Pardon the dust!
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The entire "Resources for Parents" section of this website is being overhauled for various reasons, and this page will either be replaced with a new version or removed entirely, as the sitaution warrants. This revision is taking much longer than expected, so in the meantime, please consider what follows with a grain of salt.

What do I need to know about the ESRB?

A quick introduction to the ESRB

Most of us are aware that movies and TV shows are given content ratings. For example, a movie aimed at children will probably be rated G or PG, while a movie meant for an older audience would carry an R rating. Rating systems like these help you find media that is suitable for your children, and it's only natural that one would turn to video games and ask if there's a similar rating system in place.

Indeed there is! In the United States, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, often abbreviated ESRB, is the official body that reviews and rates video games based on their content. While developers are not required to have their products rated by this group, it's an important thing for them to do if they want to have their software sold at retail stores. This is because the majority of retail outlets refuse to carry unrated titles. Online, this is less of an issue, but it's still a good idea from a practical marketing viewpoint.

How do their ratings work?

The ESRB's rating system comes in two parts. The first part is a letter grade that shows a reasonable age range for the game in question -- in other words, it's a rating like you would find on a movie, though the letters are not the same. The second part of the rating is a short list of what are known as "content descriptors". These are short phrases that indicate what sort of content the ESRB found while reviewing the title. Together, this allows the ESRB to make it very clear what sort of game you're looking at.

Over time, there have been changes to the ESRB's rating system, so some ratings are now retired. Here is a quick overview of the current ratings.

eC (Early Childhood)
This is the lowest rating, indicating a game aimed at preschoolers and other very young children. It's unlikely that there will be anything to worry about in these titles, but it's also quite possible that once children are old enough to be in school, they will have outgrown the game's content.
E (Everyone)
Equivalent to a G rated movie, these games are usually fairly clean and have few if any issues. This doesn't mean that the games in this bracket are always free of conflict and violence -- it just means that whatever violence does appear, it's going to be in a form considered family friendly. A climactic final battle may use lemon meringue pies as the weapon of choice, for example.
E10+ (Everyone 10 years old and over)
Slightly less common than a straight E rating, this is a nice compromise between the squeaky clean children's fare and the more raw T rating. Violence is likely to be more commonplace in these games, but we still shouldn't expect to see any blood or any realistic fighting. For most purposes, this is just the E rating with a footnote reminding parents to be a little more cautious. Sort of like a PG rating.
T (Teenagers and up)
At this point, we're starting to see titles with more mature content. This includes swearing, suggestive character designs, and a larger focus on more realistic fighting. Christian parents will want to review games with this rating, as there might be some things that need evaluating.
M (Mature audiences only - 18+)
This is the highest rating that retail stores will carry. Unfortunately, it's also a rather broad rating, because while it's guaranteed to be more problematic than what you'd find in any of the ratings mentioned earlier, it's also less predictable. An M rated game may simply have a violent theme, or it may combine onscreen sex, swearing, and drug use with extremely graphic violence. Essentially, an M rating means you should be ready for all sorts of offensive material. Yet, this isn't the highest rating.
Ao (Adults only)
The majority of people buying games today might not even be aware this rating exists. The ESRB seems to only use it in specific cases, such as pornographic games or (amusingly enough) as the rating assigned to the software used by actual casinos. When the ESRB was first established, retail stores around the US made a point to proudly proclaim that they would not, and never will, sell games with this rating. Personally, I feel that we should see this rating more often, as the nastier M rated titles should be separated from the games that were just slightly too much for a T rating.
For the curious, the obsolete ratings include things like the K and KA ratings. These ratings originally stood for "Kids" and "Kids to Adults", which might have led to some confusion. Today, the more straightforward E and E10+ ratings have replaced them. There is also the RP rating, which stands for "Rating Pending". It's mostly only seen on promotional material, as it will be replaced once the ESRB has assigned a rating.

Where can I find their rating for a game?

If you have access to the game's box, then you can find the letter grade on the front cover and a box containing the content descriptors on the back cover. Specifically, both are located in the lower left of their respective covers, and they always appear in a black and white color scheme. This monochrome appearance makes them stand out from whatever artwork is present.

However, if you're shopping online, the exact location of the rating will vary from website to website. If there's a picture of the game's box, then you can just view it like you would normally. If not, you might need to skim the page to find it. Some places show trailers produced by the game's developers, and these often start by displaying the game's ESRB rating and content descriptors.

If all else fails, you can check for the game on the ESRB's official website, They have a search tool that allows you to look up the ratings for any video game they've evaluated.