In response to the story of the ESRB's call for the removal of the Dark Sector trailer due to its "excessive or offensive content", we got in touch with them for an explanation. While we got an e-mail back from them fairly quickly, a thorough explanation it unfortunately was not.
Hit the jump for exactly what it said, and exactly why more information is needed for us to be satisfied over this one.
The ESRB's Advertising Review Council (ARC) regularly monitors game ads and trailers to make sure that they adhere to industry-adopted Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices ( http://www.esrb.org/ratings/principles_guidlines.jsp), which were established in 2000. Since 2005, ARC guidelines have required that trailers for M-rated games on publisher websites be displayed behind an age gate to help restrict viewing to those visitors who are 17 and older. Game publishers are also required to use best efforts with respect to ensuring the presence of age gates on third party websites that display their M-rated game trailers. If a third party site insists on carrying a trailer for an M-rated game without placing it behind an age gate, our guidelines require the publisher to request that such trailer be removed and/or provide an edited version of the trailer to be used in its place.
However, the mere presence of an age gate does not permit a publisher to simply put whatever content it wishes into the trailer. All trailers must still conform to ARC's Principles and Guidelines, which prohibit the display of excessively violent content or any content likely to cause serious offense to the average consumer. When ESRB notifies a publisher that the content in a trailer is in violation of these ARC requirements, or that there is an age gate issue on a third party site, that publisher then must notify third party sites to rectify the problem. The notices issued recently by game publishers to third party websites are simply that - steps in a chain of publisher compliance with ARC guidelines and the ESRB enforcement system that have been occurring since their establishment seven years ago.
- ESRB president Patricia Vance
Okay, so there's not much in the way of specific details relating to this individual case, but what have we got?
Well we start with an explanation that M-rated game trailers have to be hidden behind an age gate (Those "How old are you?" forms you'll often find before online trailers) in order to be acceptable for viewing online. That's only right, and it's obvious how a lack of such a measure would be a definite problem for a trailer like Dark Sector's. The thing is though, according to Gaming Today, there was an age gate on the trailer.
So we now have to move on to the secondary explanation that the trailer in some way exceeds the level of violent content acceptable. Checking through the ESRB's guidlines on such matters, it is true that graphic depictions of weapon-use and gore are frowned upon, and both of those do feature fairly frequently in the Dark Sector video. However it's also true that "These Guidelines are not intended to restrict or impede creative and/or innovative advertising. Rather, the following areas merely highlight certain types of content that publishers should avoid when creating advertisements.". And quite rightly so. A catagorical ban on violent content in trailers for violent games (or films for that matter) is essentially a ban on advertising those products, as well as a discouragement of making them in the first place.
And of course, while the gory weapon-use in the trailer is fairly obvious, we have to ask ourselves whether it's really any worse than the content of the dozens of other action game trailers out there, and if so, does the level of violence the trailer depicts really justify a recall? After all, the ESRB's guidelines even allow age-gated trailers to be be run for AO-rated games. With this in mind, it is perplexing indeed that the level of violence in Dark Sector's trailer was deemed extreme enough to need this sort of action. And what's even more confusing is that essentially the exact same trailer is still available on Dark Sector's official site, with a status of Rating Pending at that.
This whole situation is still very strange, and the response from the ESRB is too vague to really clear things up. That's perhaps unsurprising, given that Destructoid and Gaming Today both recieved what appears to be the same standard reply in relation to the issue, and it's worth pointing out that that reply didn't come directly from Patricia Vance herself, but is in fact a statement from her chosen by a press relations guy at the ESRB. In light of this, we'd really like to find out more, and fully intend to.
If cases like this are allowed to go by without the specifics being questioned, eventually no-one will know where they stand and messy precedents will be set for the future. Ratings and related processes have to be carried out openly and with public understanding, or the whole thing can get dangerously secretive. To this end, we're working on contacting the ESRB for a more thorough explanation.
With the trailer disappearing so soon after the start of the Manhunt 2 debate, after being cleared for use since last year, it's understandable that a lot of people are assuming some sort of muscle-flexing on the part of the ESRB right now. If that's the case, then we've got a major problem on our hands and a definite reason to be wearing snowshoes, given the slippery nature of the slope we now stand on. If not, then it'll be better for everyone involved that the real reasons behind this come to light as soon as possible. Here's hoping there's a good explanation.