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Hands on with the ESRB mobile app: video-game ratings on the go

Consumer Reports News: January 20, 2011 10:30 AM

Take a phone photo of the game, and the
ESRB mobile app looks up the rating.
Photo: ESRB

If your kids (and/or you) have video games, you've probably noticed that each of them has a rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit, self-regulatory organization. The ESRB offers a free app for iPhone and Android smart phones that lets you look up its ratings and more information for any game. And recently the app gained a new feature: Snap a photo of the game box, and the app finds the information for you. I wanted to see exactly how it worked, so I tried it out on my Android phone.

The ESRB rates games for age appropriateness and labels them with succinct content descriptions. Game ratings include "EC (Early Childhood)"; E (Everyone); E10+ (Everyone 10 and older); T (Teen); M (Mature); and AO (Adults Only). You may also see RP (Rating Pending) on some very new games in ads for yet-unreleased games [corrected]. These ratings are found on the front of game packages. On the back, content descriptors give more information about why the game earned its rating; these include such phrases as "mild violence," "crude humor," "blood and gore," and "simulated gambling."

That's a good amount of information. But if you're looking for more details, the ESRB also offers what it calls a "rating summary": a longer description of a game "to give parents a detailed yet brief and straightforward description of exactly the kind of content they would want to know about when choosing a game for their child," according to the ESRB's site.

The rating summaries are remarkably detailed, with good reason; an innocuous-sounding game may be well worth checking, depending on what kind of content you object to. And even if you're shopping for E-rated games, you can find out what the game is like.

Rating summaries aren't found on game packages but are available on the organization's website and via its mobile app, which you can download for no charge from the Apple App Store or Android Market. (Note that games that came out before July of 2008 don't have rating summaries.)

The ESRB app has a simple, uncomplicated interface. The Search screen lets you type in the game title to retrieve information, but you can also search by photo: Snap a shot of the front of the game's box with your phone, and the app finds one (or several possible) matches. (The ESRB felt that taking pictures of the game instead of scanning bar codes, as many shopping apps do, was a simpler and more accessibly technique for most of the app's potential users.) There's also an Options screen that lets you filter by platform (Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3, mobile phone, and so on) and by rating category.

I shot photos of about 15 game boxes, and the app recognized all of them. With some games that had sequels of similar names, I just had to click on which one I wanted to know about. I wasn't able to save searches, though, which might be a helpful feature for parents doing a lot of shopping.

After I tried the app, I spoke briefly with Pat Vance, president of the ESRB, about why the app came about. "Rating summaries really give that final bit of information to let parents know that they’re really comfortable buying this game for their kids," said Vance. "There's no 'one size fits all' for parents." So the organization wanted to make the summaries available right where many buying decisions are made: in the store.

Parents can use all the help they can get when it comes to ensuring their kids are playing the games that are right for them. And when an app is this helpful—not to mention, free—it's a no-brainer.

—Carol Mangis

Can video games improve your health? Take a look at this story on Consumer Report's health site: "Burn calories with video games."

Carol Mangis

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