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Video game ratings board releases iPhone app

New application from Entertainment Software Ratings Board provides full summaries of more than 2,500 video games right at parents' fingertips.

I love tools that are all about providing people with information they want, and on Tuesday, the video game industry's official ratings board got my attention with something awfully useful.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) announced on Tuesday its new iPhone app, which is designed to put the board's full written summaries of more than 2,500 video games right at parents' fingertips.

A new iPhone app from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board allows parents to see the full ratings summaries of more than 1,500 video games. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The idea is that with the app--officially called ESRB Rating, and available now, for free, in Apple's App Store--parents can punch in the name of any game rated by the board after July 1, 2008, and see not just the official rating--such as "M" for those 17 and up, or "E" for everyone--but the ESRB's full written summary of the title. The ESRB began writing the full summaries on July 1, 2008. Users of the app can also search for information about titles from before that date, but they will see only the basic letter rating and a brief content description.

Just over a year ago, the ESRB began making those summaries available to the public through its Web site, and through a mobile site ( But the Web site isn't convenient to a parent who is actually out shopping for junior, and the mobile site is not something that many people who have standard cell phones will use, especially if they have to pay extra for data. An iPhone app is just so much easier.

Brilliant on-the-fly tools

Add this app, then, to the growing list of tools available for the iPhone and other smartphones that give consumers the ability to arm themselves with the most information about products and pricing while they actually have boots in the Best Buy, so to speak. Others include the brilliant SnapTell, which delivers comparative pricing information about books, DVDs, video games, and other items from sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Gamespot, and others based solely on a photograph, and RedLaser, which scans items' bar codes and delivers similar pricing information.

But what makes the ESRB app so terrific, it seems to me, is that it provides parents with exactly the kind of nuanced information they need to properly choose the kinds of games they want to buy for their kids. Sure, the basic letter rating gives some context--if you're concerned about violence or racy content, you probably want to stay away from "M"-rated games--but within a single rating category, there is still a wide spectrum of content.

For example, the hottest game in the world right now is Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The game has an "M" rating, but that just doesn't say all that much. Reading the summary, though, a parent can see much more: "Realistic gunfire, explosions, and cries of pain are heard during the frequent and fast-paced combat. The most intense depiction of violence occurs during a 'No Russian' mission where players take on the role of an undercover Ranger: Several civilians are gunned down at an airport as players are given a choice to participate in the killings (e.g., players can shoot a wounded civilian that is crawling on the ground), or walk by and observe without opening fire."

The app arms parents with the information to make informed buying decisions. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That's a little more informative than "M," isn't it.

To be sure, kids are going to be able to get the games they want regardless of what their parents buy them. But given that games can cost $60 apiece--at least for the AAA console games--it may be that they don't quite have the means to sneak off with each and every first-person shooter they desire. They may still be dependent on Santa Claus, aka their parents, to get them the bulk of their games.

And, of course, those buyers who don't have an iPhone still will have to struggle to access these summaries, and it's unlikely that retailers will be providing them in any useful form.

But all in all, I find this precisely the kind of thing that puts the power over decisions about which video games to buy right back where it belongs: in parents' hands. We are in an age where so many pundits, politicians, and others are moaning and whining about the breakdown of society, and parents are complaining about the corruption of their children.

Well, complain no more: If you've got an iPhone--and I certainly hope the ESRB puts this app out for Android and other smartphones soon--you can do the research yourself. And then if you're still unhappy about the content in the games you buy your kids, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Corrected at 12:50 p.m. PST: This story incorrectly reported how many games rated by the ESRB would have summaries available through the iPhone app. It is more than 1,500.