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Frequently Asked Questions

 

About the ESRB

 

About ESRB Ratings

 

About the Ratings Process

 

About the Effectiveness of ESRB Ratings

 

About the ESRB and Game/App Stores

 

About the ESRB

What is the ESRB?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is the non-profit, self-regulatory body that assigns ratings for video games and apps so parents can make informed choices. The ESRB rating system encompasses guidance about age-appropriateness, content, and interactive elements. As part of its self-regulatory role for the video game industry, the ESRB also enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines and helps ensure responsible web and mobile privacy practices among companies participating in its Privacy Online program. ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

 

Are all games and apps required to have a rating?

The rating system is voluntary, although virtually all video games that are sold at retail in the U.S. and Canada are rated by the ESRB. Many U.S. retailers, including most major chains, have policies to only stock or sell games that carry an ESRB rating, and console manufacturers require games that are published on their systems in the U.S. and Canada to be rated by ESRB.

 

The ESRB system has been voluntarily adopted by several mobile app storefronts in the U.S. as well, and complete rating information for all ESRB-rated apps is available by searching the ESRB website. While certain types of apps may be exempt from ratings, participating storefronts typically require that non-exempt apps receive an ESRB rating.

 

Does the ESRB have any restrictions on how a game can be marketed?

Publishers of packaged or boxed games carrying an ESRB rating are contractually bound to follow the industry-adopted Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices, along with numerous additional requirements addressing how rating information must be displayed on game packaging and in advertising and certain restrictions on where ads for Mature-rated games may appear. The ESRB's Advertising Review Council (ARC) diligently monitors industry compliance, and in the event that a game publisher is found to have inappropriately labeled or advertised a product, the ESRB is empowered to compel corrective actions and impose a wide range of sanctions, including monetary fines.

 

Similarly, publishers of digitally delivered games and apps are strongly encouraged to provide consumers with clear and prominent disclosure of ESRB rating information as well as abide by the various advertising and marketing guidelines to which publishers adhere.

 

Who can I contact if I have a question or complaint about a rating?

The ESRB welcomes feedback. Use the Contact ESRB form to submit complaints, comments, questions or concerns regarding ESRB ratings.


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About ESRB Ratings

How was the rating system created?

The ESRB rating system was devised in 1994 after consulting a wide range of child development and academic experts, analyzing other rating systems and conducting nationwide research with parents. ESRB found that what parents really want from a rating system is both age-based categories and, equally if not more importantly, concise and impartial information regarding content. Parents felt strongly that a rating system should inform and suggest, not prohibit, and should reflect the product overall rather than quantifying every instance of potentially objectionable content.

 

Today game consumers play games on a variety of platforms and devices, and parental concerns go well beyond content to include other elements like user interactions or the sharing of a user's location and personal information. In fact, parents today tend to place equal importance on upfront guidance about interactive elements as they do the actual content in a game.

 

With this philosophy in mind, the ESRB administers a three-part system that includes Rating Categories, Content Descriptors and Interactive Elements.

 

ESRB rating system

 

The result is a rating system that is widely adopted by game platforms and publishers, supported by retailers, and which is consistently described by parents and opinion leaders as the best entertainment rating system in the US.

 

How can I find and use the ratings to determine if a game is right for my family?

The ESRB ratings were developed to serve as a guide to help consumers make informed decisions about which games might be appropriate for their children and family. Packaged or boxed games display an ESRB Rating Category on the front of the box and may also present Content Descriptors on the back. Digitally delivered games, such as those that are downloaded directly to a game system or mobile device, will typically present a game's ESRB rating prior to download. Regardless of the type of product or how it is accessed, complete rating information for all ESRB-rated products is available by searching on our website.

 

Why does the ESRB rate apps?

Like video games, apps are a form of interactive digital product that may be intended for users of different ages. The ESRB rating system has established itself as a familiar, reliable means for parents to gauge the suitability of games for their children, and with the recent explosion of apps there are several mobile and online storefronts that have opted to adopt the ESRB rating system for that reason. Additionally, since a game is often made available on many different platforms - including in the form of an app for various mobile devices - consumers benefit from having a consistent rating standard that applies across the board.

 

Do Content Descriptors list all of the different content found in a game or app?

Content Descriptors are not intended to be a listing of every type of content one might encounter in the course of playing a game or using an app. They are applied within the context of the product's overall content and relative to the Rating Category assigned, and are there to advise of content that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern.

 

As such, the absence of a Content Descriptor does not necessarily mean the total absence of such content, and a given Content Descriptor may not always refer to precisely the same type or intensity of content depending on the Rating Category assigned. For instance, Suggestive Themes in an E10+ game may refer to a flirtatious remark whereas in a Teen game it may refer to provocative clothing on a female character.

 

Parents who desire more specific and in-depth information about video game content can search for Rating Summaries on our website or mobile app. Rating Summaries provide a more detailed explanation of the content and context that factored into the rating assigned by ESRB.

 

What are "Rating Summaries" and where can I find them?

Rating Summaries are a supplementary source of information that go beyond ESRB ratings to give parents a detailed, straightforward description of exactly the kind of content they would want to know about when choosing a game for their child. Rating Summaries are only assigned for packaged or boxed games, and while they don't appear on game packages they are available via the rating search on ESRB's website, and by using ESRB's free mobile app or mobile website (m.esrb.org).

 

What does the "Rating Pending" symbol mean?

esrb ratings symbol for rp rating

The "Rating Pending" symbol may be used only in advertising and marketing materials released prior to the assignment of an ESRB rating. Publishers will often advertise a game prior to submitting it for rating, and in these circumstances they may use the "Rating Pending" symbol in advertisements until a rating has been assigned. From this point on all ads are supposed to carry the ESRB rating. A game may not ship to stores with a "Rating Pending" symbol on the box; all final product released to the public must display the rating assigned by the ESRB.

 

Do ESRB ratings address online-enabled elements like player chat, player-generated content or downloadable music?

ESRB ratings only address content created by the game's developer and do not consider content that is created or introduced by other players when playing the game online. However, these games do display notices that advise consumers to expect this type of content. Packaged or boxed games that can be played online with other players and facilitate exposure to user-generated content must display an Online Rating Notice that states: "Online Interactions Not Rated By The ESRB." This notice is intended to warn consumers about possible exposure to chat (text, audio, video) or other types of user-generated content (e.g., maps, skins) that have not been considered in the ESRB rating assignment. Packaged or boxed games that allow users to download songs not considered in the ESRB rating assignment will display the Music DLC Notice, which reads: "Music Downloads Not Rated By The ESRB." This content does not have to be submitted to ESRB for rating but the provider must display the Music DLC Notice and, if appropriate, an RIAA Parental Advisory logo prior to download or purchase.

 

Digitally delivered games, such as downloadable games and apps, may display a similar "Users Interact" notice regarding potential exposure to user-generated content, among other pertinent interactive elements. Consumers can find complete ESRB rating information for all rated games and apps, including these Interactive Elements notices, by searching our website.

 

How does ESRB address elements that are not necessarily content-related but may still be of concern to parents?

Many digitally delivered games feature elements that are not considered to be content per se, but are very much of concern to parents in terms of deciding whether or not to allow their child access. These include the ability to share one's location with other users, provide personal information that may be shared with third parties, or exchange user-generated content. For this reason the online questionnaire that developers complete when having these games rated specifically asks about the presence of these types of elements. In the event these elements are present that game's rating assignment will also include one or more Interactive Elements notices, which may be displayed prior to download to warn a consumer about them or enable filters or opt-ins/opt-outs that can be activated by the user. These notices include: "Users Interact," "Shares Location," and "Shares Info." For more detailed information please see the ESRB Ratings Guide.

 


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About the Ratings Process

Who decides which rating should be assigned?

With the exception of ratings assigned through the automated process designed specifically for digitally delivered games and apps, ESRB ratings are based on the consensus of at least three specially trained raters who collectively deliberate about what rating should be assigned to a game. All ESRB raters are adults who typically have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or as parents or caregivers. While they are not required to have advanced skills as video game players (since their job is to review content and determine its age-appropriateness, not to assess how challenging or entertaining a particular game may be), they often gain or further develop such abilities as some of them are also required to play-test games once released to ensure that complete and accurate content disclosure was provided to ESRB. To eliminate the risk of outside influence, including from industry members and the media, the identities of ESRB raters are kept confidential, and they are not permitted to have any ties to or connections with any individuals or entities in the video game industry.

 

What are the criteria by which ratings are assigned?

ESRB raters are trained to consider a wide range of pertinent content and other elements in assigning a rating. Pertinent content is any content that accurately reflects both:

  • the most extreme content of the final product - in terms of relevant rating criteria such as violence, language, sexuality, gambling, and alcohol, tobacco and drug reference or use; and
  • the final product as a whole - demonstrating the game’s context (such as setting, storyline and objectives) and relative frequency of extreme content.

Given the interactive nature of video games the ESRB rating system also takes into account certain unique elements, such as the viewer's perspective, reward system and the degree of player control.

 

While digitally delivered products are assigned ratings via an automated online process rather than being evaluated in advance by raters, the criteria that factor into rating assignments are very similar.

 

How does the ratings process work?

The ESRB uses specially designed rating processes for games sold in retail stores and those that are delivered digitally. For a detailed description of ESRB rating processes, please see our Ratings Process page.

 

How does the ESRB rate downloadable content (DLC) or other content updates that supplement a game or app?

Downloadable content (DLC) often refers to additional content that supplements or extends a previously-rated product. Many digital products, including video games and apps, will release subsequent updates or add-ons that expand the original product’s content. DLC or updates that will be appended to an existing, previously-rated product need only be submitted to ESRB for rating if their content exceeds that which is in the existing "core" product. Otherwise, the rating originally assigned to the core product is applicable to the appended content as well. Where, however, the content exceeds the rating assigned to the core product, it must be submitted to ESRB and a different rating may be assigned.

 

Why don’t the ESRB raters actually play the games they rate?

ESRB raters do not actually play the games during the rating process for a variety of reasons. First, many games have upwards of 50 hours of gameplay, so requiring a minimum of three raters to play through each of the more than 1,000 games rated annually by ESRB would be inefficient given the high degree of repetition in video games. Additionally, because games are player-controlled there are many different permutations of gameplay. In other words, one player of a particular game may see very different types of content than another depending on his or her actions or decisions in the course of playing. Consequently, engaging in gameplay as part of our rating process would offer no greater assurance that all pertinent content was considered in the assignment of a rating.

 

Finally, given the manufacturing and print advertising deadlines to which publishers are subject (which may fall 60-90 days before a game ships), games are typically submitted to ESRB for rating before they have been finalized or fully tested. As a consequence, games may be "buggy" or not fully functional, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a rater to play through the game.

 

ESRB staff play-tests a variety of games and apps after they are released - including games that generate consumer inquiries to ESRB and those that receive broad consumer exposure - to verify that the content disclosure provided to ESRB during the rating process was accurate and complete.

 

Why doesn’t ESRB use the same process for rating all games?

The ESRB's traditional rating process was designed to evaluate a game's content by having trained raters review each submission and recommend the rating they believe to be most appropriate. This process is still used to rate all packaged or boxed games sold at retail and continues to provide the foundation for how certain types of content should be rated regardless of delivery platform.

 

More recently, the increasing volume of digitally-delivered games and apps has compelled ESRB to devise a more streamlined, scalable process by which to assign ratings, while ensuring that the ratings resulting from this process prove consistent and reliable. This streamlined process utilizes a different online questionnaire with multiple-choice questions relating to various categories of pertinent content (violence, language, sexuality, substances, etc.), context and other features (the player's perspective, the game's realism and reward system, etc.). Once the developer or publisher completes the questionnaire, the combination of responses provided immediately and automatically generates a rating for that game or app.

 

What assurance is there that companies have fully disclosed all of the content in their game or app, and what happens if they don’t?

Through a combination of post-release testing and monitoring of consumer complaints ESRB is able to detect instances in which a game’s developer or publisher may have failed to provide full and accurate content disclosure. Where a game or app has been assigned a rating based upon incomplete or inaccurate content disclosure, ESRB works to ensure that the rating is promptly corrected wherever it is displayed to consumers, be it a game box, an advertisement, an online arcade or a mobile storefront. For packaged or boxed games, failure to disclose pertinent content during the rating process may also be addressed via formal ESRB sanctions and penalties.

 


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About the Effectiveness of ESRB Ratings

How effective is the rating system? Do parents trust and use it?

According to an ESRB-commissioned survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in May/June 2012, 85% of parents with children who play video games are aware of the rating system and 70% say they regularly check the rating before buying computer and video games for their children. The ESRB ratings also enjoy high levels of trust among parents, who consistently report being satisfied with the level of information it provides in terms of selecting games for their children. For more information about parental awareness, use and satisfaction with ESRB ratings, please see our Consumer Research page.

 

How is the rating system enforced?

As the game industry's self-regulatory body, ESRB is responsible for the enforcement of its rating system. This includes everything from requiring complete disclosure of content during the rating process to the proper display of rating information on packaging and wherever the game is marketed or sold to compliance with industry-adopted advertising and marketing guidelines intended to ensure that video games are not marketed to audiences for whom they are not intended. For a summary of the ESRB's enforcement policies and practices please see our Enforcement page.

 


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About the ESRB and Game/App Stores

Do video game retailers support and enforce the ESRB rating system?

While the ESRB does not have the ability to enforce its ratings at the retail level, it does work closely with retailers and game centers to display information that explains to customers how the rating system works. Moreover, major retailers have established their own store policies requiring age verification for the sale or rental of M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only) rated games, and ESRB actively encourages and supports these efforts. The most recent mystery shop study conducted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that national retailers enforced their store policies by refusing to sell M-rated video games to customers under the age of 17 87% of the time. The ESRB Retail Council (ERC) also conducts regular mystery shop audits and finds similarly high levels of compliance.

 

How many retailers are currently working with the ESRB?

Virtually all major national retailers, countless independent retailers and many game center operators are working with the ESRB to educate their customers and employees about ESRB ratings and store policies regarding the sale or rental of M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only) rated games.

 

In 2005, the ESRB Retail Council (ERC) was established to further the commitment of national retailers in the United States to support ESRB ratings. In Canada, numerous national and local retailers participate in the Retail Council of Canada Commitment To Parents program, which includes supporting ESRB ratings education and enforcement of store policies not to sell or rent M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only) rated games to customers under 17 and 18 years of age respectively. A full list of retail partners and ESRB Retail Council (ERC) members is available on our Retailer Partners page.

 

What is the ESRB Retail Council?

The ESRB Retail Council (ERC) is a group of national retailers in the United States committed to educating consumers about ESRB video game ratings, compliance with store policies restricting the sale of M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only) rated video games to customers who are at least 17 and 18 years of age, respectively (unless permission from a parent has been obtained), and providing parents with the ability to return or exchange games sold to their children in violation of those policies. The ERC also helps provide store associate training materials with respect to ESRB ratings and allows member retailers to share best practices to improve performance. Finally, the ERC facilitates regular self-auditing, the results of which ERC members may use to help gauge their performance and facilitate improvements, where necessary. All ERC members have committed to comply with the ERC Code.

 

Is it illegal to sell or rent M (Mature) or AO (Adults Only) rated games to customers under 17 and 18 years of age respectively?

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association/Entertainment Software Association) found that video games are a constitutionally-protected form of expression, and that laws restricting their sale or rental based upon violent content are unconstitutional. That said, ESRB supports retailers' voluntary policies restricting the sale or rental of M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only) computer and video games in the United States and Canada to customers who are at least 17 and 18 years of age, respectively (unless permission from a parent has been obtained). Through efforts such as the ESRB Retail Council (ERC) and a strong commitment on the part of major video game retailers, retail stores have vastly improved the rate at which they comply with their store policies, as measured both by the ERC mystery shopper audits as well as audits conducted by the FTC. More information on federal, state and local regulations in the U.S. is available through the websites of the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) and Entertainment Software Association (ESA). In Canada, you may contact the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESA Canada) or the Retail Council of Canada (RCC).

 

How effective has the retail partnership program been?

Through direct retail partnerships and the efforts of the ESRB Retail Council (ERC) in the U.S. and the Commitment to Parents initiative in Canada, the ESRB has successfully implemented ratings education programs with every major video game retailer in North America. Retailers' commitment to enforcing their store policies has also been furthered through ESRB's efforts, as evidenced by the high levels of compliance reported through ERC mystery shopper audits in the U.S. The ESRB also provides ratings education materials to numerous independent retailers and game centers. On an annual basis, over one billion consumer impressions are generated through the retail partnership program, which continues to contribute to greater awareness and use of the rating system by parents and other consumers. These successes would not be possible without the significant support of retailers throughout the United States and Canada.

 

How does ESRB work with digital platforms or storefronts where games and apps are available?

ESRB works closely with game platforms and app storefronts that ensure that developers have direct access to the ESRB online tool in order to obtain a rating. If a product has previously been rated, we work with the platform or storefront to enable the ingestion of a rating certificate or unique code from the developer. We also help ensure that rating information is displayed clearly and accurately to consumers prior to downloading or accessing a game or app.

 

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