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Do Video Game ESRB Ratings Still Mean Something?

Posted April 12, 2013

Have you noticed the little letter in the corner of your video game’s case? It used to mean something right? That’s the ESRB rating, telling you whether the game is appropriate for kids and all that. How long have those been there and should we even pay attention to them?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) assigns ratings to computer and video games to classify the appropriate age group and content.  The organization started in 1994, and by July 2012, it had assigned more than 22,000 ratings to gaming titles.

It all started with the 8-bit squares of blood on the first release of Mortal Kombat for the Nintendo Entertainment System. For the first time, parents became concerned about whether video games were appropriate for their children to play.

Well it might take more than little red squares flying from your character to get slapped with an "M" for Mature rating by ESRB these days, but it was Mortal Kombat that started the tradition in the first place with those little red squares.

It seemed for a while like the most popular Western-made game franchises, like Halo, Call of Duty,  and Assasin’s Creed, were all being tacked with "M" for Mature by ESRB. So when every game a kid wants on his Xbox 360 is labeled "M", people sort of stopped paying attention to that little rating square in the corner. 

But it's time to pay attention again!

Let's talk a bit about what kind of games are out there.  For you parents out there who's kids want new games all the time, you should familiarize yourself with some terminology, titles, and gaming manufacturers.  That way you can at least try to speak their language and make an educated decision on what to buy and what to leave on the store shelf.

ESRP Rating Chart

With Nintendo, the games you play on Wii have always been pretty family-friendly. With popular titles like Disney’s "Epic Mickey" and "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword", your standard rating is "E+10" for Everyone 10 and up, with the occasional "T" for Teen. Nintendo’s target demographic for the Wii, of course, is everyone, so most of the games produced for that platform were less geared toward exploding guts and hardcore weapons.

The Microsoft Xbox demographic, however, seems to have traditionally been boys who like to blow stuff up in high resolution, including the boys who used to blow things up playing Asteroid in 8-bit and decided to make video gaming a lifelong ambition.

Sony’s Playstation 3, seems to have found a way to offer mature content but in 2 different formats, with titles like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Sly Cooper alike". Sure, both games are about ripping people off, but one is a violent gangster with a gun and the other is a wisecracking raccoon with a hooked cane.  So, you kind of get to choose how you want to rip people off and can go with the raccoon over the gangster.  Niether is probably great for kids.

Microsoft's Xbox looks to have first started shifting gears from their niche of first-person shooters with the release of "Fable", which got their systems flying off the shelves in Japan and the Eastern-market for the first time. Since that first dive into the role playing gaming (RPG) genre with Fable, Microsoft has been trying to expand their demographics by releasing more original games that don’t involve massive death and destruction.

Despite the popularity of first-person shooters with a motion sensitive controller you could actually aim at the screen (which made other game-makers ton of money), Wii games seemed a little slow on the uptake. With just a few releases like "Call of Duty 3" and "Red Steel". Perhaps Nintendo wanted to keep a more wholesome approach as long as they could, but succombed to what kids really want...who knows.  In any case, they’ve since come out with several "M" rated first-person shooter titles like "Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles" and "Red Steel 2", which utilizes Wii’s new Motion Plus.  I suppose this is Wii entering the blood and gore market with conviction.

Nowadays, all the major consoles have taken a shift for the more well-rounded titles, offering games to cover all ratings and not just "M".  With the introduction of the Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect, we’re seeing family-friendly games across the board that appeal not only to longtime gamers, but people totally new to the sport. We can call it a sport now, right? They call chess a sport, so we’ll say yes!

So what does all this mean?  Well, since all major gaming players offer a wide range of titles now from family-friendly to all-out violent, the "M" for mature means something again.  If you see "M", expect way more than little squares of red that's supposed to depict blood!  If you don't want a mature game, go for E for Everyone or something a bit more family-friendly than M!

Maybe this means you are going to get your child "Just Dance 4" for his Xbox 360 instead of the latest "Gears of War" game he wanted, but that’s okay, a little dancing never hurt anyone!

Jade is the founder and CEO of Ahh! Products. Find her on

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