Let’s face it – like it or not, as videogames become more and more mainstream, we’re going to see more and more instances of politics and gaming intersecting. Piki Politics is here to serve as both a history of political/gaming scandals (or collisions, if you prefer) and as a discussion on the political motivations and context behind them.
This week we take a deeper look at what makes the ESRB tick. Is its existence really necessary? Does it even accomplish its goals as an organization?
The answers to the above questions are complicated, and like many things that are rooted in the realm of politics, they involve a number of issues. When discussing whether or not the ESRB as an organization is really necessary, it is hard to ignore the reason for its creation. Essentially created in response to the concern over explicit content in videogames expressed by Congress and parents nationwide, the very idea behind its existence is this; exposure to violent and sexual content via gaming can have a lasting affect on children, one that can damage them for the rest of their lives.
The actual science behind this claim is mixed. While most studies have found there to be little real-world damage caused by exposure to the explicit content found in some videogames, others have found evidence linking videogame violence to changes in brain function and even aggressive behavior. When it comes down it, the vast majority of research on the subject shows gaming in a positive light, a fact that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stressed in his majority opinion in Brown v. EMA/ESA, pointedly stating that the “psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.”
With this in mind, it would be easy to say that the existence of the ESRB is unnecessary. But (as you’ll soon see, there are a lot of “buts” on this subject) the fact of the matter is that as technology has evolved, so have videogames. Long gone are the days of cute and colorful 8-bit sprites and simplistic storylines, with ultra-realistic graphics and often times violent or sexually suggestive themes taking their place. With games now tackling more mature content, it can be a daunting task for parents when it comes time to decide whether or not to purchase a game for their child. The ESRB provides parents with a safe and easy way of identifying which games would be appropriate for their eight year old, and which games their teenager should be able to handle.
It is this reliance on parents that is one of the “failures”, so to speak, of the ESRB’s system. While polls show that most parents are aware of the ratings system, they also show that fewer of them actually take it into account when making purchases. While many stores won’t sell or trade games rated M (17+) to minors, store owners have found parents to be apathetic when it comes to ratings, often times purchasing M-rated games for their young children. Anyone who has spent even a few minutes playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live can attest to the fact that the game seems to be teeming with pre-teens and young teenagers, despite the game’s mature content. If one of the original goals of the ratings system was to prevent the exposure of children to offensive content, then the system has clearly failed.
The ESRB’s system for determining ratings has also come under scrutiny in recent years, and for good reason- it’s kind of broken. The way in which ratings are handed out highlights a topic that was touched upon last week, the uniquely American viewpoint that sexually explicit content is somehow much worse than violent content. The only “restricted” ratings given out by the ESRB are Mature 17+ (M) and Adults Only 18+ (AO). In its 18 year history, the organization has only given out an Adults Only rating to twenty one games, many thanks in large part to sexually explicit or suggestive content.
Look, I get it. Here in the United States, keeping our children sheltered from sex seems to be of paramount importance. But the fact that a game like Indigo Prophecy originally received an Adults Only rating while Manhunt got away with only a Mature is ludicrous. While Indigo Prophecy featured sexual content (including an interactive sex scene), Manhunt’s entire premise revolves around the brutal killing of gang members and thugs for voyeuristic entertainment. Players are actually rewarded based on how violently they accomplish said killing, the more brutal the better. The release of Manhunt 2 a few years later further highlights this strange ratings disparity, as the game received an Adults Only rating. Unlike its predecessor, Manhunt 2 featured “strong sexual content”, which was apparently enough to push the game out of the realm of the mature and into the realm of adults.
Many of the biggest controversies surrounding the ESRB seem to stem from this strange sense of morality. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a pretty violent game, one that’s filled with gunplay and harsh language, and set in a world where players can steal pretty much anything that moves. But despite all that, the game received an M rating. That is, until the “Hot Coffee” controversy occurred, sparking outrage across the country and forcing the ESRB to recertify the game as Adults Only. It seems strange that both the ESRB and outraged masses were comfortable with the game’s core gameplay of murder, robbery, and carjacking, but yet were so outraged at the inclusion of sex in the game. Of all the things to be worried about with a game such as San Andreas, is the fact that you can have sex with your girlfriend really all that bad?
It seems clear that many of the shortcomings of the ESRB are not entirely the fault of the organization itself. Rather, they often times have their roots in the attitudes and actions of the American public which the organization serves. As long as Americans continue to view sex as the be all, end all of explicit content, the ESRB will continue to rate videogames accordingly. Likewise, the general public plays a large role in the efficacy of the ratings system. As long as parents continue to ignore it, the ratings system will continue to be largely ineffective. In spite of all this, the ESRB still serves an important role in the gaming industry, helping responsible parents navigate through the large and often times offensive world of videogames.
Next Sunday, Piki Politics will take a look at California Senator Leland Yee and his failed attempt at criminalizing the sale of violent videogames to minors. Why was this a bad idea, and just what exactly was Senator Yee thinking? Be sure to check back next week for these answers and more.
Is the ESRB Broken? by Tom Dann
How to Fix the Game Ratings System by Jerry Bonner