The ESRB is a stroke of genius by the gaming industry. To my knowledge, the only other well-publicized, non-profit group that rates its own media in the United States is the MPAA for movies. An organization policing video games so consumers know what kind of content lies within and can make their own informed decisions? Brilliant.
It is also one of the most broken mechanics on every single video game. The ESRB has dropped the ball quite a number of times, not only when it comes to rating "Mature" games, but also with other ratings. An "A/O" rating might as well be a sales death knell for any game that explores the console equivalent of Eyes Wide Shut
. Additionally, many of the ratings slapped on games with similar content make no sense
. Seriously, WiiSports
is rated "E" (with the modifier of 'Mild Violence') and Punch-Out
for Wii is rated "E 10+" (with the modifiers of 'Cartoon Violence' and 'Comic Mischief'). Both games contain boxing roughly the equivalent you might see on a Saturday morning cartoon show and yet carry different ratings.
No wonder parents are confused.
Before I get started, I'd like to share with y'all a personal story about my 10-year-old self. It was 1997 and it was the era of the N64 and the PS1. I was mature for my age, generally getting along with adults more than 5 times my senior and just starting to have deep philosophical thoughts (i.e. The Meaning of Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of PB&J). For the most part, I had been playing games appropriate to my age group, which at the time would have included Crash Bandicoot
, Super Mario 64
, and the like.
However, one fateful day, I decided I wanted to play what the big boys were playing. With permission from my mother, I rented Doom 64
, my first "M" rated game. After 10 minutes of playing the game, I put it down and was visibly shaken. For the next week, I had nightmares about demons, chainsaws, and guns. Despite my maturity, I was not ready yet to handle the psychological pressure of violence against Hell's minions. The game was returned and I didn't see another "M" rated game until Clock Tower
, when I was much older. (PS. That game still scares the lobster milkshake out of me and I'm a grown man. It sits in my closet, where all the rest of the monsters lie.)
"M" back in the day.
I realize everyone's exposure and tolerance to violence, graphic sex, and adult themes is different, but I can't help to wonder what kind of impact this is having on the next generation. This is the kind of situation where the ESRB would be appropriate. Step in and help us
understand what is okay and not okay for certain age groups. Because of some pushing and shoving, there are now legislators and retailers who help to enforce the ratings, by not allowing certain games to be sold to a minor without the presence of a guardian. I'm not saying I entirely agree with that, but hey, it's a step in the right direction.
You know some series follow a lazy pattern of receiving the same rating, too: generally, the Grand Theft Auto
s, the Halo
s, the Call of Duty
games get "M"; the Final Fantasy
series (with the exception of those on the Wii) and Street Fighters
of the world get "T"; the Marios
get "E". Most of the ratings are accurate, even if they don't deter the wrong age group from playing them (which makes you wonder WTF is the point). But some ratings are downright laughable, inconsistent, and well...silly.
Anybody remember Digimon World
for PS1? Probably not, but if you're like me, you do. The rating on that game is "T", for what I can only imagine is the presence of dookies and the fact that some Digimon can throw them as attacks. Other than those two things, the game includes about the same level of cartoon violence as its closest rival, Pokemon
Everybody poops, but only teenagers can handle dookies.
In its defense, the ESRB's job is difficult, costly, and largely thankless. Today, many more are games being published and it has become their task to rate every single one
, including games not even on traditional gaming consoles! Their website says they rate over 1,000 games a year, but Wikipedia estimates the number this year to be closer to 18,000. On top of this, the ESRB can't prevent parents from allowing children to access content unsuitable for their viewing. It's not illegal, there's no fine, and no penal code for letting kids play Modern Warfare
. (In fact, with the leak of the terrorist footage from MW:2
, some parents might actually encourage their kids to shoot some commies/A-RABS, with no regard for the civilians or the level of intellectual processing needed to comprehend that you just killed a fellow human being.)
This isn't to say games shouldn't push the envelope - they should. You'd better be believe there's going to be some tits and bodies flying to make it happen, too. Still, the ESRB stamp should mean something and at the moment, it's nothing more than a corner of the box with a letter that a lot of people ignore.
I can't end this discussion without briefly pointing out the Hot Coffee debacle, a scene we see repeated again and again when something controversial
pops up in a game. If you don't know what I'm referring to, Hot Coffee was a normally inaccessible minigame in Grand Theft Auto:San Andreas
where CJ and his girlfriend could have sex after a date. In the normal game, the sex was alluded to by a shot of the apartment building, some oohing and ahhing, and the camera shaking. However, with some tinkering via a mod (or not, it went back and forth between whether Hot Coffee was in the original source code of the game), you could play bedroom Cool Runnings
. Long story short, the rating was changed to "A/O," the minigame was removed, and Take-Two had to pay something in the neighborhood of $20 million to settle a class action suit related to the case.
Feel the rhythm, feel the ride.
A long history of boondoggle ratings, game overload, and mishandled scandals is still no excuse for the broken mechanic of the ESRB. There will never be a perfect ratings system, or a way to keep toddlers from shooting Nazis, but there should be something better. For something that affects every game in known existence, there needs to at least be a sensible system of ratings. Otherwise, we will suffer a ridiculous censorship where even Mickey Mouse
games will get the "A/O" rating for showing Mickey sans pants. I imagine there's not even a little nub there.
C'mon ESRB - do it for the kids. read