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The ratings game

Parents and players are guided by a growing alphabet soup of codes.

November 24, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

IT'S the mid-1800s in the Wild West, and Colton White wants to know who killed his father. The only thing White can trust is his pistol, says the cover of the recently released Gun, a video game that has players waging war on horseback, commandeering trains and facing off against corrupt lawmen.

For players of first-person shooters like Gun, the cover image of a bullet-holed skull wedged between two rifles is enough ammo for deciding whether to play the game. But parents wanting more specifics have come to rely on the ratings, those little boxed-in letters on a game's cover that indicate age appropriateness, and the content descriptors on the flip side that describe the elements triggering that rating.

In the case of Gun, it's an "M -- Mature 17+" title, containing "blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language and use of alcohol."

Until this year, M was one of five possible ratings assigned through the New York-based Entertainment Software Rating Board: Early Childhood (EC) for ages 3 and up, Everyone (E) for 6+, Teen (T) for 13+, Mature (M) for 17+ and Adults Only (AO) for 18+. The ESRB recently added a sixth category: E10+, for ages 10 and older.

"There's just a lot more nuance in games today than when the system was established," review board President Patricia Vance said. "We talked to a lot of people about the developmental differences between ages 6 and 13, and it's a very, very large gap. We felt there were enough games that were kind of in between E and T for it to be useful."

In 2004, 54% of rated games were for Everyone, 33% were Teen and 12% were Mature.

What triggers an E rating is "minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language." The new E10+ may contain "more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes" -- less offensive than the "violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood and/or infrequent use of strong language" of a T rating.

Who determines whether a game is a T instead of an E10+ or an E rather than an EC? A group of at least three anonymous adult raters who have some experience with children but no industry ties.

"We want to make sure they've got some sensitivity to children," Vance said. "Other than that, they don't have to be expert gamers, because they're looking at video content -- the context, the story line, the characters, the setup, typical gameplay."

After about eight hours of training designed to help them identify content, the raters play the game independent of one another, applying their own experiences and tastes and values to come up with a rating. According to Vance, the system almost always results in consensus.

"When it doesn't," Vance said, "we get more raters in until we do."



What the ratings mean

Much like movies, video games are self-regulated -- that is, they are rated by a body set up by the industry. Each game rating consists of two parts. The first, on the game box cover, is a symbol suggesting age appropriateness. The second, on the back of the box, briefly describes content such as depictions of violence, nudity, drug and alcohol use and strong language. Here's what the symbols on the front of the box mean, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board:


Contents may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Games contain no material that parents would find inappropriate.


May be suitable for ages 6 and older. Games may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and infrequent use of mild language.

May be suitable for ages 10 and older. Games may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, minimal suggestive themes.


May be suitable for ages 13 and older. Games may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood and infrequent use of strong language.

May be suitable for ages 17 and older. Games may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and strong language.


Should be played only by ages 18 and older. Titles may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and graphic sexual content and nudity.

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