How To Go Beyond the ESRB's Sexual Content Descriptors

Posted by | January 14, 2015 | Tips for Parents | One Comment
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Most parents are fairly familiar with the ESRB ratings that can be found on game boxes and elsewhere. These ratings give us an idea of what might be found in a game, including the sexual content.  But the content descriptors…well, there are a lot of them. For instance, what’s the difference between Sexual Themes, Suggestive Themes, and Mature Humor? There’s no way to know just by looking at the box. Not to worry—here’s an explanation that should help.

Breaking Down the Ratings

With each ESRB rating comes content descriptors. These are the short phrases found on the ratings that  are meant to give parents a rough idea of what types of mature content might be in a game. There are nine descriptors pertaining to sex and sexual content. Each is partially influenced by the overall game rating—Suggestive Themes in an E10+ game might be a bit less sexy than in an M for Mature game, for example. This is definitely confusing, and the confusion is amplified by subjectivity on the part of the people rating the game. That’s not an indictment, but rather an acknowledgement that the descriptors alone don’t usually give enough information for parents.

If you go to the ESRB website, you can find more details about a game’s content. For example, if you Google “ESRB Fable III synopsis” you’ll be able to find a link to the ESRB’s additional information (under Rating Summary) about the game’s story, its violent content, its sexual content, its language, etc. But the brief content descriptors, which is all that appear on the box, don’t go into much detail. Here are the official rating descriptors for sexual content, as found on the ESRB’s website:

Crude Humor – depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including “bathroom” humor

Mature Humor – depictions or dialogue involving “adult” humor, including sexual references

Nudity – Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity

Partial Nudity – Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity

Sexual Content – Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity

Sexual Themes – References to sex or sexuality

Sexual Violence – Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts

Strong Sexual Content – Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity

Suggestive Themes – Mild provocative references or materials

NOTE: Content Descriptors are applied relative to the Rating Category assigned and are not intended to be a complete listing of content. When a Content Descriptor is preceded by the term “Mild” it is intended to convey low frequency, intensity or severity.

As we can see, each of these descriptors bleeds into the next. If a game is described as having Sexual Content, which possibly includes partial nudity, then should it also have the Partial Nudity descriptor? The short answer: sometimes. Not extremely helpful, I know.

That isn’t to say that the rating descriptors aren’t useful. Sometimes all you need is an idea of what can be found in a game. Many parents, though, would prefer a more detailed description of what their child will encounter—adults, too, might be interested. It’s also true that some content descriptors seem to overrule others. For instance, a game that contains Mature Humor might also contain Sexual Content, but the rating association typically goes for the more explicit descriptor. In general, we can assume that a parent who isn’t comfortable with their kids seeing the Sexual Content probably won’t care much that there’s also Mature Humor present, but everyone has different boundaries, and this is one detail that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

Nudity vs. Partial Nudity

Partial Nudity typically refers to scantily clad characters, rather than outright nakedness. It might also indicate that there is a scene where a character’s nudity is implied, but not actually shown—for instance, if they are covered by a bit of scenery or underwear or shown only from the back and waist up. Nudity, conversely, conveys that the player might encounter actual nudity. (This is rarely waist-down nudity, but don’t rule it out.) Nudity also doesn’t necessarily mean there’s sexual content—if a game has a Nudity tag but not a Suggestive Themes or Sexual Content tag, it probably means that the nudity isn’t occurring in a sexual situation.

The Lady of the Forest is ostensibly topless, but she is not ever shown in a sexual situation.

The Lady of the Forest in Dragon Age: Origins is ostensibly topless, but she is not ever shown in a sexual situation.

Some baseline things you might want to know: these ratings don’t necessarily detail sexual content vs. sexual objectification. These are actually very different types of content, and a game with some sexual content but no objectification might be a better story to expose kids to than a game with no sexual content but a lot of objectification. Nudity and Partial Nudity are often markers of whether a game’s female characters are sexualized, if only because female characters tend to be the ones with fewer clothing items. This isn’t universally true, and it’s changing as time goes on, but parents can use these descriptors as flags that warrant further investigation.

Cia, from Hyrule Warriors, is pretty obviously sexualized because of her clothing.

Cia, from Hyrule Warriors, is pretty obviously sexualized because of her clothing.

Crude Humor vs. Mature Humor

Crude Humor is rarely used for humor that is sexual in nature. This descriptor typically refers to content like…fart jokes. Conversely, Mature Humor is usually reserved for sexual jokes or jokes about a person’s body—for example, something about bra size, or  maybe a quirky exchange about two characters getting together romantically. The subtlety of this humor varies from game to game (and joke to joke), but parents should be aware that the “humor” tag doesn’t necessary lessen the maturity aspect of the descriptor. Just because it isn’t a sex scene doesn’t mean it isn’t raunchy.

Sexual Content vs. Suggestive Themes vs. Sexual Themes

Sexual Themes and Suggestive Themes are difficult to distinguish from each other. This is especially true because these are terms that are most often found in E10+ or T for Teen games in place of Sexual Content (most games with any Sexual Content get booted up to M for Mature). However, the difference between Suggestive Themes in an E10+ game and in a T for Teen game is significant. In the former, it might mean players can swivel the camera around to look up a character’s skirt and take a peek at her bloomers. In the latter, it might mean characters flirt with each other or kiss.

Sexual Content will typically appear in any game where an actual act of sex is referenced or depicted (almost always M for Mature games). This might mean that two characters explicitly talk about spending a night together, or it might mean that the main character has sex with a girlfriend or boyfriend on-screen. But wait! Before panic sets in, on-screen doesn’t always mean that nudity is present, or even that the act is graphically depicted at all. In Fable III, for example, the Sexual Content is limited to some suggestive noises over a black screen (and maybe a baby afterward). This scenario makes it clear what’s going on, but the degree of explicitness is debatable. Sexual Content simply means that sex is present in the game in some way.

Again, this is where things get confusing—Sexual Content can be quite explicit, as well. You’ll rarely see anything verging on pornography (this is where Strong Sexual Content comes in), but a combination of Sexual Content and Nudity might indicate that you’ll encounter a fairly graphic scene. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, two characters end up in bed together, naked from the waist up, and discuss sleeping together in explicit terms. The act itself is not depicted, but very little is left to the imagination.

Strong Sexual Content is the one you really have to watch out for if it’s something you’re concerned about. Games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto depict scenarios of sexual violence, overt fellatio, and that kind of thing, earning them the “Strong” descriptor.

And, of course, there are differing degrees of vulgarity in each of these descriptors. Using the two previous examples, Fable III and Dragon Age: Inquisition, we can see this play out—Fable III is less graphically explicit, but players maintain a “count” of how many sexual partners they’ve had, can contract an STD (STI), discover a “used condom” on the ground, and cheat on their partners, who are basically interchangeable NPCs in the first place. Conversely, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, players can cultivate a romance with another character of their choice. Romantic partners are fully fledged characters, with their own ideals and agendas, and the romances are largely loving, consensual, respectful encounters, despite being far more graphically explicit than those in Fable III.

The Takeaway

Basically, what this all comes down to is that the content descriptors can be confusing. Parents can certainly use them as guides, or maybe red flags, but they do not necessarily describe any specific content. For more descriptive ideas of what you might find in a game, Pixelkin’s Game Picker is an excellent start—we go into detail about all types of mature content, as well as indicating whether the content is respectful or objectifying, serious or humorous, and whether or not it might set a good example or be a good talking point for parents. Not all sexual content is the same. Perhaps it’s more important to assess how healthy a game’s sexual relationships are than to focus only on the degree of explicitness.

Keezy Young

About Keezy Young

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.