Yesterday, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) changed the rating of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from M (Mature) to AO (Adults Only).
This is a setback and a wake-up call.
It’s a setback to Take Two Interactive, publisher of GTA games, and Rockstar Interactive, developer of GTA games. It’s a setback to the video game industry, an industry that many wish would receive respect as an art form on par with music and film.
It’s a wake-up call to the ESRB, and also to the public, society, the government, fans, parents, gamers, whatever.
Part of me wants to talk about Rockstar and say, “What the hell were they thinking?” But then I think it through. A game like San Andreas contains millions of lines of code and hundreds of thousands of man-hours. The content in the game that caused this whole mess in inaccessible through normal means. It’s stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, to bust a cliche. But a cliche that represents an excellent metaphor.
When it comes to film, material cut from theatrical release but available on DVD is referred to as “bonus material.” The rule is also that when you buy a DVD with bonus material, you’ll often find text written on the back of the case, somewhere near the bottom, that says, “bonus material not rated.”
And you know what? Wal-Mart sells that DVD.
Of course, we’re not talking about X-rated or even NC-17 films. Wal-Mart doesn’t carry them. But there is a significant jump from R to NC-17 (or at least in theory). The jump from M to AO is, apparently, three words. Please examine the lengths to which the MPAA goes to explain its rating system, and then examine the lengths (or lack thereof) to which the ESRB goes to explain its own system.
It seems that for a game to warrant an AO rating rather than M, it must feature one or more of the following: prolonged intense violence, rather than (brief?) intense violence; graphic sexual content, rather than (nongraphic?) sexual content; or nudity. I find it interesting that nudity is one of the taboo items, because nudity certainly does not warrant an automatic NC-17 in film, and actually doesn’t even warrant an R; Please see PG-13 rated film Titanic. Also, please see M rated game God of War, which featured full-frontal female nudity, and a nongraphic (but easily accessible) sexual mini-game.
So with the revised rating of San Andreas, the ESRB is telling us that minus the sexual mini-game, San Andreas contains intense violence, but not prolonged intense violence? An average player can expect to spend 20 to 40 hours playing San Andreas. Missions involve sniping, drive-by shooting, setting explosives … and these do not make for prolonged intense violence?
The distinction between the M rating and the AO rating is neither large nor distinct. If it’s small and hazy, we really have to wonder if there is any distinction at all. The fact is, the point of AO is not to protect children from those horrible, ultra-violent, ultra-sexual games. The point of AO is so that no matter how offensive an M rated game seems, you can always say, it could have been worse. It’s not the worst possible thing out there. AO protects everyone — developers, publishers, retailers (Wal-Mart), and consumers (parents). No matter how bad a game is, retailers can say, “Well, at least we don’t sell AO games to young, impressionable children,” and parents can say, “I made sure that little Jimmy never played any of those nasty AO games.”
It would almost seem that the ESRB caved under political pressure. Who wouldn’t? Does deceiving consumers, retailers, and the ESRB — intentionally or unintentionally — warrant a slap on the wrist? Absolutely. Does a sexual mini-game (that features no nudity!) warrant the AO rating? Absolutely not. But the publicity surrounding this story got out of control and the ESRB had to take some concrete action. Something that would make a good headline.
This is a setback because it makes game developers and publishers look bad. It doesn’t help the ESRB, but revising the rating is the only way to save face. It’s a wake-up call because developers from now on must consider all code in the shipping version of a game, whether it is executed during normal use or not. It’s a wake-up call to the ESRB because you know someone (Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer) will be looking at video game ratings with enlivened eyes. It’s a wake-up call to everyone else because we’ve got to understand that video games are not movies, the same ratings do not apply and the same rules do not apply. It is not as simple as playing the game before allowing your children to play the game, but it is certainly not as simple as looking at the big letter on the front of the box, either. Reactionaries claim that parents should not rely on ratings to do their job for them, but let’s be realistic. It might take a person a month or a year to complete a game. Ratings are necessary. It is the responsibility of the ESRB to ensure that its ratings are realistic and reasonable, and it is the responsibility of developers and publishers to ensure that those ratings are based on a product in its entirety.