What Do Video Game Ratings Mean? A Guide to ESRB and PEGI
Video game ratings are attached to every video game. Like movies, video games receive ratings so that you know whether they’re appropriate for children. However, if you’re not too familiar with video games, you may find video game ratings confusing.
With most video game ratings just a set of letters of numbers, this article offers a guide to the ESRB and PEGI ratings. In it, we explain how video game ratings work, give a little background on the companies responsible, and explain how you can utilize them.
North America: The ESRB
The ESRB, short for Entertainment Software Rating Board, provides video game ratings for the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It was established in 1994, and the circumstances leading up to it are quite interesting.
Prior to the ESRB, video game ratings were up to the console manufacturers. At the time, Nintendo didn’t rate games, but had a reputation for censoring games to make them family-friendly. Meanwhile, Sega had its own rating system for its consoles.
As video game graphics grew more realistic, parents and the US government became concerned. Two games became the center of controversy: the ultra-violent fighting game Mortal Kombat, and Night Trap, a game with full-motion video where you have to stop teenage girls from being abducted.
As a result of this, the US government held hearings on the effects of mature games on society. They gave the game industry an ultimatum: come up with a universal ratings system in one year, or the government would force one on them.
Thus, in 1994, the ESRB was born. It’s been the video game ratings system in North America ever since. Unlike many other countries, ESRB ratings are not legally enforced. Instead, it’s self-regulated; all console manufacturers require games to have an ESRB rating to appear on their systems, and stores won’t stock games without a rating.
PEGI, which stands for Pan European Game Information, is the standard for rating video games in much of Europe. It launched in 2003 and replaced various game rating systems that individual nations had used prior. As of this writing, 39 countries use PEGI to rate games.
There’s not quite as much of a backstory with PEGI. It’s an example of standardization across the countries in the European Union; the European Commission has expressed support for it. Some countries mandate that age labels appear on games and enforce their sales, while others adopt it as a de facto standard with no particular legislative support.
Video Game Ratings in Other Countries
As you’d expect, other regions of the world have their own video game ratings systems as well. We can’t cover them all here, but they mostly follow similar patterns. For example, Japan has the CERO (Computer Entertainment Rating Organization) which assigns letter ratings to games.
However, Australia is particularly noteworthy for enacting heavy censorship compared to other western nations. The Australian Classification Board didn’t support the 18+ rating for video games until 2013. Certain games never get released in Australia, while others have to undergo heavy editing.
For example, in Fallout 3, the real-world drug morphine was changed to “Med-X” worldwide to comply with Australian standards. It’s illegal to sell any games in Australia that have been refused classification.
ESRB Ratings Explained
Now that we’ve looked at the companies behind the ratings, let’s look at the actual video game ratings you’ll see on boxes in North America.
The ESRB uses seven different ratings for games. Four of them are common, while two others are fairly rare and one is a placeholder.
Early Childhood (EC) is the lowest rating. It signifies games that are intended for a preschool audience. These titles thus have no objectionable content, and are likely not enjoyable for general audiences as they’re meant for young children. This rating is not very common. Example games include Dora the Explorer: Dance to the Rescue and Bubble Guppies.
Everyone (E) is the base rating. Games with this rating have content that’s “generally suitable for all ages”. They might contain minor instances of cartoon violence or comic mischief. Before 1998, this rating was called Kids to Adults (KA). Games rated E include Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Rocket League.
Everyone 10+ (E10+) signifies games appropriate for kids 10 years and older. Compared to a game rated E, these titles can contain some suggestive content, more crude humor, or heavier violence. Notably, this is the only rating the ESRB has added since its inception. Some games with this rating are Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Kingdom Hearts III.
Teen (T) is the next level up. This rating is suitable for players 13 and older. Titles may have sexually suggestive content, more frequent or stronger language, and blood. You’ll find the Teen rating on games like Apex Legends and Fortnite (find out what parents should know about Fortnite).
Mature (M) is the highest normal rating. Games rated M are considered suitable only for those 17 and older. Compared to Teen titles, they may contain intense violence, strong sexual content, nudity, and incessant strong language. Some stores don’t sell M-rated games to minors, but this is not a legal standard. Example titles rated M include Red Dead Redemption II and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Adults Only (AO) is the ESRB’s 18+ rating. It’s issued for games with graphic sexual content or those that allow gambling with real money. However, it is in effect a lame-duck rating. None of the major console manufacturers allow AO games on their systems, and few retailers will sell AO games in their stores.
Because of this, only a handful of games have ever received this rating; most AO games receive the rating due to heavy sexual content. Publishers will make changes to their games to avoid this rating, as it’s essentially a death sentence. Games with the AO rating include Seduce Me and Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two.
Rating Pending (RP) is a placeholder. It appears alongside advertisements for games that haven’t been rated yet.
ESRB Content Descriptors
While you’ll find a rating on the front of a game’s box, the back contains more information. The ESRB has a few dozen content descriptors, which give you info about the exact kinds of objectionable content in the game. Most of them are self-explanatory (such as Blood or Use of Drugs) , but we’ll explain a few potentially confusing ones here:
- Comic Mischief: Characters slip on banana peels, slap each other, etc.
- Crude Humor: Generally refers to “bathroom humor” such as farting.
- Lyrics: Music in the game contains language or otherwise suggestive content.
- Simulated Gambling: The game contains gambling with virtual money.
- Suggestive Themes: A lesser version of the Sexual Themes descriptor. The game usually has characters in skimpy clothing or similar.
Finally, ESRB ratings now feature information about “Interactive Elements” at the bottom of the rating. These include In-Game Purchases if the game lets you spend real money for loot boxes or similar items, and Users Interact in games where you can talk and share content with others. The ESRB does not rate the online portions of a game because it can’t predict how people will act online.
For a complete list of descriptors and information, see the ESRB’s ratings guide. You can also search for any game on the ESRB’s website to see a summary of its objectionable elements.
PEGI Ratings Explained
PEGI uses a similar setup to the ESRB with five total ratings. However, there are slight differences in the rating levels, and there’s no “useless” rating like AO.
PEGI 3 is the lowest rating and is suitable for all age groups. Unlike the EC rating, games with this rating aren’t necessarily aimed at preschoolers. These titles won’t contain anything that will scare young children or any language, but very mild comical violence is OK. An example of this rating is Yoshi’s Crafted World.
PEGI 7 marks games appropriate for ages 7 and up. Like PEGI 3, it carries a green background. These titles might contain mild violence or frightening situations. Pokémon Ultra Sun is one example of a PEGI 7 game.
PEGI 12 features an orange icon. These games are for players 12 and older. They can contain more realistic violence, sexual innuendo, minor instances of gambling, horrifying elements, and some bad language. One such game is Shadow of the Colossus.
PEGI 16, also orange, signifies titles for those 16 and up. Compared to PEGI 12 titles, these games can contain drug use, more intense violence, stronger sexual situations, and frequent strong language. Battlefield V falls under this rating.
PEGI 18 is the strongest rating and carries a red color. These games are only for players 18 and older. They contain extreme violence, glorification of drug use, and explicit sexual activity. Metro: Exodus is an example of a PEGI 18 game.
PEGI Content Descriptors
Like the ESRB, PEGI also supplements the main ratings with content descriptions. These appear as icons on the back of the box. While there are far fewer PEGI descriptors compared to the ESRB, they signify different levels of that content based on the rating.
For example, the Bad Language descriptor can appear on games rated 12 through 18. But while a PEGI 12 game will only contain some mild swearing, a PEGI 18 game might have pervasive sexual expletives. Additionally, the descriptions are limited to particular ratings, so you won’t see the Drugs descriptor on a PEGI 7 title, for instance.
Making Sense of Video Game Ratings
We’ve taken a full tour of the ESRB and PEGI video game ratings systems. So now you know the background of these companies, what the ratings mean, and how to check the content descriptors for additional details on individual titles.
It’s interesting to see how ratings compare across regions. For example, the indie title Celeste received an E10+ rating in the US, but only a PEGI 7 in Europe. PEGI also doesn’t point out some of the content that the ESRB does, such as crude humor.
If you’re a parent who wants to know more about their kids’ hobby, here’s our parents’ guide to video games to help you understand a little better.