How to use ESRB ratings

By: Patricia Vance
Tips to help parents understand the risks that accompany online video games

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit organization that assigns age and content ratings for computer and video games. She is an interactive media expert and mother of two. For more information visit www.esrb.org.

Keeping pace with all the ways that media in our homes is changing can be a daunting proposition for many parents, especially given the significant impact the Internet has had on our children’s lives. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter…the list goes on and on, and the way our children play video games is no exception.

It’s easy to understand the attraction. By harnessing the power of the Internet, gamers are able to connect with others playing the same game, which boosts the fun factor and increases competitive aspect of playing games while also creating a sense of community. But given the risks inherent to life in the digital age, it’s crucial that parents be aware of some of the potential risks that come along with video games played online, as well as the tools and controls at their disposal to help them mitigate those risks. The following is a basic guide to what every parent needs to know about the video games their kids are playing online.

Online Games

Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings provide parents with general guidance about content and age-appropriateness, but online elements like in-game communication and the behavior of other players is not something that can be considered or reflected in a game’s rating. Many online games allow for content created or introduced by other players (called “user-generated content” or UGC). Things like voice, text and video chat, customized avatars or cars, or different environments in which the game is played are all types of UGC that can be shared with other players online. Some online-enabled games are moderated by humans to monitor and take action when inappropriate UGC is posted. Some games, especially those designed for children, incorporate filters that block profanity. However, players will often find ways to get around those filters. Additionally, parents may be shocked to hear the language that children are sometime exposed to when chatting by voice (via a headset) or text while playing online.

Games that allow UGC carry a notice on the package that reads “Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB,” which warns that the UGC in the game may not be in line with the rating assigned and for parents to take precautions.

Parental Controls

Just like a standard PC, every current generation console has the ability to connect players online. While all these systems offer parental control features, they differ from one to the next in terms of the elements that can be controlled and to what degree. Some parental controls allow parents to restrict games by ESRB rating and turn online connectivity on and off, while others can do even more - like control when, how and with whom your child can use the system to play with others online.

Consult the ESRB Parental Controls Guide for step-by-step instructions on setting up parental controls for your game system, whether your family games on consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, Wii), handhelds, or on a Mac or PC.


Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games are exactly what they sound like - games that allow a large number of players to play the same game at the same time over an Internet connection. Games like World of Warcraft (which boasts more than 12 million subscribers worldwide) are purchased at the store and players then pay a monthly subscription fee to play with others. Just like online-enabled games, these kinds of games can include significant amounts of in-game communication and other types of UGC that aren’t part of the rating. They can also be extremely engrossing for players as they oftentimes involve a social component, with players assembling into groups, such as clans or guilds, to cooperate within the game.

DLC and Micro-transactions

Downloadable content (DLC for short) is any content that can be downloaded and added into a game to extend or alter it from that which was originally purchased. DLC can be as simple as a new outfit for a game character or as elaborate as adding an entirely new 10-hour adventure onto an existing game, with countless options in between. Publishers typically charge for DLC and the prices vary depending on what the content is.

A micro-transaction is a purchase that might provide or unlock something that makes a cosmetic change (like a new hat or pair of shoes for the player’s character, for example), or gives players something they could have attained or unlocked through effort (like new powers and abilities or a new level to play). Micro-transactions are found most often in free-to-play online games (since that’s usually how the developer makes money) but are increasingly available for all kinds of games.

Consoles like the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii offer virtual arcades or storefronts from which you can download full games or other forms of DLC. Purchases can be made using pre-purchased points (which serve as currency towards game and content purchases), a credit card, or gift cards available at many retailers. Some online retailers like GameStop.com, Amazon.com or Steam.com also offer the ability to purchase downloadable games for consoles and the PC through their websites.

It’s important that kids balance video games with other facets of their lives.

Tips for Parents

  • Check a game’s ESRB rating before bringing it home, but bear in mind that the rating doesn’t reflect user-generated content encountered during online play.
  • Go beyond the rating. Read rating summaries that provide a brief yet descriptive explanation of content in a game that factored into its rating. You can look these up right from the store by using the ESRB’s mobile website or free mobile app.
  • Check game review sites for even more detail about game content.
  • Use parental controls which are available for all currently sold game consoles to help manage online gameplay. And keep your password or PIN a secret!
  • Teach your child good “netiquette” and also how to report bad behavior or bullying when playing online, or to come to you for help. Many online game services include a link to report abuse and, if not, check their Terms of Service.
  • Instruct your child to always get your permission before making an in-game purchase that involves cash, and not points.
  • Monitor and/or play games with your children. There’s absolutely no substitute for being an involved parent.
  • Keep the console or computer in a public area of the house rather than in the child’s bedroom. This will help you keep an eye and ear on the action.
  • Talk to your children about the inherent risks of online gameplay. Use the ESRB’s Family Discussion Guide to help structure a conversation.
  • As with all things, exercise moderation. It’s important that kids balance video games with other facets of their lives, including school work and social activities.

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