Understanding the content of a video game, especially without having played it previously, is key to monitoring content for children. We do this with movies and other media, so it only makes sense to do so with video games. But video game content is much harder to understand fully when compared to other media due to the sheer volume of content in current generation games. Top-tier games today can take 20–60 hours just to complete the story mode and include online interactions and transactions that are difficult to monitor. No parent has the time or patience to get through that much content on their own. Imaging trying to find every little bit of detail in a massive open world game such as Red Dead Redemption 2 or trying to understand what the hell is going on in a game like Katamari Damacy. Thankfully, we have to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to help with that.
The ESRB was established in 1994 as a response to congressional hearing regarding 2 games in particular, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. I think we are all familiar with Mortal Kombat and the violence that is portrayed in this game, but if you need some entertainment, look into Night Trap. It’s such a weird game that was thrown into the spotlight due a lot of mismanagement and a weird way to present a game. Netflix’s series “High Score” is a great documentary, and goes into the controversy surrounding these games.
The outcome of this hearing was beneficial in the end, and now we have a way to get a birds-eye view of a game’s rating and it’s content. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a good start, and there are other great sources to find further details of games which I’ll discuss later. Their rating system is not too different from the Motion Picture Association’s (MPA) ratings we are all familiar with.
You can see the most up-to-date sources on the ESRB website and rating’s page, as they continue to include descriptors for online content, microtransactions, and new game content that did not need descriptions until the internet connected gaming arrived in full force over the last decade. Of note, you may run into Europe’s rating system, which is even simpler to understand called PEGI.
You can see how to easily match the MPA’s movie rating system with the ESRB’s. G movies=E video games, PG=E10, PG-13=T, and so on. This can be helpful when kids are begging for a new release and you have no other information on the game aside from the rating. Depending on your child’s age and maturity, you can determine if you feel okay buying it right then and there or if you need more time to look into the game’s content.
As with any rating system, no matter how simple or comprehensive it is, it will never be perfect or fit every individual. In the end, it comes down to parent’s involvement and willingness to spend a few extra minutes to understand the media they are presenting to their children. And every household will be different, based on a child’s age, maturity level, and even religious/political beliefs. You, as a parent and individual, need to determine what is okay with you and what media is of good enough quality for your family. I as a physician can give recommendations all day long, but it still comes down to what you do as an unique person. You know your children best, and I want to ensure you have the tools to be able to make your own decision in the end.