I wrote a paper about gaming censorship for my writing class and I thought I share it. It's a bit long so if you don't read it you're lazy. The Looming Spectre of Censorship in the Videogame Industry
The videogame industry, like the film industry, has a self-regulated organization which rates the content and age-appropriateness of its media. The organization is called the ESRB and it provides a beacon of clarity for parents in the often confusing and overwhelming world of videogames. Unlike the film industries ratings board, the MPAA, the ESRB indirectly has the power to control what videogames do or do not hit store shelves. The situation begs the question; is this a case of a good regulatory organization with strong control of its product or is it a case of unconstitutional censorship?
The self-regulated body of the videogames industry in America is the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). The ESRB provides a voluntary rating system for videogames. While the system is voluntary most videogame retailers require that any game they sell be marked with a rating from the ESRB. In addition, the three major videogame console manufacturers, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, also require that any game released for their systems be rated by the ESRB, making commercial sale of unrated games impossible on videogame consoles. The ESRB provides a two part rating system, guidelines for advertising and regulations about the clear display of ratings. The first part of the rating consists of a letter representing the appropriate age bracket. These letter ratings range from EC for “early childhood” to AO for “adults only.” The second part consists of concise content descriptors that tell exactly what content earned the game its rating. The advertising guidelines provide that all advertisements and packaging prominently display the ESRB rating. The purpose of the rating system is mainly to assist parents in choosing which videogames are appropriate for their children. The ESRB system is remarkably similar to the rating system employed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to rate films. The MPAA system also utilizes letter ratings alongside content descriptors to alert parents to the content and age-appropriateness of films. The ratings from the MPAA range from G for “general audiences” to NC-17 for “under seventeen not admitted.”
Both ratings systems are designed with the intent of assisting parents in deciding what media is suitable for their children. They both provide clear messages about content and age-appropriateness. According to the ESRB’s website, 82% of parents agree with their ratings and 91% consider the ESRB’s ratings useful. The ESRB, however, encounters problems when it prevents discerning, independent adults from playing the games they wish to play and leads to censorship. Gaming censorship can occur when a game receives the AO rating. The ESRB’s definition of the AO rating is as follows; “Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.” The difference between an AO rating and an M rating is the severity of the objectionable content. The AO rating is effectively a ban in the US for a number of reasons. None of the three major console manufacturers, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo, allow AO titles to be published on their systems. In addition, most major retailers such as Wal-Mart refuse to stock AO titles. It is extraordinarily difficult and not commercially viable to release an Adults Only game and, in the current system, the rating is a de facto ban. The ESRB defines itself as “a non-profit, self-regulatory body established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), formerly known as the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). ESRB assigns computer and video game content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive entertainment software industry.” That definition only provides the power to rate content, not decide what content is suitable for commercial release. Yet the current system allows the ESRB to indirectly censor games by preventing them from hitting the market. An example of this occurred when the ESRB rated Take Two Interactive’s Manhunt 2. The game contained depictions of intense graphic violence and as a result received an AO rating. The violence depicted in Manhunt 2 was more intense and graphic than that of most M rated games. Among the gruesome content were the options of suffocating enemies with a plastic bag, slitting throats and chainsaw decapitations. Manhunt 2 was being developed for Sony’s Playstation 2 and Playstation Portable consoles and Nintendo’s Wii. As a result of the rating, Manhunt 2 could not be released on any of those systems. Take Two Interactive appealed the rating however it remained AO and the developer, Rockstar Games, was forced to make cuts to the game’s content in order to receive an M rating and release it. It is also important to note that the British ratings board, the BBFC, had refused to rate the original submission of the game, which basically constitutes a legal ban of the game in the UK. The question is should the ESRB and similar organizations such as the BBFC be allowed this power of censorship?
The answer is no. Censorship of videogames is unconstitutional. Videogame censorship has been a hotly debated issue since the early nineties. Games such as Mortal Kombat (1992) and Doom (1993) are largely responsible for the creation of the ESRB. At the time, violent videogames such as these were easily available to children. As a result, calls were made for the videogame industry to regulate itself by political figures such as Sen. Joe Lieberman. The result was the creation of the ESRB in 1994. Since then, various political figures have attempted to pass restrictive gaming legislation however these laws have been repeatedly struck down by judges on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich recently passed a law banning the sale of violent or sexually explicit videogames to minors however District Court judge Mathew Kennelly struck the law down, arguing that videogames are protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California passed a law that would criminalize the sale of “ultra violent” videogames to minors. However this law was also deemed unconstitutional by Judge Ronald Whyte. Schwarzenegger’s example is particularly outrageous considering his long career in violent action movies prior to his political career. Cases like these have set a legal precedent of videogame censorship and restriction as unconstitutional. The ESRB however, is not a government entity but rather a non-profit organization that provides a voluntary rating system for the games industry. There are no laws governing the rating and sale of videogames, only regulations set up by the industry itself, including developers, publishers, console manufacturers, the ESRB, and retailers. Legally the rating system is voluntary however within the industry it is anything but. The legal precedent protects videogames’ freedom of press from government interference however it has no power over the industry itself as of yet. Because console manufacturers and retailers require ESRB ratings, commercially viable videogames cannot be made without submitting to the “voluntary” rating system. The system is an invaluable tool for parents and consumers however it goes too far when games can be, for all intents and purposes, censored by industry regulations. In this case the ESRB does infringe on the first amendment rights of videogame creators. The above politicians would argue that the public needs to be shielded from violent media, particularly videogames. California Assembly Bills 1792 & 1793, the laws Governor Schwarzenegger passed to restrict game sales, attempt to classify violent videogames as “harmful matter.” The question that needs to be answered in this debate is this; Are videogames merely an entertainment product and “harmful matter” or are they a legitimate form of artistic expression?
Unfortunately many videogame developers are more concerned with sales than artistic merit. To quote the Wu-Tang Clan, “Cash rules everything around me” and the videogame industry is no exception. There are, however, a few shining examples of games with artistic merit and statements that must be protected under the First Amendment. Perhaps the most popular example in this debate is Shadow of the Colossus. The game makes statements against environmental destruction and genocide. In Shadow of the Colossus the protagonist, Wander, is alone in a desolate world. He came to the deserted land because he had heard that there he would find the power to resurrect his late lover. Upon arrival a mysterious disembodied voice known only as Dormin offers to revive the girl if Wander can slay the thirteen colossi that roam the land. There are minimal dialogue and plot devices throughout the game, leaving the player alone with his thoughts. As the player progresses he or she is led to question the ethics of the quest. These colossi are beautiful creatures living alone in the empty environment and there does not seem to be any real purpose in killing them. One battle in particular brings this point home: the colossus in this case has virtually no offensive or defensive capabilities. It cannot directly harm the player in any way and the battle is simply a matter of mounting the enormous animal and killing it. The player unceremoniously slaughters a defenseless creature for what begins to seem like a rather selfish purpose. After all thirteen colossi are destroyed the true extent of the player’s crime is revealed. It turns out that Dormin needed the colossi killed so that he could be freed from the desolate land and wreak havoc elsewhere in the world. The deal is revealed to be a Faustian Bargain of sorts as once the girl is revived the protagonist is possessed by Dormin. The quest was not a hunt but genocide. Beautiful pieces of the environment were destroyed for a selfish purpose. Through this story the game faces the issues of conservationism, environmental protection and systematic genocide. Works of art such as Shadow of the Colossus are the reason that videogames need to be protected under the First Amendment, whether censorship is attempted by the government or industry bodies. While the artistic merit of a game like Manhunt 2 is debatable the danger is in the precedent the ESRB’s actions set. The repercussions are already manifesting themselves. The upcoming Nintendo Wii title No More Heroes uses exaggerated and stylized blood in its presentation however the developers have chosen to compromise the artistic integrity of the game by changing it to a black liquid in the Japanese and British releases of the game, seemingly to avoid issues similar to those faced by Manhunt 2. If censorship in the videogames industry is allowed to go unchecked then more and more developers will compromise the content of their games for fear of that kiss of death, the AO rating.
The ESRB’s control over releasable content in the current industry setting constitutes censorship. Videogames need to be protected from censorship because they are a legitimate form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment and the tenant of freedom of the press. Games like Shadow of the Colossus prove the potential of videogames as an art medium. Videogames must be protected or else valuable artistic statements could be lost in the future. Freedom of expression is under attack in the videogame industry and the case of No More Heroes shows that a precedent of restriction and censorship has been set up by the ESRB, the console manufacturers, and the major retailers through their treatment of Manhunt 2 and the AO rating.