The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, is like the Motion Picture Association of America: It sets the ratings for video games, like the MPAA sets ratings for movies.
If you're a parent or buying for a child pay attention, these ratings are important. While you may never have played a game and don't understand how or why they could be inappropriate, these ratings were designed to empower consumers to make educated decisions.
The ESRB ratings are as follows:
EARLY CHILDHOOD Titles rated EC (Early Childhood) have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.
EVERYONE Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
EVERYONE 10+ Titles rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) have content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
TEEN Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.
MATURE Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
ADULTS ONLY Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.
You can find out more about the Entertainment Software Rating Board's rating system by clicking here.
But rating video games is a little more complicated than rating movies due to their interactive nature -- it's a bit more complex than giving a violent game an "R" and a non-violent game a "G."
In addition to ratings that appear on the packaging of every game submitted to the ESRB -- and therefore games carried by the nation's leading retailers -- the board uses "Content Descriptors" that specify what gamers and parents should expect to encounter when playing a given game.
ESRB Content Descriptors
Alcohol Reference -- Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
Animated Blood -- Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
Blood -- Depictions of blood
Blood and Gore -- Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
Cartoon Violence -- Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
Comic Mischief -- Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
Crude Humor -- Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including "bathroom" humor
Drug Reference -- Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs
Edutainment -- Content of product provides user with specific skills development or reinforcement learning within an entertainment setting. Skill development is an integral part of product
Fantasy Violence -- Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
Informational -- Overall content of product contains data, facts, resource information, reference materials or instructional text
Intense Violence -- Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death
Language -- Mild to moderate use of profanity
Lyrics -- Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
Mature Humor -- Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references
Mild Violence -- Mild scenes depicting characters in unsafe and/or violent situations
Nudity -- Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity
Partial Nudity -- Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity
Real Gambling -- Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency
Sexual Themes -- Mild to moderate sexual references and/or depictions. May include partial nudity
Sexual Violence -- Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts
Simulated Gambling -- Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency
Some Adult Assistance May Be Needed -- Intended for very young ages
Strong Language -- Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity
Strong Lyrics -- Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
Strong Sexual Content -- Graphic references to and/or depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
Suggestive Themes -- Mild provocative references or materials
Tobacco Reference -- Reference to and/or images of tobacco products
Use of Drugs -- The consumption or use of illegal drugs
Use of Alcohol -- The consumption of alcoholic beverages
Use of Tobacco -- The consumption of tobacco products
Violence -- Scenes involving aggressive conflict
Online Rating Notice
Online games that include user-generated content (e.g., chat, maps, skins) carry the notice "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" to warn consumers that content created by players of the game has not been rated by the ESRB.