Summary: The ESRB may be the video game industry's last line of defense against political pundits and governmental regulation, but is that any excuse for some of the asinine rulings they've made in recent years? This week's Firing Points plumbs the depths of controversy and examines the profoundly thin line between what is and isn't acceptable for American youths.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board has been around since the mid-90s, when whiny senators felt something needed to be done about all those violent video games like DOOM and Mortal Kombat corrupting our children. Congress gave the games industry an ultimatum: come up with your own ratings system or we’ll do it for you. Several different committees were formed around that time, but the Entertainment Software Association (then the Interactive Digital Software Association) created the ESRB, which emerged as the best one and was approved by Congress. In a perfect world, their services would be unnecessary, as parents would take personal responsibility for what they allow their kids to be exposed to, instead of blaming the game makers for practicing creative expression... Unfortunately, people are dumb, so we need an organization to spoon-feed information to parents in order to cover our own asses. And if that has to be done, I suppose we’re lucky to have an independent authority that operates with the cooperation of the industry rather than yet another unnecessary and inefficient government agency.
Now that they’ve become as ubiquitous as the MPAA ratings for movies, you have to wonder whether the ESRB is becoming a little too big for their britches. They do seem to be turning into more of a content Nazi of late, not only dictating that developers constrain themselves to content befitting an ‘M’ rating or else be effectively banned from retail distribution, but demanding that advertising and other promotional materials be made more suitable for general consumption beyond their target audience. Placing an age gate on trailers and web sites for M-rated games is one thing, but now they’re in the business of telling publishers what they can and can’t put on the box art of games, and it never makes sense! For instance, they were fine with the severed thumb on the cover of Left 4 Dead, but sever another two fingers for the cover of Left 4 Dead 2 and suddenly it’s obscene? Or more recently, they forced Deep Silver to change the logo of Dead Island to depict a shambling zombie instead of a hanging corpse as the ‘I’ in “Island.” The logo will remain unchanged in-game, which is A-OK with the ESRB because that will only be seen by those mature persons that actually play the game… Who knows how many spontaneous suicides would erupt amongst poor, innocent children after they wander the electronics section of Wal-Mart and happen upon such horrific imagery?
What authority does the ESRB have to threaten game makers with, anyhow? Well, in case you didn’t know, a game has to be rated in order to get a license from Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony and be published for their console(s). And, as I briefly alluded to before, most retailers will not carry unrated games, so you won’t see such PC games in stores, either. For that matter, very few are willing to sell games rated ‘AO’ for Adults Only. The ESRB itself freely admits that they screwed Rockstar Games out of a whole lot of money over the “Hot Coffee” controversy that led to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas being temporarily re-rated AO. As part of that process, they forced Take-Two to recall all unsold copies of the game or else supply distributors with AO stickers to put on the boxes, which all but removed the game from the retail market entirely. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion suffered a similar controversy over its first nude mod and some undisclosed “extreme depictions of blood and gore,” but since its rating was changed from ‘T’ to ‘M,’ it wasn’t penalized as heavily. Not long after that, however, the ESRB asserted their authority and effectiveness as a regulatory body in the face of harsh criticisms from the media and political activists; in a written testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives in June of ‘06, ESRB president Patricia Vance re-iterated their willingness and ability to swiftly impose sanctions on members of the industry they govern, which could include fines of up to $1 million.
It’s interesting to note how few games have truly been rated AO, and not just temporarily as a form of punishment. All of them have the Strong Sexual Content descriptor, except for an online gambling game, and only a few could be considered “legitimate” games: Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, Manhunt 2, and the director’s cut of Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy. The rest are obviously pornographic in nature, which might be telling of our society’s bias against sexuality and comparatively lax attitude toward violence in media. If you try to think of the most violent video game you can -- maybe something like Soldier of Fortune, with its detailed dismemberment system -- it was probably rated M. Meanwhile, Leisure Suit Larry gets rated AO because it shows a few unclothed cartoon ladies. At the end of the day, what has the potential to be more damaging to a kid’s psyche? I know I used to get sick to my stomach sometimes while playing violent games like SOF and Postal 2, just like I would watching movies like Alien or Saving Private Ryan. Probably had nightmares that I’ve suppressed over the years, too… One thing’s for sure: my experience seeing naked women was far less traumatic.
Firing Points is a weekly editorial that explores popular, pressing, or otherwise provocative topics in the world of gaming. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the FiringSquad team, or anyone else for that matter.
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