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Media Ratings: Video Games - Part I

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has created a content ratings system indicating video games' age-appropriateness. Game producers and publishers created this system voluntarily, and game publishers have to sign a contract to adhere to labeling and to adhering to the system. However, the actual people who rate the content of the games do not actually play the entire game; instead, they watch video clips of certain passages of the game play. The ESRB rating system also uses a two-part labeling system. It identifies an age-appropriateness label and a content descriptor.

Appropriate audience labels use abbreviations to indicate the youngest audience for which the program is appropriate. Games labeled "EC" are games meant for children in the early childhood developmental stage, and they are appropriate for all children ages three and older. Games rated "E" are appropriate for all children ages six years and older, according to the ESRB. The "E10+" rating is set for games appropriate for youths aged ten years and older. Games labeled "T" are meant for teens ages thirteen and older.

Games rated "M" are "mature," and these games are deemed appropriate for youth aged seventeen and older. The most severe label is "AO." These games are for "adults only," and these games have very graphic content and are meant for people aged eighteen years and older. As can be seen, there isn't much included in these labels alone to inform parents on what content is included in games. There are nearly thirty descriptors that explain the questionable content in the games. Because there are so many terms and because labels are so small, normally only the most severe or significant content concerns are included in the label.

The term "Animated Blood" explains that blood is shown, but it doesn't look real or life-like. Conversely, the term "Blood" shows that there are images of realistic blood. "Blood and Gore" indicates that there are not only images of blood, but also of mutilated body parts.

Violent images also have several different labels. The label "Cartoon Violence" describes cartoon-like characters or situations using violence that should cause injury to a character but the character remains unharmed. "Fantasy Violence" labeling indicates a game includes scenes of violence between non-human and/or human characters that is obviously imaginary or make-believe violent situations. If violence is only discussed but not shown, the descriptor "Violent Reference" is used. "Mild Violence" indicates there are mildly unsafe or violent realistic scenes, and "Violence" indicates "aggressive conflict." "Intense violence" indicates the game includes graphic, life-like violence that includes realistic weapons and results in depicted human injury, dismemberment, or death. Finally, "Sexual Violence" illustrates rapes or other violent sexual acts. It can be difficult for parents to determine what is really depicted in a game with all of these labels.