In-Game Glossary: What Is The ESRB Anyway?

Neon orange "Play" sign

It’s a truism in the game industry that a well-designed game should be playable immediately, with no instruction whatsoever.

― Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

When I was in high school, my friends and I visited video game specialty shops like GameStop and EB Games during the weekend. The video games were categorized by video game consoles, like Playstation and Xbox. Shelves packed with the latest and greatest in gaming. Balloons of anime and video game characters decorated the bland ceiling. Dim lighting hid dirt spots on the once light-gray carpet. I picked up a game I completed playing and surveyed its front cover, a rated M for mature ESRB label affixed squarely on the bottom right corner.

I was eighteen at the time and the oldest in my friend group. The rest of my friends were shy a few months to legal adulthood. My guy friend placed the game on the cashier counter. The cashier looked up and glared at my guy friend. My friend was 5’6, roughly 150 pounds and looked like he could’ve been in college, but the cashier didn’t buy it.

“Do you have an ID?” the cashier asked.

Of course not.

My friend nervously laughed. He pretended to dig through his jean pockets to grab his “ID.” We walked away and vowed to try to rebuy the game if the cashier was “cool enough” to sell it to us.

I’ve been playing rated M for mature games since I was a kid. In my experience, some rated T for teen games needed an M rating instead. What does the ESRB ratings stand for anyway? What is ESRB for and for who? 

Entertainment Software Rating Board is a non-profit, self-regulatory board, rating video games and apps to help consumers differentiate age-appropriate content to, well, not age-appropriate content. The rating guide was specially made for parents, to help them discern age-appropriate video game and app content for their kids.

You’ve probably seen the ESRB rating before, a black box with an off-kilter capital letter in the middle. The ESRB categories and descriptions are as follows:

EC – Early Childhood 
Content for children ages three and up. Not a single drop of inappropriate content here.

E – Everyone
As the ESRB ratings say, the video game or app content is for everyone. There may be minimal cartoon and fantasy violence. In this case, think every Super Mario game you’ve ever played.

E10+ – Everyone 10 and older
Content for ages ten and up. There may be mild cartoon and fantasy elements. There may also be mild use of violence.

T – Teen 
Content for ages 13 and up. This rating is for video games with the following “violence, suggestive themes, crude humour, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language,” according to IGN. So, think the Final Fantasy series.

M – Mature 
Content for ages 17 and up. This rating includes all of the above but more intense plus sexual content. For this rating, think Red Dead Redemption and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

AO – Adult Only 
Content for ages 17 and up. This rating includes all of the above, but the content tends to lean more towards suggestive adult themes. I have never seen a game with this rating before. Apparently, it’s similar to receiving a scarlet letter.

RP – Rating Pending 
No official ESRB rating assigned to the video game or app yet.

ESRB ratings come in three phases: categories (as I’ve detailed above), content descriptors (also mentioned above) and the type of interactive elements.

Did you know about the different ESRB ratings and categories? Let me know in the comment section below.

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