Video games are wildly popular and well-established media that have been growing and changing for decades, and if you have kids, they probably like them. If you don't play video games yourself, you might be concerned over what exactly these things are all about. If you're worried about what your children see and hear when they play on their PC, tablet, smartphone, or console, we can tell you everything you need to know. There's no reason to be afraid of video games or to assume they're filled with explicit or unpleasant imagery. This guide can help you educate yourself and understand exactly what your kids are playing.
Not Just for Kids
This is the most important thing you need to understand about video games. They aren't just for kids, and in terms of content and audience they aren't special when compared with any other type of media. Just like movies, TV shows, and books, video games can be about anything and intended for anyone. Look at video games the same way you would look at movies or TV.
For every Frozen, there's a Human Centipede. For every Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, there's a Game of Thrones. And for every Super Mario Odyssey, there's a Doom. Video games aren't just a diversion for children. They're a fully developed category of media with titles that appeal to a wide variety of audiences across different ages and interests.
Children aren't even the primary audience for most video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 72 percent of regular video game players are over 18, and the average gamer is 35 years old. Remember, the people who grew up on the Atari 2600 and NES are in their 30s now.
Know What They're Playing
Because games are as varied as movies and TV shows, you should keep an eye on the games your kids play just as you would what they watch. Take action and engage with your kids about video games. Find out what games they like. Ask what they're playing. If you have a hard time remembering the names of the games, write them down. You don't need to learn everything about these games, but you need to be able to identify them so you can make educated decisions.
When you know what they're playing and what genres they're interested in, you can start checking out the ratings. And that brings us to our next topic.
Read the Ratings
Movies and TV shows have ratings systems so parents can know whether they want their kids to watch them. Video games have a similar ratings system. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), an extension of the ESA, has been formally rating the content of video games since 1994. Any video game you buy in a store in the United States will have a black-and-white rectangle somewhere on the box that says ESRB on the bottom, with a larger letter or letters in the middle. This is the game's ESRB rating.
There are six primary ESRB ratings: EC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E10 for Everyone 10 and up, T for Teen, M for Mature, and AO for Adults Only. The rating on each game will explain what it is with a basic descriptor and, if needed, some simple warnings about the types of potentially objectionable content you'll find.
ESRB ratings aren't just for retail games you buy in the store. The ESRB rates digitally distributed games as well. If your kids want to download a game to their Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC, there will be ESRB ratings you can check. The same applies to most smartphone and tablet games.
If you can't find the ESRB rating of a game, you can search for it on the ESRB's online database. Enter the name of the game, and you'll get a list of possible titles sorted by platform. There's even an ESRB ratings database app so you can search from your phone.
What the Ratings Mean
Each ESRB entry will have some detail about the content of the rated game, but you can learn a lot just by checking the letter on the rating. They're sorted into broad age groups, like movie and TV ratings, and you can be confident about what you can find in games in each group. E, E10, T, and M are by far the most common ratings, though some games intended specifically for children can be classified EC, and games with extreme content beyond what even the M rating can manage will be rated AO.
E for Everyone
These are the softest, fluffiest games available. E for Everyone means you won't find any objectionable content in these titles, and that they're suitable for children under 10. This doesn't mean they're just for little kids, though. Puzzle games like Puyo Puyo Tetris and some sports games like Rocket League are rated E, and we really like those games, ourselves. E for Everyone is similar to the Y and Y7 TV ratings, and the G movie rating. They're good for anyone!
E10 for Everyone 10 and Up
E10 games are a little bit spicier, but still good for most kids. They're similar to games with an E rating, but they might have more fantasy violence or some characters might actually get angry at each other in some way—think the difference between Peppa Pig and Bugs Bunny. E10 is similar to the Y7 TV rating and the PG movie rating. You won't find anything objectionable, but more action and drama might get your younger kids worked up.
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T for Teen
T for Teen games are where you should start to keep an eye on things, especially if your kids aren't teens yet. They can be violent and explore complex and difficult themes. You won't find much, if any, blood or strong language, but you can expect to see things like fantasy swordfighting and gunfighting with enemies that explode into puffs of smoke, characters dangling from cliffs with actual uncertainty about if they'll hold on, and even off-camera or bloodless deaths. There also might be crude humor or in-game gambling (not with real money, but perhaps a video game version of poker or dice for resources in the game itself). T for Teen is closest to the PG TV rating and PG-13 movie rating.
M for Mature
M for Mature games are as extreme as you can get at most stores and on most systems. Almost nothing is held back here, and you can expect to see explicit violence, language, and even sexual situations comparable with R-rated movies or MA-rated TV. There might be nudity. There might be swearing. There might be gruesome blood and guts. There are lines that M-rated games won't cross, like explicit sexual intercourse, but anything you can see in a movie theater or on cable, you might see in these titles.
EC for Early Childhood
This is the only case where the rating can tell you that a video game is for children and only for children. Both EC and E games are accesible for everyone including young children, and won't have any unsettling imagery or offensive language in them. EC games are intended specifically for young kids, and likely won't hold the interest of older children (or adults). These are games you can feel confident in letting your four-year-old play.
AO for Adults Only
This is the rarest rating, and the most explicit. AO for Adults Only means that the game can have graphic sexual content, or extremely gruesome violent content beyond what even M-rated games can do. This rating is also retail poison, so you don't have to worry about finding it in stores. No major retailers or game consoles' online stores even offer AO-rated games. To find these, you need to actively search for them from the same places you would find pornography. The exception is PC games on Steam, because Steam doesn't curate or restrict content in its games nearly as much as other digital stores (though many adult-themed games on Steam are still tweaked to be less explicit than if you purchase them directly from the developer, or from other outlets).
Beware of Online Gaming
Video games themselves are reliably safe if you know what's in them. When those games go online, however, it becomes a lot more difficult to regulate. Any video game with voice chat might expose your kids to other players' use of objectionable and offensive language. Worse yet, any game that allows modifications to be used or supports any kind of visual communication might contain explicit imagery.
ESRB ratings don't extend to online games because publishers can't control what other players do. There might be limitations like chat filters and mute functions, but it can get pretty gruesome because other people online aren't very nice. If this is the case in a game, the ESRB entry will say "Online interactions not rated by the ESRB." That's a sign that you should take a close look at the game and consider whether you want your kids using it online.
Voice chat is the biggest problem here, because anyone can say anything, and offensive language is very common. This appears often in competitive first-person shooters often rated T and M. PC games can also support modifications and add-on art, letting players put in their own pictures as tags on walls or in their profiles, or show explicit images in the games. These aren't certain for every online game, and they aren't the fault of the developer or publisher, but they are a concern. Check the online features of your kids' games, particularly if they have voice chat or mods.
Consider Parental Controls
You can limit what games your kids can play, even when you're not around. Every major gaming platform has some form of parental controls you can enable that restrict the software your children can run and to what extent they can be connected online. The Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One all have settings that give you greater control over what games your kids consume, with guides on how to use them. The ESRB has a helpful page with guides to using the parental controls of different game systems. Even Steam has parental controls for PC games, though you need some knowledge of computers to implement them.
Many of these parental control systems let you do more than limit what games your kids can play on different game consoles and your PC. The Nintendo Switch has a separate app that lets you set how much time your kids can spend playing video games, and both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One let you control what TV and movies your kids watch, and filter out offensive web content.
PCs, smartphones, and tablets all have several options for controlling what media your kids consume. Our guides to parental control software and parental control mobile apps can walk you through what you need to install on your devices to look after your kids.
Talk to Your Kids and Trust Them
Let's be honest, you're reading this because you're not entirely familiar with the technology and media your kids consume. That means, on some level, they know more about video games than you do. They have an advantage in all of these different ways to limit what video games they play.
You can't blindly limit what they watch and play and expect it to stick. Don't simply ban your kids from playing games. Talk to them about what they like. Find out about the shows they watch and the games they play. Openly discuss why they like them, and if you find a game objectionable, tell them why. The best way to protect your children from unpleasant things is by standing beside them and helping them understand what they're seeing, and what you don't want them to see. If a game is too violent or sexual but your kids want to play it, be open and honest about why you don't want them to. And if you're afraid a game is too violent or sexual, find out more about it and talk to your children about why they want to play it.
Parental controls can be very effective, but your children have an advantage over you on these platforms. Kids born after the turn of the millennium grew up with smartphones and tablets and broadband and video game systems with mature libraries. They started learning about the technical side of these things at a much younger age than you or I did. And, well, if they're determined and curious enough, any parental control can be broken. Education and communication are your greatest tools in protecting your children from content you don't want them to be exposed to.
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