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The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines, and ensures responsible online privacy principles for computer and video games and other entertainment software in Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker.

The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly Interactive Digital Software Association). By late 2009, it had assigned nearly 18,000 ratings to titles submitted by more than 350 publishers.

One of the reasons the ESRB was founded was due to violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat and Doom, as well as other controversial video games portraying overly violent or intense sexual situations at the time.

The ESRB assigns ratings to games based on their content, similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries. Their aim is to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability. A game's rating is displayed on its box, the media, in advertisements and on the game's Website(s).

The rating system is strictly voluntary, however nearly all video games are submitted for rating due to the fact that many retail stores prohibit the sale of unrated video games and the major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings.


The ESRB Ratings since 2005.
The symbols ESRB uses are stylized depictions of alphabetical letters meant to convey at a glance the game's suitability. ESRB currently uses 7 different ratings.


Abbr. Rating Years Active Description
eC Early Childhood (3+) Since 1994 Contains content that is considered suitable for children 3 years of age and older. Games with this rating contain no material that parents or educators would find inappropriate. Games that fall under this rating are specifically intended for young children and are usually educational in nature. Examples of these games are games based on childhood TV shows.
E Everyone (6+) Since 1998 Contains content that might be considered unsuitable for children under 6 years of age. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence . Examples of Everyone games include Sonic Adventure, The Legend of Zelda series (with the exception of Twilight Princess and Link's Crossbow Training), the Mario series, Madden NFL Football and Lego Star Wars: The Video Game.
E10+ Everyone 10+ Since 2005 Contains content that might be considered unsuitable for children under 10 years of age. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, animated blood and/or minimal suggestive themes. The ESRB introduced the E10+ rating on March 2, 2005; Donkey Kong Jungle Beat being the first game to receive this rating. Examples of E10+ games include Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition, Madagascar, Lego Star Wars, Meet the Robinsons, Kingdom Hearts II, TMNT, Sonic Unleashed, Spore, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves.
T Teen (13+) Since 1994 Contains content that might be considered unsuitable for children under 13 years of age. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of moderate language. Examples of Teen games include WWE SmackDown vs. Raw , The Sims series, Guitar Hero series, The World Ends with You, two games of the Need for Speed series (Most Wanted and Undercover), earlier games from Call of Duty , and Impossible Creatures. This is the highest unrestricted rating.
M Mature (17+) Since 1994 Contains content that might be considered unsuitable for people under 17 years of age. Titles in this category may contain intense violence (more so than in the Teen category), blood and gore, sexual themes/content, use of alcohol/drugs, and frequent use of strong language. Examples of Mature games include Halo , Fallout 3, Dead or Alive 4, Resident Evil, Rainbow Six: Vegas, newer games from Call of Duty (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and onward), Gears of War, Hitman: Contracts, Dark Sector, Wanted: Weapons of Fate, Stranglehold, the Grand Theft Auto series , Mortal Kombat Series (with the exception of MK vs DC Universe) , and Manhunt. Many retailers (such as Target and Wal-Martmarker in the United Statesmarker, Future Shop in Canada, GameStop and Best Buy in both countries) have a policy of not selling games with this rating to younger teenagers and others under the age of 17 without parental presence and approval. Currently, M-rated symbols have 17+ next to the word "Mature".
AO Adults Only (18+) Since 1994 Contains content that is considered unsuitable for people under 18 years of age, and cannot be bought by anyone below that age. These may include adult video games that depict sex and nudity and/or extreme depictions of violence that include blood and gore. , there have been twenty-five products which have received the rating, most of which are available on Windows and Apple Macintosh computers, as well as the CD-i. The AO rating is the subject of ongoing, heated controversy due to the extreme restrictions it places on game sales. Most of the major video game console manufacturers (such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) strictly prohibit the release and sale of AO-rated games on their consoles. Games from major publishers that receive an AO rating are often 'toned down' in order to gain the lesser rating of M such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Manhunt 2.
RP Rating Pending Since 1994 Product has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting final rating. This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game's release. However, once rated, all pre-release advertising must contain the game's official ESRB rating.


The following ratings are no longer used, but they may appear on games published prior to their discontinuation.

Abbr. Rating Years Active Description
KA Kids to Adults (6+) 1994-1998 Contains content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. These titles will appeal to people of many ages and tastes. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief (i.e. slapstick and gross-out comedy), or some crude language. It was replaced with Everyone in early 1998.

Content descriptors

The content descriptors are not exhaustive descriptions of all content within a game: they are applied within the context of the rating a game is assigned. For example, a Teen game with one use of strong language and numerous uses of mild language would receive a "Mild Language" descriptor. They are also not always printed as shown below. They may have additional words added to further clarify the highlighted content such as "Mild Blood" and "Mild Suggestive Themes". More recently, games rated T or M may also have the disclaimer "May contain content inappropriate for children" displayed in the games' trailers, although for the former rating, it does not necessarily mean that the game should not be played by younger children, as although it can be intense, it is still not enough to be considered extreme, and therefore is still sold without any restrictions in actual age, with the rating merely advisory in nature, although parental guidance is still recommended.


  • Alcohol Reference - Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
  • Animated Blood - Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
  • Blood - Depictions of blood
  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
  • Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
  • Comic Mischief - Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
  • Crude Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including bathroom humor
  • Drug Reference - Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs
  • Edutainment - Content of product provides user with specific skills development or reinforcement learning within an entertainment setting. Skill development is an integral part of product
  • Fantasy Violence - Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
  • Informational - Overall content of product contains data, facts, resource information, reference materials or instructional text
  • Intense Violence - Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons, and depictions of human injury and death
  • Language - Mild to moderate use of profanity
  • Lyrics - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music
  • Mature Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references
  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity
  • Partial Nudity - Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity
  • Real Gambling - Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Sexual Content - Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity
  • Sexual Themes - References to sex or sexuality
  • Sexual Violence - Depictions of rape or other sexual acts
  • Simulated Gambling - Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Some Adult Assistance May Be Needed - Intended for very young ages
  • Strong Language - Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity
  • Strong Lyrics - Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music
  • Strong Sexual Content - Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials
  • Tobacco Reference - Reference to and/or images of tobacco products
  • Use of Drugs - The consumption or use of illegal drugs
  • Use of Alcohol - The consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Use of Tobacco - The consumption of tobacco products
  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive content. May include very bloody dismemberment
  • Violent References - References to violent acts.


The following content descriptors have been updated or are no longer used, but they may appear on games published prior to their discontinuation. Reissued games that were originally rated when the now-discontinued descriptors used by the ESRB may still contain such descriptors on their packaging.

  • Animated Blood and Gore — Cartoon or pixelated images of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
  • Animated Violence — Cartoon or pixelated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
  • Gambling — Betting-like behavior.
  • Gaming — Betting-like behavior.
  • Mild Animated Violence — Mild cartoon or pixelated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
  • Mild Realistic Violence — Mild photographic-like detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
  • Reading Skills, Fine Motor Skills, Higher-Level Thinking Skills — These phrases are found only on products rated Early Childhood and indicate whether children's reading, driving skills, or other skills are used in these titles.
  • Realistic Blood — Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood.
  • Realistic Blood and Gore — Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
  • Realistic Violence — Highly detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

Rating process

To obtain a rating for a game, a publisher sends the ESRB videotaped footage of the most graphic and extreme content found in the game. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the game's content and pays a fee based on the game's development cost:
  • $800 fee for development costs under USD $250k
  • $4,000 fee for development costs over $250k

On its website, the ESRB states that three trained raters, working independently, watch the footage and recommend a rating. If all raters agree on the rating, content descriptors are added and the ESRB notifies the publisher of its decision. If there is no consensus, additional raters review the footage and materials, or the majority opinion rules. After the rating is agreed upon, the ESRB in-house personnel review the footage and all materials to ensure that all information is accurate and a certificate is sent to the publisher. However, that decision is not final. If the publisher wishes, they may edit the game and resubmit the footage and questionnaire in order to achieve a lower rating, or appeal the information. If this is the case, the process begins anew. The publisher may also appeal the game's rating if they wish. The appeals committee is composed of entertainment software industry representatives.

When the game is ready for release, the publisher sends copies of the final version of the game to the ESRB. The game packaging is reviewed, and the ESRB says that its in-house personnel randomly play games to ensure that all the information provided during the rating process was complete and accurate. Penalties may apply to the publisher if it is eventually found, either through the in-house personnel's playing or consumer comments that the game's content is more extreme than the publisher stated in its application.

The identities of the ESRB raters are kept confidential and selected randomly from a pool of full-time ESRB employees who live in the New York Citymarker area. According to an ESRB introductory brochure from 1994: "The raters represent a wide range of backgrounds, races, and ages and have no ties to the interactive entertainment industry. Raters include retired school principals, parents, professionals, and other individuals from all walks of life." In essence allowing people who aren't regular video game players, to review games as if they were the customer and receiving their first glance at the game. They are then required to take testing before becoming ESRB raters.

Background and history

As videogaming progressed into the 16-bit era, graphics and sound capabilities were dramatically increased. Blood and gore was much clearer and vibrant than 8-bit games. For example blood in an 8-bit game may look blocky and pixelated while in 16-bit it can be a fluid graphic that can easily be identified. After the release of games such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, there was much controversy over video game content. Hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society, headed by Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl were held in late 1992 to 1993. The result of the hearings was that the entertainment software industry was given one year to form a working rating system or the federal government would intervene and create its own system. Around this time, the Videogame Rating Council (VRC) was formed by Sega of America to rate mostly its own games. In 1993, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) was formed. Also in 1993, the 3DO Company formed their own rating system for games released on the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer called the 3DO Rating System. In 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) was formed by the Software Publishers Association. However, because of some criticisms of the both the VRC and the 3DO Rating System were phased out in 1994 and RSAC in 1999. On July 29, 1994 the proposal from the IDSA for a rating system, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was presented in Congress and approved . In September 1994, the ESRB was established and became the de facto rater of video games in the United States. At this time, many companies who produced computer games such as LucasArts, Sierra On-Line and 3D Realms continued to follow the RSAC system as they were members of the SPA. Eventually, all companies, including 3DO, agreed to follow the ESRB ratings.

Initially, there were five different ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature and Adults Only. Shortly thereafter, the Informational and Edutainment descriptors were added. In 1996, the rating icons were altered so that it would be more clear who rated the product (this can be seen in the image of the Mature icon above). On January 1, 1998, the Kids to Adults rating was replaced with Everyone. Also in 1998, the Entertainment Software Rating Board Interactive (ESRBi) was formed which rated websites and online games. In late 1999, in order to make the rating symbols more legible, the pixelated rating icons were replaced with black and white icons. Beginning in early 2001, and continuing for the next couple of years, several of the content descriptors were retired and replaced. Content descriptors with "Animated" or "Realistic" in them had those portions removed. Also, the "Skills" descriptors used for the Early Childhood rating were removed as well. A short time later, the Gaming descriptor was changed to Gambling, which itself was split into Real and Simulated Gambling in the following years.

In mid 2003, the ESRBi was closed down. On June 26, 2003, the content descriptors were made larger and more legible and newer, more thorough descriptors for violence (Cartoon, Fantasy, Intense) were added as well as a descriptor for Mature Humor. Also, the Mature and Adults Only icons had a 17+ and 18+ added to their title band in order to clearly signify the age appropriateness. On March 2, 2005, after conferring with academicians and child development experts; the Everyone 10+ rating was introduced. Originally, raters were hired on a part-time basis; as of April 2007, the ESRB employs raters full-time.

Criticism and controversy

Violence and the AO rating

ESRB has often been accused of not rating games harshly enough for violence and other related themes. Games such as Harvester, Manhunt, Rise of the Triad and Soldier of Fortune have shown gruesome violence, yet received the M rating. Many critics have claimed that these games deserve the AO rating and were given the M for commercial reasons. Rise of the Triad in particular, received the highest violence descriptor: "Wanton and gratuitous violence" from the RSAC, which was mitigated by being rated M by the ESRB. However, in the Canadianmarker provinces of British Columbiamarker and Ontariomarker, their respective provincial governments classified Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt as motion pictures, and gave them "Restricted" ratings, restricting their sale to adults only. The ESRB has only given out the AO rating solely for violence twice: once for The Punisher and the second time for Manhunt 2. However, both games were edited before release in order to qualify for the M category. Another game, Thrill Kill, received an AO rating with content descriptors for Animated Violence and Animated Blood and Gore. It was never released after the original publisher, Virgin Entertainment, was purchased by Electronic Arts who was more concerned about the adult content. The violence in Thrill Kill was a concern to the ESRB as it was sexualized, with sadomasochistic activities.

Critics have claimed that the ESRB will only rate games AO if they have sexual content in them, no matter how much violence is present. Twenty-five products have been given the AO rating. One was given it for unsimulated online gambling. The rest were given it for sexual content and/or nudity. One game, Mass Effect featured as many as two mild sexual scenes and was still passed as an M, leading to controversy on Fox News Channel. Another, God of War, came with many different sex scenes, some of them interactive, and, unlike Mass Effect, it was not subject to controversies or protests. One of the games with "Strong Sexual Content" as a content descriptor also had "Realistic Blood & Gore", Riana Rouge, and another one had "Violence", Critical Point. Critical Point is an eroge, and Riana Rouge has Playboy Playmate in softcore sex scenes which leads some critics to believe that these games were rated AO because of sex, not violence. This criticism is shared with the movie rating systems. Lula 3D contains descriptors for "Blood", "Strong Language" and "Violence" in addition to sexually explicit material. Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Director's Cut also received the AO rating. While the game contains content identical to the original North American version titled Indigo Prophecy ("Blood", "Strong Language", "Use of Drugs and Alcohol" and "Violence"), the only content which was added in the director's cut version was sex scenes with nudity, one of which was interactive. Much like Fahrenheit, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas originally received an M rating but was changed to an AO rating because interactive sex scenes could be accessed in the game. Some critics believed that the ESRB in-house personnel may have overreacted to the attention the game received from the federal government and that the mini-game (which contained no nudity) was not explicit enough to have been re-rated. It should be noted that many adult oriented products, including erotica, have actually received M ratings. However, these products are not carried by major retailers (and many are usually grouped with adult products anyway) because of the sexual content.

Hidden content

In 2005, members of the mod community discovered that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for Windows could be modified to unlock an incomplete sex mini-game known as "Hot Coffee", which Rockstar North had decided to leave out of the final game. California State Assemblyman Leland Yee used the situation to rebuke both Rockstar and the ESRB and argued that the ESRB was not doing its job properly. U.S. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Lieberman also expressed their disapproval. Rockstar initially claimed that the mini-game was created by the mod community and was not a part of the original game. However, their stance changed when it was discovered that a third-party cheat device could be used to unlock the "Hot Coffee" scenes in console versions of the game. Shortly after, Rockstar conceded that the sex mini-game was in all released versions of the game, albeit inaccessible without third-party modification. The ESRB responded to the controversy by re-evaluating the game and changing its rating from M to AO, setting a precedent that games can be re-rated based on external factors such as third-party cheat devices. Although this made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best selling game to receive an AO rating, Rockstar soon released a patch that disabled the modification on PC versions and re-released the game as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Second Edition. The new release disabled all access to the "Hot Coffee" mini-game and was given the game's original M rating by the ESRB as a result.

In 2006, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had its rating changed from T to M due to "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as a mod that, if accessed through a third-party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters." The game's publisher decided not to remaster or re-release the game to remove the hidden texture, stating that it believed the original rating was the most accurate assessment of what parents should expect from the game, since the texture was intended to be inaccessible to players. However, this texture was actually only used to provide a non-clipping texture for some armor types.

Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 was postponed for three months in the United States as well as several other countries and continents due to uncensored relentless violence and gore. The game was given an initial AO rating by the ESRB and received a revised M rating after numerous edits. It was released on October 31, 2007. Less than a week after the release, it was discovered that it was possible to modify the PS2 and PSP versions of the game to erase the patches that censored the violent content. Rockstar Games has since claimed that even with the unauthorized patches that remove some of the screen blurring that many of the scenes were toned down from the original version submitted to the ESRB for rating. Following that, the ESRB chose not to change the game's rating after the drawn-out process of giving it the M rating.

News leaks

The ESRB typically posts rating information for new titles on its website 30 days after the rating process is complete. This can cause the existence of a title to become public information before the game is officially announced. As a result, the ESRB has implemented a process by which publishers with concerns about this practice can request that information about the game not be posted to the ESRB's website until a specific date.

Blocking content

On March 16, 2006, the ESRB gained, in an agreement with the video game software industry, the ability to restrict video game advertising "to consumers for whom the product is not rated as appropriate." As a result, online retailers like Steam, Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network, and the Wii Shop Channel bar minors from downloading game demos or trailers for games rated Mature or Rating Pending.

See also

International rating systems


  2. What is the ESRB? from the ESRB FAQ
  3. Game Ratings & Descriptor Guide
  4. The ESRB Game Ratings & Descriptor Guide
  5. ESRB retail council information page
  6. Parent's Guide to Games series, by Craig Wessel
  7. About ESRB
  8. A majority of the information in this section was obtained from the archived ESRB website, available at Internet Archive.
  9. "ESRB hiring full-time raters" - GameSpot News, 2007-2-21.
  10. Snuff games and ratings -, November 26, 2003.
  11. The Ratings Game: The Controversy Over The ESRB - Game Informer magazine, August 2006.
  12. Ontario slaps 'R' rating on video game
  13. "Video game rating board don't get no respect" - Paul Hyman, The Hollywood Reporter, April 8, 2005.
  14. "Manhunt 2 receives AO rating" - GameSpot News, 2007-06-19.
  15. Examples: Babes of Summer Jigsaw Puzzles, Beverly Hills Models, Blue Heat: The Case of the Cover Girl Murders, Club 21, Club Royal - The Exclusive Striptease Club of the Beyond, Cyber Photographer and Printshop, Fantasy Vixens Jigsaw Puzzles, The Girls of Paradise Cove, The Guy Game, Leisure Suit Larry series 1-7, Malibu Models, Playboy Screensaver II, Tabloid Beauties, TV's Lifeguard Babes
  16. Entertainment Software Rating Board Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices
  17. Demos, Trailers and you - Xbox Lives Major Nelson

External links

nb:Entertainment Software Rating Board

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