Global age ratings for game localization

Video game localization presents a number of unique challenges for today’s game developer and publisher. These often include the extensive work of adapting graphics and sound effects to international markets and the complexity of testing unpredictable and dynamic game play.

There is also some difficulty in translating language elements that frequently appear in video games compared to other forms of software. Because games often feature many characters, these elements include idioms, colloquialisms and game jargon, but also encompass the social relation, age, gender and number of characters being addressed, not to mention the linguistic trickiness of directly addressing the player.

Something that isn’t discussed much in localization is age rating systems. Games contain varied types of content ranging from child-appropriate materials to those meant for an adult-only audience. Due to these challenges and the need to provide standardized information for parents and other global consumers, several countries and regions around the world created content rating systems. Game publishers must submit games to the rating authorities that govern these systems, as official ratings are sometimes required by the authority or by the major console manufacturers before a game may be sold in certain markets. Complying with these systems and with the authorities that implement them is critically important for game publishers, and achieving a high level of compliance requires time and resources.

Many of you are probably familiar with the age rating systems used for movies; for example, the ratings of PG-13, R and so on applied to movies by the Motion Picture Association of America. The ratings assigned to video games are similar. In fact, some countries manage both movie and game ratings through the same rating authority. Age ratings provide valuable information for parents, to help them understand the types of games their children are playing and to guide their purchasing decisions. In order to comply with local laws and regulations, as well as rules imposed by console manufacturers, game publishers must respect and adhere to guidelines provided by the ratings authority in each market to which their game will release.


Rating authorities around the globe

There are more than a dozen age rating authorities around the world, and this means that game publishers must first do a bit of research to determine which ratings are required for their game. The most obvious factor to consider is the market in which the game will be sold. If the target market requires an age rating, publishers must complete the submission process and receive an age rating before they can make their game available online or in traditional retail outlets. This also applies to games that have not been localized into the local language. Other factors that influence rating requirements include whether or not the game is available on physical media (rather than being digital-download only), which platform(s) the game is available for (PC, console, mobile and so on), and sometimes even the expected rating. A few rating boards review only those games that have been assigned a rating of 18 or higher by another rating board. If the game is available on multiple platforms, such as both PC and game console, some rating authorities require that publishers submit for both platforms, while others offer a “cloning” option by which a rating can apply to both (or multiple) platforms.

Two of the most widely used age rating authorities are the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and the Pan European Game Information board (PEGI). The ESRB is a nonprofit, self-regulatory organization formed in 1994 to assign ratings to games sold in the United States and Canada. The six rating icons in Figure 1 represent each of the age rating categories assigned by the ESRB, which appear on the front of game packages or prior to downloading a game. Please refer to the ESRB website ( for specific definitions of each rating.

PEGI was formed in 2003, replacing several national age rating systems in use in Europe at that time. PEGI is the legal, official or de facto market standard used for rating game titles in 38 countries across Europe. The five logos in Figure 2 represent the available PEGI age ratings.  For more details on expectations and criteria for each rating level, please refer to the PEGI website (


Cultures, and sensitivities

Before exploring the age rating submission process, let’s pause to consider the relationship between age ratings and culture. As a MultiLingual reader, you’re likely familiar with many of the geopolitical risks manifested in various cultures around the world, and so it is not surprising that different cultures are sensitive to different types of content. For example, some regions are more restrictive of sexual content and give less focus to violence, while others concentrate on violence and are less concerned with sexual content. In addition, some markets may not allow games that depict or feature gambling. This variation across language and culture contributes to the complexity of getting a new game rated for global sales. In fact, it is not uncommon for a new game’s age ratings to vary considerably from market to market. A game may be rated for age 16 in one market, age 18 or Mature in another, and may be banned altogether in another. Obviously different ratings, especially those such as 18 or Mature, can have a direct impact on sales and limit how publishers can distribute and sell their game in retail outlets. For this reason, game developers need to be aware of the rules and sensitivities in their target markets and be mindful of these points as they design and develop the game so that it ultimately receives the desired rating for the market. Developers generally find it difficult, expensive and often impossible to make significant changes to a game late in the production cycle in response to an unexpected rating. Therefore, it is prudent for developers and their publishing partner to have game rating experts on staff to provide documentation, training, content reviews and other guidance throughout the development cycle to help ensure the game ultimately receives a rating that fits its target audience and global marketing plan.


 Alcohol Reference

 Animated Blood


Blood and Gore

Cartoon Violence

Comic Mischief

Crude Humor

Drug Reference

Fantasy Violence

Intense Violence



Mature Humor


Partial Nudity

Real Gambling

Sexual Content

Sexual Themes

Sexual Violence

Simulated Gambling

Strong Language

Strong Lyrics

Strong Sexual Content

Suggestive Themes

Tobacco Reference

Use of Alcohol

Use of Drugs

Use of Tobacco


Violent References

To help consumers identify game content that might be sensitive in their culture or region, some age ratings boards provide content descriptors in addition to the game’s age rating. Figure 3 shows the ESRB content descriptors, which in addition to the age ratings are assigned for many game titles distributed in the United States and Canada. Content descriptors appear on the back of game packages next to the assigned rating indicating content that may have triggered a particular rating or may be of interest or concern.

Similar to the ESRB, PEGI also provides content descriptors, in the form of logos, for games sold in Europe. Figure 4 shows these logos, which appear on the back of packaging and help consumers understand why PEGI assigned a particular age rating to the game.

In addition to these logos, online descriptions of a game may also contain Extended Consumer Advice that provides additional information about the nature of the content. For example, “Contains: strong language, extreme violence, glamorisation of crime.”

One additional note about ratings and content descriptors is worth mentioning here. While the factors I’ve outlined above may seem somewhat intuitive with respect to determining age ratings, other less obvious factors come into play in certain situations. For example, the intensity of cinematics (due to the high-resolution graphics of today’s game consoles), the speed or complexity of game play, and the high fidelity and volume of sound effects can sometimes influence a rating. Many of the age rating authorities have conducted research with child psychologists, experts in early childhood development, academics or parents to develop age rating guidelines and policies that are effective and useful. Consumers, especially young gamers, can benefit highly from this valuable research.


Submission processes

So far I’ve only provided details for two of the largest age rating authorities, and the submission guidelines for any rating authority will require further research. Because there are numerous rating authorities that process age rating submissions, it’s not surprising that their approaches and requirements vary widely. A few authorities require a prerelease, stable, content-complete game build, in which all features are available so that they can play the game and review its content thoroughly before assigning a rating.

Most rating authorities require the publisher to complete a submission form introducing the overall game (genre, platforms, distribution methods, modes and so on), describing gameplay and listing any pertinent content such as violence, suggestive themes, humor and other notable material. Authorities also often require a game-play video that shows the pertinent content listed in the submission form. Together, these submission materials help the rating authority determine the game’s final rating.

Publishers often submit game builds in their original source language (for example, in English if the game is being developed in the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom) because fully localized builds may not yet be available. However, some authorities do require the localized game text (delivered in Word, Excel or PDF format) to review in order to grant a rating covering the local market language. Publishers may also be required to ship final, released game discs to the rating board so authorities can confirm the proper placement of artwork on packaging and add the game to their archive.

In some cases, rating authorities offer a short-form submission if the game is being released as digital-download only (DDO), but often full packaged products (FPPs) require a longer, generally more expensive, submission and review process.

Some authorities are government bodies, while others are nonprofits or trade organizations charged with age ratings for a specific market. A few rating authorities use citizens, often teachers or members of the social or educational community, and even professionals with expertise in child development, to review games and assign the final rating.


Age rating challenges

As noted previously, age ratings are important and essential to global game sales, but as with any additional requirements, they introduce new challenges. Some of these challenges include:

Allocating time in your schedule. Some submissions can be expedited (for a fee) in as little as 24 hours, while others can take up to eight weeks. You’ll therefore find it helpful to include the various submission deadlines in your production schedule and adhere to them.

Providing correct documentation and video footage. If the rating board requires video footage as well as documentation, it is important to make sure these materials accurately depict the most representative and egregious pertinent content in the game. If your submission materials are incomplete or inaccurate, your submission may be put on hold until you make corrections, and the publisher may be subject to violations, fines or outright bans for misrepresenting the game during the submission process or other sanctions, such as restickering boxes that have already been shipped to retailers. Non-disclosure of content may also result in the revocation of a rating with retailers returning the incorrectly rated product to the publisher.

Providing content-complete and stable builds. One of the most challenging aspects of submission is providing content-complete and stable builds to the rating authorities that require them. Because game development is dynamic and creative, it’s not uncommon for changes to code, features and functionality to happen late in the production cycle. Localization experts appreciate that this is challenging for translation and voiceover recording, but it is also a big challenge for age ratings as well. In some cases, it’s necessary to negotiate with the game’s development team for a build that meets submission requirements earlier than they might wish to provide it.

Cost and payment terms. Both cost and payment terms vary widely across age rating boards. Some ratings are free while others can cost more than $10,000. It is recommended that publishers understand the payment terms and processes that are required by each rating authority well in advance of submitting their title to rating agencies.

Local presence and registration. In some markets, authorities require companies to work through local registered businesses to submit games for age ratings. Publishers may also need to work with an in-market representative, who speaks the local language, to efficiently and successfully attain age ratings. This can be a real challenge when the publisher does not have employees in that country, but it is often possible to partner with a local vendor to meet these needs.

Multiple platforms and availability of new hardware or firmware. Games available on multiple platforms require extra effort, and often console manufacturers must provide development kits to those rating authorities that require game builds as part of the age rating process. When new console hardware is released, the process becomes even more complicated. For example, the introduction of Xbox One in 2013 presented many challenges in shipping hardware to rating authorities in time to support launch titles. Issues such as availability of hardware, confidentiality restrictions around its distribution and local import laws required extra resources and time. Additionally, it is important that publishers make sure the hardware provided has the correct software and firmware to support game submissions.


Tips for rating submissions

Despite all the challenges I mention above, successful submissions are possible and even common in the video game industry. Publishers achieve efficiency through education, planning, scheduling, organization and communication. Another crucial success factor is the support provided by the worldwide age rating boards themselves. In my experience, the people working at the rating authorities are friendly, flexible and, in some cases, fun to work with. These game-loving professionals understand the challenges that developers and publishers face and are often willing to work around small issues in order to help game companies hit their deadlines. Some tips for successful submissions are:

Document and train. Publishers need to have clear documentation on age rating requirements and should train development partners on what constitutes “pertinent content” for the game’s target age rating to avoid issues in the submission process. In addition, some age rating boards (like PEGI) offer training to help game teams map pertinent content to age rating levels and content descriptors. Other agencies (such as ESRB) also provide informal prereviews of content during game development so that there are no surprises when it comes time to submit.

Plan early. Since some ratings can take up to two months, planning early is critical.

Plan ahead for advertising, marketing and packaging. Some rating authorities have specific guidelines related to advertising, marketing and packaging of products. Game publishers must review and understand these guidelines in order to ensure that age ratings are used properly. For example, see
ratings/enforcement.jsp for more details on ESRB guidelines in these areas.

Practice clear and consistent communication. Clear and frequent communication with age rating boards helps ensure that the process runs smoothly. Appointing one or two key contacts on the publisher side helps reduce the communication burden on rating authority contacts and builds knowledge on the development side, which depends, to be honest, on accumulating ship cycles on multiple games. The longer a person works with age rating authorities, the more knowledge they gain in edge-case scenarios that pop up and require research and negotiation.

Create internal checklists. It may be useful to provide simple, step-by-step checklists for team members for each rating authority in order to simplify the process. This is especially helpful for new team members.

Clear installation instructions. If a rating authority requires a prerelease build, be sure to provide consistent and clear installation instructions, which have been verified and tested by the developer, to minimize the time required by rating authority staff and alleviate frustration with broken builds.

Build and maintain good relationships with rating authorities. As noted above, rating authority contacts are generally good partners. It is therefore important to make the necessary effort to ensure that the working relationships remain healthy with these critical business partners.


Future directions for age ratings

Today’s increasing proliferation of games on mobile devices, consoles, tablets, PCs and emerging platforms, both in traditional markets and new and developing regions, increases the complexity and time required to obtain proper age ratings for the release of new games. While some authorities do currently provide convenient options for online submissions, these online systems differ from country to country and may be limited to specific platforms or media types (often only for digital-download games). Additionally, as noted previously, the cost and payment terms can vary greatly across rating authorities. In order to unify and streamline this process, many of the leading global age rating authorities came together in 2013 to form the non-profit International Age Rating Coalition (IARC). The IARC rating system provides an online submission process that requires the game developer to simply answer a series of questions about a game’s content while on-boarding its game or app. Please note, however, that packaged games will always require a prerelease check, which is a different process from IARC.

After the online questionnaire is completed, the tool will simultaneously generate ratings for all rating authorities participating in IARC based on the cultural standards and policies for each market. This new process not only saves time for both game publishers and ratings authorities, but it also eliminates submission costs for game developers while promoting more accurate and consistent ratings for the gaming public. Microsoft plans to implement IARC’s rating system across its gaming ecosystem in the future. For more information about IARC and the participating rating authorities, please refer to

The next time you are shopping for a video game, be sure to take time to examine its age rating and content descriptors to determine if the title is appropriate. Keep in mind the work done by the developer, publisher and age rating authorities to provide this important information for you.