The consumer product safety comission is once again updating it's age rating guidleines. The new guidlines are in draft form right now and are located here.
The age ratings on tabletop games can be highly confusing and misleading to parents, however. This is due to the fact that they bear no relationship to the ratings on video games, movies, and television. Today’s parents have been raised under the mindset of the content ratings applied to electronic entertainment, and naturally assume that tabletop game ratings should work the same way. Unfortunately, they don’t. Age ratings on tabletop games have little to do with issues like violence levels or “adult situations” in the games themselves. Instead the ratings are controlled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission which oversees the ratings on all toys.
Toys are rated based largely on their physical safety for children. Are there small parts that can be swallowed? Are there sharp pieces or pieces that easily break? And then there is the hard and fast rule of a toy’s lead content levels. If a toy wants to advertise itself as being acceptable to ages 12 or below, it must meet very stringent lead content guidelines due to the idea that a child might put the toy in their mouth. These guidelines go further than the lead guidelines for all other consumer products. Most parents would probably wonder what 10-year-old child is busy putting toys in their mouth, however. Children stop doing that usually not long after their toddler years. To meet those guidelines, companies have to submit their products to an outside company that specializes in lead testing and pay them to do the tests. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Large manufacturers have an exemption where they can do lead testing at their own labs in house. This saves them the expense and time. The smaller manufacturers can’t do this however. In the hobby tabletop game market, the companies are tiny compared to regular toy making companies like Hasbro. That means that deciding to get lead certified is a big deal for them and many simply don’t want to bother. Thus, many tabletop board game companies would rather just slap a 13+ or 14+ age on their games and have done with it.
The next factor that ties into a tabletop game’s age rating is the perceived cognitive difficulty of the game. Would an average 8-year-old be able to play this game on their own without an adult explaining the rules to them? That’s the type of question being asked. As a career teacher, I know how widely children’s abilities to perform a task like that vary. Then there is the issue of tabletop hobby gamer kids who have been raised on tabletop games by their parents, who can mentally slice and dice any game put in front of them into mechanics categories, and rattle off a few comparable titles while they’re at it. Their background schemas are very different from the rest of their peers when it comes to comprehending these games. When you look at the draft of the new Consumer Product Safety Commission age rating guidelines you see that their ratings for board games are completely based on this determination of average cognitive ability.
So, the important thing to recognize about tabletop game ratings is that they are first a rating of whether or not the heightened lead testing has been done on the product, and then secondly whether an average little person of that age could understand how to play the game. Nowhere in the official process of game rating is there anything about the emotional maturity required by the game’s theme and content.
Now all of this is not to say that some tabletop game publishers don't consider the thematic content when assigning their game an age rating. Some do. The problem is that, as a parent, you usually don't know whether that game company assigned the game that rating based on cognitive difficulty, lead testing, or thematic content. There are a few games out there labeled 18+ that I have seen. In that case you can be sure it is because of thematic content. Other than that instance, however, it's anybody's guess what that age rating means.
This is in stark contrast to video games and movies. When a parent looks at a video game rated “M”, they know it has thematic elements in it that most adults would not deem appropriate for children. They may decide their child can handle the thematic content, but they have a good idea what is going to be happening in the game. The parent is probably not thinking at all about the difficulty of playing the game itself. And of course, that is certainly not a consideration when it comes to the act of watching a movie or television show.
Tabletop games definitely have thematic content in them, however, and this puts them in an odd situation. It is basically impossible to tell from a tabletop game’s age rating whether or not the game content includes thematic content that might best be left to players of a certain emotional maturity and age. It would be a great thing if they tabletop game industry solved that problem, although I doubt they will.