lyrics, language, controlled substances (alcohol, tobacco and drugs), gambling, sex, nudity and
element has various degrees of severity. Sexuality, for
example, ranges from “suggestive themes” (innuendo and hints of sexuality) to
“strong sexual content” (explicit and frequent sexual behavior).
instance, ERSB descriptors rate three kinds of blood: “animated blood” describes
“discolored and/or unrealistic depictions,” “blood” is a realistic depiction,
and “blood and gore” is realistic blood with “mutilation of body parts.”
only place where the ESRB ratings have failed is in the distinction between M
and AO-rated games. The AO rating is rarely imposed, and almost always reserved
for titles that want the rating in order to appeal to an adult audience. Only
23 AO ratings have been issued to date, almost all of them for pornographic
games where the game makers wear the AO rating as a badge of honor.
“Grand Theft Auto IV” escaped an AO rating despite its extreme depiction of sex
(including lap dances and prostitution) is one of the great failures of the
ESRB, and it means that parents can no longer trust the distinction between M
and AO ratings without further research.
a game is rated M, particularly for “strong sexual content” and/or “intense
violence,” you must assume it is out of bounds for anyone under the age of 18.
AO rating is almost always reserved for sexual content. It has only been given
twice for “wanton and gratuitous violence.”
AO-rated games from the Xbox and PlayStation may seem like good corporate
citizenship, but it’s a mistake. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, parents
would actually be better served if the major console makers allowed AO-rated
games on their systems.
parents can block such games from being played on their machines, it wouldn’t
effect what comes into the home. It would, however, make the AO rating into a
valid category and allow less extreme content to slip into M-rated games.
the retailer ban on AO games would force larger companies to moderate their
content for big-budget releases. If the AO rating was viable and actually
allowed on game systems, publishers would be forced to tone down their games to
earn an M in order to get into as many stores as possible.
the most dangerous aspects of “Grand Theft Auto IV” or “Manhunt II” would be
available to a hard-core adult audience — but kept out of most American homes.
I know 10-year-olds who are playing this game because parents aren’t taking the
M rating seriously enough. A valid AO rating might change what these children
Thomas L. McDonald is
editor-at-large of Games magazine
and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton,