Video Game Ratings discussed with recommendations for Parents
It can be tough navigating the game store to pick out a game that both your kid wants to play, and that is appropriate for their age. And appropriate is more than just the content, if the game is complicated or difficult your kid may just spin his wheels and get angry, meaning you wasted your hard earned money. So we wanted to make a list of games you should check out for each age group and also provide some thoughts on the rating system in place for games which is a little different than what you see in movies and TV shows. If you really want to study up on approaching your gaming options we recommend you check out this book from Dr. Rachel Kowert that dissects games in light of sociological development and dispels various misconceptions while delving into some real concerns for which you should be aware. You will even see a quote from us on the inside.
First, lets discuss the Ratings you will see which are issued by the ESRB or Entertainment Software Rating Board. They are kinda strict like the most over protective parent at your kid's school. But they are good at identifying for you exactly what content is in the game so you can decide for yourself. My main issue is that the inclusion of any weapon from a sword to a gun even if it is cartoonish gets slapped with a 10 or older label. If you are ok with your kids watching an action hero movie, most E10+ games are tamer than that.
EC or Early Childhood means there is little to worry about from this game, however the threshold to get this rating is tough and most video games are going to fall short. This rating is almost exclusively for educational games with the most popular examples being from Sesame Street or characters like Dora the Explorer. These titles are seldom released on Mainstream consoles so you will want to get them for your computer or on a kids game system like a Leap Pad.
E for Everyone is where we start to see some mainstream games. The most popular types are going to be platforming adventure games like Mario. There will be violence but it is cartoony like Mario jumping on a Goomba which will be comically flattened or just get bopped and disappear. Some games can still be a little spooky for young kids but it should be in line with the TV options you would see on Disney Jr or Nickelodeon. You may also get mild language. Someone may be called a jerk or butthead, but no words George Carlin talked about will be flying around.
E10+ or Everyone 10 or older is where you really start to see some options in the store. The lines that can get crossed to fall over the line from E to E10+ is pretty thin and for many parents you may be fine with your kids playing E10 games when they are 7-8, or around when you would let them watch Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean. The violence might be a little more realistic, and having things like a gun even if it is a cartoony laser gun will get you this rating. A mild reference to innuendo can get this rating. The language can be a little harsher but nothing you couldn't say on the radio. I will say that younger than 7 they might struggle with the complexity of the games on this level, like how to progress the story or defeat some objectives.
T for Teen is the most similar to movie ratings as this is hard to distinguish from a PG-13 movie in content. The things that slide in with this rating is typically realistic guns, blood, minor cursing, and some general mature content like some adult references including drinking, smoking, etc. Most violence is still somewhat stylized and unrealistic, but blood and screaming when shot could occur.
Mature is a bit similar to an R rated movie, but an R movie may glaze over adult content and in a video game you may be able to extend that moment forever. Nudity, Extreme Violence, Strong Language and Sexual content is found in this rating. If a game gets this rating it earned it the hard way. However, some people make an allowance for combat simulators as they usually don't have the other content associated with an M rating outside of realistic weapons and combat. That, of course, is your call as a parent.
Adults Only only comes about because the game has at least one of these three things. Extreme or prolonged graphic violence, Explicit sexual content, or the ability to gamble with real money which is kinda a Vegas exclusive thing. This rating is the kiss of death and most retailers won't carry the game and the mainstream console companies (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) won't port the game to their system. So if a game gets this rating most instances will be online. Rockstar Games flirted with the rating on two of their games a few years ago (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Manhunt 2) and had to end up censoring the games to get them released and I don't see anyone testing those waters again for awhile.
Rating Pending you will see this on all your pre-ordered or announced games as they haven't been able to play and review the content yet. Few games are a surprise and you can look at previous releases from a series for a similar rating or ask a sales person. The rating thresholds are known during development and they make the game with a rating in mind.
Kids 2-5 are still learning the language, developing hand dexterity, and learning basic problem solving. Video games are amazing at pushing their limits and developing skills, and almost all the options for this age group are aimed at education. A Leap Pad is probably the best game device you can get for this group as it performs well and has a decent library of games. The other options are going to be web based. I recommend ABCMouse, Disney Jr Games, Nick Jr Games, Sprout Online, and ABCYA. If your kid has a favorite show they probably have games featuring their heroes.
For the LeapPad most games are 5-20 bucks which is nice on the wallet and each game has an educational focus that is plastered right across the front of the game. Some of the best titles are Jake and the Neverland Pirates Mathematics, The Preschool Two-Pack, Crayola Art Adventure, and Sofia the First New Friends: Reading.
Your kids might be wanting to stretch outside of the educational games and are probably trying to steal your phone to play app games. The best games though are still going to be education based but supervised/assisted play of games can start being fun. Leap Pad makes games for this age group specifically with more popular licensed characters like those from Frozen helping with reading, or like Phineas and Ferb's Science game and The Little Mermaid Mathematics.
Jumping in to playing console type games where you probably get the game set up and show them how to play and then let them run around and explore can begin with a game like Minecraft, perhaps best on the creative mode so they don't have to worry about monsters and making sure to eat food. Creative mode also essentially makes the game an E rated game as the combat and possibility of your character dying are removed. The game promotes creativity and will teach your kids some surprising little factoids about how some things are made in real life. Other creativity based games worth your time would be either Zoo Tycoon or Roller Coaster Tycoon,
I recommend games that are fairly straight forward like Mario Kart where they can learn to drive a little cart and avoid obstacles. They likely won't win very often but should have fun playing the courses. Many E rated games are probably going to be difficult until they get closer to 7 or 8 and can handle some strategy. Give some adventure games like Mario or Kirby a try and see how they like them.
Now your kid is probably surprisingly adept at games. This is when temptation sets in and kids start wanting to play online games with friends and might be drawn to games a little over their maturity level. But they can play a huge range of titles in this age range and will likely start to gravitate toward particular genres. I would recommend trying each type out to see what really excites them. All of the mainstream sports titles are typically E rated but tough to be any good at until this age. If they are gravitating toward shooting games some are better suited like Destiny which isn't as graphic or realistic but is still rated T for Teen and there is the Garden Warfare offshoot of Plants vs Zombies which is excellent. The real threat at this age of inappropriate content is online chat which you can and should limit to friends or turn off entirely. I turn off most online chat myself as an adult because I don't want to listen to kids learning to curse either.
Keep them off Mature games as long as possible. The first battles you will lose will be combat simulators like Call of Duty which are very popular, and games with Zombies which tend to get the M rating because the game is populated with mutilated corpses. Grand Theft Auto is another popular game series they may ask to play. They might stick with playfully running around the city and getting in car chases, but the game is very mature with prostitutes and very little regard for human life especially random civilians and police. Ideally, they should be close to driving age at least before they get a copy. By this age you are probably not getting the honor of picking out their games anyway, so be sure to check out the ESRB ratings site and see what content the game they are asking for has in store for you. Most role playing games like the ones made by Bethesda take 60 hours or more to beat which is a good value when considering hours enjoyed versus dollars spent.