Game Development Games Marketing/Business Politics/Government

The ESRB Ratings System

Since the “Hot Coffee” scandal is in the news, and enough people are talking about it, including developers, I’ll just add my own thoughts so that more than enough are talking about it.

If you haven’t heard about “Hot Coffee”, essentially Rockstar, the developer behind the Grand Theft Auto series of games, is getting itself and the general game industry in a lot of trouble. The already controversial GTA: San Andreas apparently has a sex mini game buried on the CD. You can’t actually play the mini game normally. As far as I can tell based on the media that I’ve read so far, you have to get a patch that someone else made that unlocks access to the content. To top it all off, Rockstar’s statements ranged from quite confusing to downright lying about it.

GTA:SA is already rated M for mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The ESRB provided its own ratings system, and this system is getting a lot of heat. While they providea description of the ratings, I’ll give a basic review of the main ratings:

  • E for Everyone: basically, safe for children
  • E 10+ for Everyone 10+: children 10 or older can handle it
  • T for Teen: not safe for children, but teenagers should be mature enough to handle it
  • M for Mature: the key word, Mature, should indicate that it is not safe for people who are not mature; technically, not for people under the age of 17
  • AO for Adults Only: usually those words imply content the likes of which you will find on late night Cinemax

Now, the ESRB changed the rating from M to AO due to the unlockable content on the game. A new version of the game that prevents the mod will be released for the fourth quarter of the year with the original M rating. If stores wish to sell the current version, AO rating stickers will be provided to them. Of course, most retailers will pull the games from their shelves instead.

Of course, the damage has already been done. Senator Clinton is proposing a law similar to the laws proposed in Illinois. GTA:SA was already considered “bad enough” by certain people, but this “hidden pornography” has a number of groups and politicians up in arms. It’s basically a debate about protecting children, free speech, and the fact that the game wasn’t originally meant to be played by children in the first place. It’s rated M, so children shouldn’t be playing it.

Kotaku does a nice job describing the differences between the movie and video game rating systems, although I would like an actual answer to the question, “What is the purpose of the rating system?” because telling me that they are voluntary and who sponsors them isn’t telling me about the purpose.

Anyway, if we were to compare the ratings to the movie industries ratings, which are widely known, you could see they are pretty much line up nicely:

  • E == G
  • E10+ == PG
  • T == PG-13
  • M == R
  • AO == NC-17

Granted, there are slight differences, but if you understand one, you can understand the other without too much of a problem. At least, I would think so.

One complaint I’ve seen a lot about the game ratings system is that it is so similar to the movie rating system that they should just adopt it themselves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any reason as to why the ESRB cannot do so. I imagine it might be a trademark thing, but I would like to believe that the MPAA wouldn’t charge an exorbitant amount of money just to allow another industry to use it, especially since the two have so many business connections.

Another complaint is that the difference between M and AO is negligible. I’ve seen many blogs and news articles comparing the two descriptions and concluding with, “WTF?!” Or, to clarify, they find that the difference is a bit contrived and shouldn’t exist.

Of course, in the movie industry, a movie that is rated R will play in most theaters and can make money, whereas a movie rated NC-17 wouldn’t. The sweet spot is PG-13 because now teens AND adults can pay to see it. So there is a huge incentive to get your movies a lower rating, and some people have taken issue with movies like Saving Private Ryan and Orgazmo getting ratings they shouldn’t deserve due to who made the movie.

Similarly, a game rated AO will not sell at most retailers, whereas M will. So some people believe that difference between the two ratings is artificially created to allow otherwise extreme content to sell in stores. In either case, children are not supposed to be playing these games, but they can more easily get access to a game rated M than one rated AO.

Just like they can more easily get access to R rated movies on DVD than those rated NC-17. In fact, this problem can happen more than the problem with children getting access to M rated video games. But I’m still waiting for the outrage and sensationalization on that issue.

Essentially, what’s the outrage here? That’s the question a lot of game players are asking. The games are already not supposed to be played by children, so changing the rating will not do anything but make someone who is 17 wait a year before they can play it. Big deal! Of course, historically video games were played by little children. How many of you adults have heard your mother complain that you shouldn’t play video games anymore? That you should “grow up” and act your age? There is a perception that video games are children’s toys still. They are not anymore, and people need to learn this fact. It doesn’t help when the only ones making noise in the media are the ones who insist on saying things like violent games are being “marketed to children” or that these games are “training kids to kill cops”. The implications to parents and others? Violent and sexually explicit games ARE being marketed to their children. Who is saying otherwise?

So what’s going to happen? Politicians are going to continue to make it clear that they are outraged about the situation, or at least clear to those who will vote in the next election. They’ll continue passing laws that won’t have any effect on actually protecting children since the parents will still be the ones who make the majority of the purchasing decisions. Jack Thompson will continue to create his own facts to scare parents. Parents will be confused when they see games that clearly state they shouldn’t be played by children while they hear the media insist that these games are being marketed to them.

In the end, no one will be able to trust anyone. But I believe that Rockstar basically gave the entire video game industry a nice, big black eye. Talking about the nuances of the issue doesn’t change the fact that parents, media, lawyers, and politicians have a perception about video games that is a bit different than it was before “Hot Coffee”. Changing that perception to reflect reality, where an adequate and clear ratings system already exists for parents to use, will be tough. It already was tough, but it is just made all the more tougher since Rockstar gave the opposing view more ammo, no matter how immaterial it would be to the actual issue.

I believe that “Hot Coffee” would have died out on its own. It is a poorly made mini game, and outside of the juvenile curiousity, no one would play it for long. But, the content is technically pornographic, and generally there are laws that restrict the sale of pornographic material to minors. As informed game players, we know that playing a copy of GTA:SA won’t let us play the mini game. We’d have to find and apply the patch to the game first. It’s not as if an unsuspecting child, who shouldn’t be playing the game anyway, can stumble upon the mini game in the course of normal play. Nevertheless, this information isn’t getting out there to the general public. The perception is basically along the lines of “Rockstar has released a game that rewards children for killing cops and glorifies violence. Now it turns out it also allows this child to simulate sexual encounters! This is an outrage!”

Nevermind that GTA actually punishes you for killing cops. Nevermind that children shouldn’t play this game in the first place. Nevermind that it is not possible to just “play sex” with a purchased copy of the game without going through the steps needed to download and apply the patch/mod. Nevermind that the ESRB couldn’t possibly have been able to rate the game based on this content. The point is that Rockstar, the ESRB, and by association the video game industry are perceived as the enemy of parents and moral values. Not to claim that Rockstar is completely to blame and that parents are allowed to be ignorant. Not at all. There are clearly people out there who have an incentive to be less than genuine about the facts, including politicians and game developers alike. Also, I believe that Rockstar should be able to make whatever games they want. This issue is not cut and dry, since they didn’t release the mini game as something playable in the first place and so probably shouldn’t have been required to disclose it.

But the content shouldn’t have been on the CD. While it is normal for developers to leave unfinished levels or other things in the build, this mini game is a bit much, I think. It wasn’t just some unfinished level or 3D model. The repurcussions from this incident and the reactions to it will likely extend farther than just legal issues for M or AO games made by mainstream developers.