MMO Family: How helpful are those ESRB ratings?

ESRB Rating
Quick, what's the ESRB rating symbol of your favorite MMO of choice? And if you know that, what are the content descriptors that account for your game's rating? If you got them right, bravo! According to the ESRB's official poll, 85% of parents with children who play video games are aware of the ratings system. For those not familiar, here's the deal: The Entertainment Software Rating Board began in 1994 with the goal of providing a standard set of ratings and descriptors to help adults choose appropriate games for children.

But the real question is, are ESRB ratings accurate when it comes to MMOs? The poll also claims that 65% of parents regularly check a game's rating before making a purchase, but are those ratings as helpful when choosing an MMO for your children? Read on for a look at why the E, T, and AO symbols might actually deserve an F.

Can you rate the world? Can you rate a virtual world?

There are a few problems with the ESRB ratings for MMOs, and one of the biggest ones is that an MMO is bigger than a game; it's a virtual world. I can go into any big city here in the U.S. and spend the day at the Children's Museum with my kids. But it would be a completely different experience to go down the street to the Red Light District, and even though both are in the same city, one is very family friendly while the other is the polar opposite.

You could say the same for MMOs as well. EverQuest II, for example, is rated T for Teen, which means it's meant for kids 13 and older. It's described as having violence, use of alcohol, and suggestive themes. Fair enough, but I recall many fun game sessions with my (then) four-year-old daughter as we worked together on her summer garden in her Qeynos home. She never once encountered any violence, use of alcohol, or suggestive themes. Interestingly enough, EQII's latest motto is "free-to-play your way," and I think it's perfect for this discussion because it sums up the square peg of ESRB with the round hole of MMOs. That's one of the flaws of the ESRB system because it really can't accurately assess an entire virtual world. If I were to completely follow the ESRB rating, I would have missed out on some fun moments of creativity with my daughter.

The "people" factor

Another problem with the ESRB ratings is that MMO publishers lack strict control over what happens in-game. A game like Wizard101 is rated E for everyone ages 10 and older (that means crude humor and mild fantasy violence). But even with a kid-safe rating and a lot of in-game safety features, there are always ways for other players to threaten, spam, cheat, and use inappropriate language toward other players. EVE Online is rated T for teen, ages 13 and older, and its only descriptor is violence. World of Warcraft, meanwhile, is also rated T and also has violence as a descriptor, but it's also described as having "blood and gore, crude humor, mild language, suggestive themes, and use of alcohol." If I didn't know a thing about either game, I'd draw the conclusion that my 13-year-old would be much safer playing EVE. I'm not sure many of us would draw the same conclusions, knowing what we know about both games.

EQII censored ale
From store to screen

One caveat to this is that the trend away from physical product to digital download might actually reduce the presence of ESRB rated games. As ESRB President Patricia Vance described in a recent Gamasutra interview, the system is voluntary, yet there are many storefronts that require games to have an ESRB rating, and there are penalties for game publishers that don't accurately represent their games to the ratings board (think Hot Coffee mod).

If you're a publisher who relies on Gamespot for game sales, you're going to comply and file for a rating. But if you make a game that's available for digital download or for a mobile device, you have a better chance of avoiding the process and cost of filing for a rating. So an indie game like Minecraft, for example, is raking in the money and doesn't have an ESRB. Second Life also isn't listed in the ESRB database, although it's worked on its own set of content ratings. Not surprisingly, that's changing, and in the Gamasutra interview, Vance explained how the ESRB is working on arrangements with cellphone providers and digital distributors to encourage participation in the ratings system. But would an ESRB rating affect your decision on whether a game like Minecraft is suitable for your children? And how would you even rate a game like Minecraft, which has several types of game worlds and difficulty levels?

Mom and Dad know best

I'm probably stating the obvious, but no rating system can replace parents when it comes to judging what's appropriate for children. I'll admit that I don't pay much attention to the ESRB ratings, but that doesn't mean I don't scrutinize and preview games to make sure it's something that my kids could play. Perhaps it's helpful to adults who aren't familiar with video games, but it can't be the main tool to judge a game, just as the MPAA ratings aren't always a great barometer of what movies are suitable for kids. Parents know their children better than anyone; they know whether their kids are ready for more mature themes in games. And there are plenty of shades of grey when it comes to those descriptors as well. I think my kids will be able to handle watching a dwarf swig an ale in EverQuest II even though it's rated T (13+). But it's another thing entirely to allow them to see my Imp Sith slice an opponent in a Star Wars: The Old Republic cutscene (also rated T). Fortunately, as gamers age, we'll be carrying years of experience with MMOs and video games in general, and we'll be able to use that to screen appropriate games and weed out the ones that aren't. I'll take that over an ESRB rating any day.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.