2020 video game ratings in review, and what they mean to gamers
Jan. 14, 2021
Movies have them. Albums have them. Television shows have them. So it should be no surprise that video games too have a content rating system. In the U.S., it’s the Entertainment Software Rating Board that determines video game ratings.
Created in 1994, the ESRB serves as an independent entity from the gaming industry, and it rates video games across all platforms, including handheld video games, video game consoles, and computer games. In 2020 alone, the Board rated more than 30,000 video games. Our partner, Siege Media, analyzed a sample of those video games to discover just how the Board divvies up its ratings, who and what determines the ratings, and how much gamers and parents really rely on them. To perform their analysis, Siege Media reviewed the ESRB's ‘Recently Rated Games’ page in November 2020 and filtered out only games rated in 2020.
What are the different ratings for video games?
Video game rating systems vary geographically. Europe and Asia rely on the Pan European Game Information, Australia has the Australian Classification Board, and Brazil has the Classificação Indicativa (ClassInd), for a few references. In the U.S., the ESRB is the go-to video game content rating system. In fact, an ESRB rating badge is likely in 75 percent of American households because, according to the Entertainment Software Association, that’s how many Americans have at least one video game in their household.
You can usually spot an ESRB video game rating badge in an upper or lower corner of a video game box or on the footer of the download page for a computer game. The ratings are usually accompanied by a content descriptor or descriptors providing context to the rating, as well as interactive elements. Here’s what each ESRB video game rating means.
Video games rated “E” for Everyone have content that is generally suitable for all ages. Usually, its content descriptors will include “mild” modifiers to indicate light violence and language.
- Popular video games rated E: “Planet Coaster Console Edition,” “Harvest Moon: One World,” “FIFA 20”
Video games rated “E10+” are most suitable for gamers 10 years old and up. Like E-rated video games, these games typically lighten violence and language with modifiers such as “mild,” “fantasy,” or “cartoon,” and they might include “suggestive themes.”
- Popular video games rated E10+: “Bankugan: Champions of Vestroia,” “Minecraft,” “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”
Video games rated “T” for Teen are suitable for gamers aged 13 and up. Generally, this rating is where you stop seeing modified violence and language and also more content descriptors involving “blood.”
- Popular video games rated T: “League of Legends,” “Fortnite,” “Destiny 2”
Video games rated “M” for Mature 17 + are suitable for 17-year-old gamers and up. Typically, M-rated games will have more violence, blood, and language and also some sexual content.
- Popular video games rated M: “Watch Dogs Legion,” “Assassin's Creed Valhalla,” “Cyberpunk 2077”
Adults Only 18+
Video games rated “AO” are meant for Adults Only, meaning 18-year-olds and up. That’s because AO-rated games often have more graphic and prolonged instances of violence, gore, and sexual content. Some AO-rated games involve gambling.
- Popular video games rated AO: “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” “Seduce Me,” “Hatred”
Video games rated “RP” for Rating Pending mean just that: The video game’s rating is pending or not yet assigned. Video games can don an RP rating before they’re actually released and when they’re being advertised and marketed.
How are video games rated?
You might be surprised to learn the ESRB does not play every single video game it rates. Instead, video game publishers submit the most extreme content of a video game to the Board for review. The Board assigns three specially trained raters to review the content and then the trio collectively deliberates on a rating assigned to the video game.
Content descriptors play an enormous role in how video games are rated. The ESRB uses around 30 content descriptors total, some of which are modified. Generally, these content descriptors are classified into eight categories:
Decoding video game ratings: Key findings
In 2020 alone, the ESRB assigned E, E10+, T, M, AO, and RP ratings to more than 30,000 video games, according to Siege Media’s analysis. To get a sense of how these ratings are distributed and some of the content descriptors that influenced them, Siege Media analyzed a sample of 8,809 video games rated by the ESRB in 2020. For the sake of brevity, they honed in on E, T, and M video game ratings. The following are some of their key findings, plus a few online gaming safety pointers to consider.
Most video games are rated E
Video games are for everyone. At least, that’s the case about 70 percent of the time, according to the ESRB. As noted earlier in this article, the Board bestowed E ratings to nearly 70 percent of all video games it rated in 2020. The E rating swept types of video gaming platforms, too, with 68 percent of computer games being rated E, 61 percent of console game rated E, and 91 percent of handheld games rated E. And while most games with E ratings involve some form of violence, more than half of all E-rated games have no content descriptors at all.
49% of video games involve violence
Parents’ concerns over violence and video games is one of the reasons the ESRB was created 26 years ago. Almost half of all video games rated by the ESRB include some form of violence in its content descriptors, according to Siege Media’s analysis. Worth noting is there are upward of 10 content descriptors involving the word “violence,” and “animated violence” is the most used content descriptor across all video game ratings. Unsurprisingly, where there is blood, there is also violence. That’s the case 91 percent of the time the content descriptor “blood” is used — it coincides with the content descriptor “violence.” Also, 95 percent of the time the content descriptor “blood and gore” is used, it coincides with “violence.” “Animated blood” and “animated blood and gore,” too, coincide with “animated violence” 80 percent and 82 percent of the time they’re used, respectively.
Computer games are the most rated video game platform
Of all the video games the ESRB rated in 2020, almost 50 percent of those video games could be played on a computer. Windows PC games account for 40 percent of all video games rated, which makes sense given the popularity of online gaming and livestreams. As the majority of these computer games are rated E (68 percent), it’s a good idea to teach younger gamers about video game security.
What video game ratings mean to gamers
There are 214.4 million gamers in the U.S., according to the ESA, and 163.3 million of them are adults over 18 years old. So, you might be wondering, do gamers care about ESRB ratings?
Professional gamers like John Rinyu have cautioned that video game ratings are often too low or too high, never precise. PC Gamer has gone as far as noting “ESRB ratings are unfit for their purpose,” pointing to ambiguous descriptors as part of the problem.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging 51.1 million of gamers in the U.S. are kids under 18. And the ESRB’s mission is to educate their parents about video game. According to the ESRB, 87 percent of parents are aware of the Board, and 83 percent of them are confident its ratings are accurate.
The bottom line: Whether you’re an adult gamer, child gamer, or parent of one, ESRB video game ratings and the content descriptors that complement them are meant to inform video game purchasing decisions and serve as a baseline for what to expect from a video game.
Finally, video game ratings are not influenced by a video game’s interactive elements like in-game purchases, user interaction, location sharing, unrestricted internet, and online music, some of which can be avenues for cybercriminals to invade a gamer’s privacy. There are video game security suites and, for parents, parental controls to monitor these threats. Game on!
To get a sense of how video game ratings are distributed and some of the content descriptors that influenced them, our partner Siege Media analyzed a sample of video games rated by the ESRB in 2020. To do this, they scraped the ESRB's Recently Rated Games page in November 2020 and filtered out only games rated in 2020. They discovered that in 2020 alone the ESRB doled out E, E10+, T, M, AO, and RP ratings to more than 30,000 video games. For the sake of brevity, they analyzed a sample size of 8,809 of these games and honed in their analysis on E, T, and M video game ratings, which overwhelmingly had the most ratings. To conduct the analysis, they tallied how many separate platforms and gaming systems were rated in that sample size, as well as how many content descriptors were used and with which ratings, to calculate what corresponded most and least with one another.
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