Whether it’s blood gushing from mangled aliens or pixelated prostitutes roaming the streets, there will always be objectionable content in video games. However, the rating system put in place to restrict this content takes an entirely misguided approach, exacerbating the problem it’s supposed to solve. Sometimes censorship is done right; the PS3 game “LittleBigPlanet” has been delayed due to religiously offensive content. But as a gamer with a penchant for dismemberment, I hate to see a potentially great, albeit violent game, get slapped with a rating that stops many enthused gamers from playing it. Also, the strict rating system is actually increasing the amount of content it’s trying to restrict. This point will be especially important over the next few weeks, when many high quality M-rated games are being released for every console on the market.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board uses many different criteria to assign a rating. They examine the levels of violence, blood, sexual content, cursing and potentially illicit activities such as drinking and gambling. For each category, a certain quantity seals the game into a more restrictive ranking. For example, while a game rated M (Mature) can contain “intense violence,” a game rated E (Everyone) can only contain “minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence.” This regimented system only serves to restrict game developers, who must always be extremely conscious of their game’s potential rating. The rating system doesn’t account for games that may contain extreme levels in one category but are otherwise relatively tame.
A recent example of this is “Halo 3,” where the blood and gore levels are the only things pushing it into the Mature rating level. The rest of the game’s elements lie safely within the bounds of Teen games, but most parents who see that big “M” slapped on the back of the box aren’t likely to analyze why it got put there. The “Halo” franchise has been one of the most successful and highly anticipated series of all time, and while there is obviously a lot of blood, the gore shouldn’t be cause for teens to be left out of the game. I know from experience that upon hearing a game is rated M, many parents, even those for whom the levels of gore would not be a major issue, refuse to hear any further pleading.
My personal example is “Diablo II,” a game where high levels of blood and “dark themes” pushed it into the Mature category. This was one of the greatest PC games of its time, and it pained me having to see it only from a distance or at a friend’s house. While this may seem like a petty concern — after all, I now own the game — it would save gamers and parents a lot of useless arguing if the rating system were more clear, and the reasoning behind it more readily apparent.
The most common factor to shift a game’s rating has historically been blood and gore, which seems like the least worrisome factor for an impressionable mind. It doesn’t make logical sense that a game where someone bleeds profusely after being poked by a pin would get a Mature rating, while a game where someone doesn’t bleed at all after being shot with a gun would probably get a Teen rating. Because of this absurd discrepancy, it would be better if the ESRB removed the letter rating from the box entirely and made a list of potentially controversial content more prominent on the box. This way, parents and children alike would have a much better sense of what they were buying, especially as the line between Teen and Mature ratings is becoming increasingly blurred.
Not only is the rating system unclear, it’s also breeding a new generation of over-the-top Mature gaming. Many game developers are adapting to the strict system by making the most of the rating they expect to receive. If it’s clear a game is going to be given a Mature rating based on just one element, developers tend to escalate levels in all other parts of the game in order to compete with the other options intended for ages 17 and up. They often add sexual content or more blood to make it stand out among its competitors. This might be most evident in the N64 escapade “Conker’s Bad Fur Day,” but it can also be seen, to an extent, in modern titles, such as the very popular “Mass Effect.” This is unhealthy for the gaming industry for two reasons: First, it eliminates a lot of games that could bridge the gap between Teen and Mature, for those who are starting to get too old for teen games. Second, the games coming out of this trend shed negative light on gaming in the media.
This isn’t to say that censorship is never necessary. “LittleBigPlanet” for Playstation 3 — a game so cute it should come with a free bunny rabbit — was delayed from its Oct. 21 release date to Oct. 27 due to offensive content. It turns out that one of the background songs contained two verses from the Qur’an. Many Muslims consider the fusion of music and scripture to be blasphemous, so game developers at Media Molecule had to make entirely new copies of the game without the controversial song. Media Molecule’s soundtrack compilers should probably have done better research, seeing as the two phrases in question translate to, “Every soul shall have the taste of death” and “All that is on Earth will perish” — not exactly an appropriate message for what is first and foremost a children’s game.
October and November are seeing a lot of highly anticipated games, such as “Fallout 3,” “Fable 2” and “Gears of War 2.” With so many of these games, including the three just mentioned, rated Mature, it looks like the new safely irreligious version of “LittleBigPlanet” might be the only great next-generation game younger audiences can beg for this holiday season. The ESRB needs to reform its rating system or this polarization of the gaming industry will continue indefinitely.