Over the past few decades, video games have become an important part of American culture. Many people think of video games as "kid stuff", but the truth is that many games are designed for adult players. Just as there are movies with violence, guns and explosions, so too are there video games catering to the same market. Many of these games are definitely not for children.   

It can be hard for parents who don't know much about video games to judge whether a particular game is appropriate for their children. Fortunately, nearly all video games published at retail stores in the USA today have a game rating. A few minutes learning the system lets parents make informed decisions about what their children should play.   

Most people are familiar with the rating system for movies: G, PG, R and so on. Video games have a very similar rating system, and game ratings are assigned by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an organization started in 1994 by game industry professionals. Once you learn about game ratings, you'll see that they're quite similar to the familiar movie rating system.   

"eC", for Early Childhood, is the youngest rating awarded by the ESRB. As these games are intended to be played by children as young as 3 years, there's nothing that could be considered inappropriate for anyone.   

"E", for Everyone, is a common rating, suitable for children ages 6 or older. E is similar to a G-rated movie. While there may be some conflict or fighting, it's usually cartoonish, as in Super Mario Brothers games.   

"E10+", for Everyone 10+, is intended for children ages 10 and older. There may be more cartoon violence, mild language or suggestive themes.   

"T", for Teen, is another common rating, much like PG movies. These titles may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, some blood and infrequent strong language. There may be large battles, as in Dynasty Warriors, but they aren't gory.

"M", for Mature, is the rating for games aimed at adults (persons 17 and older). Like an R-rated movie, these games can contain intense violence, gore, sexual content and strong language.   

"AO", for Adults Only, is for games considered inappropriate for anyone under 18. Similar to NC-17 movies, there are not many AO games, and they usually receive this rating for nudity or sexual content.   

"RP", for Rating Pending, is a special rating only for upcoming games that have not yet been rated.

In addition to ratings, the ESRB assigns content descriptors. These phrases give more detail about the specific content found in the game, such as "Mild Language", "Strong Violence" or "Alcohol References".   

How does a parent find out a game's rating? Two simple ways. First, every game package shows the game's rating in on the front in the bottom left corner, and on the back in the bottom right with any content descriptors. If you see a game in a store, you can look at its package and find out what sort of content it contains.   

The other way to find a game's rating is to look it up on the ESRB's website, esrb.org . Along with searching for games, you can read about the ratings and content descriptors in detail. These are powerful tools to help you choose what games you want your children to play.