ESRB Ratings Background
The first part of this project has some important context about how this study was conducted.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board gives content ratings to games and is recognized in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The first games to receive ratings were released midway into the 4th generation in September 1994 and included Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, Sonic Triple Trouble, Super Punch Out!!, Donkey Kong Country, and Doom (32X). The data we’re looking at starts at the fifth generation, so most of the ESRB’s history is included.
The following summaries of the ESRB ratings are based on the ESRB’s descriptions of them, the content descriptors post will go into more detail:
Early Childhood was aimed at young children and was mostly educational games. This rating was retired in 2018 with no announcement until the ESRB replied to a tweet asking about it in 2019. I find it interesting and odd that there being few eC games would be a reason to ditch a useful label. These games had no objectionable content and can only have a small number of content descriptors, I found one used on two games in this study.
The ESRB removed any mention of this rating from their rating description page. In fact, they removed the image of the rating from their website completely:
I took that screen capture several months ago and I was double checking a few things while writing this and it now seems to be impossible to find Early Childhood games by searching the ESRB website:
But they can still be found with a google search, although there’s just a blank space now instead of a broken image:
Everyone was known as “Kids to Adults” until 1998. These games can have only mildly objectionable content such as mild language or violence. Some games rated Everyone have content descriptors, some do not.
Everyone 10+ was introduced in March 2005 as a rating for games in between Everyone and Teen and suitable for players at least 10 years old. All E10+ games have at least one content descriptor.
Some games that got re-rated later were changed from E or T to E10+:
Teen rated games are intended for audiences at least 13 years old. Games with this rating may include simulated gambling or some blood. All Teen games have at least one content descriptor.
Mature rated games are intended for ages 17 and up. They can include intense and realistic violence, language, and sexual content and they all have at least one content descriptor.
Adults Only rated games are for those 18 and up. Games with this rating can have extreme violence, graphic sexual content, and gambling with real money (Peak Entertainment Casinos is the only game to have received this rating for gambling). The big four console manufacturers never allowed games with this rating to be released on their platform, and few retail stores will sell PC games with it, making it quite rare. Wikipedia has a nice list of these games.
ESRB Ratings Distribution
To start with here is the overall distribution of ESRB ratings. The extreme ends of the scale are quite small, but roughly 1 in 1,000 games are eC, and roughly 1 in 10,000 are Ao. Eight of the 22 eC games in this study were Sesame Street games, the two Ao games were Hatred and Seduce Me.
Games rated Everyone have only recently been overtaken by Teen games and the overall distribution of the ratings have become closer. What was it about 2001 and 2008 that kicked off a trend of games becoming less for Everyone?
This 6 year old article claims that E ratings represent 70% of all games. It seems like the source is the ESRB itself, which would probably want to paint games in a child-friendly light, but that number seems incredibly high to me. Sure, the kinds of games not included in this study might trend towards inoffensive, and there are mobile and other platforms not included here, but that still seems very high.
The N64 and Wii have the largest number of Early Childhood games, and Nintendo systems in general have more games on the child-friendly side.
The Game Boy Color has the highest percent of Everyone rated games, and at 93% this is the largest share of a rating for a system. If you don’t count the PC (and you shouldn’t, the unrated games take a chunk out of everything) the PS4 has the smallest percent.
The Wii U has the largest share of E10+ games, while the PS3 has the smallest, if you discount the systems that were out when the rating started to be used.
Meanwhile the Xbox is the most Teenage system, while the Game Boy Color is the least.
Most Mature goes to PS3, and there were zero Game Boy Color games rated Mature, and not just of games included in this study.
All two Adults Only titles included were for the PC.
Handhelds definitely get fewer games with objectionable content. For a while it certainly helped that they were less capable of rendering anything realistic, but even past that developers just don’t put those kinds of games there.
ESRB Ratings + Metascores
But what ratings do people prefer for their games? None of the Early Childhood games had metascores, and the very small sample size of two Adults Only games averaged 43.16.
Everyone, Everyone 10+, and Teen rated games are quite close, and their average, mean, and mode paint slightly different pictures. There is a small bump in metascores for Mature rated games. This may partly be because few cheaply made games are rated Mature and there is almost certainly a correlation between budget and metascore.
Mature rated games come out on top, both in overall 90+ metascores and in the percentage of games scoring that high.
ESRB Ratings + Genres
Adventure and Role-Playing, the narrative-driven genres, have the highest ratings overall. Is it harder to tell a compelling story without graphic violence, sexual situations, and bad language?
Educational, Puzzle, and Sports are all understandably low in objectionable content.
ESRB Ratings + Game Lengths
Games tend towards the Mature rated side of the scale the longer they are, although the longest main stories are a bit of an exception. Role-Playing games are such a large part of the longest buckets that their overall more adult ratings push things in that direction. Longer games also have more opportunities to present scenes that earn severe content descriptors such as Strong Language, Strong Sexual Themes, and Mature Humor.
But more on that next time, where I’ll go into more depth about content descriptors than you ever imagined possible.
GameRankings.com for metascores and some release dates. Archives: 1, 2, 3
MobyGames.com for genres, some release dates, some ESRB ratings, and some ESRB content descriptors
HowLongToBeat.com for main story and completionist times.
ESRB.org for ESRB ratings and ESRB content descriptors
Wikipedia for its many lists of games