We all know situations where a video game turned out too violent for kids or promoted inappropriate content.

This phenomenon doesn’t help with softening the stereotype of dangerous video games. So how do you make sure you’re buying the right content?

ESRB – Everything about

Video games are an extraordinary way to relax, educate, or a fun gift for a loved one. But often, the descriptions or trailers can seem confusing or do not fully show the content of the selected title. This way, we end up with a purchase that we did not even want to have or is unsuitable for a potential recipient.

It often happens among parents who aren’t really into video games or don’t know what the markings in the title description represent. So today, we decided to bring this complex topic a little closer, explaining what a specific designation means. If you want to know more about age or theme restrictions for video games, continue reading this guide.

ESRB – what does stand for?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is an American-Canadian association setting age and content restrictions for video games. The system operates in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It has its faithful replica in Europe, where PEGI – Pan European Game Information is responsible for evaluating the content. The idea came to life in 1994 as a response to reports related to controversies regarding the subjects of many famous games released at that time.

It was founded by the Interactive Digital Software Association, and the rating system was designed specifically for parents wanting to learn the content of a purchased title. The introduction of the ESRB has brought many positive consequences to the gaming industry, which has regained the freedom to express itself without undeserved criticism and the upcoming government regulations. The system works very efficiently and effectively informs recipients about possible threats arising from individual titles. But unlike PEGI, the labels do not directly indicate the recipient’s age, presenting slightly enigmatic markings. To clarify the subject, we’ve prepared a thorough guide on how ESRB rating works.

A piece of history

The most controversial video games of the 1990s were the famous DOOM, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat. Providing technological upgrades, these titles featured highly realistic scenes of violence, gore, and sexually suggestive content.

This situation led to many investigative hearings on video game violence, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the ESRB. But first, SEGA decided to release a censored version of the games in question and introduce the Videogame Rating Council, focusing primarily on titles for its consoles. Soon, Electronic Arts and Acclaim Entertainment joined the successful collaboration, forming the ultimate Interactive Digital Software Association, which led to the founding of today’s Entertainment Software Rating Board.

ESRB Rating

The ESRB restrictions include seven independent rating types that indicate video game content and the recommended age for a potential audience. Their description can help choose the perfect game for a child or protect adult audiences from buying a title with undesirable content. Acknowledging these labels can help during all online and in-store video game purchases.
  • E – Everyone. This rating means a title suitable for all and does not contain sounds or images that may scare small children. It may provide mild forms of violence and language but no vulgarity. Games with this rating include Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ori And The Will Of The Wisps, and more.
  • E 10 – Everyone over ten years old. It may contain mild forms of violence, language, and suggestive themes. Some scenes can scare children under ten years old. Examples of games with the Everyone ESRB rating include Plants vs. Zombies, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and more.
  • T – Teen. For everyone over the age of thirteen, focusing mainly on teenagers. It may contain realistic and graphic scenes of violence, strong language, minimal gore, vulgar humor, and suggestive themes. If you’re looking for titles with this rating, you’ll find it in games like The Sims 4 and Fortnite.
  • M – Mature 17. Suitable for everyone over 17 years of age. It may contain realistic and intense violence, abuse or various drug usage, strong language, gore scenes, and sexual content. Among the games with this rating, you can play Bayonetta, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Skyrim, and more.
  • AO – Adults Only. Suitable for everyone over 18 years of age. It may contain brutal scenes of nudity, sex, rape, or violence. Including murders without a clear motive, gambling, extreme vulgarity, gore, and crime. Examples of games with this rating are the GTA series, Manhunt 2, and more.
  • RP – Rating Pending. This video game waits for its review, and the label often appears in promotional materials. A rating will show up after the publication of the title.
  • RP Likely Mature 17 – As with RP, this designation applies to titles waiting for their release – but will likely fall into one of the categories featuring adult content.

Interactive Elements

The ESRB has also introduced additional identifications on video game boxes or online gaming sites, informing about the possibility of playing with others or microtransactions.

It helps raise awareness among parents and recipients who have not received similar information when considering purchasing the game. You will find tags like Shares Location, Users Interact, or In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items). The last one concerns games offering various goods, loot boxes, or item bundles in exchange for real money.

Rating process – what does the classification depend on?

Each association assigning the age rating for video games uses its respective criteria. Much depends on the cultural background of the potential recipients and their sensitivity to the received content. For example, while The Sims received a global rate of between 7 and 12, in Russia, it was rated 18 for unwelcomed same-sex relationship themes. But the ESRB rating boasts highly accurate classifications covering the entire continent of North America.

The ESRB divides the classification of titles into physical, digital, and downloadable content. In the case of physical (box) games, a publisher wishing to receive such a rating must provide specific information about its title before releasing the video game. The first step is to fill out a detailed form and provide all facts about potentially threatening content. Among them are the basics like violence, suggestive themes, or gambling, but recently also information on gameplay modes or possible microtransactions and the rewards system. The next step is to provide a video demonstrating ultimate examples of the controversial themes, storyline, hidden content, and a sample of every gameplay element. The material is evaluated by at least three people representing various social groups involved in gaming or not. Finally, the raters discuss the video game in question and issue a comprehensive report based on which the organization assigns a specific rating.

The process is slightly different for digital games rated by the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC). Before the video game release, the publisher must fill out an extensive questionnaire consisting of questions about each gameplay category. The rating is issued directly based on the answers provided, and a possible change in the categorization occurs during standard tests after the release of the video game’s final version. It is a much faster process encouraging to improve the entire rating system, especially since more and more titles are available in digital form on the market. All DLCs are considered an integral part of the gameplay and receive the same rating as the base version. The publisher must fill out the form and proceed through the evaluation process regardless of the previous ones if the expansion content is radically different from the base video game.

Enforcement of the ESRB rating system

Most trusted online retailers strictly enforce the organization’s effective policy by providing an age rating in the product information. Steam is a platform that allows you to filter the titles you want based on possible dangerous content. But assigning game ratings is still optional for publishers, and many titles may not be rated.

There are still retailers who try to bypass the enforced ESRB age rating rules – but frequent mystery shop audits detect such attempts. However, most sellers properly enforce the policy by performing photo identification during the potential purchase. This way, over 80% of children are stopped from buying titles rated as mature.

Parents can learn to use the parental controls installed in almost every device to ensure children do not access threatening content. Consoles, tablets, and PCs allow you to restrict access based on age rating and content. They also add the excellent option to set a specific gameplay time, limit money spent, or determine the number of co-players.


Although refined, the ESRB rating system often meets with criticism. Some institutions or journalists have pointed out that ESRB ratings are often too broad and confusing. Some games that provided soft language and light violence were rated the same as titles full of nudity, gambling, and drug use. There was also a case related to the close connection between the rating and increasing sales, where the classification would help reach a larger audience for a chosen title.

Plus, buyers have been waiting a long time for microtransaction information. But it is worth remembering the ESRB is a relatively young rating system for games, constantly developing in its profession and improving the rules of age classification. Mainly since the gaming market is growing at a breathtaking pace, and keeping up with it can be a challenging task.


The Entertainment Software Rating Board has been reliably evaluating the content of video games for years, guaranteeing the proper provision of appropriate knowledge about the purchased title. This rating is an excellent aid for parents who want to buy their kids a game or enjoy the parental control settings on the selected device.

The ESRB.org website provides all the latest information on changes or improvements to the system. Anyone interested can find the news about the organization’s operation or answers to questions in the FAQ. It will also cover various controversial topics regarding gaming so that absolutely everyone is sure what they are buying.

Together with the PEGI rating system, the ESRB creates a fantastic network of organizations and retailers working closely to ensure the safety and well-being of players worldwide. So if you’re wondering if it’s worth considering the age labels on a video game box, be sure to do so. It is an excellent tool that informs about inappropriate themes, plus various hidden content, in-game payments, microtransactions, or shared location.