The ESRB has a fairly detailed and complex system that determines what games are marked kid-safe and which are considered appropriate for adults' eyes only. All major publishers participate in the voluntary rating system, and it is instrumental in physical, retail game sales in stores like GameStop and Walmart.
But does any of it actually matter if parents aren't bothering to use the rating scale to guide their childrens' play?
On the heels of the most recent claim that violent video games cause children to behave violently, UK-based game website playr2.com surveyed parents to see if they are aware of the ratings on the games their children play.
The site had 1221 parents respond to their survey, all of whom have children 17 or under who regularly or frequently play video games. According to Playr2:
The parents taking part were asked if they checked the age restrictions of their children's video games before allowing them to play, to which just under two thirds, 64%, answered "no". Of those who did not, the majority, 55%, simply explained that they did not think that age restrictions ‘mattered' on video games.
When asked, "Would you be concerned if your child was playing video games with an age restriction of 18?" just over half, 51%, of respondents to the study said "no".
The parents were also asked about films with the same age restriction (equivalent to an R rating in the US). However, in the instance of movies, the small majority (54 per cent) said yes, they would be concerned if their child were watching them.
The survey also asked participants if they felt that violence in video games could affect their childrens' real-life behaviour negatively (making their children more violent) and 61 per cent responded that no, the games could not.
Playr2 founder Simon Kilby said that it was "really surprising" to him to find that the majority of parents didn't check age restrictions, and added, "they're there for a reason."
Anecdotally, the study seems to be on to something. During my many months behind the counter at GameStop, years ago, I sold countless copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to children 12 and under, even after patiently explaining to the parents and guardians with them that the game was rated M for a reason. After my spiel, one young boy was escorted out via painful-looking ear-grab by his incensed grandmother, whose meaning was clear even if I didn't speak her language. But that was only one out of dozens.
Every child matures at a different rate, and every parent is going to set different boundaries for what they feel is appropriate in their home. Giving an M-rated game to a 16-year-old is certainly different than giving one to a nine-year-old. But "won't someone think of the children?!" is a frequent refrain in discussions of sex and violence in video games. If parents themselves aren't aware or don't care about the differences, it's easy to see how kid-unfriendly material keeps ending up where it perhaps shouldn't be.