Last time, we talked about the past of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Today, let us discuss the ESRB as it exists today.
Of the six ESRB ratings, the harshest of all is AO: adults only. AO is something of a difficulty creature to quantify. If one attempted to use movie ratings as a frame of reference, one might very well say the movie counterpart to AO would be NC-17, or even XXX. An NC-17 rating on a movie is a kiss of death; most theaters will not show an NC-17 film at all. Likewise, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft effectively have an entente that they will not publish AO games for their consoles and most retailers refuse to stock AO games. The reason I liken AO to XXX (though it is not an official MPAA rating) is that very nearly all games so rated have the same content descriptor: strong sexual content. Yes, AO is where all the computer games marketed to people who enjoy the titillation of quasi-pornographic content cut around interactive elements giving the illusion of gameplay go. It is worth considering that AO exists in some weird, alternate dimension because most AO games were published between 1993 and 2006. We all know that pornography did not stop mass production in 2006, so what accounts for decade of slim AO publication since then? Well, the Internet. Most games that have strong sexual content nowadays exist exclusively on the Internet. It was never especially profitable to make games like these in the first place because of their limited availability. Now, most of them are freely distributed because they were cheaply made. Developers who actually want to sell these “games” have little interest in paying the rating fee so the ESRB can tell them that their game is not worth selling.
What makes the AO rating so fascinating to me is that many of the criticisms against it already have been leveled at the NC-17 rating. The MPAA rating system is horribly biased against sexual content relative to violent content. Only three games ever got the AO rating just on violent content alone, and one of them was never even released! The other two games were Hatred and Manhunt 2. I can reasonably see how those two games would earn the AO rating solely for their violent content, but AO otherwise targets games with a high sexual content factor. For me, the consequences are absurd. Grand Theft Auto is the poster child for violent video games and GTA: San Andreas temporarily was labeled AO after the discovery of the “Hot Coffee” mod that unlocked an incomplete minigame featuring sexual content. After Rockstar patched the data out of the game, the ESRB downgraded San Andreas to M for mature. Mind you, San Andreas, like any other GTA game, is built around the premise of making an empire out of drugs, guns, prostitution, high-speed car chases, and comical vehicular homicide. All of that adds up to only an M, but thrown in a hint of explicit sexual activity and suddenly only adults should know about this game’s sordid content. The result is a double standard whereby teenagers can be deemed mature enough to commit virtual murder but not mature enough to handle seeing a virtual naked person. Roger Ebert called out the MPAA for the same thing, saying that excessive, gruesome violence gets a pass but sex is treated as far more intolerable. He pointed out that the number of times a profane word is used affects which rating a movie gets, which is as baffling and arbitrary a standard as can be imagined. I could rant all day about how this is part of a shame culture around sex in the West and America as a particularly sex-negative society, but I need not. If you listen to most of the Filthy Fifteen today, it’s hard to determine what was so bad about them. Standards have only gotten more permissive since then and people arguing for hard lines against cultural change in the name of morality have always been on the wrong side of history. Modern society does not sound like medieval European society. Secularism, humanism, and liberalism have ushered in a relaxing of standards, but there are people who insist that this relaxation is the root of all evil. Again, the consequences are absurd.
When hauled in front of the Senate in 1993-94, Nintendo wagged an admonitory finger at Sega, insinuating that none of this would have happened if Sega just made nice games. That tune has not changed. You’ll recall that Sega had a ratings system at the time but no one knew about it. This is the Achilles’ heel of the ESRB: its existence is only as strong as the enlightenment of the consumer. When parents but T or M rated games for their first-grader, I see every reason to hold the parents accountable for all of the negative consequences that flow therefrom. You might think this scenario is an easy position for me to take, but history has made me cynical. In the wake of the horrible Columbine High School shooting, some people pointed fingers at Doom for encouraging the killers to become Satanic and sanguinary. Some went so far as to say that the killers designed levels to resemble the school itself in order practice their rampage, a claim denounced by Snopes. Assuming, arguendo, that any of that was proven, where does the responsibility of the killers’ parents lie in that tragedy? For those of us who remember the press coverage at the time, the media gave far more attention to the unfounded suspicion that violent video games influenced the killers than whatever was happening with the killers’ home lives. That still does not prove that video games had anything to do with the shooting. Comedian Chris Rock once jibed about this deflection of responsibility, “What was in Hitler’s CD case?” In short, it cannot be all entertainment media causing violence among today’s youth. Nowhere in the Senate’s 1993-94 hearings on video games was there any meaningful discussion of children’s access to weapons. Congress passed only moderate gun control legislation after Columbine. Noble as it is, the ESRB is an ice pack after breaking your arm: it is a curative for a symptom but not the solution to the problem.
The ESRB is not a bad entity, to be clear, but it is very cautious, perhaps because of the circumstances surrounding its creation. SimCity 4: Rush Hour, expansion pack to the original SimCity 4, has a content descriptor for violence. I played that game for thousands of hours and cannot remember any overt depictions of violence. Rush Hour added new transportation options to the base game. That’s it. SimCity 4, on its own, has no content descriptor for violence. I am reasonably certain the T rating for every entry in The Sims series is over the top. There is nothing in them that is beyond the emotional maturity and understanding of a ten-year-old. Most Pokemon games have warnings for comic mischief and mild cartoon violence. I guess that is fine if you get over the premise of ten-year-olds engaging in cockfights. “Comic mischief” in particular sounds like an attempt at euphemistic dysphemism. Do we really need a warning for when a video game character cartoonishly bashes another video game character over the head with a comically oversized mallet? Somehow, the various corners of our society still panic about this even though the logical conclusion is that Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry should have turned us into raving sociopaths long before now.
I applaud the existence of the ESRB for giving consumers considerable knowledge at a glance. The greater dissemination of information about a game in all its facets before purchase, the better for consumers. There are so many video games in existence right now that one could easily get lost in trying to choose a video game that meets one’s specific needs. However, I am not sure how many people actually make use of the information provided by the ESRB, which brings me back to my concern that the Board is only as useful as the people aware of it. How many of us gamers look at the ESRB rating and content descriptors before purchasing games? There are many factors to account for in a question like this, especially age, but the ESRB appears to be the product of a bygone age in certain respects. Presently, a person can do all the research on a video game he/she wants with a quick Internet search. Digital distribution platforms like Steam classify titles by genre and group titles with similar play styles. Yes, the ESRB content descriptors spell out the worst aspects of a game in no uncertain terms, but I know that I hardly bat an eyelash at the actual letter rating. The letter rating arguably has no meaning in today’s society because the content descriptors say more than the rating does. It’s a little like reducing the quality of a game to a number or letter grade: if you divorce the final grade from the in-depth analysis, you are left with a superficial understanding of the content. While I can’t find hard and fast statistics on consumers’ knowledge of ESRB ratings prior to purchase, I would hardly be surprised if the same circumstances in 1993 existed now. Much as Sega had a ratings system hardly anyone knew about or comprehended, the ESRB ratings system is there but I wonder how many people understand it or care about it. Just now, I glanced at my copy of the Wii game Klonoa, rating E10+ for “mild cartoon violence” and a “tobacco reference.” Did I think about that when I purchased it? No, because the box packaging clearly makes it look like a children’s game and I would hardly expect a passing tobacco reference will turn children under ten into chewers rocking on their front porches with spittoons. I think we can discontinue the letter rating system and leave in the content descriptors since they tell the fuller story. However, I have to wonder what, if anything, we continue to achieve in this day and age with this system when the Internet is capable of telling the fullest story, even more than the ESRB’s descriptors can, and that is where we are going next time. Stay tuned for the final part of my look at the Entertainment Software Rating Board, when I discuss the ESRB as we go into the future.
To be concluded…