As my kids get older, they get more into our Wii, DS and playing video games. I’m a pretty laid back Mom – but I’m finding that with video games I actually do rely on the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) ratings more than I thought I would.
Like me, I bet you recognize this graphic I’ve placed up top here – these small black and white boxes cover of most games on the market these days. But do you know much about the organization that does the rating, or what exactly these ratings mean? And how they determine what game gets what ratings?
If you’re a Mom who has a child who plays video games, I think it’s important to educate yourself on the definitions of each of these ratings mean and how the ESRB makes their decisions.
Mommies with Style had a chance to have a Q& W with Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB. Check it out – she has some great tips on things to keep in mind when buying games for your kids this holiday seasons. Be sure to scroll down towards the last few questions and not miss out on some great tips like the ESRB mobile app for your phone (for quick checks on a rating when you’re in-store!) and general guidelines on game selection for kids.
Q&A with Patricia Vance, President, Entertainment Software Rating Board
Mommies with Style: Tell me a little bit about how you guys work. What criteria do you use when rating a game?
Each ESRB rating is based on the consensus of at least three specially trained raters who view content based on numerous criteria. Raters must be adults, and typically have experience with children through prior work experience, education or by being parents or caregivers themselves. To eliminate the risk of outside or industry influence, the identities of ESRB raters are kept confidential, and they are not permitted to have any ties to or connections with any individuals or entities in the computer/video game industry.
The raters review a DVD that depicts typical game play, cut-scenes, along with the most extreme instances of pertinent content in a game, including instances of violence, sexual or suggestive material, strong language, use or depiction of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco – basically the types of things parents would likely want to know when deciding whether a game is one they deem suitable for their child. And due to the interactive nature of games, we also train raters to evaluate elements that are unique to video games, such as a game’s reward system (whether players are rewarded or penalized for an action), degree of player control (whether the player is just watching other characters or is actually participating in the action on the screen, and if so, how much control they have), as well the frequency of depictions and their intensity. Finally, but by no means least important, the raters consider the game’s overall context, including storyline, mission and objectives, and use their best judgment in recommending ratings and content descriptors that they deem to be appropriate and most helpful to consumers.
There’s a detailed description of the rating process on our website (http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_process.jsp) and one of our FAQs addresses ratings criteria (http://www.esrb.org/ratings/faq.jsp#15).
Mommies with Style: How does your rating system differ from a movie rating?
The ESRB and MPAA ratings are similar inasmuch as they both communicate information and guidance that parents can use to make decisions about the media their children consume. However, games are different than most other media, like songs, films or books. Those are linear, meaning they’re consumed in their entirety from beginning to end. Games on the other hand are interactive, and depend on a player’s input to determine how they unfold. The experience that one player has can differ pretty significantly from that of another depending on the choices made during the course of playing. This is one of the major reasons why we have raters review a DVD of gameplay as opposed to having them actually play a game in order to rate it. It is essential that raters see all of a game’s most pertinent content, and having them play through a game on a search for it provides no assurance that they’ll find it and be able to consider it in their rating assignment.
And as I mentioned, the interactive nature of games means there is the ability to control certain aspects of a game’s content, and so our ratings take into account unique interactive elements such as the degree of player control. Does the player have the ability to control the action on the screen, or are they just viewers of a cinematic cut-scene which transitions from one mission to the next? Being able to participate in an action sequence may be rated more restrictively than passively viewing it, and this type of distinction would obviously be unnecessary for media that are only consumed passively.
Frequency is another aspect that tends to be a bit more complicated with an interactive medium like games. With video games it’s impossible to definitively say that X instances of Y content will result in Z rating. In a movie you can typically count exactly how many instances there are of a particular type of content. With games the frequency of a given piece of content – or whether it is encountered at all – can be contingent on how a player plays the game, and so frequency is a bit harder to nail down. And finally, playing video games online opens up whole new realms of content that a player may experience, some of which is publisher-generated (rated) and some of which isn’t (unrated). So there are many ways that ESRB has developed a unique and flexible rating system that takes into account the reality of how games differ from other forms of media.
Mommies with Style: So I definitely use your rating system when selecting games for my children. I think I’m pretty progressive in what I expose my children to (ages 6 & 4) but I have found that anything with a “T” rating or above is something I don’t want them exposed to. But they love the Lego games for the Wii – Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman, etc. Why do these games have a E 10+ rating?
The E10+ rating means a game is appropriate for ages 10 and up, compared to the Teen rating which suggests a game is suitable for ages 13 and up. We added the E10+ in 2005 to help parents better distinguish between the E (Everyone) rating category (for ages 6 and up) and Teen. These games are generally suitable for younger players but do have a bit more content about which a parent might want to know – which is a good excuse to take advantage of the rating summaries on ESRB.org. The rating summary for Lego Batman, to use your example, explains that “players can use both hero and villain characters, and villains sometimes oppose Gotham City policemen. Characters shoot and punch each other, bursting apart into smaller Lego pieces when defeated.” This type of content is likely what contributed to the assignment of an E10+ rating as opposed to an E rating, and is also part of why that game carries a Cartoon Violence content descriptor.
Ultimately, the ESRB’s goal – via the ratings and rating summaries – is to help a parent make an informed decision about which games are appropriate for their family. We hear from parents across the country that while the ratings do provide a good bit of guidance, rating summaries really complete the picture when it comes to having all the information they need to make those tough decisions about whether a game is OK for their child to play.
We have a free ESRB mobile app for iPhone (and soon to be on Android phones) which lets parents access rating summaries right in the store, often when they need this information most. Our ratings summaries are also available on our website at esrb.org and our mobile website at m.esrb.org.
Mommies with Style: Do you have a resource or know of an online resource where Moms can go for a quick check on the rating of a game?
We have several easy-to-use resources to look up a rating and rating summary. Our ESRB mobile app is available for free in Apple’s App store. Just type in the name of the game to pull up the rating and summary – perfect when you’re standing right there in the store. In the coming weeks, we’ll be adding a photo recognition feature to the app that makes the search even easier. Just take a photo of the game box and within seconds you’ll have the detailed rating information. We’ll be launching the ESRB mobile app with photo recognition in the Android market in the coming weeks as well.
You can also search for ratings on our website or through our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OKtoPlay). We also provide updates via Facebook and Twitter (@OKtoPlay) about recent game ratings so you can stay on top of upcoming releases.
Mommies with Style: Overall, what kind of tips or guidelines would you give to Moms who are shopping for video games this holiday season?
When buying a game for a child, no matter their age, here are three key points to keep in mind:
1. Find out what types of games they already enjoy and focus on that genre – such as sports or adventure games. Store associates can often be very helpful in suggesting games, since they’re often gamers themselves.
2. Use tools like the ESRB ratings and rating summaries to gain in-depth insight into a game’s content. These will help you determine if the game you’re selecting is appropriate for your child. Just as with movies and TV shows, not every game is right for every child.
3. Finally, keep in mind that ESRB rating symbols denote age-appropriateness in terms of content, but not skill. So, do your research beyond the ratings. Rating summaries can lend clues about a game’s intensity or complexity, but game enthusiast sites, publisher sites and other media outlets can provide screenshots, demos, trailers, and reviews that can also be very helpful.
For more info, check out ESRB.org.