Editorial: The ESRB Broke, Let’s Fix It

In the politics of it all, a unified moral code is impossible to create. In the gaming industry, this translates to ‘what should and shouldn’t be in videogames?’ Personally, I find it best to have active concerns about what you and the people you care for are specifically exposed to. That being said, I couldn’t care less with what the public is available to come across. It’s simply not of my matter. Though, as stated, my concerns do lie in what is being played by me and my family. As someone who plans to be a proud parent someday, I take a very active role in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate by specific circumstance.

With my ideals in mind, I’d certainly appreciate a clearer rating system than the one that the ESRB provides. There are five main ratings in the US; being Everyone, Everyone 7+, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. For my tastes, this seems like too narrow of a system. It’s loosely based off of the MPAA’s G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. This is in effort to have a system that translates well to adults that are familiar with film, but I feel as though the comparison is not truly direct. The logic that a Teen game is the same as a PG-13 movie seems absurd. It may not be stated that way, but it is somehow implied when the ESRB isn’t clear enough. My example of this translating poorly is Tony Hawk games. Its Teen rated comic mischief, mildly profane lyrics, and middle school-esque reference to drugs are apparently in step with Beowulf’s “PG-13” nudity, sex, violence, harsh language, and extremely loose interpretation of ethics.

Even within the ESRB’s ratings, fair comparisons between games are not guaranteed. My best example of this is the difference between Fable III and God of War III – Fable being an ‘M’ rated games playable by 10 year olds, and God of War III being anything short of deprave. They are both rated Mature and for the same reasons: violence, sexual themes, nudity and language. Yes, God of War III adds in to say that the questionable themes are “strong”, but is that really enough to make the distinction between it being more or less appropriate than other games rated M? Even the way the content is stated can be confusing. How does one define the sexual themes? Is it in imagery, implications, or suggestions? To an outsider, it can mean anything. Even if an adult were to decide to buy a game like Fable III skeptically, they may see that it’s cartoony and more or less harmless. After that, they may have no reservations in picking up another rated M game like God of War III because to them, it’s in the same boat. To me, that’s not quite right.

That being my perspective, I think a more honest system would be based off the intensity of the content and not some seemingly arbitrary number like age. I know of many young children who act and think like children, but I almost know of as many who are far more mature than the average adult. The difference between M and AO is one year. What happens in that year that prepares you anymore to be a more mature person? I’d agree that 17 year old me was less mature than 18 year old me, but I don’t think my ability to contextualize mature imagery changed all that much, if at all. Not only that, but all content means different things to different people. For example, perhaps some adults know their children can handle violence better than others. They may handle it even worse compared to others their age. Every issue has a different impact based on how the child is able contextualize it to real life.

My proposed system would have many more varying degrees than the system in place. It would be 0-10: 0 being in no way offensive and 10 being the most offensive malarkey you could possibly put in a game and still call it such. I’d also want to keep intact the practice of saying specifically why the game is rated what it is. Though, I would hope it to be clearer. I think it’d be fair to have a slightly more detailed explanation of the content on the game box. Even a clear direction in which parents can research the game should be given. What I mean is that the box should clearly say something like “Go to ESRB.com/MassEffect2 for a detailed explanation of the games content”. With this information present and a clearer number describing the games level of intensity, it’d be up to the parents to decide if their child is prepared to play such a game.

As stated earlier, the system purposefully mirrors the MPAA’s system for movies and the FCC’s system for television. It’s been suggested that if the system were to change, that they all should and be even more unified. I understand this notion and I’d like to agree with it but it seems a bit risky. Video games and movies aren’t the same. There is interactivity. Not only that, but a lot of people feel more personally connected, and they feel as though they are the character. In that way, some wouldn’t do things that they wouldn’t do in real life. Though, watching a film is nice because you can be a part of an experience based on a character that is nothing like yourself. Not only that, but I believe people would be more passive in their choices. “Avatar was a 6…this game is a 6. Must be fine.” I believe people would be a lot less likely to pay attention and they would take the universal system for granted.

All things considered, I am in no way saying that my proposed system is perfect. It may not even be better. What I am sure of, however, is that something needs to change. People know that the system is broken, and they want to do something about it. With an outside perspective, it seems easier to simply censor material that is ‘distasteful’. I take issue with this because I believe in The Constitution. The ESRB was created to self-regulate the industry to prove that we didn’t need government help. I believe the burden is on them and ourselves to prove that we can handle this task.

Have any ideas? Let Vagary.TV know in the comments below! Better yet, let the ESRB know.

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Author: Gregory Hutto View all posts by
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