Parents and the ESRB: Still Dazed and Confused

The ESRB is a parent's best friend, there is no question. In a large percentage of cases, this organization can help you make sound decisions in your game purchases. However, it's far from perfect, and some game content is bringing the gaps in the system into sharp relief.

The ESRB is not really aimed at "gamers" per se. When it was established in 1994, the concept that people who played games would be parents wasn't on anyone's radar. Its true target was and is parents who aren't gamers. And while we have our own troubles with it, there is a prevailing attitude suggesting that any mainstream parent who can pour Pepsi out of a boot without a road map will be happy if only they pay attention to the sign in the game store and the big white letter in the black box.

That's not at all an accurate stance in the real world. The ESRB's age ranges and content labels are applied inconsistently. Even with the context that the ESRB's descriptions of gaming experience provide, the labels are so vague and overlapping that they're almost meaningless on a practical level. The system is missing labels that are vital to making a truly informed decision about issues that some parents are really concerned about. And beyond that, the "T" rating fails to take into account the giant gap in age and development between ages 13 and 17.

A couple times a year we get games that highlight the worst of these weaknesses. This year's best candidate would be Batman: Arkham Asylum, with Infamous and Prototype vying for second.

Before I go any farther, I want to say I'm not suggesting that Batman should be re-rated to M like they did with Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion back in May of 2006. But this precise question was asked me by a neighbor with a 14-year-old who begged and pleaded for it for Christmas: Why is Batman: Arkham Asylum T-rated, while Oblivion was changed to an "M" rating?

She and I had gone through the Oblivion mess with his older brother, and after watching her younger son play this, she was upset. And she's got a point. Arkham Asylum goes right down the line with some very similar issues, even to the same dangling, dead bodies. They weren't on fire in Arkham, but still, the player has to slog through The Joker's intermittent, creepy announcements, his exhortations to his henchmen to do you in, depictions of people being tortured, and plenty of other twisted stuff. Some spots festoon the dead from ropes all over, like macabre holiday decorations. It's quite obvious not all the nutjobs are behind the locked doors in that facility even on a good day. And her angry discussion with me about it sent me to investigate the current state of things.

Inconsistent Application Of labels And Age Ratings
That disconnect with Batman's labels and other games isn't a new problem. I had to come to grips with my boys back in the day over Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which is T rated (for Blood, Drug Reference and Violence) but includes such fun as hanging off the rafters cutting throats, while the M-rated (for Animated Blood and Animated Violence) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which involves sneaking up behind people and breaking their necks. Both have players shooting realistic people in realistic settings with very similar results. The section where Raiden is running around naked can't be the difference. In an interesting omission, MGS2 doesn't have a nudity label.

Vague And Overlapping Descriptions
There are five labels for violence. Seems like they cover it all in a fairly straightforward fashion, until you try to figure out what they mean when they're applied to a game's specific setting. To juxtapose two games close in age and general type, how about Prototype and Infamous?

The T-rated Infamous comes with "Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, [and] Violence" labels. Prototype comes with just "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language" and an M rating. The setting of the two games is quite similar: You've been changed into something more than human and you're running through city streets, fighting roving gangs of civilians, military/authorities, nasty things and pretty much anything else that moves to accomplish your goals.

What's the difference between "Violence" and "Intense Violence?" Let's look at the ESRB's Ratings Guide: Intense violence is described as "graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict ... ." It continues on to bring up gore, which overlaps with the "Blood and Gore" label, and then mentions blood which overlies both "Blood" and "Blood and Gore". So why do we have both listed on the game?

You're punching helicopters in Prototype. This is not realistic. Much of the over-the-top gameplay of Prototype comes off like The Incredible Hulk for the Xbox360, which had a T rating and a "Violence" label. In Infamous, you end up frying people all around your character like you're a human electric eel. This is not realistic, and there's a label for unrealistic violence that's not bloody—"Fantasy Violence." Wouldn't it would be more accurate to use that?

I'm not suggesting Prototype didn't earn it's M rating. You grind your dead enemies into your skin like a ghastly beauty treatment so you can disguise yourself with their likeness. Ick. In Infamous you're electrocuting things to a crisp and sucking charge out of living people, but at least you're not wearing them. On the other hand you do plenty of other bloody damage, and I'm not sure scorched corpses littering the street are a better end product.

Stack up the labels and there is no way to really understand what the qualitative difference between the two games is, or why I should choose one over the other in reference to my children's gameplay.

Issues Not Covered By labels At All, But That Are Important To Parents
I know it's hard to imagine everything anyone can come up with, but there have been a few common ones brought up over the years.

  • They try to cover various types of violence, but no label discusses the scale. In the ending of Infamous the player is allowed to choose to murder thousands of people in cold blood. Having to beat a big bad guy is one thing; killing everyone in a large radius is another. There's no label for "Mass Murder," or however you want to term this kind of bloodbath.
  • Guns and other realistic weapons. Some parents don't have a problem with little Jimmy's character using some sort of cartoon ray-gun, but if he's picking up real guns and ammo like in the E-rated Shadow the Hedgehog they're not happy.
  • Illegal activities aren't covered. For a blatant example, The Godfather games are based on your character performing the acts of a '20s Italian mobster. You run racketeering, bootlegging, gambling and hook-houses, on top of carrying out extortion, blackmail, and murder. None of this is called out unless it involves violence or sex. For a less charged but more insidious example, take a look at the rap sheet you'd get from most Tony Hawk games, particularly Underground and American Wasteland.
  • Whether the player is the instigator or not is never discussed. Batman himself may not be killing anyone at Arkham, but that doesn't stop anyone else in the game. Between the virus and the thugs, you are constantly wading through piles of mingled dead and unconscious bodies. To some people, the fact that Batman isn't doing the killing matters.
  • Another question I get—mostly from people I know through church—is occult and religious references. For example, I know someone who doesn't have a problem with something like Ninja Gaiden but was a little squicked by Darksiders and the way it implied that God was absent.

The Age-Chasm Between The T And M Ratings
Please understand that as a gamer and as a fan of Batman for many years, I enjoyed the game thoroughly. I believe it deserved all the positive reviews it got. But ask yourself honestly: Do you think your wife would like to have your 13-year-old play this game unsupervised? Do you? And not just your centered, mature and properly supervised youngster. Think of the least balanced latch-key kid in his homeroom class. That's what a T rating means—all the content in the game is suitable for anyone 13 years and older with no restriction or supervision.

I do not understand why anti-game mavens have a cow about M-rated games they think should be AO while ignoring this issue completely. Getting supposedly AO content in the hands of a 17-year-old is only one year early. Getting M content in the hands of a 13-year-old is a much more worrisome proposition. There are four very important growing years between 13 and 17. Trying to limit all 16-year-olds to the same content as all 13-year-olds is laughable. They are so completely different. Go to a junior high and compare the eighth graders with the juniors at your local high school.

But I Did What You Said...
The part that ticks his mother off most, I think, is that she did what we all keep saying was due diligence and she still got burned. When he'd asked for it on his Christmas list, she looked it up. She found out the rating, and also found that Common Sense Media suggested it as a replacement for Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony in their list of 10 Cool Games that are Uncool for Kids. The GTA game was never in any danger of coming in the house, but she thought, with the facts she'd found and those authoritative endorsements—on top of the way he loved the demo, she was home free.

What Parents Can Do
There are things that parents can do to make this system more approachable for themselves. If you know where to look, there is more information available now.

  • Ratings Summary: Used to be, all you got was those cryptic phrases to judge the content. But now the ESRB's website offers more detailed descriptions of newer games. They're not printed on the box, but if you look up a specific game via their website or other search tools, you'll find a paragraph or two describing the game's content in more detail.
  • ESRB Rating Search Widget: If you want to add a quick and easy way to search the ESRB on your website or personal blog, you can download and install a widget that will allow you to search the ratings system and get the platforms, rating, rating summary and content labels right there at your fingertips. There's also a desktop version for your PC.
  • ESRB Mobile Ratings Guide: If all the ratings on the boxes and posters on the wall in the stores aren't enough, you can also use the ESRB's mobile version of their website. Download the app for your iPhone/iPod from iTunes or the App Store, or go to from any other mobile device's web browser.

I've long been a proponent of responsible consumption across all media. How did I handle stuff like this when my gang was younger? Well, it's not a solution all parents can put in place. We had a rule that I had to finish all games rated T or above before they were allowed to play it until they were 13, and even at that point I reserved the right to do so if I felt a game was risky. That held true until everyone in the house was M-rated or higher. It has already been suggested that I'm a jackbooted fascist, but I got burnt just like my neighbor did on games like Def Jam Vendetta and Jet Set Radio.

A more generally practical solution all of this is for parents to do the best they can with what the ESRB gives. Follow the age ratings, have intelligent limits on duration, and pay a lot of attention to the kids while they're playing. If something seems off to you, talk to knowledgeable friends or helpful game-store employees. Renting a game and giving it a try yourself may also be an option.


LarryC wrote:

Rather than a rating, a short descriptive paragraph about content that might be of concern to majority parents in the US should be included, and individualized, since the ESRB supposedly screens every game and content exhaustively, anyway.

As a point of clarification, they don't claim to screen it "exhaustively"; see, particularly the sections "How does the rating process work?" and "Why don’t the ESRB raters actually play the games they rate?"

To defend them, I do think they are going in the right direction by providing descriptive paragraphs like you mention on their website. I do wish these descriptions were somehow accessible in stores, where family members might be making impulse decisions on what to buy for little Johnny.

1) Excellent post.
2) I wonder if the inconsistencies with the ESRB ratings have anything to do with the size and influence of the publisher.
3) Because all kids are different, I don't believe it is possible to have a once-size-fits-all rating system, so it comes down the descriptors, which are still inconsistently applied.
4) The ESRB rating is one source of information, and can be useful, but it is clearly not conclusive.

I think that the gaming community, by which I mean members of forums like GWJ, has a much better perspective of the current state of gaming than any group that has been politicized as much as the ESRB. My suggestion is, next time a parent asks you about game content, make a thread and point them towards it.


That just condemns the process even more. If they are unable to perform the mission-statement they have because they have too little resources, then they're failing. Making excuses for failing doesn't change the fact that they're failing.

Rather than playtest a game like Party Babyz, which will obviously not contain much material worth commenting on (and which materials should have been submitted by the publisher), they should exhaustively playtest games like Mass Effect, or stories like Harry Potter which do contain potentially volatile material.

If the ESRB can't do it, then I'll just turn to communities and bloggers because they can.

LarryC wrote:

That just condemns the process even more. If they are unable to perform the mission-statement they have because they have too little resources, then they're failing. Making excuses for failing doesn't change the fact that they're failing.

I guess they are "failing" then, but I don't blame the ESRB. They can't feasibly be expected to find every little easter egg in a game. You really can't know that if you move your planet scanner to coordinates 35-73, hover there for a minute, then press up-down-up-down-B-A-X-X-X you'll get a thirty second clip of the environment programmer's ex-girlfriend doing a striptease.

Eventually the community might turn it up, but are we going to ask all parents (who might not be internet savvy) to do that level of research? That's a crazy high level of expected diligence.

The ESRB should always strive to do better, but a cooperative system based on trust and shared interests with publishers seems like the best model. I would rather they concentrate on making their in-depth descriptions more accessible.

When I was 11 years old, Mortal Kombat was released, and by that time, I had my own Sega Genesis, which I had saved and scrounged every coin and bill I came across in order to buy on my own. Similarly, video games were never purchased directly by my parents. I had to make the money, or wait for a holiday/birthday to have enough to buy one. My older sister's boyfriend would've been 16 or so at the time, and one day he brought Mortal Kombat over. I loved the fighting, and really played the heck out of it while he loaned it to me.

Then he showed me the blood code. And Sub Zero's fatality. For those of you who don't remember, in the Sega version, he grabs his opponent's head, and pulls up until the head comes off with the spinal column dangling underneath it, dripping blood. The graphics were crude and simple, but it was "good" enough. I did not like it. But I learned the fatality, and performed it as many times as I could manage. Shortly after learning it, I was not bothered by it anymore. It took quite a few times of seeing it for that to happen, but it did eventually.

After that it was my quest to make sure I learned and saw each fatality, in that game and for a while, each Mortal Kombat following that one.

The first ESRB-rated game I purchased was, I think, MKII. At that point, they were still kind-of suggestions, and there was no onus on retail employees to verify age, or if there was, stores weren't enforcing it. I could easily go into any toy, department, or game store and purchase what I wanted without being carded.

I can understand the desire of parents to control the imagery their children are exposed to, and will begrudge no parent that. On a case-by-case basis, though, I'm betting my experience is the norm. I'm not a violent person. Exposure to violent imagery even at the tender age of 11 did not irreparably damage me in any quantifiable way. Images of real violence still, and probably always will, bother me. But my brain has long since distinguished the two. Even though the image of Sub Zero's fatality bothered me, my mind had already separated the game from reality. I could no more perform any act of violence depicted on screen than anyone else here. But I could punch a few buttons to make a fake person do it easily, even if the coming image bothered me.

And even some virtual acts of violence still repulse me. In Grand Theft Auto games, I can't shoot bystanders. And I have no qualms about beating a criminal with a bat, but I couldn't do it to the random walking polygon that means me no harm. It's just a moving set piece. But my brain still distinguishes them.

I can't even bring myself to play the Renegade track for Shepard in the Mass Effect games. I like making things work through diplomacy rather than a sucker punch. And I know perfectly reasonable and amenable people on these boards who take pleasure in playing the Renegade track alone in the Mass Effect games.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that while parents may find it necessary to censor these kinds of things for their children, they may be more resilient than you might otherwise think. That said, you know your kids, I don't. But consider, if they can't play these games in their own home, they may have friends with less diligent parents.

I agree with what's been said for the most part. Every kid is gonna be different and their reactions will be different dependent on the game they're playing.

But I have a strong feeling that after the verdict is given in the violent video games case before the Supreme Court right now, a lot more people will take these ratings for granted.