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A Guide to Choosing Age-Appropriate Games: Tools for Informed Decisions by Parents
Ratings are designed to give a snapshot of age appropriateness and what to expect so parents can make informed decisions.
November 30, 2023
6 Min Read
When you look at the box for a video game—or more commonly these days, a page on a digital storefront for purchasing games, like Nintendo’s eShop—there are a few common elements. You’re likely to find the name of the game, art depicting the game’s tone and setting, some text instructing what platform the game is meant to be played on, and a big, black and white letter.
That big, black and white letter is extremely important, especially for parents, family, and caregivers, because it’s an ESRB Rating Category that helps suggest who the game is for:
E (Everyone 10+)
M (Mature 17+)
AO (Adults Only 18+)
Importantly, the ratings are not assigned by the people making the games, but by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), a non-profit, self-regulatory body for the video game industry, founded in 1994.
At one end, E (Everyone), is a game with content that should be appropriate, regardless of age. At the other end, AO (Adults Only 18+), is content that should be treated with extreme caution. And sandwiched in the middle—E 10+ (Everyone 10+), T (Teen), M (Mature 17+)—are ratings that point towards games with content that’s more appropriate for children as they get older.
Many games depict different forms of violence, some cartoonish and some realistic. The ESRB ratings take this into account, with E (Everyone), for example, containing “minimal cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence.” E10+ (Everyone 10+) games, however, may feature “more cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence.” As an example, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a family friendly game from Nintendo about Mario and friends stomping enemies, is rated E by the ESRB. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, another game from Nintendo, has players exploring the dangerous world of Hyrule and regularly engaging in intense combat to defeat enemies, so it is rated E10+.
The basic rating is, again, just a snapshot. Even more information is available by flipping to the back of a game’s box, or browsing the online storefront of your choosing. What you’ll find is what the ESRB calls Content Descriptors, which provide specificity on what’s seen in the game and may have factored into the age rating category assignment, such as Violence, Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, and more.
Content Descriptors aren’t meant to be an exhaustive listing of what’s featured in the game, but there is nuance, such as noting if a game has Sexual Content or Strong Sexual Content. There’s a difference between a game depicting romance and depicting sex itself, and on the ESRB’s website, you can educate yourself on how the ESRB defines these categories:
Sexual Content: Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity
Strong Sexual Content: Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
Alcohol Reference: Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
Use of Alcohol: The consumption of alcoholic beverages
Fantasy Violence: Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
Violence: Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment.
What’s handy is that if this isn’t enough detail, you can go deeper. The ESRB has Rating Summaries, which are found by searching the ESRB’s website, or using an app available on Google Play or the App Store. Ratings Summaries have specific and detailed descriptions of the content features in a game, such as Activision Blizzard’s upcoming first-person-shooter sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, which features “a finishing move in which marijuana smoke from a bong can be forced into an opponent's face; badges/banners and character outfits also depict cannabis and/or smoking figures. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the game.” Rating Summaries are only assigned to video games that can be purchased physically, so not every video game rated by the ESRB has one.
But what’s depicted in a game is hardly ever the whole story these days. Games are complicated, and the decisions do not stop after leaving the store. Do you want your child to have access to buying in-game items? Do you want them to use multiplayer? The ESRB has a guide for Interactive Elements, which can include everything from In-Game Purchases, such as new skins or season passes, to Users Interact, in which a game could, for example, include unfiltered communications or content made by other players. Interactive Elements do not influence what rating the ESRB assigned, but if you have strong feelings on these features, it can help guide a decision, or prompt you to activate parental controls to manage spending or online communications.
Does this feel like a lot? That’s normal! But the first step is to identify what information can be helpful. The ESRB’s rating is always on the front and back of a video game’s box, or on the page where the game is available for purchase or download on an online storefront. Complete rating information is usually displayed near the top of the page so you don’t have to scroll. But when in doubt, that’s what the ESRB’s mobile app (Google, Apple) and website are for. If you can’t find complete rating information, both places have the answers. And rating summaries are only available through the ESRB's mobile app or website.
Every child is different, and ultimately the decision on what a child can and can’t handle is best understood by the adults in their lives, but the ratings are designed to give a snapshot of age appropriateness and what to expect so parents can make informed decisions. Between YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, social media, and the seemingly endless number of video games released every day, it’s impossible to screen everything in a child’s life. That’s why it’s important to use the tools available to ensure the most informed decisions possible.
What my seven-year-old can handle is different from what my three-year-old can handle, and it’s going to be different from what your children can handle. We’re trying to make smart decisions, and learning what a child is ready for is a process that’s learned by trial-and-error every day.
The point of the ESRB, and the point of the ESRB’s ratings, is to provide clarity and remove some of the stress in handing over a video game to a child. The goal is for the child to have a good time, and for the parent to feel at peace with the child playing the video game.
Unfortunately, none of the ESRB’s ratings can help you if your children are better than you at Mario Kart. You’ll just have to put in the hard work to make sure that doesn’t happen next time.
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