A Defense of the ESRB4
Matt posted in Games on October 22nd, 2007
I think the ESRB has come under fire from all sides recently. Some people argue that it is too lenient whereas other people decry it as too restrictive. It’s my opinion that all this criticism is not the fault of the ESRB, but rather a misunderstanding on what the ESRB is and what it tries to accomplish.
Firstly, let me talk about the big kahuna – the “Hot Coffee” debacle. When people first discovered it, I argued that the game should not be re-rated. The developers didn’t mean for people to see it, why should it affect the rating? I thought it wasn’t something that someone would run into by playing the game ordinarily. One would have to go looking for it. When it was only in the PC sku, I argued that one could just mod the game to put in all the nudity they wanted, and it would have the same effect. When they unlocked the hot coffee in the console game with gameshark codes, I began to see things differently. I had a game genie for the NES, and it was a consumer product that I used when I played games as a child. That’s fairly accessible to a child as well as any non-tech savvy consumer. Now, let’s pretend that a father was informed of the ESRB ratings. He deemed that all the gore and violence and other terrible acts of depravity in San Andreas was perfectly acceptable for his child to play. However, he was not okay with sexual content. Despite his full understanding of what the ESRB rating entailed, his child could get at content that he wasn’t okay with them seeing (assuming the child had a gameshark). This made me realize that my earlier feelings on the re-rating were incorrect.
Now, one might think my example is ludicrous. Why would a parent let their child play San Andreas? That’s not up to the ESRB to decide. The ESRB does not legislate morality. The ESRB’s job is to come up with standards and metrics so parents and gamers can determine what type of content they’d like to purchase. Even if the content is not accessible or not easily acceptable, the consumer is buying a product and has every right to know what they are getting on their disc. Let’s use another media as an example. If I bought a DVD and encoded in the disc is some sort of snuff film, I’d be outraged regardless of whether it were accessible by using a menu or not! When I purchase something, I don’t just think of it as a product. I think of it as a vote of support. The reason for that is because to the publishers, if people buy a product, that means that people are interested in that type of content. If no one buys it, then the publishers will stop making it. So, when I purchase a game, I’d like to know what content I’m getting on the disc. If it’s content that I think is acceptable, then I don’t feel bad about purchasing the game and supporting further development of that type of content. Now many people don’t see it that way, but perhaps these are the same people that don’t vote. In the business world, you vote with your wallet, and that’s the best way to show your support or disgust with a particular title. So, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to rate everything that the consumer is purchasing because if the hidden content is found (which it usually is), consumers might regret their purchase.
I have a vague recollection that there was a golf game or other tame game for PC that someone put a pornographic file on the disc before it went to mastering. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the details of this incident nor find any information about it, but I think that further illustrates my point that all content should be rated on the game disc. Perhaps one might argue that console games shouldn’t have this restriction because their content is often hidden away. One can just as easily stick a console game in a PC in order to look for bonus content. In fact, Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast was on the proprietary GD-ROM format, and it had extra wallpapers that were accessible when putting the GD-ROM into a standard CD-ROM/DVD-ROM PC drive. I think this ties back to my earlier example of an informed father buying a game for his child and the kid getting content that he was not aware of. Perhaps that family has a filter on the internet to filter out other inappropriate content, but the resourceful child could still get access to tools to decode a console game image file. Perhaps this seems like a silly example because if the child were that technically savvy, he or she could most likely find ways to get around the internet filter. Regardless of how contrived the situation is, I think it’s very reasonable to rate games based on the content for this very reason.
Another high profile title that was re-rated was the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Many people incorrectly attributed the naked skin to a modification. The content was found on the disc. In order for the content to appear, you needed to modify the game. But, if the texture was there, then it is on the disc being purchased and should be rated in my opinion. The other controversy over the re-rating is that the game stayed at Mature instead of Teen because they found some rotting corpses hanging in a prison as well as heads on spikes. I think that level of gore is consistent with the ESRB Mature rating instead of Teen, so that seems reasonable.
Next, I’d like to talk about the Adults Only rating. Take Two felt that the Adults Only rating for Manhunt 2 was unfair because it effectively kills the game at the retail. In my opinion, it’s silly to take this issue up with the ESRB. The game is clearly for adults only, and if the ESRB deems that its content is worthy of the “Adults Only” rating, I would agree that’s a reasonable rating for the game. The real issue is not with the rating, but rather that Nintendo and Sony won’t allow an Adults Only game to be published for their consoles as well as retailers probably won’t carry the game. Those policies are independent of the ESRB. It’s akin to an NC-17 or unrated version of a film. Some films make it to the theaters with NC-17 ratings. For example, Ang Lee’s latest film “Lust Caution” has received an NC-17 rating, and some theaters are going to show it. However, most retailers will however carry unrated movies that would have received an NC-17 rating. Movies similar in vein to Manhunt 2 like Hostel have a very gory unrated version available at plenty of retailers. The question is – why will retailers that carry essentially NC-17 films not carry Adults Only games? That should be something that Take Two takes up with the retailers, not the ESRB. The other problem with the rating is that the platform holders won’t allow content with that rating to be released on their system. There are many reasons for this. It is understandable that they want to maintain standards that their consoles represent. But, again that’s not the fault of the ESRB. Sony did not want pornography to be released on Betamax, and some people think that’s one of the reasons the format lost. But, it’s quite possible that some people bought Betamax over VHS because they did not want to support a format that would allow content that they disapproved of. Whether it would have any affect on console sales is open to speculation, but I would argue it’s a free market, so the platform holders should restrict whatever content they feel is in their best interest.
Certainly, it would be easier for the ESRB just to lower their standards and rate Manhunt 2 a Mature game and not condemn it to “retail suicide” than to convince stores and platform holders to allow an “Adults Only” or unrated game. I’d argue that’d be the opposite of what the ESRB is supposed to do. They are supposed to as objectively as possible rate a game based on the content regardless of the retail pressure of the publisher. Manhunt is definitely not the first game that had to get content adjusted to see a US mature rating. Some other notable examples were the Punisher, Indigo Prophesy and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. I’ve played all three games, and to be honest, I’m glad the content was modified. The Punisher was just sadistic, and I didn’t miss more graphic scenes of torture. Leisure Suit Larry would have been just plain pornographic if it weren’t censored. I was very disappointed my purchase because I was expecting the lovable loser succeeding against all odds in impressing women instead of a crude game revolving around graphic 3D representations of carnal relations. Perhaps I should have expected that since Al Lowe wasn’t involved, but hindsight is 20/20. Indigo Prophesy besides having the worst ending out of any video game I’ve ever played (and I’ve played a ton) had gratuitous sex scenes that took away from the game in my opinion. If they were more graphic (as they were in the European release entitled Fahrenheit), I think it would take away even more. There may be people who wanted this extra adult content, but they had the option of importing the European version of Indigo Prophesy or buying the adults only uncensored downloadable version of Leisure Suit Larry. The publishers of these particular titles didn’t complain. Instead, they worked with the ESRB in order to achieve the rating they were targeting.
Finally, the last big controversy surrounding the ESRB is the issue of user created content. The escapist has a well thought out article about the Obvilion re-rating scandal. The thing I disagree with is that the author seems to fault the ESRB with re-rating the game based on a “mod” despite that the content is on the disc. Does user created content affect the ESRB’s rating decisions? No. Now, let’s look at the facts here. As far as PC games are concerned, there are many PC games with naked skins freely available on the web. Quake III as well as most first person shooters have user created skins with nudity. Quake III has never been re-rated. I read there are even mods for games like Britney’s Dance Beat that insert nudity. That game wasn’t re-rated. Someone created naked skins for Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball for Xbox. That game wasn’t re-rated. So, I think the author’s assertion that the game was re-rated based on a mod is incorrect. The game is rated based on what is on the disc. As I’ve discussed, I think that’s a very reasonable standard.
As far as I know, I don’t think the ESRB is interested in rating games based on user created content. There is always the disclaimer that “game experience may change with online play” at the beginning of all online titles. Let’s pretend they wanted to re-rate games for user created content. If they are rating games based on user input, then they should also re-rate games based on the people you play with online. I’m sure you can play Uno with many people on Live who need to have their mouths washed out with soap. I don’t think the ESRB is going to rate the game Mature just because there are very vulgar people playing on Xbox Live. People were worried about a Forza Motorsport 2 re-rating because someone created a car promoting hate, but one could hear the same hate from any online game with voice chat.
Finally, one major criticism of the ESRB is that sexual content is rated higher than violence. It is true that ESRB rates sexual content higher than violence, but I would argue that it is consistent with the MPAA’s standards and American standards in general. Other countries who feel sexual content in games are more acceptable (Europe for example got the uncensored version of Farenheit/Indigo Prophesy) feel that sexual content is more acceptable in other forms of entertainment. I don’t think one can take issue with the ESRB for this. Rather one should take issue with all the American society and work to promote change in the general beliefs of all Americans. This seems much more difficult than to change the ESRB, but I think it’s the ESRB’s job to rate based on American standards whether they seem foolish to particular outspoken individuals or not.
So, in looking at the issues that have cropped up with the ESRB in recent memory, it seems that the problems are not due to inadequacies or faults in the ESRB. In my opinion, the ESRB does its job and people who complain about it don’t understand what it is supposed to accomplish. If the ESRB failed to do its job – if it gave into pressures and gave all the games the ratings the publishers would like to receive, then the government would probably step in and regulate the content. This would be disastrous for games as an art form as well as a commercial medium. So, if people want change the standards for what video game software gets released, I think changing the ESRB is not the solution. In my opinion, the ESRB is doing a good job rating games and the fault for all these rating slip ups lie with the publisher for not appropriately disclosing all the content that the game contains. If you read gamasutra’s interview with the ESRB, you’ll notice it’s the publisher’s responsibility to disclose the content – not the ESRB’s to find it.