Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB

Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB

Throughout the 1980s, most of the problems swirling about American youth could be safely attributed to three factors: heavy metal, marijuana and Dungeons & Dragons. Videogames were on the radar, but more as a symptom than a cause, and game developers, their efforts tightly constrained by technological limitations, went about their business largely ignored by the mainstream. But in 1992, everything changed.

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A whole lot better than the alternative? Based on what data?

Sure, the ESRB must seem great to people who love brutal violence but who daren't look down in the shower in case they notice their own nipples. But for the average person who is intelligent and emotionally, sexually and mentally well-balanced the ESRB is a bad joke.

The alternative is state and federal regulation of game ratings. While we can look at the flaws of the ERSB, or the MPAA for that matter, the fact of the matter is is that regulation from an outside body impedes the enterprise, always. Look at the flight boom after the deregulation of airlines. Look at the prohibitive costs unleashed by Sarbanes-Oxley. Or Prohibition, or the war on drugs or... ad nauseum.

The only internal issue that needs to be resolved is the AO issue. And it seems to me to be a non-starter. They should absolutely crack down and label more games AO. The stats are out there; there's enough of a gaming market out there that fit the 18 and up demographic that it will not cost them a noticeable drop in sales (especially inside the age range that their own standards board deems the game sellable to). They should not shy away, informed parents (or whomever controls the purse strings) and adult gamers make likely 98% of all gaming purchases.

The problem with the ESRB lies in two places: the retailers and the parents.

Retailers generally have a small profit margin on their goods. This is especially the case in places like walmart and best buy, where they actually sell things (like CDs and Books) at a loss in order to get people in the door to buy big ticket items (hope you bought a new video card with that Bioshock!!!... please?). They therefore have less incentive to whip out the cat-o-nine-tails upon those blueshirted backs and train them to check ID.

Now it is in these retailers' interest to enforce this restriction, as federal regulations would cause fewer games on the shelves. So if they continue to disregard the ratings system, then perhaps ESRB could use perhaps its most effective weapon: the nuclear option. For three failures by any retailer to adhere to a (yearly or some other time frame) random inspection by the ESRB(mystery shopping, basically)then participating publishers, committing in an open letter to congress, will pull their games from the shelves.

It sends a strong message, and some game houses might balk at the idea. But the trend is to get tougher. Look at the NBA, MLB, Cycling. They needed to get tough to keep their image and relevancy as a business that plays by the rules. Our industry can do the same. The goodwill that comes from being a "good corporate citizen" is unmeasurable. There's no reason not to raise the image of an industry thats plagued with only negative press of ill-adjusted school shooters.

parents... i could write something, but you know the debate. So agree or not with it should you respond.

The ESRB is a good standard. As the article states, it has kept up with the times, evolving as both games and culture do. If it keeps growing up smarter, heck, I'd give it the bronze medal after Underwriters Laboratory and Good Housekeeping.

thefreemarket:
The alternative is state and federal regulation of game ratings. While we can look at the flaws of the ERSB, or the MPAA for that matter, the fact of the matter is is that regulation from an outside body impedes the enterprise, always.

The alternative is an ESRB that remains what it was supposed to be: a resource for parents. What people are reacting to is the ESRB we are getting: a de facto censor board.

parents... i could write something, but you know the debate. So agree or not with it should you respond.

I wonder about what sort of "parents" wind up being asked to be "raters." Do they play games themselves? Are, say, single mothers or other non-traditional families represented in a proportionate manner? Or is only a certain cross section of parents invited to give their input?

The goodwill that comes from being a "good corporate citizen" is unmeasurable. There's no reason not to raise the image of an industry thats plagued with only negative press of ill-adjusted school shooters.

I don't think the problem is so much one of good citizenship. I think it's one of being between a rock and a hard place. Here's the way I see it in terms of a broad generalization: Liberals and Conservatives both have a set of contradictory aims in their core philosophies. Conservatives want government out of everyone's life, except when it comes to morality. Liberals want to protect free speech, except when it come to 'victim' classes like children.

That's why games are between a rock and a hard place. Conservatives say 'that's a parent's rights issue, not an economic one' and therefore think this is something the government should get involved in. Liberals say 'that's a child protection issue, not a free speech one' and therefore think this is something the government should get involved in.

That's the real problem for gaming: it has no natural allies among politicians. Conservatives AND Liberals can appeal to their constituents by beating up on video games, either by appealing to parents angry at the liberal media that want to corrupt their children, or parents angry at the misogynistic media that victimizes children for corporate profits.

The key seems to be more about getting Liberals to think of this as a free speech issue, or re-branding this as a family friendly economic choice as happened with gambling coming to Conservative states. I think the problem people have with the ESRB is that it is pursuing neither of these strategies.

The reason school shootings descend on videogames is because videogames are under no one's protection. There's no attack in the media on guns, because the media knows if you attack guns you lose Conservative viewers. If you attack the books these kids read you lose Liberal viewers. So videogames--and to a lesser extent music--get blamed because they don't fit under either umbrella.

Beery:
Sure, the ESRB must seem great to people who love brutal violence but who daren't look down in the shower in case they notice their own nipples. But for the average person who is intelligent and emotionally, sexually and mentally well-balanced the ESRB is a bad joke.

But haven't you just described a very fundamental aspect of the American society, in which you can buy a gun in Walmart but a half-second of Janet Jackson's nipple is apocalyptically corrupting?

Yes, I paint with broad strokes. It's my style.

But the point stands. In American society violence is far more prevalent as an element of entertainment than sex, and it's far more readily accepted as such. I don't think we can pretend it's too surprising that ESRB ratings reflect that attitude. And the alternative, as TFM pointed out, is legislative restriction: your games go from being rated by an agency familiar with and knowledgeable about the industry, to being censored - yes, censored - by a government largely beholden to some very conservative groups. My data? The fact that the ESRB only exists because of the threat of government regulation. You think Lieberman and his crew weren't hoping the industry wouldn't choke on it when they were forced to set up a ratings board in the first place?

I agree that the ESRB needs to change, but only as part of industry-wide changes right down to the retail channels. Should kids be playing GTA, Manhunt, Kingpin? Of course not. Should I? Damn right. But as long as an AO rating all but ensures that I won't, how could I possibly demand an increase in its use? When the rating means kids can't get it, instead of nobody can get it, I'll be the first in line to sign up.

thefreemarket:
The only internal issue that needs to be resolved is the AO issue. And it seems to me to be a non-starter. They should absolutely crack down and label more games AO. The stats are out there; there's enough of a gaming market out there that fit the 18 and up demographic that it will not cost them a noticeable drop in sales (especially inside the age range that their own standards board deems the game sellable to). They should not shy away, informed parents (or whomever controls the purse strings) and adult gamers make likely 98% of all gaming purchases.

I don't think that the games industry is worried about losing the under 18 market when a game gets rated AO. The bigger issue is when Nintendo, MS, or Sony say "We don't allow AO games on our consoles." Or when Wal-Mart says "We're a family-oriented business (who just happens to move a significant portion of videogame sales), and we refuse to allow AO games on our shelves."

You can say that the ESRB should use the AO rating in the way the AO is intended to be used, but in the same vein, you can say that the retail industry should REACT to an AO rating the way it's intended. Chicken and egg, really. The retail market won't adjust to AO titles until the ESRB uses them fully, and the ESRB won't use the AO rating as intended until the market isn't going to over-react.

My only suggestion to this conundrum? Take a game that's guaranteed to sell, say, GTA IV, or Halo 3, or (insert blockbuster that fans are salivating over already), and make it AO. Then convince the publisher/developer not to take it back to tone it down. Make Wal-Mart shoot themselves in the foot, for refusing to sell to the adult market that wants to buy the game from them. And make it a game that no console maker will turn away from, because it's going to sell systems. Then, maybe, JUST maybe, people will get the opportunity to adjust to a world where AO doesn't have negative connotations, like NC-17. And really, NC-17 is a whole 'nother subject just like this.

By the way, I'm entirely aware that my suggestion for how to fix this is a non-starter. Someone has to shoot themselves in the foot to make this work, and no one's going to do that.

Malygris:
And the alternative, as TFM pointed out, is legislative restriction: your games go from being rated by an agency familiar with and knowledgeable about the industry, to being censored - yes, censored - by a government largely beholden to some very conservative groups...

At least government ratings would be answerable to the people and dependent upon the constitution. Currently the ESRB is answerable to no one.

By the way, it's nonsense to say the alternative is government censorship. The US government cannot censor - it's specifically prohibited from doing so by the first amendment to the constitution. So at least in the US that argument holds no water.

Malygris:
Should kids be playing GTA, Manhunt, Kingpin? Of course not...

Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple. Censorship is wrong, not to mention unconstitutional (at least in the US).

Beery:
Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple.

Unless you've got some mind-reading goggles on, it's possible he was addressing the issue from another angle - preserving kids from exposition to violent games at certain ages. It's a balancing act between not being conservative to the point that all kinds of media which depict violence should be restricted to certain age groups, but also not being liberal enough to offer a kid who may have no idea of, or no mechanism to distinguish between what is real and virtual.

Beery:
Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple. Censorship is wrong, not to mention unconstitutional (at least in the US).

I believe, by unconstitutional, you mean unconstitutional for the government to engage in it, right? We have movie ratings in the US that are primarily intended to keep children from seeing certain films. We have game ratings whose main purpose is to advise people not to let their children play the game. In both cases, the industry is censuring itself, to prevent government regulation (because the government has an interest to protect children).

To some extent, I think that Malygris and I are both less concerned with "censorship" when it comes to keeping certain things out of kids' hands (plus, I personally have zero issue with parents who feel their kids are mature enough to deal with the adult content, and bypass the system by buying it for their kids. That's their choice as parents. But I do like the attempts by the ESRB and the MPAA to try and force a parent's involvement). It seems to me that Malygris and I are more concerned with "censorship" when it comes to keeping a product out of anyone's hands, as is the effective result of an AO rating. Plus, I have to laugh when I see the distinction the ESRB makes between an M game and an AO game. M-rated games are only for people 17+. AO-rated games are only for people 18+. But, the console makers are okay with M-games, and not with AO-games. [sarcasm]That 17 yo demographic must be BIG for them.[/sarcasm]

It comes back around to the stigma attached to an AO rating, which is way out of line with its intent. The ESRB is NOT interested in wide-scale censorship, which is why they are so reluctant to give a game an AO rating.

Geoffrey42:

Beery:
Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple. Censorship is wrong, not to mention unconstitutional (at least in the US).

I believe, by unconstitutional, you mean unconstitutional for the government to engage in it, right?

Of course. That's what the post I was responding to said - here's the quote:

"And the alternative, as TFM pointed out, is legislative restriction: your games go from being rated by an agency familiar with and knowledgeable about the industry, to being censored - yes, censored - by a government..."

Automatic Meat:

Beery:
Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple.

Unless you've got some mind-reading goggles on, it's possible he was addressing the issue from another angle - preserving kids from exposition to violent games at certain ages. It's a balancing act between not being conservative to the point that all kinds of media which depict violence should be restricted to certain age groups, but also not being liberal enough to offer a kid who may have no idea of, or no mechanism to distinguish between what is real and virtual.

The 'preservation' [sic] of kids from exposition to violent games is the parents' responsibility, not that of the community as a whole. This is because the community ethics might not match that of the parent and the parent also has a right to be MORE permissive than the community. One person's 'protective body' is another person's 'busybody'.

Beery:

Malygris:
Should kids be playing GTA, Manhunt, Kingpin? Of course not...

Why not? Here you're talking about censorship, pure and simple. Censorship is wrong, not to mention unconstitutional (at least in the US).

I think you need to clarify here before we go any further. Are you seriously suggesting that preventing children from playing games like GTA, Manhunt and Kingpin is censorship?

Malygris:
I think you need to clarify here before we go any further. Are you seriously suggesting that preventing children from playing games like GTA, Manhunt and Kingpin is censorship?

People actively prevented from accessing a medium - of course it's censorship! Anyone who can't see it as censorship must have been pretty effectively brainwashed.

Personally I'm surprised that an online magazine's articles seem to be so consistently taking the side of Big Brother. Maybe 'The Escapist' ought to be renamed 'Pravda' or perhaps 'The Daily Reactionary'.

And I thought I was a loon. Tinfoil hats a go-go!

Parents shouldn't expose children to unecessary and gratuitous violence. Preserving kids from harm or possible harmful effects isn't Orwellian, unless responsible parenting involves some room 101-styled education - it's looking out for their well being.

Most of the time, I don't think parents are really concerned with the effect of these games on their children. I think they are actually concerned about what kind of parents they'll look like if they let their kids play a game and someone says to them: "do you know what's in that game?"

What real proof do we have that GTA, Manhunt, and Kingpin have any effect on kids below 17? To me, this whole videogame issue is a whole lot like the sex ed in schools issue. It's not about protecting children, and it's certainly not about empowering anyone: children OR adults. It's about adults saving face, and not a whole lot more than that.

Let's face it: there is no differentiation in this issue between whether it's wrong to let kids play these games because it is harmful to the kids or whether it's wrong because we--the adults--don't want kids playing these games regardless of the threat they may pose. I think almost all of the 'kids shouldn't be playing these games' response confuses the latter with the former. That's why GTA, Manhunt, and Kingpin aren't for 16 year olds, but Hansel and Gretel are okay for almost any age.

Or why fatalities in Mortal Kombat were such a cause for concern a couple of years ago, yet no one cared about how often Sesame Street falls into the uncanny valley. This video game debate never seems to have anything to do with protecting kids from harm, but rather, protecting kids from material we think we should keep away from kids for a reason that has nothing to do with their welfare.

Cheeze, I disagree that its not about protection, or about empowerment. But, to clarify: by protection, I mean protection from being introduced to mature/adult concepts in an uncontrolled environment. In my personal opinion, it can be influencing for a child's first introduction to sexuality to be in hardcore pornography. The same goes for a child's first introduction to murder being with virtual knife in hand. By 18 (at a minimum, and hopefully earlier), a well-balanced offspring will have been introduced to all of these concepts (sex, death, alcohol, smoking, drugs), by an adult. This is where the empowerment aspect comes in. By having informative ratings systems that list which adult/mature themes might be contained, a parent can make sure that they introduce the topics in a controlled way, before leaving the child to explore the issue by themselves (through literature, videogames, movies, tv, or experience).

Some parents take these things, and try to use them to entirely shelter their children from what could be adult themes, forgetting that eventually, that child will be an adult facing the issue in real life. (These are failed parents.) Some people use the ratings as a weapon of morality. (These would be the people that Wal-Mart is afraid will boycott them if they sell AO games, or CDs with their "explicit" lyrics intact.) These people and their motives are not the ESRB's fault, and if we were to get rid of ratings because people abuse them, we'd be throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

Some parents, as you say, are more concerned with public opinion of how they raise their kids, than they are by how they're actually raising their kids, but I honestly hope this is a minority. Call me optimistic.

And to speak to your last comment, I (and possibly others) never meant either the former or the latter of what you surmised. To start with, I don't think it's "wrong to let kids play these games" at all. How about, "It's wrong to let kids play these games with no regulation or parental involvement because we--the adults--don't want kids playing these games until we've had a chance to cover the topics contained within in a controlled environment. Whether that be a birds&bees talk with your old man, or a sanitary, useless sex ed. class at school, I leave up to the individual parents.

This all comes back around to the real crux of the issue though: no matter how informative and helpful the MPAA or ESRB may try to be, nobody can really save all the kids in the world from bad parents. At least they're trying to help.

Edit: I was speaking to your last comment, before you made the un-identified edits. Your post changed between me responding, and me posting. So, by "last comment", I obviously now mean 3rd para.

Geoffrey42:
How about, "It's wrong to let kids play these games with no regulation or parental involvement because we--the adults--don't want kids playing these games until we've had a chance to cover the topics contained within in a controlled environment.

Again--that's not about protecting children. That's about protecting parental rights. That's a different issue than whether this is actually *harmful* to children like the example you provided. And what you are talking about *would* be empowerment--I agree 100%. However, let's be clear in our thinking, you know? I agree--give parents all the information they ask for. On the other hand, let's not pretend that there's no difference between a child's first exposure to sexuality being _Caligula: The Videogame_ and a child getting to play a game--any game--only because a parent was unaware what was in the game. One is harm to the child, the other is harm to the rights of the parent that possibly exposes the child to harm. Two very different arguments, with two very different sets of choices and concerns.

Edit: no problem! I understood what part of my comment you were addressing. Like I said, I agree with what you are saying, I just think we still should be clear on the difference between empowering parents and protecting children. They are related, but are still distinct issues.

I think that the problem with the ESRB has nothing to do with the ESRB, but the video games industry itself. The problem with the video games industry is that it is still a very young industry, and has yet to attain widespread public acceptance.

I will draw a parallel to the early motion picture industry. For the first twenty years or so, the motion picture industry was relatively unregulated and made some very interesting movies, both talking and silent pictures. However, once motion pictures had made it into the public eye, there were calls for content censorship, and like video games, a threat for government censorship. This established the production code. After a long time, the production code was removed from the motion picture industry, and replaced with the MPAA.

Unfortunately, we are going through something of a similar vein with the video games industry. The young industry was relatively unregulated, and produced games with sometimes excessive amounts of sex and/or violence. Threat of government regulation has brought the ESRB into existence. I hope that the same threat of government regulation does not introduce an active censor board. My own personal take on the ESRB is that it is trying to accomplish some good in letting parents know what is in the game. In that manner, it is exactly like the MPAA.

It is up to parents to take responsibility into what content their children are exposed to, same as it is for movies. Unfortunately, most of the parents of the previous generation are not gamers themselves. Thus, they had no firsthand knowledge in gaming that they might have for watching a movie, and making an informed decision about content in games was more difficult. Perhaps now, as more gamers become parents, there will be more effective ratings from institutions such as the ESRB and fewer parents willing to buy games with 'objectionable' content purchased for those who should not be experiencing the content then there was before.

Personally, I played Doom 2 when I was in grade school. I played the original castle Wolfenstein before I started kindergarten. I also played the original UT when I was 13. I played some very violent games at a very young age, and that was OK. Would I let a child play a modern FPS? It really depends on the child, and thus the decision has to be made on a child by child basis. I think the whole issue could be solved by parents who play the game themselves. Then the parents could make an informed decision as to whether the child should play the game or not.

I myself believe that the ESRB, and pretty much any rating system, is useless unless followed by the parents and the retailers. If the ESRB rates a game M, then don't sell it to someone under 17, unless they have parental consent.

My biggest problem is with those parents, who, buy little Jimmy a M game, without understanding it has content unsuitable for him. It's usually the parent who lets the kid get their hands on the game, and maybe it's start time they were accountable if Jimmy went on a shooting rampage.

As a child I would have been horrified by what I see today as an adult, rating systems aren't censorship; they're a protection.

Sure, you could argue that they don't need protection; but then, do we need condoms?

Beery, sorry, but you're the guy that mixes up Freedom of Speech with Freedom of Responsible Speech. You, or anyone else, does NOT have the right to demand your Private Rights in a Public Environment. That's terrorism. In your Private Area, fine.

Public Environments, like the Internet, require Responsible Speech/Actions. Or you're just handing them the case for banning Net Neutrality.

I could go into reasons : Like denying Murderers their right to bear arms; but I think it'd get too political.

Malygris:

Should kids be playing GTA, Manhunt, Kingpin? Of course not.

And I'll be god damned if I'm going to make parents actually take an interest in their kids lives and search these games themselves!

Oh yes by all means change the rating systems. Goodness knows little Billy will never think to simply play the game when no one is around or that he can simpaly go over to little Tommy's house and play the game. I'm sure that every underage person will never touch a mature game one they see the rating.

*For those a little slow in the mind, the sarcasm in this post is thick enough to cut with a knife.

I'm about 4 years away from the "appropriate" age to play games like Halo or Assassins Creed, do I play them anyway? Yeah. Am I still mentally intact? Unless you count misanthropy as insanity yes. I haven't killed anyone, I don't PLAN to, and honestly, its the parents decision whether or not their kid can play the game. Not the government's.

 

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