Video game rating board don't get no respect

Video game rating board don't get no respect

Paul Hyman
Sometimes it seems like the ESRB just can't win.

The 11-year-old self-regulatory body whose job it is to rate video games attracts flak like a magnet, the latest salvo coming from Congressman Joe Baca, D-Calif., who is demanding that the Federal Trade Commission review that ratings system; he believes it may be allowing adult material to fall into the hands of younger gamers.

But wait! If the Entertainment Software Rating Board(ESRB) is soft on sex and violence, you wouldn't know it from speaking to game makers. At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last month, developers speaking out at a roundtable sponsored by the International Game Developers Association's (IGDA) Anti-Censorship Committee related one tale after another about how unrelenting the ESRB is when it comes to ratings. One developer summed it up nicely: "The ESRB is a pain in the butt."

"I hope they also say that we're fair," remarks Patricia Vance, president of the Manhattan-based ESRB, who prides herself on the fact that the board's standards are designed to reflect those of today's parents. She describes a process that involves annual "mall-based research to determine what parents think about our ratings and whether they agree with them or not. What we find is that they consistently agree with our ratings across all of our rating categories, whether that's "T" (for Teen; 13 and older), "M" (for Mature; 17 and older; "may contain mature sexual themes, more intense violence, and/or strong language"), or "AO" (for Adults Only; 18 and up; "may include graphic depictions of sex and/or violence")."

However, Rep. Baca believes that the ESRB's raters are slapping "M" ratings on games that should be rated "AO."

"Parents are buying games that are inappropriate for their children, not knowing that they may contain sexually explicit and highly violent content," said Baca. "Some of these games depict sex with prostitutes, cop killing, robbery and assault of individuals including women and seniors."

Similarly, last month, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) called for Congress to launch a $90-million investigation into the effects of games on children, singling out Rockstar Games' M-rated "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" for its emphasis on crime.

But Daniel Greenberg, a freelance game developer and the chair of the IGDA's Anti-Censorship Committee, scratches his head and asks, "Are they talking about the same ESRB?"

"For as long as I've been running these roundtables -- which is about eight years now -- they've been dominated by developers griping about their horrible experiences trying to get games through the ESRB," Greenberg relates. "They expect to get 'T' ratings and get 'M's or they believe they'll get an 'M' and they come out with an 'AO.' And that sends their marketing departments into a panic. The games have to be redone and are frequently sent back to the ESRB two, three, even four times, which is an expensive and time-consuming procedure. Our industry has a difficult time contending with the rating system. Which is why it's staggering to me that people say the ESRB isn't tough, because we get numerous complaints every year about how tough it is."

The issue Greenberg describes is one involving dollars and cents: Almost every single retail chain chooses not to sell "AO" rated games, period. In just the same way that many movie theaters will not show films branded with an "NC-17" rating, the "AO" severely limits a game's distribution, to put it mildly.

Indeed, the Wilton, CT-based Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), which represents the nation's largest videogame retailers, believes itself to be "directly responsible for the rate of acceptance of the rating system being as high as it is," says president Hal Halpin. "That's because our members have chosen not to stock any titles that are not rated. Nor will they sell AO-rated games, a decision that runs parallel to their policy not to display X-rated music or NC-17-rated movies. It's just not appropriate for their product mix."

(From left) Cyberlore Studios' "Playboy: The Mansion" contains nudity that was deemed to be in context to the brand and allowed, while Volition had to delete some scenes of violence in "The Punisher" to achieve an "M" rating, including the one pictured.

"That's why we had every intention of building an M-rated game, which is the equivalent of an R-rated movie, " says Joe Minton, president of Northampton, MA-based independent developer Cyberlore Studios. His company created "Playboy: The Mansion" for Scottsdale, AZ-based publisher Arush Entertainment, which released the simulation game for PlayStation 2 (PS2), Xbox, and PC in January. "Besides, Playboy -- which worked closely with us -- likes to position itself brand-wise more on the sophisticated, classy side than on the Hustler side."

In "Playboy: The Mansion," gamers play Playboy founder Hugh Hefner who must build a mansion, throw parties, entertain people who respond by contributing content for Playboy magazine, which can then boost its sales, enabling the expansion of the mansion, which brings in more guests, and so on.

But Minton says his company had to go through three rounds of changes in the game without which, he's convinced, the game would have gotten an "AO" rating.

"The ESRB agreed that the topless nudity we had in the game was absolutely in context," he explains, "and that nobody would purchase a Playboy game mistakenly thinking that there wasn't going to be nudity. We also have characters having sex, because that's part of the mystique of the Playboy mansion, but it's done in a very humorous, cartoony style to make it funny. And still we needed to make changes, specifically removing some of the sex scenes that were ruled too explicit."

Minton agrees that the ESRB has to set the line on what can be shown and what can't, but what ultimately ended up in the M-rated game doesn't come close to what can be seen in an R-rated movie, he contends.

"If you look at the small, cartoon characters in our game with their topless nudity, and then compare that to, say, a scene from the R-rated movie "Original Sin" with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie going at it, it's like comparing 'Pong' to 'Halo 2,' " he says. "So, in that sense, I'd say that the ESRB is 100 times stricter on games than the MPAA rating system is on movies."

If Cyberlore thinks it went through a grueling time with the ESRB with its sexy sim, they should hear what the folks at Volition endured when the developer began transitioning the ultra-violent Marvel Comics character The Punisher to the videogame world. ("The Punisher" also became an R-rated 2004 movie vehicle from Artisan Entertainment.)

Comic book fans know that The Punisher is a "Death Wish"-style vigilante out to clean up the streets by "interrogating" and then punishing criminals. When publisher THQ bought the license to turn the comic into a third-person action shooter, Dan Cermak knew he'd be pushing some boundaries. Cermak is vice president of product development at Volition, THQ's Chapaign, Illiois-based development studio.

And so, last January -- one year before the game was scheduled to be released in January, 2005 for PS2, Xbox, and PC -- Cermak decided to approach the ESRB to discuss whether the game was likely to get the "M" rating that THQ's marketing department was seeking.

"Our concern was that the game contains interactive violence," Cermak says. "Lots of games have body parts flying around -- somebody shoots someone in the head and it blows apart or you shoot an arm or a leg off. They call it 'gibbing.' But our game had 70 different kinds of interrogations and, by moving the joystick, the gamer can literally determine how much pressure to put on the bad guy. I don't think that's ever been done before and we were concerned that the ESRB might find that beyond what is acceptable in an M-rated game."

As it turned out, Cermak was right. The ESRB had rarely before seen such "creative" violence -- heads were decapitated by ceiling fans, people were thrown into woodchippers, bodies were impaled by charging rhinos.

"We saw an early version of the game," says the ESRB's Patricia Vance, "and right away we told Volition that there was going to be a problem." As Cermak had suspected, it was the player control element that tipped the scales and was about to punish his game with an 'AO' rating.

"The irony is that if you saw the movie 'Fargo,' a man is thrown into a woodchipper," says Cermak. "But that's a movie, it's not interactive, and it was the ESRB's feeling that when the player is in control of the characters, it's very different. We are held to a higher standard. Is that frustrating for game developers? Oh, my gosh, yeah."

Cermak describes several rounds of "turning down the gore" before the ESRB made its final determination -- swapping black-and-white interrogation scenes for full color, adjusting the "camera" so the mayhem can sometimes only be heard but not seen, adding a penalty for players who needlessly kill victims who have just confessed. "The Punisher" got its 'M' rating.

"We definitely ended up with a lot less overt violence," concedes Cermak. "But am I happy with the way the game turned out? Let's just say it's not the game I designed. And if I had had a better picture of what the guidelines were, we might not have had to go through all this."

While Cermak compliments the ESRB on helping parents protect their children from adult material, he believes what many industry observers like to point out -- that the average age of gamers is now in the mid-20s and they are looking for games that feature more mature themes.

"I am making games that aren't for kids. That's why they get 'M' ratings -- meaning they are for people 17 and up," says Cermak. "So why am I being held to a standard that is far more protective than the movie or TV ratings? There needs to be some process that allows me to create my game and make what I want to create for my audience and permit me to sell it in a marketplace that currently doesn't allow anyone to sell 'AO' games in stores."

The ESRB's Vance has heard that argument before and doesn't disagree.

"Publishers and developers are free to create more mature games and older gamers are free to buy them," she says. "Of course, many retailers may not want to carry 'AO' product, but that's their own policy. The 'AO' rating wasn't created as a market mechanism to prevent the sale. The reason we established an 'AO' rating was so that we could assign it. And when we do, publishers don't want it, and so they'll have to make accommodations in their products in order to resubmit it and try to get a less-restrictive rating."

And if the developers feel stores should be selling 'AO' product?

"Then they have to work with the retailers to try and get them to understand that there is an older audience now who might want some of those products," advises Vance. "But, to date, at least from what I can tell, there's been no proven demand for AO products. So the developers may want to be creating it, but if no one wants to buy it, hey, not my problem."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.