Video Game Ratings Need Context Too!
Source: Helen Pond
If anyone has ever shopped for a video game for their pre-teen (and it doesn't matter what platform -- PlayStation, Xbox, DSi, Wii, etc.), they're most likely familiar with the ratings that provide information about the age group that a game's content is appropriate for. And, as the holidays approach, a clear understanding of the content and context for video game ratings becomes all the more important. For example, if you're tween is sensitive to profanity, it would be helpful to know if inappropriate language contributed to the rating!
There are a number of organizations that provide ratings guidance, but the video game industry standard is the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit organization whose mission is to "empower consumers...with the ability to make informed decisions about video games...and to hold the video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices." The ESRB provides an age rating category on the front of virtually every video game. In addition, on many of the games, there are content descriptors on the back, which offer short words or phrases to indicate the type of content that may have contributed to the rating.
Recently, the ESRB added rating summaries, which go one step further than content descriptors by offering detail related to the context and relevant content that factored into the game's rating. It's a way of digging beneath the surface to understand why a game is suggested for a specific age group. Purchasers can visit the mobile website at m.esrb.org to check out information while at the video game store. In addition, just this week, the ESRB announced a free iPhone app giving instant, on-the-spot access to its rating summaries right at the store when making decisions about which games to give as gifts.
As mentioned in a previous article, I experienced an unfortunate parenting snafu as I researched The Sims 2 game for my tween. From what I could tell, the software offered what seemed like a virtual dollhouse (with the appearance of life-like characters and an amazing array of choices for creating houses and interiors). Prior to having a good understanding of the ESRB and their ratings summaries, with only a "teen" rating to go by, I conducted my own investigation. I believed I had done my due diligence (and beyond!) by speaking with a program designer at the manufacturer. While I was focused on the obvious concerns of violence and sexuality, it never occurred to me to ask about domestic danger. The first night of my daughter playing, her Sims house caught fire and the baby was forever lost! Oops. Had I been aware of the rating summaries (or even access to ESRB Resources for Parents outlined on their website), I might have averted disaster.
Parents can also find rating summaries before they go shopping by searching for game titles on ESRB's website at www.esrb.org, by using ESRB's Ratings Search Widget, or by signing up for a free bimonthly e-newsletter called ParenTools that offers a list of recently rated titles complete with rating summaries and customized to their preference of rating categories and game platform.
*The new rating search app is available for free via the iTunes App Store and offers access to ESRB rating information for over 18,000 titles. Rating summaries are available for all games rated since July 1, 2008, which means that many of the games likely to appear on tween's wish lists this year will have rating summaries.