The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is a non-profit group that provides rating services to video games similar to those the MPAA offers for movies. Submitting a game for ESRB rating isn’t mandatory, but all current console manufacturers require a game playable on their system to be submitted for rating, so nearly all software developers have their games rated. In addition, most retailers in the US have agreed to only carry ESRB rated games. So while the rating system is a voluntary one, every game you see on the shelves likely has an ESRB rating. The rating a game receives determines how a game may be marked, as well as what restrictions a retailer must place on sales.
The ESRB was formed in 1994, amidst rising concern over portrayals of adult content in video games. As of 2009 it has reviewed more than 18,000 games and assigned them ratings. As with the MPAA, the rating the ESRB gives a game is not an indication of quality (E is not for Excellent and T is not for Terrible) but rather an indication of what type of content you can expect to find in the game.
The lowest rating is EC, or early childhood. These games feature no content that the ESRB considers objectionable. The games are appropriate for children aged 3 and older. After EC, the next rating is E (for everyone). E rated games may contain mild cartoon or fantasy violence or infrequent use of mild language (darn it!). These games are intended for children 6 and up.
Next in line is E10+. As suggested by the name, these games are suitable for children aged ten or older. They contain more prevalent use of cartoon violence or language; and may also have mildly suggestive themes.
Teen is the next rating, symbolized (as one might suspect) by a T. Teen rated games are intended for children 13 and up. They may contain things such as crude humor, simulated gambling, some blood, suggestive themes, strong language, and higher levels of violence and suggestive themes than an E10+ game would.
The second to last stop in the ratings scale is mature, symbolized by M. Mature games are intended for people 17 and older. They may have blood and gore, sexual content, and pervasive strong language, intense violence, brief nudity, gambling, alcohol and drug use. Most retailers require you to show ID to purchase an M rated game.
The final game rating is Adults Only (AO). An adult only game can contain any of the themes in an M rated game in abundance. They may have prolonged scenes of graphic violence and/or sex. As the name indicates, AO games are only available to people 18 years of age or older.
In addition to the ESRB Ratings on video games the Recording Industry of America also has a Parental Advisory Label. Click here to download a pdf from the RIAA and Parental Guide about the Parental Advisory Label on music.