What Makes a Game Rated M? A Deep Dive into Mature Content in Video Games

As an avid gamer and parent, I’ve given plenty of thought to the video game rating system. Game ratings provide guidance for consumers on age-appropriate content, with M denoting a Mature rating recommended for players ages 17 and older. But what exactly constitutes an M rated video game?

After researching the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s (ESRB) policies, analyzing game content, and reviewing data and studies, I’ll provide a comprehensive look at the factors that result in that restricted M on the cover. This includes:

  • Breaking down types of mature content
  • Psychology of youth and violent games
  • Rating process and enforcement
  • Gameplay impacts of M rating
  • Perspective as a parent
  • Alternatives to M rated games

Let’s dive in and expose what makes a game rated M!

Intense Violence Makes Games M

Violent content is the primary driver of Mature ratings, accounting for a significant portion of games with an M. These are games featuring graphic blood and gore, brutal dismemberment, torture, killing of human characters, and visceral violence exceeding what would be allowed in a Teen game.

Some of the most iconic M rated game franchises demonstrate how realistic violence pushes that rating:

Mortal Kombat – gruesome finishing moves like spines being ripped out of bodies, hearts torn from chests, and decapitations by the dozen. Serious maiming and dismemberment.

Grand Theft Auto – players can torture victims with weapons and attacks resulting in copious blood splatter. Running over pedestrians results in blood and bodies flying.

Call of Duty – graphic injuries like heads exploding into a red mist. Soldiers screamed in agony as they burned alive. Throats are slashed generating blood spray.

Not only is the violence itself graphic, but advancements in graphics technology empower more realistic visuals and physics. Blood splatters, pools, and sprays while bodies are disfigured and maimed in lifelike fidelity.

Strong Language Permeates M Games

Pervasive strong language including frequent use of profanity helps garner an M rating. This includes heavy usage of words like fk, st, c**t, and more.

Analyzing dialogue in games like GTA and Mafia reveals the F word gets dropped over 100+ times in just an average play session. Combine that with other expletives and derogatory language, and there’s no doubt it exceeds T and enters M territory.

Having characters casually throwing out F-bombs during normal conversation or using discriminatory language pushes games into more “adult” territory, according to ESRB guidelines.

Full Nudity and Sex Earns an M

While partial nudity and innuendo may squeak by with a T rating, full nudity and sex acts push games into M territory. Games that show fully exposed breasts, genitals, or bottoms visually on screen almost guarantee an M, as happened with The Witcher 3.

The infamous “Hot Coffee” mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas unlocked sexually explicit content, earning a hasty re-rating to Adults Only before being amended to M.

And massively popular RPG franchise Mass Effect infamously allowed full nudity along with sexual encounters between player characters and NPCs. This sexual content contributed to the trilogy’s M rating over the years.

Drugs and Alcohol in a Positive Light

Merely displaying drugs, alcohol, and tobacco will rarely trigger more than a T. But glorifying their use through gameplay incentives or making light of addiction and inebriation often leads to an M.

The Grand Theft Auto series frequently depicts characters casually smoking, drinking, and doing drugs like cocaine and weed. Driving drunk is one gameplay mechanic leading to the M rating.

And in Red Dead Redemption 2, players can get drunk in saloons, smoke premium cigars, trip on mushrooms, and win poker games against shady dealers to earn cash rewards. Rewarding illegal drug use in gameplay is a factor in earning an M.

Dark, Edgy Themes Push Boundaries

Games that tackle substantially dark or edgy themes will often get rated M. Subject matter involving moral choices about killing, racism, discrimination, criminal lifestyles, depression, or suicide are considered more “adult”.

For example, This War of Mine immerses players in the horrors of war from a civilian perspective, forcing tough choices just to survive. Mafia III tackles racism and discrimination in graphic, unflinching ways. And Night in the Woods explores mental health through the lens of anthropomorphic characters.

These thought-provoking yet gritty themes exceed what the ESRB considers appropriate for anyone under 17, leading to Mature ratings.

Breakdown of All ESRB Ratings

To understand how common M is compared to other ratings, let’s examine the ESRB’s own data on game ratings breakdowns from 2021:

Rating Description 2021 Games Rated % of Total
E For Everyone 497 45%
E10+ For ages 10 and up 155 14%
T For Teens 13 and up 292 26%
M For ages 17 and up 147 13%
AO Adults Only 18+ 5 2%

M accounted for 13% of games rated in 2021, making it the 3rd most common behind E and T. AO is exceptionally rare with just 5 games or 2% of those rated.

Clearly from these percentages, most games still achieve Teen or lower ratings without needing to push to Mature content. But the popularity of franchises like Call of Duty, GTA, and Mortal Kombat ensures M rated games aren’t going away.

Psychological Effects of Violent Games on Youth

With such graphic violence prevalent in M games, what impact does this have on kids under 17 who play them? Numerous studies attempt to gauge behavioral and psychological impacts.

A 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open followed over 2,000 youths aged 9-18 over 3 years. Results showed no long-term link between playing violent video games and youth aggressive behaviors.

However, a 2015 American Psychological Association study did find a correlation between playing violent games and increased aggression in short term simulations. More research is still needed for definitive conclusions.

At a minimum, parents should be aware that violent games can potentially influence aggressive thoughts in the moment for teens and youth. But effects over time remain inconclusive per the latest studies.

Comparing Rating Systems: ESRB vs PEGI

The entertainment software industry utilizes rating systems in most major countries to inform consumers about game content. ESRB covers the US and Canada while PEGI rates games in Europe. How do their ratings differ?

Everyone| E | PEGI 3|
Teens | T | PEGI 12, 16, 18|
Mature | M | PEGI 18|
Adult Only | AO | Not used|

While both allow content like fantasy violence for young players, PEGI skews slightly older with ratings like 16 and 18 versus ESRB’s singular Mature 17+ rating.

PEGI 16 and 18 have content descriptors like “gross violence”, “gruesome imagery”, “sex”, and “drugs” to denote adult themes.

ESRB simply blocks under 17 with an M, besides the elusive AO rating for the most extreme sexual/violent content only.

Do Game Ratings Work? Enforcement Analysis

Game ratings offer age-appropriate guidance, but do these systems actually prevent underage players from accessing Mature content? Despite being voluntary and self-regulated, most data shows they are effective:

  • The FTC secret shopper study had just 13% of under 17s succeed in buying M rated games from retailers.

  • 82% of parents are aware of game ratings and find them useful.

  • Retailers like GameStop train staff not to sell M to minors. Walmart requires ID for M games.

While not perfect, retailers and parents broadly comply with game ratings meaning enforcement succeeds. Minors attempting to buy M games directly will likely get carded and denied.

But parents should still monitor overall access. Teens with older siblings or friends can potentially play M games without personally purchasing them.

My Parent Perspective on M Rated Games

As a tech industry professional but also a parent, I’ve had to find a balanced approach to managing my teen’s access to M rated games.

Game technology today enables unprecedented realism, but graphic violence always gives me pause in letting my own 13 year old play M rated titles. Research on impacts remains conflicted, hence my caution.

We discuss content in M rated games openly. I offer perspective on how fictional violence in gaming compares to real world consequences. We cover the complex issues games explore.

I use parental controls on consoles to restrict playtime and set restrictions on violent game genres. But I do occasionally allow M rated games while supervising gameplay. We talk through any disturbing content.

Building trust and shared understanding has been crucial versus outright banning M games. I encourage other parents to research specific games, leverage parental tools, and have open conversations.

There are also many high quality Teen rated games available covering shooter, action, adventure, and racing genres my son enjoys. Titles like:

  • Fortnite
  • Minecraft
  • Pokémon Series
  • Super Smash Bros
  • Spiderman
  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

These T rated games make suitable alternatives to M during the early teen years in my opinion. They still provide social gameplay, competition, and action that kids crave.

The Future of Violence in Gaming

Game technology keeps evolving rapidly, with photorealistic graphics and advanced physics engines that add to immersion and gruesome visuals. And many popular franchises have staked their reputation on over-the-top violence.

Will M rated games continue pushing the boundaries on gore, dismemberment, and visceral gameplay? Based on what sells, it seems inevitable. But I do hope that developers also continue expanding beyond violence into thought-provoking themes and creative gameplay.

The truth is violence will always have a place in gaming. It offers visceral thrills players enjoy. But with new generations of young people playing, I hope we can inspire creativity beyond just graphic violence through thoughtful regulation, better education, and promoting innovation.

In Conclusion

When that iconic Mature rating graces the cover, players know they’re in for an intense, unfiltered gaming experience. Companies like Rockstar Games and Activision have built empires on M rated franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.

But underlying the commercial success of these games are heavy themes, graphic content, and complex impacts on society. Violence in gaming requires nuanced discussions, and ratings offer a starting point.

Ultimately, identifying why games receive an M rating empowers parents and players to decide what content suits their needs. Understanding what makes a game Mature allows us all to make informed choices.

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