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I never paid much attention to age ratings, but I heard people express the opinion that these ratings do affect sales.

Do we have any data on how they affect the sales?

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  • While people are free to conclude opinions, this one is missing the way how and what Ratings affect, nevertheless it does not prevent anyone to still make studies in this direction. For games the decision of Target Audience comes early in the development process, and after releasing the finished game, different countries will apply different ratings. For a game intended for kids, the parent may feel safe to buy it, if it has a rating safe for that age group. For targeting older age it may help sales if the game offers content with such tags - but it is not an ultimate % modifier in sales.
    – Sonic
    Mar 10 at 9:17

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Here you can find a (2015) paper that looked at the correlation between ESRB ratings and sales, titled The Effects of ESRB Ratings on Video Game Sales. The author, William Miller, mentions in the conclusion how their paper:

[..] attempts to empirically derive the effects of ESRB ratings on video game sales as a proxy for video game popularity.

They did this through

a cross-sectional analysis of the top-100 best-selling games in the United States for 2015

And their conclusion from the Abstract:

As it turns out, these ratings seem to be pretty insignificant in affecting overall sales.

Some limitations to this study are mentioned in the paper's Conclusion: it used a relatively small pool of 100 games (see the paper's Appendix), and this was in part because not all developers are willing to share their budgetary data, likely giving the study some form of bias. The "paper could be expanded to take better account of lag effects through time-series analysis [I don't know what this means] as well as how this topic relates to other countries/regions", indicating at least one more limiting factor.


This Medium* article from 2020, on the other hand, draws another conclusion. It bases this on this dataset from December 2016 (which requires an account to download), comprising 17.000 video game titles released between 1980 - 2016.
The article offers two graphs showing the amount of sales of a game with a specific ESRB rating:

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The conclusions are:

[..] we see that games rated M tend to sell more on average than lower-rated titles.

[..] from 2008 onwards we see that the absolute number of games that are rated M remains relatively constant, compared to the shrinking number of lower-rated games being sold.

Something to take into consideration: this doesn't necessarily correlate the influence of a rating of a game on its sales, it merely orders the latter according to the first. That M-rated games sell better on average (or, rather, that on average more M-rated games are sold than games with other ratings), can be explained by other factors (consumers more likely to be drawn to mature themes, the medium itself growing more mature and increasingly offering games that treat mature subjects, a changing consumer base, &c.).


The Wikipedia entry on ESRB linked above actually offers some corroboration to the Medium article's conclusions (note the dates, though):

There has been a correlation between the M rating and sales; a 2007 study by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research found that M-rated games "have both the highest average Metacritic scores and the highest average gross sales in the United States", and NPD Group found that 7 of the top 20 video games of 2010 (including the #1 game, Call of Duty: Black Ops) were M-rated, even though only 5% of games released that year carried the rating.


* A social journalism website.
✝ Despite the rating/not for the sake of the rating, but because of the subject matter.
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    The problem with all these studies is that the marketing, quality, availability, and pricing of a game likely all have a more significant effect than the rating. You somehow have to control for all of them.
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 8 at 12:51

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