ESRB Game Ratings

Games today range from harmless edutainment and board games to first-person shooter games that feature scenes of intense violence and even sexual content. How are parents supposed to be able to tell the difference?

It's a big problem because most homes nowadays have a computer, and many have separate computers for the kids. To solve the problem, in 1994 the Entertainment Software Association established the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an independent regulatory body that applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy policies for computer and video games.

The ESRB applies to each game one of the following ratings:

  • Early Childhood (EC) - The game has no inappropriate content and is, therefore, suitable for ages 3 and older.
  • Everyone (E) - The game has mildly inappropriate content (such as cartoon violence) but is still suitable for ages 6 and older.
  • Everyone 10+ (E10+) - The game has some inappropriate content (such as cartoon violence and minimally suggestive themes) but is still suitable for ages 10 and older.
  • Teen (T) - The game has some violence, suggestive content, blood, or strong language that should be viewed only by persons age 13 years and older.
  • Mature (M) - The game has intense violence, sexual themes, or other content that should be viewed only by persons age 17 and older.
  • Adults Only (AO) - The game has prolonged scenes of intense violence, sexual themes, nudity, or other content that should be viewed only by persons age 18 years and older.

For some games, the ESRB also applies content descriptors, which are words or phrases that describe the game's content in general terms and explain the game's rating. Here's a partial list of the ESRB content descriptors:

  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
  • Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoonlike situations and characters.
  • Crude Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including "bathroom" humor.
  • Fantasy Violence - Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or nonhuman characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life.
  • Intense Violence - Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict.
  • Language - Mild to moderate use of profanity.
  • Mature Humor D- epictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references.
  • Mild Violence - Mild scenes depicting characters in unsafe or violent situations.
  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity.
  • Sexual Themes - Mild to moderate sexual references or depictions.
  • Strong Language - Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity.
  • Strong Sexual - Content Graphic references to or depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity.
  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials.
  • Use of Drugs - The consumption or use of illegal drugs.
  • Use of Alcohol - The consumption of alcoholic beverages.
  • Use of Tobacco - The consumption of tobacco products.
  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive conflict.

If you have kids, chances are, they have a computereither their own or one shared with the rest of the familyand, chances are, they play games on that computer. That's not a problem when they are being supervised, but few of us have the time or energy to sit beside our kids for each and every computer sessionand the older the kid, the more likely that a hovering adult will be seen as an interloper. In other words, for all but the youngest users, your children will have some unsupervised gaming time at the computer.

To avoid worrying about whether your 8-year-old is playing Grand Theft Auto or something equally unsuitable, you can take advantage of Vista's parental controls. Specifically, the Parental Control feature has a Game Controls section that enables you to control gaming using ratings and content descriptors.

Before you get started, you need to set up a user account for each child (or a single account for all your children, if that works better for you). When you click the Parental Controls link in the Games Explorer, Vista displays the Parental Control window.

Before setting up the controls, you should select the rating system you want to use. Click the Select a Games Ratings System link to display the Game Rating Systems window. Select the rating system you prefer and then click OK to return to the Parent Controls window.

Click the user you want to work with to display the User Controls window. Activate the On, Enforce Current Settings option, and then click Games to display the Game Controls window.

If your kids are too young to play any games, or if you'd prefer that they spend time on the computer working on more constructive pursuits, you can turn off game playing altogether. In the Can UserName Play Games? section, select No to prevent the user named UserName from launching any games from the Games Explorer. If you select Yes instead, you can use the techniques in the next two sections to control the games the user can play.

Instead of shutting off all game play, you're more likely to want to prevent each user from playing certain types of games. The easiest way to do that is to use game ratings and content descriptors. In the Game Controls window, click Set Game Ratings to display the Game Restrictions window.

Click the rating option that represents the highest rating the user is allowed to play. For example, if you're using the ESRB rating system and you select the Teen option, the user will be able to play games rated as Early Childhood, Everyone, Everyone 10+, and Teen. He or she will not be able to play games rated as Mature or Adults Only.

You can also prevent the user from playing unrated games by selecting the Block Games with No Rating option. You can also block games based on content descriptors. If you scroll down in the Game Restrictions window, you see the complete set of content descriptors, each with its own check box. For each check box you activate, the user will not be able to run any games that include that content description, even if the game has a rating that you're allowing.

You might want to fine-tune your game controls by overriding the restrictions you've set up based on ratings and content descriptors. For example, you might have activated the Block Games with No Rating option, but you have an unrated game on your system that you want to allow the kids to play. Similarly, there might be a game that Vista will allow based on the ratings and descriptors, but you'd feel more comfortable blocking access to the game.

In the Game Controls window, click Block or Allow Specific Games to display the Game Overrides window. The table displays the title and rating of your installed games, and shows the current control statusCan Play or Cannot Play. To allow the user to play a specific game, click Always Allow; to prevent the user from playing a specific game, click Always Block.

DirectX 10

Microsoft has said that it's enhancing game performance and the games interface in Windows Vista not only because so many people play games on PCs, but also because it wants to change the perception that the PC is a poor gaming platform. Many people believe that if you're serious about gaming, you need to use a dedicated game platform such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.

This has seemed even more true with the release of the Xbox 360 and the forthcoming release (as I write this) of PlayStation 3, which offer spectacular graphics and game features. Can Vista really compete with these dedicated game consoles?

I think it can because Vista has a gaming ace up its sleeve: the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 both use the DirectX 9 hardware to render video and audio. However, Windows Vista supports DirectX 10, the latest and greatest version of the APIs, which has been completely rewritten to take full advantage of the powerful graphics hardware that's now available for PCs.

The specifics of what's in the DirectX 10 package were not known as I wrote this, but Microsoft had let a few tidbits out of the bag:

  • DirectX 10 removes many legacy functions and interfaces that were kept for backward compatibility but degraded the overall performance of the APIs. As a result (at least as of this writing), DirectX 10 is exclusive to Windows Vista and won't be supported in Windows XP.
  • At the hardware level, games programmed for the DirectX 9 and earlier APIs will not work with DirectX 10. However, DirectX 10 will support these legacy programs via software emulation.
  • DirectX 10 requires a graphics card that has a specific set of features for maximum performance, so game developers can assume that those features will be present and don't have to weigh down their code with workarounds and other card-specific code.
  • DirectX 10 supports impressive new "shader" functions for both pixels and primitives such as dots, lines, and triangles.
  • DirectX 10 supports hardware caching of render states, in which thousands of objects can be held in the cache for easy access. This improves performance not only by making more code quickly accessible, but also by minimizing the number of times the game code has to switch from one render state to another.

These and many other changes should produce a significant improvement in game performance. In particular, PC games developed with DirectX 10 should render scenes with amazing levels of detail, shading, reflections, and other elements that will give these games more of a "real-world" feel.