Are ESRB Ratings Enough?


Soz, I’m writing this before breakfast.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the new TLOU2 trailer and the new Detroit trailer (and to an extent 13 Reasons Why), I started thinking, video games should definitely be doing more to communicate, ‘woah, this is intense and maybe not for you.’

As it currently stands the ESRB has the familiar ratings sticker and - I just found this out - a detailed blurb on their website for each game. I think the blurb does a good job if a bit too spoilery.

The Last Of Us Blurb:

This is an action game in which players assume the role of Joel and Ellie, human survivors battling their way through a post-apocalyptic world. From a third-person perspective, players traverse through city ruins and use a variety of weapons (e.g., pistols, rifles, explosives, spiked bats, steel pipes, and blades) and melee attacks to fight off infected mutants and other human survivors. Players can also employ stealth kills (e.g., strangulations, pistol executions, stabbing attacks) and engage in extended combat sequences involving close-up camera angles and on-screen prompts. Screams of pain, realistic gunfire, and blood-splatter effects accompany the combat. Several attacks result in decapitations and dismemberment; body parts are depicted in some areas (e.g., chopping blocks). Cutscenes also depict intense acts of violence: a young character dying in a man’s arms from gunshot wounds; adult characters being executed at point-blank range; an enemy getting interrogated and stabbed in the knee. During the course of the game, a character makes sexual remarks about an adult magazine (e.g., “Whoa. How the hell would he even walk around with that thing” and “Oh why are these [pages] all stuck together”). The words “f**k,” “sht," and "ashole” can be heard in the dialogue.


(God I hope those came out well)

As you can see in the ratings above, ‘Blood and Gore’ and ‘Intense Violence’ are common across the three games. I think we can all agree that the violence, the amount of gore and to an extent, what gore is, varies across the games.

People have long declared that the halo games could very well be rated-T when you look at things like Uncharted etc. The violence in MK and TLoU are very different. Mk is over the top and cartoonish while TLoU is realistic, grounded and gritty.
I think the idea of ‘trigger warnings’ in games become more important in cases like TLoU. As technology progresses and polygons start looking more like people, the case for more descriptive warnings, or at the very least a message when you boot up the game, becomes much stronger.

A personal tale: I played Silent Hill 2 the other day and it’s one of my favorite games. That scene, you know the scene, I’m not gonna describe the scene, yes, THAT SCENE,.has very little effect on me in it’s current interation. You up res that, stick it in Frostbite or Unreal and I check out, I’m done.


I’m definitely always slightly surprised that Halo is a Mature release over there (PEGI, the current pan-European equivalent of the ESRB, consistently rate Halo games a 16+ while the other games listed are 18+ for their more excessive or realistic violence).

Does anyone remember when John Davison left 1Up to do What They Play, which seemed like a pretty good idea for an independent site to catalogue this stuff in more detail that the industry-run rating boards tend to (and with a better idea of where spoilers and other things that don’t need to be there can be replaced with more informative discussion of the suitability of content rather than just explaining the plot etc).


i played the halo series when i was like 12 and i was fine. there’s blood in those games, some body horror, and some brutal stealth kill animations (but the people getting killed with these are always heavily armored and “faceless” and/or aliens which takes away from the reality of it a bit?), but it honestly isn’t that intense. i feel like aside from some horror elements (the flood lmao), the halo series as a whole is about the level of intensity of a PG-13 action movie as far as content warnings go. even now i couldn’t play tlou without feeling nauseous.

i didn’t know ESRB had blurbs on their page for each game, that’s helpful to know. i feel like it would be useful to have more levels of the “blood and gore” warning at the very least, though. halo and tlou both have that warning but halo in general has barely any gore and most of it comes from aliens, while tlou clearly has a lot more that is generally in much higher definition. the “blood and gore” warning is pretty unspecific and doesn’t take into account the different ratios of these two things a game may have (many games, particularly shooters, might have a decent amount of blood but only a little bit of gore), the focus that the game has on them (are there cutscenes with closeups on gory scenes or is it generally just seen from a distance?), and how removed the content is from reality (is it sci fi violence, is it cartoonish, is it hyperdetailed?)

you make a good point about how the increasingly realistic violence in games is making these content warnings more important. skyrim, for example, is a pretty violent game that allows you to do loads of horrible things to your enemies, but it doesn’t have the capability to render that violence at the level that tlou can, making it more palatable to a wider audience


Yeah, I think how things are currently being handled is probably enough. Every retailer I know doesn’t sell M or T rated games to kids that aren’t of age, and if a parent is willing to buy those games for their kids, that’s their call. As far as trigger warnings go, I can’t think of a game where I was surprised by a despicable act of violence showing up where it wouldn’t normally be. Like… if I’m playing Wolfenstein or Mortal Kombat or some horror game, I expect that I’m going to see some effed up stuff. When it comes to specific acts that would be triggering, information has never been more available than it is now for those that would need it. That ESRB blurb for Last of Us seems very detailed about the worst acts, and there’s often day 1 coverage on websites that do care enough to mention those things.


I worry about how little of it matters when it comes to online gaming stores now; I don’t even notice ESRB ratings there. There’s a certain age range where you’re savvy enough to get on the computer and purchase games on Steam, but not mature enough to be experiencing some of the things those games can show you or have you do.

In a weird edge case, when I was working on Read Only Memories, we got probably rightly slapped with an M rating for language and “sexual innuendo”. We wanted to make the game we wanted to make, but we also wanted like, teenagers to play the game to see the representation we were trying to put out there for all kinds of people who play games but don’t often see characters they can relate to. Just gotta get the balance right, I guess.


Well that protection is really the parent/guardians’ responsibility. Online marketplaces may not require ID to buy mature games, but they do require a valid form of electronic payment, which, outside of one-time-use gift cards, minors would need an adult to set up for them.

And of all the disturbing things that children can be exposed to via the internet, explicit games is pretty low on the list.


Almost everytime I go to the local games store I see some parent buying GTAV to a very enthusiatic kid and not even bothering or asking about the rating.

So… no.


I think the current system is too abstract. I think they’re many people who are okay with the broad concepts of ‘intense violence’ but draw the line in a major way at graphic violence against women. I think things like that could be more forward, whether before a trailer or after all the dev logos when you boot up a game, or just on amazon, wherever.

There is an onus on the consumer to research the product before they purchase but I do think that information should be more forward; I don’t think it’s crazy to look at two games with the same rating and the same broad criteria and think I was fine with Game A so I should be fine with Game B.

We got the rating system after MK broke people’s minds while it was breaking characters’ spines and maybe it needs a good refresh now.


These ratings would seem more necessary/essential if we weren’t completely inundated with detailed pre-release coverage of virtually every single title for months before release. In a world where I heard some vague things about a game that sounded cool but couldn’t find much info about it and then went to the store and saw the rating said “intense violence and gore and all that” it would be good to know and possibly guide my decision-making if purchasing it for me or someone else. But I can just take 10 seconds to look up the Last of Us 2 and get 30 videos and articles telling me “this shit’s fucked.”

Parents who aren’t tech savvy and don’t realize researching a game their kid is interested in might be a good idea probably still rely on that rating, but I’d guess that’s fewer and fewer parents.


Parents that care, even ones that don’t play games, can tell the difference between Mortal Kombat, Indigo Prophecy, and Halo, just like they can tell the difference between Saw, The Matrix, and Good Will Hunting, despite those simply being rated R.


To be honest, I didn’t make the post with respect to parenting, as in I didn’t even consider it. I do think both you and @EmuPrime have good points in regards to parenting. People who grow up with games will make more informed decisions as parents.

That aside, the ratings aren’t just for kids or parents.

I do think in regards to adults, buying the games for themselves, who are triggered by specific things, I don’t think the ratings are enough. I think the blurb is fantastic, but up until today I didn’t know that the ESRB had blurbs for every game they rate. I think that blurb should be more forward and what should be pushed.


Not saying other people don’t also benefit, but the rating system for games was explicitly created with parents in mind. They are who the ESRB is trying to help first and foremost.


Fair play. All the more reason I think to maybe have a bit of a refresh or maybe something in addition to it.


Not to be rude but isn’t that kind of what the internet and reviews are for?

If you’re worried about the content of the game perhaps go read a few reviews and see if anything troubling comes up in them. Or ask on a forum such as here, I’m sure people who have played would be willing to tell you about anything without spoiling the game.


I would like some overhauls to the “age gates” portion of the system since I think it’s a way more doable and “realistic” thing they can do in terms of gauging the content:

Halo has been brought up several times in this thread. Both in the sense of it not feeling as “mature” as say TLOU or other M games and that the PEGI rating being 16+.

Halo is actually my “go-to” for why I think some age gates should be refined, and seeing Halo 5 being a T game made a lot of sense to me? I know the older games had some harsher language, and there was more Covenant blood (and ya know, The Flood) but I still felt it wasn’t nearly as “R rated” as other games in those days.

I think ESRB should do this:

  • Leave EC, E, E10 and T as they are, in respects to the age guidelines.
  • Similar to PEGI, implement a 16+ “OT” (like some manga companies do, in the US at least) that applies more for games like Halo where it’s a bit more “mature” than say a Zelda: Twilight Princess or what have you but, it’s not the same as a The Last of Us, Resident Evil, or Battlefield 1.
  • Games like those last three? They should be “M” but M should be bumped up to 18+.
  • As a consequence, AO games should be treated like an NC-17 or X-Rated film - you have to be 18 to purchase those, regardless of supervision.

The trigger warning component is interesting. I don’t know if the MPAA does this at all (or other rating systems for whatever media) but I think it would be important to make it a mandate for a boot screen if a game could be “clearly” identified as a triggering title. How clearly is defined is beyond me but I do know I find some games to have personally triggering moments that friends still sometimes don’t understand why (though they do empathize with the fact it can be triggering).


I’m pretty new to forums so Idk maybe most people are fine because of reviews and whatnot. I do know that not every outlet does a great job of detailing possible triggers in games. Waypoint is great but a large deal of game journalism (purposely?) navigates away from certain issues.

Also I know a lot of people like to go into a game blind, but again, I’m not sure.


This issue has always been interesting to me. It’s easy to forget that the ESRB was made in duress from the US Government, insisting that if the industry didn’t provide one, they would (this is what I’ve read, at least). There used to be other rating systems, too, usually less helpful.

I used to have issues with rating systems, but I’ve changed my mind a little bit about them. There is the ethical problem, though, of whether or not they are enforced, particularly in regards to age limitation. (This extends to music and film, too.) This is kind of complicated, because this basically ends up prescribing a moral framework of art that matches to a supposed age scale. Isn’t it kind of silly to boil the contents of a piece of art to one letter, anyway? Like, The King’s Speech, Fargo, and Mulholland Drive are all Rated R, but for hugely different reasons. And none of those are films I would say are necessarily awful movies for someone under 18 to see.

The benefit of these rating systems are almost entirely for, as stated, the parents. There’s not a lot of evidence pointing towards violence in art causing violence in reality. Sex may be different in this regard, as it depictions of women are often objectified. I shouldn’t need to explain why language is different. Because of that, it’s mostly what the parent wants the kid to see. So prescribing a legal necessity for a piece to be purchased by only adults necessarily prescribes an idea of what is morally acceptable for younger people to enjoy at their own accord. Whether this is worth the general good, I can’t say. But it is at the very least disconcerting, to me at least.

Besides: parental controls are kind of fixing this nowadays anyhow.

I definitely agree with the asserted notions above, that simply warning the public of a piece’s content does little harm and heaps of good! This doesn’t stop anyone from accessing media, instead only helping those who may need to avoid it. I think in the future, this may be the preferred method of information, especially because of the way parents are being afforded more control over what their kids have access to with more home-based entertainment.


Well the ratings aren’t meant to totally bar underage kids from seeing PG-13 or R-rated movies. The language of the rating system just states that kids aren’t allowed to see them without a parent or guardian present, supposedly so they can have a conversation with them afterward, or pull them out of the theater if they realize it’s something they don’t think they’re ready for. Parents that are paying attention will know the difference between The Kingsman and The King’s Speech, and have an idea whether either would be appropriate for their 14 year old.

Unfortunately there’s no way to force parents to be good parents, especially when those that want to be rarely have the means to do so.


You’re right; the ratings aren’t meant to be used to halt access to media. I was kind of responding to someone who was suggesting they should. However:

  1. There has been push for legislation to enforce these ratings as such
  2. Some places do enforce these ratings (e.g. in Canada)
  3. Ratings like NC-17 do in fact bar access

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be restrictions based on these, nor am I saying that there should. This is a really complicated issue with no clear answer. This isn’t a new problem