"Boobies Did Not Break the Game": The ESRB Clears the Air On Oblivion

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"Boobies Did Not Break the Game": The ESRB Clears the Air On Oblivion

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My article in Issue 101 of The Escapist, titled The Breasts that Broke the Game, discussed the ESRB's decision last year to re-rate Oblivion from a "T" for Teen rating to "M" for Mature, based, in part, on the availability of a mod that could render all of the game's female characters topless. The proximity of the announcement from the ESRB to that year's E3 trade show meant the gaming press was focusing on other issues, and an important moment in the history of game rating was passed over in the wave of E3 hype.

Response to the article on the forums was heated, indicating there were many sides to this seemingly naked issue. The ESRB took the most vigorous exception to the piece, suggesting that, in fact, boobies did not break the game.

In a follow up interview, ESRB President Patricia Vance spoke with The Escapist on a number of topics, outlining for the first time ever, their specific reasons for re-rating Oblivion (and it really wasn't just the breasts).

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The Escapist: What do you see as the role of the ESRB? The opinion of a number of commentators is the ESRB is a "necessary evil," though not necessarily in a bad sense. A buffer, perhaps, between the industry and government. Do you agree with that characterization?

Patricia Vance: Our mission first and foremost is to ensure that consumers can make an educated purchase decision when it comes to computer and videogames. ... We are the self-regulatory body for the industry; we were put here by the industry. Our policies are created and adopted by the industry. Our marketing guidelines are all industry-adopted. ESRB has a board of directors, which is composed of all the major publishers, and manufacturers of videogames.

I think there is a misperception among some of the gamer community that we're off doing our own thing. We are a self-regulatory body; we are governed by the industry, but in terms of monitoring the industry, assigning ratings, enforcing guidelines, we operate quite independently from the industry.

The alternative is to have another regulatory body of some kind do it, and not have it as a self-regulatory body but have either a governmental entity or some consumer advocacy group of some kind. I think those alternatives ... are a lot worse. ... Politics don't impact us one iota with respect to how we do our job.

TE: Is that a written policy, or is that the philosophy of the organization?

PV: It's just the reality. We do what we do because it's right for our mission, and that is providing guidance to consumers. It's right for the integrity of the system; it is what our rules indicate. It's what our system is, and that's why we do it.

TE: Something people are still to this day unclear on is the rating process in general. Can you provide us an overview of what goes into rating a game for the ESRB, and how that may have changed in the last year or so?

PV: The process itself has been pretty similar from the very beginning. With interactive products, now more than ever ... playing a game is not necessarily the best way to find pertinent content for rating. Oblivion - obviously, there's a game where we could have played for weeks and not gotten, frankly, to the scenes that were most pertinent for the rating. That game, like a lot of others, takes a considerably long time to play through; even playing through wouldn't necessarily guarantee that raters would see all of the pertinent content that they'd need to.

So, we really have to rely on game manufacturers and publishers to fully disclose pertinent content to us. And the system was developed from the beginning to really have publishers bear that burden. The raters themselves, then, wouldn't have to be game experts per se, but they would have to be able to view all of a game's pertinent content in a reasonable period of time and then assign age-appropriate ratings and content descriptors.

The system really requires companies, who know the product better than anybody else, to fully disclose content to the ESRB. They have a fairly extensive submissions form that they have to fill out. This forces them to disclose content across all of the categories that we're interested in. Then they also have to submit video that captures all of the content that they're describing in that written form, but also within the context of the game.

In other words, we don't want them just to put together a tape of one extreme cut to another one, we want them to be able to provide context for the storyline, the missions, the features and functionality of a game, so that the raters really can get exposed to a pretty reasonable sense of what they'd experience playing the game. They also have to make sure that the raters see the most extreme content across all of the categories that are relevant to rating; whether it's violence or language or sexuality or controlled substances, things like that.

It's really, really very important that companies spend lots of time making sure they understand the product inside and out, and that they fully disclose to us. The burden really is on the publisher.

And then, to talk a little bit about enforcement: We view all the materials. We often times will look at lyrics sheets, we'll look at scripts, obviously we have the video. Once we issue the rating, if the company doesn't want to keep the rating that they got from us, they can modify the product and resubmit it to see if they get a different rating. The process then just starts from the beginning. Ultimately they also have the ability to go to an appeals board made up of other game manufacturers, retailers, and other professionals. So that is available to them if they so choose.

Once the product is released with the final rating assigned, we fairly actively test games. We test games after they ship for a number of different reasons. We randomly pick a bunch of titles across all of our rating categories, and test those. We also have very active consumer inquiry forms on our website. We hear a lot from consumers about content they think they may have heard or seen in a game, and want to inquire why it was rated a particular way. We always investigate all of those. We also track a lot of the buzz, the gamer buzz, about specific games to try to hear about subjects that may not have been fully disclosed during the ratings process. Virtually all of those games go through the queue for testing as well.

We have a very active monitoring of compliance after the fact; it's never a good thing if we have to go out and re-rate a game, but we have to protect the integrity of the rating. We have no choice. The system does not work if we are not protecting consumer's interests.

TE: How often do companies use the appeal process? Is that a common thing?

PV: Usually by the time we get to the point of rating a game, they're ... testing it and they really don't have time for an appeal. They'll modify products and then resubmit them before they'll go to an appeal. The appeals process has actually never been used, but it is there.

TE: As far as re-ratings go, are the only two that have happened so far been for San Andreas and Oblivion?

PV: We have re-rated a number of games. Most of the time it occurs, it concerns content descriptors. It doesn't occur with rating categories very often. We just take care of it as part of our business; if that means re-labeling product in the channel or getting companies to remanufacture product, those things are part of our corrective actions. It happens. It doesn't happen often, but again, like I said, more often than not it happens with content descriptors and not with rating categories.

TE: What about the "locked-out content" policy?

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PV: The locked-out content policy began after GTA: San Andreas. It was clear that because of the active gamer community - the modders - that companies could not risk leaving content on discs that could undermine the accuracy of the rating. And so we clarified our policies on locked-out content after GTA: San Andreas to make it absolutely clear to publishers that they can't leave unfinished or other pertinent content on a disc.

Our policies are quite clear: it's what's created by the publisher and included on the disc, not what's created or introduced by a mod. The mod may unlock it, the mod may make it accessible, but again, going back to the publisher's burden; putting the accountability on the publisher to fully account for the content that they create and they ship - that's all we care about.

TE: So, in the future, all titles that have content that's outside the bounds of the original rating will definitely be reconsidered for rating?

PV: Any content that ships with the product, that the developer put there, the publishers are responsible for. They have to fully disclose that to us. As long as it's pertinent to rating they have to disclose it to us. Absolutely. And that was the policy that was announced back in July 2005 after GTA: San Andreas broke.

TE: To clarify, then, user-created content in a game more like LittleBigPlanet or Sony's Home; that is outside the purview of the ESRB?

PV: Yes. We actually have an online rating notice that covers content that is user-generated, that falls outside the boundaries of ESRB ratings. Any game that enables players to download content from other people or communicate with other people while they're playing carries the notice "Game Experience May Change During Online Play."

The reality is that the ESRB can't rate content that is created by other players. We never have, we never tried, nor will we ever. We do feel it is our responsibility, though, to warn consumers that if you play this game online you may be exposed to content that hasn't been rated by the ESRB. That's about as far as we'll go.

TE: The same decision-making process goes for third-party modifications for games, then? The objection to Oblivion was because of the content on the disk, and in the future, modifications that have content outside of the original game rating are not inside the purview of the ESRB at all?

Patricia Vance: Absolutely. It is not. Originally, when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas broke, we had to hack into the product like everyone else, and determine what actually was created by the publisher and what was modified by the end user. That was a key part of our investigation. We can only enforce the rules based on what the publisher and developers have created.

TE: For Oblivion, specifically in the release about the decision, you said, "It is obviously unfortunate for everyone involved." You're referring there to the file on the disc. What was your reaction to that event? What was your reaction to having to make that decision?

PV: As I said earlier, it's never pleasant to have to go out and re-rate a game. It is an important part of what we do in order to maintain the trust and credibility of the system for consumers. We have to make sure that the ratings we assign are reliable and appropriate.

The situation with Oblivion gets back to what we were discussing earlier about the burden of responsibility being on the publisher or developer to fully disclose content to us. It's essential that raters see the most extreme depictions of the content, not the minimal depictions. In the case of Oblivion, the first thing we had heard about was the topless characters, where you can actually opt-in to play throughout the whole game with a topless character. That sounded like a mod to us, and we investigated, and we actually called Bethesda to determine if the art file being used in this mod was theirs, and they did confirm that it was. ... fully rendered. ... It wasn't a Barbie Doll image, it was fully rendered. ... So that was kind of the first part.

While we were investigating that, we actually discovered far more blood and gore than had been disclosed, particularly in the Dark Brotherhood quest line. What Bethesda had originally disclosed to us, as an example: In that section of the game, there is a hanging corpse. What they disclosed to us was a hanging corpse in the dark, pretty far away and without much detail. And yet, when you bring a torch up to the hanging corpse in the actual game, you can see that it's very mutilated with lots of blood and bones. That was a very different depiction, far more intense, far more extreme than what had been disclosed to us. On top of that, what they submitted to us was very dark and unlit in other places, and there were some rooms that were covered in blood, but you couldn't tell that from the submission. So we have to rely on what's submitted to us.

Unfortunately, the video that our raters were exposed to did not fully represent the blood and gore. But when the raters re-reviewed the submission with the more graphic content, it came back as an M rating. That was the primary reason that we went out and re-rated it. It would be problematic to have that level of blood and gore in a "Teen"-rated game. It would have set a whole new precedent that would have impacted rating system; so in terms of parity and consistency, we had to re-rate it.

TE: The raters viewing the video submission, then, were viewing a very dark environment. Do you see any onus on the raters to say things like, "Hey, it's pretty dark up there, we can't really see what's going on"?

PV: The instructions are quite clear on our submission form. [The developers] have to disclose to us the most extreme depictions of the content. So, if you detail that you have hanging corpses in a written submission form for the game, you must expose to us the most visible, most graphic depictions of that in the your video. That was definitely not the case here. Our raters assume that the most extreme depictions are disclosed.

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TE: Do you think that the ESRB is generally doing a good job for consumers, and do you see room for improvement for any part of the process?

PV: I've been here almost five years, and we've made numerous improvements since I've been here. I am certain we'll make more. I'm not sure what they are right now, but our goal is to make it the best rating system it can be.

I think the question of whether we're doing a good job is a question for consumers to answer. Research, whether it's the FTC's or Peter Hart (a very well known research firm), shows in surveys that there is no question that consumers find the rating system to be very effective. The overwhelming majority of parents are using the system. They are using it regularly and finding it to be quite satisfactory.

[But] it will never be the be all and end all. We encourage consumers not to stop at the ratings. The ratings are just one quick hit of information. It is not meant to provide every detail in the game. It is meant to give you a general sense about age-appropriateness and also give you an indication about the types of content that caused the rating, or you might be concerned to know about.

We have a whole section on our website called "Parent Resources" which gives listings of places for parents to go to become better informed about the games that they might bring home for their kids. Whether they're consumer advocacy websites that may review videogames from a parent's perspective, or a religious perspective, or other sites that offer a gamer's perspective. We encourage consumers to be better educated and not stop at the ratings.

[Ultimately] I think the answer to the question is an unquestionable yes, I think it's a very effective system.

Permalink

Well, I guess that's how you know you've hit the big-time.

So basically, Bethesda did include offending material, and didn't disclose the higher blood and gore level of a certain quest, especially by providing dark screencaps, instead of fully lit scenes.

Case closed, right?

The problem is, in effect ratings are censorship in that they often prevent free access to games. A free society should allow individuals to decide for themselves what's harmful. Last year I went out to buy the Grand Theft Auto San Andreas game. Little did I know that it was enveloped in scandal and had been pulled off the shelves due to the re-rating of the game after the Hot Coffee mod. Personally I don't care about nudity in games, but I do care when some regulatory body decides for me what I should be doing with my spare time. In the end I bought the game and because of the hoopla surrounding the Hot Coffee mod I even installed it. In this case the censorship actually encouraged me to see what all the fuss was about - so in my case it was self-defeating. But what a yawn-fest - Hot Coffee wasn't even worth bothering about. I wish the ESRB had figured that out for themselves before they messed with my freedom to play games.

Ratings are just camouflaged censorship. The folks who work for ratings organizations can pretend they're working in our best interest but in reality they're no better than pornographers - selling their own morality and assuming it's okay for everyone else. The only difference is that pornographers don't force their morality on me whereas the ESRB does.

Beery:

Ratings are just camouflaged censorship.

Hear hear.

It seems that the problem lies in the retail branch, not the way games are rated.
Although we can argue about who should rate games, and who's trying to shove his opinion down the consumer's throat, the thing is, there shouldn't be any problem to grab a game that has been rated or re-rated M.

Right now, when I step in a dedicated gameshop, not even some supermarket (because then there could be an excuse), the way games are ordered and sorted on the shelves is due to which platform they belong to, not the genre nor the audience threshold.

The video game distribution industry is extremely puerile and treats the matter very superficially.

They're not there to offer a very mature, intelligent and professional form of retail, they're just there to spoon feed kids with a plethora of short shelved games, without giving a frak about who's really buying the game.

A solid and mature retail machine would make sure that even the horror/blood/sex filled games are easily accessible, in dedicated shops, or on dedicated shelves. They'd be properly isolated from the more mainstream games.

The space organization would be done thusly:

Either a gameshop would formerly sort games by platform, leaving a dedicated room for each of them, and then do a subsorting by rating or genre, or both.

Or, they would rather firstly sort them by rating or genre (so basically, you'd have the all ages room, the Teen room and the Mature room - sounds stupid? no!), and then, within each dedicated place, sort the games by console.

Really, how hard is that?

Beery:
Ratings are just camouflaged censorship. The folks who work for ratings organizations can pretend they're working in our best interest but in reality they're no better than pornographers - selling their own morality and assuming it's okay for everyone else. The only difference is that pornographers don't force their morality on me whereas the ESRB does.

Wow. I think you have to have a slightly skewed perception of the impact entertainment distributors have on your life to perceive a ratings classification system (which, as an adult, holds no sway over your ability to purchase content) as an infringement of your civil liberties or an arbitrary enforcement of morality.

The fact is, censorship is occasionally a good thing, be it self-applied (as in the case of industry-funded, and industry-supported groups like the ESRB) or enforced (via a governmental entity). I'm not a fan of someone telling me what I can and can't watch, but I recognize that in this country, retailers and government will respond to moral outrage, and the perceived threats to children and others. Yeah, in a perfect world, nobody would care, but we don't live in that world. We live in this one. And in this one, violent video games, or games with a certain amount of sexual content are going to be considered dangerous to certain people, and tehre are folks who want to make sure those games don't get into the hands of those people. The ESRB attempts to respect that, by categorizing objectyionable content, and in some extreme cases preventing it from being sold to minors. That's all.

So the best we can do is create a system that offers consumers advice on what's appropriate and what's not, which is what the ESRB does. It may not be the perfect system, but it's the best - and most lenient - we'll ever see. If you're a minor, and you want an M or AO game, well, sucks to be you. Buy it in a few years when you grow up. If you're an adult, it doesn't matter, because you can get it anyway.

The alternative to the ESRB is not, as some suppose, no ratings at all, it's a rating system imposed on the industry by a governmental entity with no concern at all for developer's rights of artistic expression.

Russ Pitts:

The fact is, censorship is occasionally a good thing, be it self-applied (as in the case of industry-funded, and industry-supported groups like the ESRB) or enforced (via a governmental entity). I'm not a fan of someone telling me what I can and can't watch, but I recognize that in this country, retailers and government will respond to moral outrage, and the perceived threats to children and others. Yeah, in a perfect world, nobody would care, but we don't live in that world. We live in this one. And in this one, violent video games, or games with a certain amount of sexual content are going to be considered dangerous to certain people, and tehre are folks who want to make sure those games don't get into the hands of those people. The ESRB attempts to respect that, by categorizing objectyionable content, and in some extreme cases preventing it from being sold to minors. That's all.

I quote Homer Simpson: Democracy just doesn't work.

What's the protocol for heckling your own forum? Don't you have to log in with an anonymous account or something?

Hah, honestly, I just agree with Beery, and I'll take it a step further and say the only thing more of an affront to free speech than censorship is self-censorship. There's a difference between knowing when to say nothing and saying nothing out of fear of what you might say.

Stuff like the ESRB limits what the developers that prop it up - granted, out of fear of stricter regulation from people who don't gain monetarily from them - can express by dangling the ratings Wal-Mart won't touch over their heads, thereby cutting off a revenue stream for anything the regulators believe to be extreme, which ultimately means anything with much of a budget can't be extremely provocative in a sexual or violent sense. And the worst part is the developers falling victim here walked happily into the situation they're facing, rather than fighting for the right to free expression like the artists before them.

Novelists won, but still fight over a small list of banned books. Frank Zappa took on Tipper Gore and ended up with a sticker that didn't change the content of the music the industry produced. Movies went with the voluntary rating system, and it's taken them almost 40 years to recover (even now, most big production houses avoid R ratings on movies like the plague). Comics erred on the side of caution with the Comics Code and sucked for 50 years. And games have the ESRB.

Russ Pitts:
Wow. I think you have to have a slightly skewed perception of the impact entertainment distributors have on your life to perceive a ratings classification system (which, as an adult, holds no sway over your ability to purchase content) as an infringement of your civil liberties or an arbitrary enforcement of morality.

Did you bother to read my post? I went to the store to buy a game that had been released but was prevented from doing so because the game had been withdrawn from sale due to re-rating by the ESRB. In short the game was temporarily banned from sale due in large part to the ESRB re-rating the game. This is censorship. What part of that don't you understand?

Beery:

Russ Pitts:
Wow. I think you have to have a slightly skewed perception of the impact entertainment distributors have on your life to perceive a ratings classification system (which, as an adult, holds no sway over your ability to purchase content) as an infringement of your civil liberties or an arbitrary enforcement of morality.

Did you bother to read my post? I went to the store to buy a game that had been released but was prevented from doing so because the game had been withdrawn from sale due to re-rating by the ESRB. In short the game was temporarily banned from sale due in large part to the ESRB re-rating the game. This is censorship. What part of that don't you understand?

I did, actually. But I can see why you'd think I hadn't. Sorry to be unclear.

The fact is though, that anything (from a dock worker strike, to the store closing early) can prevent you, temporarily, from buying a game, or it being pulled from shelves. have you tried to buy a Wii lately? Do you think it's fair to characterize the relative difficulty in obtaining one of those as censorship on the part of Nintendo manufacturing? (Damn them for preventing me from buying a Wii!)

As far as GTA:SA goes, it was back on shelves in short order, and you can now buy a copy for $10-20 in most places. You were prevented from buying the game the day you wanted to buy it, which is regrettable, but let's not blow the situation out of proportion please.

Beery:
Last year I went out to buy the Grand Theft Auto San Andreas game. Little did I know that it was enveloped in scandal and had been pulled off the shelves due to the re-rating of the game after the Hot Coffee mod.

Russ Pitts:
As far as GTA:SA goes, it was back on shelves in short order, and you can now buy a copy for $10-20 in most places. You were prevented from buying the game the day you wanted to buy it, which is regrettable, but let's not blow the situation out of proportion please.

I agree with beery here, I think Russ is correct in what he is saying, but that is not always the case. I mentioned in the manhunt thread that AUS doesn't have any ratings above 15+ and everything else gets banned, which plays directly into beery's point. Why should the censor choose what I can and can't do with my free time?

On another point, news has just come out that nintendo and sony won't allow manhunt 2 to play on their consoles if it has an AO rating. So now its not even the censor choosing what I can and can't play, its some corporate executive who doesn't want to lose face with the media. WTF!

This sort of behavious is unacceptable in my view and something needs to be done about it.
Personally I have no interest in playing manhunt 2, but as an adult that should be a choice that I make for myself, not one that someone else makes for me. (sorry if this comment really belongs in the "house that AO built" thread).

Arbre:
The space organization would be done thusly:

Either a gameshop would formerly sort games by platform, leaving a dedicated room for each of them, and then do a subsorting by rating or genre, or both.

Or, they would rather firstly sort them by rating or genre (so basically, you'd have the all ages room, the Teen room and the Mature room - sounds stupid? no!), and then, within each dedicated place, sort the games by console.

Really, how hard is that?

We used to do something like this when I worked at Toys'R'Us. We separated the games by console and then within that separation put the adult games on the top shelf and the children's games near the ground. It wasn't ideal but it worked well enough considering that most people don't look far above eye level when shopping.

Only problem was that that was just something we did, it wasn't store policy and it probably should be.

Russ Pitts:
As far as GTA:SA goes, it was back on shelves in short order, and you can now buy a copy for $10-20 in most places. You were prevented from buying the game the day you wanted to buy it, which is regrettable, but let's not blow the situation out of proportion please.

It doesn't matter how long they banned it. If it gets banned at all that's the industry treating me like a child. I'm 45 years old and I should be able to make decisions for myself on the day I want to make them. If you came up to me and told me I couldn't buy a certain game on a certain date I'd tell you where to go, but I can't do that with the game censors. They don't give me the option.

If I got jailed for a crime I didn't commit and then released a day later does that mean my rights haven't really been abridged? Surely not. It's the same thing here - if they ban a game temporarily that's still censorship. What I'm seeing in your posts is a knee-jerk defence of authority. Support for authority is fine when the authority is actually doing good works, but not when the authority is acting against freedom.

In short, if you want some authority telling you what you can play, read, see or hear, that's fine by me. But unlike some folks I don't want some ratings board treating me like an 8 year-old child. I had enough of that when I was a child.

And every game dedicated shop should have an AO section as well.
Every single video shop I've been to in my life has a room for the gore and lust.

It's, again, another sign that the industry severely needs to grow up.
Seriously, the governments should actually push things faster, otherwise I don't think the retailers will ever decide to make a difference on their own.
Why would they bother? They keep selling mature rated games to kids who should not even be able to approach the shelves that contain such games.

And since the whole system is flawed, AO games won't even get a chance to break through.

Why make an AO game when you can't sell it?
Why make an AO section in your shop when there's no AO game to sell anyway?
It's unacceptable. It's the Dark Ages all over.

Someone, something, has to take control of the situation, and force the retailers to comply, since obviously we can't trust them to make the right decision and even protect the children from buying games they shouldn't buy.
The ESRB is not responsible.

Arbre, your analogy is sound - up to the point where you predict the failure of AO-rated material. Somehow, even though they aren't rented or sold at Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, adult-rated movies are still a multi-billion dollar business.

Arbre:
Someone, something, has to take control of the situation, and force the retailers to comply, since obviously we can't trust them to make the right decision and even protect the children from buying games they shouldn't buy.
The ESRB is not responsible.

The ESRB is to blame and game distributors are also to blame because they take away the responsibility to police entertainment industries from those who should own that responsibility. The people who ought to have the responsibility are called parents and they/we have been taking that responsibility for centuries before industry censors like ESRB were invented. Speaking as a parent as well as a gamer, I resent the notion that the ESRB and distributors are censoring games for my child's benefit. That is MY job. If I think my child should (or should not) have access to certain products that should be MY decision to make (as long as what I expose my child to is legal). It should not be the decision of some arbitrarily-appointed ratings board. Not only are these censors restricting my freedom to play, they are also restricting my freedom to raise my child in the environment in which I want her to be raised.

To suggest, as some here have done, that ratings boards are protecting society is ludicrous - in my view, far from protecting a free society they are one of a free society's greatest threats because not only do they impose a repressive moral code on everyone, but they steal away the responsibilities that adults should own and thus they make it easier for adults to behave irresponsibly. In short, their activities make society less mature, not more so.

The ESRB only puts out recommendations really. And it will stay that way as long as all the laws put in place to legalise the system keep getting overturned in court. Its what people do with those recommendations that causes the problems. Corporations with too much power *cough* Walmart *cough* that put blanket bans on products based on these recommendations and influence the entire industry as a result. If the ESRB has done anything wrong its that they have allowed mature content to escape the AO label too easily in the past and set a precident for anything that actually gets labeled AO to be almost universally hated on.

Case in point, both RE4 and gears allow you to watch your character get chainsawed to death, without a camera cut away or an unrealistic lack of blood or anything. Both these games got M ratings. When was the last time you saw the full gore of a chainsaw death in a movie and it wasn't 18+ only?
If games like these were getting the proper ratings they deserve from the beginning, the policies of the companies we rely on for distribution of these products would be completely different I have no doubt.

The ESRB is not the cause of the overarching problem, just the catalyst that set it all in motion.

Russ Pitts:
Arbre, your analogy is sound - up to the point where you predict the failure of AO-rated material. Somehow, even though they aren't rented or sold at Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, adult-rated movies are still a multi-billion dollar business.

And a big part of that income comes from digital distribution over the internet. Lets all hope that as digital distribution becomes more prevalent for games, we see more freedom of choice in what types of games can be easily created and sold (and more importantly, bought and played.)

Goofonian:
The ESRB only puts out recommendations really.

But those recommendations lead to the industry cutting artistic content. That is censorship. Other ratings boards actually ban games from distribution. Either way, artistic content is censored and my freedoms are restricted by a group of idiots who think they ought to be policing my morals and my parenting. That is wrong.

As for what ratings games should get based on gore etc., they should get no ratings that influence the industry to cut content. If a game is violent it's MY responsibility to find out through the normal channels - by looking online at reviews and by talking to my friends etc. If a gruesome chainsaw death is portrayed in a game it should be up to ME to decide whether I or my daughter get to play such a game. The thing is, if I don't get to make such a decision, that makes it EASIER for my child to assume I don't mind - if I never get to say no because some ratings board has said no for me, my child might one day find something that I might not want her to see but she might have no idea that I'm against it.

In the end it doesn't matter whether the ESRB is to blame. The point is that it's an organization that is harmful and it should be shut down.

Beery:
In the end it doesn't matter whether the ESRB is to blame. The point is that it's an organization that is harmful and it should be shut down.

Thankfully, the ESA members (including most of the developers and publisher you suggest are being dictated to by the ESRB) disagree, as they continue to pay their ESA dues and thereby fund the ESRB.

While you may be able to find a developer or two who would agree with you, that total artistic freedom is the ideal, the reality is that without the restrictions put in place by the ESRB, the retail environment would be even more hostile (not less) to videogames, and fewer games would be sold as a result.

I agree with you that consorship and a limit on artistic expression is bad, but when the choices are to either accept a largely benevolent ratings structure or not be allowed to sell games at all, I think most developers would choose (as they apparently have) to side with the ESRB.

Russ Pitts:

Beery:
In the end it doesn't matter whether the ESRB is to blame. The point is that it's an organization that is harmful and it should be shut down.

Thankfully, the ESA members (including most of the developers and publisher you suggest are being dictated to by the ESRB) disagree, as they continue to pay their ESA dues and thereby fund the ESRB.

Thankfully in your opinion, maybe. But not for me, and I'm 100% sure that society is worse-off for their activities because the people whose responsibility it is to regulate the industry through the free market (the consumers and the parents) are prevented from doing so. This leads directly to a dumbing-down of society and rife irresponsibility that we see in adults throughout our modern society because people assume that they don't need to be responsible and that they can do what they want because, after all, Big Brother is out there stoppping them from going too far.

This is where I think everything has gone wrong. The ESRB ratings system is designed to be a guide for parents and caretakers who do not have the time, resources or knowledge to research the content of games that their kids want to play. You might be able to do it, but you are certainly in the minority.

The old fashioned system is to sit down and watch the kid play and if its no good, take it away from them. But that doesn't always work and if you do that you've already spent the cash anyway. Wouldn't it be much easier if there was a group of "in the know" adults that could do most of the hard work for you and let you know whats in the game before you purchase it? .............

It's not the ESRB that censor the games. Its the distributors that use the ratings as a basis for censorship that censor the games. The system has just been so streamlined over years of the ESRB rating games and then developers altering content before they even bother trying to get it through retail channels, that the distinction between the censor and the rater has become less clear.

Beery:
This leads directly to a dumbing-down of society and rife irresponsibility that we see in adults throughout our modern society because people assume that they don't need to be responsible and that they can do what they want because, after all, Big Brother is out there stoppping them from going too far.

I agree with this totally and I think this is why its important that the ratings system doesn't become entrenched in law. Because then you give ignorant, stupid and greedy parents all the ammo they need when they want to sue someone for allowing their kids to get hold of inappropriate content that they SHOULD have been monitoring themselves.

Since my good friend Bill Harris said it so eloquently, I'll simply link to his take on the ratings system and the "tragedy" of the AO rating preventing Rockstar from expressing their artistic identity.

Don't tell me Take-Two didn't know you couldn't release "AO" content on the Wii. They knew, and they also knew what "pliers ripping testicles" action would get rated. ... I'm sure it will be a massive compromise of the team's artistic integrity to change a game where pelotas can be ripped out with pliers. Cry me a testicle river.

Bill certainly summed it up well.

I for one wasn't aware of Sony/Nintendo/Microsoft's policy on AO games, but I guess thats what you get when you work on a closed system and have to do what "daddy" tells you.

Just makes me wonder how long till we get the announcement of the Adults Only version of Manhunt 2: Exclusive to Windows XP.

I think that they should have AO and M sections in game dedicated shops. To many stores have this stigma against adult oriented material in games. That severly limits the growth and public acceptance of gaming. If game makers and Console makers (yes i am looking at nintendo and sony) avoid haveing things rated as only for sale to adults, then the ignorant and/or uneducated public will look at gaming as just for kids, and we will have the same problems we have had for years.
If we had a place to sell the AO games and then alot more games would be rated as such, and it wouldn't be a bad thing at all. It would make watchdog groups have to search many times harder to find problems in the rating system. and would also make game dedicated shops have a better track record keeping underage buyers from getting access to the games not appropriate to their age.
In short make a didicated spot for AO&M games to be sold, and alot of the bad press could go away... then again i can't accurately predict the future.

I can see where Harris is coming from, even if I disagree completely.

Also, new thought: Could a game based on A Clockwork Orange make it to consoles or into stores? I don't think anyone could take Harris' tack on it, since A Clockwork Orange is clearly art. (Though it really doesn't matter if it is or isn't - it's still expression.)

Russ Pitts:
Since my good friend Bill Harris said it so eloquently, I'll simply link to his take on the ratings system and the "tragedy" of the AO rating preventing Rockstar from expressing their artistic identity.

Don't tell me Take-Two didn't know you couldn't release "AO" content on the Wii. They knew, and they also knew what "pliers ripping testicles" action would get rated. ... I'm sure it will be a massive compromise of the team's artistic integrity to change a game where pelotas can be ripped out with pliers. Cry me a testicle river.

If Bill Harris doesn't want a game where a character's testicles are ripped off he... SHOULDN'T BUY IT! It's a very simple choice that he can make for himself. I'm sure that even he can do this all by himself without a ratings board guiding him.

It doesn't matter how abhorrent the content seems. It's still artistic content and as long as it doesn't break any laws the people making it should be able to offer it freely to those who want it. The fact that some of us might not appreciate its worth as art only matters if we're forced to buy it. As far as I'm aware I've never been forced to buy anything that made me rip off a character's testes. But the fact that I don't want to do it shouldn't mean that others shouldn't be able to.

If we let them get away with this nonsense the morality police won't stop at telling us what games we can play at home or what content we should watch in movies and TV shows. Next they will be telling us how we must dress at home, what we must eat, how we must decorate and what political candidates we must vote for, and I guess at that point there will still be folks like you telling me that it's not a big deal and that I should accept it.

In the final analysis this is not about public safety or morality - it's about power - one bunch of bozos telling other folks how they should live. All I need is for these idiots to leave me the hell alone.

In short, if I want a picture on my wall that's an image of the Virgin Mary painted with feces and urine, that's my business. It's the same with the video games I choose to play.

Beery,

I don't disagree with your right to have what you want and buy what you want in the least bit. I think we should all be able to set the standards for what we display, play or consume in our own homes. the trick, however, is in finding someone willing to sell it to us.

Where I think you're confused is in your assumption that retailers have a constitutional or ethical obligation to sell you what you want. They do not. They prefer, in fact, to not sell merchandise that does not meet *some* standard, in order to avoid lawsuits, which cost money and reduce profit margins. They have a right, under the law, to manage their business as they see fit, and if this means not selling AO titles, it is their choice. You have no say, no right and no recourse. The retailers choose what they will sell, not the ESRB.

Currently, the ESRB is the only body that has offered an industry standard for videogame ratings, and they did so for a variety of reasons, none of which was to deny you content.

I understand how ratings smack of censorship, and how censorship smacks of being told what to do or treated like a child, but you're chasing a red herring here. Rating games based on content is not about whether or not said content breaks laws, or is constitutionally protected, it's about providing retailers and consumers a framework for establishing reasonable expectations.

You know, for example, when you buy an E-rated game, you will not see ripped-off testicles. If you prefer that sort of thing, however, then the AO titles are for you. That you are unable to buy AO titles in the store, however, is not the fault of the ratings system. Without the ratings, many retailers wouldn't stock *any* games, regardless of the content, for fear of discovering a ripped-off testicle inside. The ratings system prevents such hysterical, knee-jerk reactions. In theory at least.

@ Russ

Arbre, your analogy is sound - up to the point where you predict the failure of AO-rated material. Somehow, even though they aren't rented or sold at Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, adult-rated movies are still a multi-billion dollar business.

It's not much the failure I predict, but more the idea that the market will never expand the way it could, or even should.

The likes of MacDaddy and Peach Princess probably work moderately well for the limited appeal they're looking for, and and I would bet that prodution budget don't reach high. I don't believe they even pretend to sell games a bit more highbrow than average products filled with random sexual intercourse introduced by the cheapest scenarii you can think about.

But just try to sell a mature and intelligent game which doesn't lie to the consumer, or doesn't look at the consumer like if he was a 15 years old psychological nutcase, in general, and then it suddenly becomes a totally different affair.
Ok, I'm probably at trouble making my point clearer. What I mean is that AO games will always remain the same relatively uninteresting games made for an absurdingly small niche, because video games must strictly remain the kids' fetish mass entertainment.

As some have said, digital distribution makes the situation a bit better, but it's just far from what could be done, especially since digital distribution is hardly going to replace retailers yet.
It's sad to imagine that we would be condemned to rely on expensive internet solutions (it's not cheap everywhere) in order to be able to enjoy certain products.
Ultimately, it still severely limits the potential of a given genre.




@ Beery

The ESRB is only giving you information.
It's not ESRB's fault if there's a vast glitch in the retail machine.

It rather appears to be that ESRB's noble fueled decisions seem to have bad effects, because they're essentially badly enforced, badly exploited.
If the AO market was perfectly open, assumed and controlled, an AO rating would make less of rattle than it does nowadays, likely none at all in fact, and would present less interest for hidden marketing campaigns.

What would you suggest instead of the ESRB?
Pure parental responsability? I don't believe in it one second.

Are kids allowed to buy alcohol? Are kids allowed to buy porno movies?
What happens when someone sells alcohol or porno movies to kids?
Bad Things.
Why doesn't this happen to game retailers? No one sems to give a damn.

From time to time, the ESRB may make a mistake, and be too severe on a certain game, and mysteriously give more leeway to others, but those cases are frankly limited and arguable.
It's not to the ESRB to be the substitute to the parents' role, and it's certainly not the ESRB's fault if a vast group of retailers decide to faint a pious facade and refuse to sell AO games.
I won't complain if Manhunt2 gets an AO rating, because thus far it really deserves it, and I don't think Rockstar will complain much either.

Russ Pitts:

I don't disagree with your right to have what you want and buy what you want in the least bit. I think we should all be able to set the standards for what we display, play or consume in our own homes. the trick, however, is in finding someone willing to sell it to us.

Where I think you're confused is in your assumption that retailers have a constitutional or ethical obligation to sell you what you want. They do not. They prefer, in fact, to not sell merchandise that does not meet *some* standard, in order to avoid lawsuits, which cost money and reduce profit margins. They have a right, under the law, to manage their business as they see fit, and if this means not selling AO titles, it is their choice. You have no say, no right and no recourse. The retailers choose what they will sell, not the ESRB.

Yeah, but that's the same argument private business owners used for refusing to hire minorities. They weren't saying that minorities didn't have the right to work, just that they had the problem of finding someone to hire them. They didn't want to hire minorities because they'd thought they'd lose business and it would cut into their profit margins.

Now, I may or may not agree with you that 'retailers have no constitutional or ethical obligation to sell you what you want.' However, their obligations do have something to do with what they are refusing, and why they are refusing it: the blanket answer that they "have a right, under the law, to manage their business as they see fit" in any and all cases just is not true.

In fact, it's never been true, as far back as the Roman empire. When you engage in certain activities, you give up the right to manage your business entirely as you see fit (it's weird how our current popular conception of the law is in a lot of ways more conservative than that of, say, an English court in 1701, isn't it?).

Now, maybe you disagree with that, but you shouldn't be saying that business owners have always had this absolute right to run their business as they see fit. Beery's point is that business decisions that result in de facto censorship should be held to a different standard than others. There's a strong tradition of interfering in business decisions running right through the common carrier laws to modern anti-discrimination laws in employment. You can't just torpedo Beery's point by saying 'business have always had an absolute right when it comes to business decisions' because that simply isn't true.

Arbre:
@ Russ

Arbre, your analogy is sound - up to the point where you predict the failure of AO-rated material. Somehow, even though they aren't rented or sold at Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, adult-rated movies are still a multi-billion dollar business.

It's not much the failure I predict, but more the idea that the market will never expand the way it could, or even should.

Really bad, horrible adult-rated movies where the cast is about 10cc's of injected plastic away from turning the whole thing into an X-rated version of _Robot Chicken_ are a multi-billion dollar business. Kinda the exception that proves your point that censorship often only results in a downgrade in the quality of the objectionable material, much like the case of the steady flow of bathtub gin and Prohibition.

Arbre:
From time to time, the ESRB may make a mistake, and be too severe on a certain game, and mysteriously give more leeway to others, but those cases are frankly limited and arguable.

I don't think the backlash is about the ESRB making a mistake. I think the backlash is about the ESRB tightening up in a systematic fashion. It's the same kind of feeling as when the Meese Commission resulted in the 7-Elevens taking _Playboy_ off the magazine rack. It wasn't that the material wasn't available, it was that the material *used* to be available, and now the safeguards were being controlled or giving into people with a specific moral agenda, and weren't just engaging in censorship, but engaging in *more restrictive* censorship than was previously the case.

I have not formed a solid opinion on the specific issue of game ratings and government regulation of distribution video games classified as highly violent.

But from a broader standpoint, I disagree with the broader ideological framework which posits that on the one hand stand overbearing government censors, and on the other, innocent and brave "artistic" developers or freedom-fighters.

In America the notion of freedom differs greatly from other standing definitions. The term has been used and moreover abused for all kinds of ends, here and elsewhere. But the distinctly American problem with the loaded understanding of the term "freedom" is the false framework in which it sits: on the one side there is government bureacracy, and on the other, the heroic individual. This is an imaginary social vacuum which ignores other real social forces that are more influential than government - in particular, corporations.

So let's assume for instance that there is a drug that is highly addictive and cheap to produce. A given corporation invests a few million in advertisements in one city and soon half the population is hooked on a chemical the sale of which nets the corporation millions in profit.

One can say accurately that government intervention to stop the sale of the drug impinges on the freedom of the corporation - and the freedom of the individual. Frankly, that is an incontrovertible fact. But not many will argue that this restriction on freedom is immoral or unethical; on the contrary most would say that government inaction would be both immoral and indefensible.

It goes without saying that games are not addictive poisonous drugs. But the point remains: what is really being debated is not the greatness of "freedom" versus "censorship" per se, because that is meaningless in an absolute sense, since the positive value of freedom depends precisely upon how socially positive we perceive the action to do freely is. Rather, what is being debated is the extent to which extremely violent video games are harmful to potential consumers.

Now how can the consumer necessarily determine the answer to that question? Is being an adult the same as being omnipotent about the pitfalls of all consumption? It was adults who were banned from using DDT and adults who were banned from being able to buy cars not built to certain safety specifications and adults who were banned from building such cars.

Finally, it is not as if we emerged into this world and said to ourselves, "Oh, hey, I really have an internal yearning to play a video game where I specialize in various ways of killing other people." Just as one can argue government or self-regulation is inhibiting freedom, the particular consumer and cultural milieu in which consumers are encouraged to choose certain products is not at all a conscious choice, but imposed by non-government forces, including capital.

Wow, I wish I could write that fluently. Spose I'd even be able to score a job at some fancy magazine website :)

I think Junaid has hit the nail on the head. Your opinion about things like ratings and censorship is certainly going to have a lot to do with your opinion about what is socially acceptable and/or beneficial. To try and suggest there is one absolute truth with regards to what actually is the greater good and whether or not the end justifies the means is ludicrous.

I wonder what the programmers and animators at rockstar are actually like? I mean obviously the executives are saying "make it as violent as possible. more violence equals more controversy. more controversy equals more sales equals more $$$" Whether or not thats right or wrong is debatable.
But does anybody actually know someone working on the project? What sort of a person comes up with as many ways to kill a man as they can think of and then goes and animates them in CG for a living?

Personally I have absolute no respect or tolerance for the individuals that do things like make websites with photos of train wreck victims. That stuff is just off.
And in the scheme of things, are the guys and girls at rockstar really any better?

Junaid Alam:

In America the notion of freedom differs greatly from other standing definitions. The term has been used and moreover abused for all kinds of ends, here and elsewhere. But the distinctly American problem with the loaded understanding of the term "freedom" is the false framework in which it sits: on the one side there is government bureacracy, and on the other, the heroic individual. This is an imaginary social vacuum which ignores other real social forces that are more influential than government - in particular, corporations.

I'm not sure if you are from America, but if you are not--and maybe even if you are--I think you've gotten too much of your impression of America from Fox News, because that's the 'ownership society' drivel they promote as being what America is all about. Or else you're reading books that haven't been updated since the New Deal.

Now how can the consumer necessarily determine the answer to that question? Is being an adult the same as being omnipotent about the pitfalls of all consumption? It was adults who were banned from using DDT and adults who were banned from being able to buy cars not built to certain safety specifications and adults who were banned from building such cars.

That's not just about the government being better at protecting the individual than the individual would be, that's also about the absolute value of commercial activities being lower than that of expressive ones like speech. Just think about it: when speech goes from being expressive to being commercial, it enjoys a much lower degree of protection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_speech.

Junaid Alam:
But the point remains: what is really being debated is not the greatness of "freedom" versus "censorship" per se, because that is meaningless in an absolute sense, since the positive value of freedom depends precisely upon how socially positive we perceive the action to do freely is.

I...am very uncomfortable with that statement. We don't give people the freedom of say, religion just because of "how socially positive we perceive the action to do freely is." We've decided that no matter how much better it would be for all of us if there was a state religion--or if we abolished all religions--that simply is not a decision government should make for the individual.

Religion is more addictive than any drug, and all it costs to produce it is the cost of sending out a missionary, and being raised in a religious family has far more power to impose a choice than capital has in carving out Channels of Desire. Yet we hold freedom of religion to be an absolute good. What you are saying is that we shouldn't.

Saying that *some* forms of freedom can be viewed as good in an absolute sense does not mean one is saying that *every* freedom must be viewed as such. I guess one could put it this way: what people are saying when they say a certain 'freedom is an absolute good' means that it would never under any possible circumstances be "socially positive" to take away that freedom. Maybe that bridges the gap between your ideology and the ideology of those that see freedom as an absolute good.

I agree 100% with you that in some cases talking about absolute freedom is of little meaning, like in banning DDT or, say, Unfair Trade Practice statutes designed to prevent gold farming in WoW ;-) However, I disagree 100% that it is meaningless to talk about absolute freedom. Maybe this is just an oversight on your part in choosing the examples you did, but you've set up an 'ideological framework where on the one hand stand well-meaning government censors, and on the other, ill-informed, not-so-innocent and cowardly inartistic developers'.

I think that's a false dichotomy: a good amount of American law does not make the choice for the individual consumer, but rather makes sure the individual consumer is as well informed as possible. Everything from truth-in-advertising laws, to the requirement that manufacturers make the Nutritional Facts known, to that paper in the window of a new car that tells you at a glance what kind of mileage it gets, to the law against ripping the tags off a mattress are examples.

And so is the ESRB. I don't think anyone objects to the ESRB in principle. No one objects to some third party giving them an opinion on a game. What people are objecting to is that the ESRB has gone from being like the Nutritional Facts on the side of my box of Twinkies to being like the FDA. People *are* constructing an "ideological framework which posits that on the one hand stand overbearing government censors, and on the other, innocent and brave "artistic" developers or freedom-fighters" for two reasons:

One, they do believe that freedom of expression has more absolute value than freedom to sell DDT. Saying freedom has no absolute value and is only a reflection of how socially positive we consider the underlying activity to be is...a bit too fascist for my tastes, or at least too brutally populist. It's too slippery a slope into eugenics and state religion and other government programs I don't think anyone wants to wind up inadvertently endorsing.

Two, they *do* believe regulatory bodies have a place. They are just saying that there's a big difference between censoring a product for my own good, and labeling it for my empowerment. The way you've argued in your post, you seem to pretend like there's no difference between the government telling me on the basis of being better informed or less influenced by capital what I *can* choose, and simply sharing that greater knowledge/impartial viewpoint with me.

Not to mention, government is made up of politicians who--believe it or not--are people just like you and I. So what makes them automatically more immune to the effects of capital? If anything, I'd say it was the opposite case...

I mean, I agree 100% with you that government should pay more attention to the effects of capital, and the power of the corporation to control the individual. I am very much on the populist, utilitarian side of things in my ideology. I just...almost totally disagree with many of your rationales for doing so. Also, with your characterization of America as treating freedom in all cases as an absolute proposition. I mean, the Law and Economics philosophical movement *did* come out of Chicago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_and_economics :-D

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