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Question of the Week Responses: Game Ratings and Government Regulation?

With all the hubbub over "Hot Coffee" and video game ratings and regulations, we asked our professional game developer audience: "Do you think that the ESRB and retailers do a good job of rating and controlling access to video games in North America, and is government legislation to control game rating and distribution a good idea?"

Quang Hong, Blogger

July 25, 2005

22 Min Read


The latest Question of the Week asked of our audience of game professionals: “Do you think that the ESRB and retailers do a good job of rating and controlling access to video games in North America, and is government legislation to control game rating and distribution a good idea?”

None of our respondents found the idea of government regulation of video games very appealing, with most expressing their belief that the ESRB is doing a good job of game industry self-regulation. In particular, many of those replying felt that the breakdown in video games reaching an inappropriate audience occured either due to a lack of parental involvement in the game buying process, or, in the case of some respondents, the belief of a lack of vigilance on the part of retailers at the point-of-sale.

It's not the ESRB, it's the Parents

A glaring majority of respondents stated that parents (and, to a lesser degree, retailers) needed to do more in restricting access of inappropriate video games to underage consumers. However, many also felt that theses problems could be corrected by greater education and a more responsible outlook.

Illustration by Erin Mehlos

Government legislation would be a disaster. The ESRB rating is a good enough system. I seriously doubt that the number of employees at retail stores selling “Mature” games to minors is greater than the number of parents who let their children buy the game. If their parents won't let them play it, chances are they have a friend who has it and they play it at their friends' house. If parents want to censor their kids, they need to be the ones to do it; the government is not responsible for raising children.
-Cari Begle, Stardock

I think the ESRB has a competent ratings system. Unfortunately, I still think that parents either ignore or are ignorant about what their children are really playing. The bottom line is that when the ESRB rates a game, this is where their responsibility ends and where a parents' begins. We can't hold the ESRB any more responsible for an underage child who gains access to a game that is rated above their age level, any more than we can hold the MPAA liable if a child sees an R- or X-rated film. Ratings exist solely to give parents and guardians information about content. Ratings boards are not responsible for whether or not these ratings are enforced. There is some liability at retail to ensure that minors aren't sold content that is not appropriate to them, whether that is movies, books or games. But ultimately it is every parent's responsibility to know what their children are involved in. And while it's impossible for a parent to be with their child every minute of every day, having this kind of communication and education is essential in helping to control this kind of access. Government legislation and oversight will only lead to one inevitable conclusion: censorship and the stifling of creative freedom. The game industry is a maturing one - and we need to be allowed the freedom to express adult situations to adult customers. I would not be opposed to seeing some changes made at retail to place M- and AO-rated games in their own section, and/or behind the retail counter so that people are required to ask for them specifically.
-Matthew Medina, ArenaNet

Retailers do a horrible job of controlling access to video games. Parents do a horrible job. The ESRB means nothing if nobody follows the ratings. Parents and retailers still have the perception that computer "games" are kids' activities, and don't consider the adult content permeating many of the most popular titles. Until they realize the truth, nothing will change.
-Michael Ethetton, Gambit Studios, LLC

The ostensible reason for the rating system is to protect children from inappropriate content. It seems to me that the bigger problem is a lack of parental involvement in their children's lives. I was lucky enough to have parents who would take time out from their schedules to play with me. Whether recreating scenes from Star Wars with my action figures or playing catch, mom and dad would always mix the occasional moral and educational lesson into the play. Not to say they constantly lectured me, but when we came to a moral crossroads in our play, they'd make a point to gently nudge me towards the "Light Side". I'm now a parent myself and my daughter (taking after me) loves video games. While my wife and I limit the amount of exposure she gets, when she does play we usually try to sit down and play with her. Through this, I've learned two things. Firstly, if you've taught her well, your child will behave pretty well, even in the virtual world. Our daughter loves Grand Theft Auto (yes, we actually let her play it). However, she meticulously shuns gun play, preferring to explore the city instead. She never jacks cars, but loves to hop on top of passing vehicles and hitch rides that way. When she does drive herself, she takes great pains to avoid hitting pedestrians and even other vehicles. I'd like to think this consideration towards even her virtual playmates has something to do with the morals we've tried to instill in her. Secondly, children are not idiots. They DO know the difference between fantasy and reality. The other day my daughter was playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. She strolled into a village house and began picking up and smashing furniture and vases (anyone who has played this game knows that this is in fact normal behavior as one often discovers money or items this way). I jokingly asked my daughter if she smashed chairs against walls at school too. To which, she rolled her eyes and said: "Of COURSE not. I only do this stuff in games." Therefore, going back to GTA, even if our daughter was a proficient gunslinging gang-banger in that game, I wouldn't be concerned. She knows the difference between the game world and the real world, and knows that different rules apply in each. In other words, while game ratings are probably useful to parents in deciding which games to buy or avoid, a rating system, even if coupled with government regulations, is no substitute for parental guidance.

There are a few problems with the current game rating system in North America . The ESRB does a good job of evaluating the content in games and providing accurate and detailed descriptors. However, the retailers do not always enforce the ratings as strictly as they should. Especially in the game-only stores (EB Games and GameStop), I've seen retailers "overlook" the age of kids trying to buy popular M-rated titles. I don't know whether this is a policy for the store, or simply the gamer cashiers trying to be nice to gamer kids, but it's definitely a problem. The biggest problem with the rating system, however, is the parents and other consumers who are unaware or uncaring about the rating system. I think this is a symptom of the deeper problem, which is that games are not considered entertainment for adults by the average person. Especially parents, whose only exposure to video games is through their preteen children and their friends. This leads parents to believe two things: that any game they buy will be suitable for their children, and that any game they buy SHOULD be suitable for their children. People do not become unhappy about sex or violence in R-rated movies, because they understand that some movies are not suitable for children. Compare the visuals and themes in a game like GTA to those in a movie such as Sin City or Kill Bill. So I think a cultural shift needs to take place. It's already happening to some degree; many people understand that games aren't targeted at kids any more. Once that fact becomes clear to parents and others, I think the problem will be largely solved. Legislation might solve the problem faster, but would do more to stifle expression among commercial studios as well as independent developers.
-Johnnemann Nordhagen, SCEA

The ESRB rating system is pretty detailed compare to rating system to other media types. Besides the rating it also has a few remarks on why the game is rated the way it is. Music only has the Parent Advisory sticker, and movie only has the R, PG, etc. The problem is not the rating system is the consumer not taking the time to understand what this game is about. Bunch of games have the "animated violence" remark but the violence in XIII and Viewtiful Joe is obviously different If a parent would take some time to research what games their child want and decided if it's appropriate for their children. Now that games have fully penetrated the entertainment industry, parents must take the responsibility of looking at some screenshots and trailers of the game and then decide if it's appropriate for their kids. Maybe there can be a game review site that's geared towards the parents instead of the gamers.

The ESRB can only apply the appropriate rating on a game as long as there is full disclosure of all content and this includes Easter Eggs. Is "Hot Coffee" an Easter Egg? Normally, Easter Eggs are accessed via input of undocumented commands. In the case of Hot Coffee a "mod" or external program was used to unlock the game on PC while the PS2 version required the use of an Action Replay device. There is no doubt in my mind that the ESRB would have given GTA: San Andreas an AO rating if Hot Coffee was accessible as an Easter Egg in the classic sense. As for retailers I can only cite personal experiences but I have been asked to show ID at Target and Walmart before I could purchase an M-rated game, but this is nothing unless there is parental involvement. Kids will find a way to get what they want, especially things they aren't supposed to have. Until we have games that disintegrate or render itself unplayable should an M-rated game fall into a minor's hands there will be no substitute for diligent parenting. I don't think that the government should create additional legislation to control game ratings and distribution. The rating system we have in place is descriptive enough (as long as there is full disclosure of content). As for distribution I think that responsibility should be left to the retailers and parents. We're not talking about a cigarette here which is clearly bad for your health. According to a study by the Surgeon General, not all youth are affected equally by media violence and those who are affected are predisposed to aggression. Why not put the proposed $90 million into providing support for these individuals and their families through counseling and services instead of drumming up another study which will once again lead to inconclusive results.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

The ESRB does a fine job of rating and controlling games. They're at least as diligent as the MPAA is with movies (if not more so). Government legislation is a horribly bad idea because the government has no real understanding of games and how they are made and sold. The games industry should have control over its own ratings just as the movie industry does. The real problem is, and always has been, the general public believing that games are for kids. Not all games are for children, and not all children should play certain games. Once people snap out of their "games = kids" fixation and start treating games like any other form of entertainment, things will calm down and the parents will actually start to pay attention to the ESRB. If you wouldn't let your kids go to a rated “R” movie, don't let them play a “Mature” rated game. If a movie theatre checks ID on a Rated R movie, a retail store should check ID on a mature rated game. If you turn off the TV when something questionable comes on, turn off the game system if your kid starts playing a questionable game. The system is already there, people just need to treat games like they would any form of entertainment and pay attention to what their kids are doing.
-Dave Fried, The Collective

When you compare the total number of games the ESRB has rated in its lifetime versus the total number of times it had to re-rate something, I think they've done an amazing job so far and I'm sure they will continue to do so. The danger is that unlike film, video games can have hidden content, so the ESRB (or any regulative body, government or otherwise) is forced to rely on reports from the developers of what is in the game. Essentially, developers must rate themselves through the content they provide to the ratings board. There is no way around this; it's part of the medium. Governmental regulation is not the answer. A government ratings board could hope to do no better than the ESRB in giving proper ratings and descriptors to games. The answer is punitive sanctions against any developer who misleads the ratings board, intentionally or otherwise, to achieve a lower rating than the game merits. If the ESRB does not have that kind of power, it needs to get that power and quickly, else the government certainly will.
-Ian Schreiber, Cyberlore Studios, Inc.

This is a threefold problem (listed in order of importance). First, many parents just plain don't care what they buy for their kids. The ESRB can help them make more informed choices, and they need to do everything they can to this end, but if parents buy their kids GTA, what can we do? Parents need to be aware that games are not all Pac Man and Mario Bros, and that many adults enjoy gaming. Perhaps the ESRB and retail community can help in this effort. Second, the retail community needs to enforce the ratings. The ESRB and our industry everything we can, but if retailers still sell M-rated games to kids, then the problem will still persist. Finally, the ESRB's rating system has a fatal flaw of not distinguishing between games like Halo (scifi, shooting aliens) and games like GTA (shooting cops, sex with hookers, drugs, etc.). They're both rated M. Since AO is retail suicide, everyone avoids it like the plague and it has become useless. The ESRB should have a category between T and M. There's as much difference in my eyes between Halo and GTA , as between Halo and Super Smash Brothers.

Yes, I think that the ESRB is a great system. Not only is it very clear and concise as to what the game is rated, I feel that the fact that it is voluntary is an asset. Retailers, for the most part as far as I have seen are doing their job in enforcing the ratings as well. If the game is mature, then obviously a 12 year old should not be able to buy it. We do the same (more or less) with movies, music and magazines. The system for any of these media is not perfect, but it works better than any alternative. I feel the problem lies in parents. Once I witnessed an 8 year old try to buy a mature rated game at a retailer at my local mall. Upon being refused by the clerk, he went over and asked his mom (just outside the store) if he could get the game. His mom said yes without even looking at the box or the rating and went to the counter and purchased it. THAT is the problem, parents not paying attention or adults in general assuming that a "game" is good for all "kids". Making the rating badge neon green and have it cover the entire package with a stern warning as to the pain and suffering you could have for purchasing it will not change the fact that there are too many ignorant parents out there.
-Todd Howard, MSU

I am of the opinion that the ESRB does a fantastic job of rating games. The retailers, however, don't all seem to be doing their part. I'm 25 and was carded at Target when I bought Vice City. However, when buying San Andreas at GameStop, I wasn't asked for ID at all. “M” rated games should require proof of age. That being said, I think it should be the parent's job even more than the retailers. They should be making sure the age of their child meet the requirements of games bought and should never buy their underage child M-rated games. Perhaps the ESRB should enforce its ratings by imposing some requirements on the retailers, but it should not be put to government legislation. People fear what they don't understand, and the members of government simply do not understand video games or their appeal.

The ESRB does a rather good job of rating video games in North America. I haven't seen or heard of too many cases where a given rating was controversial (San Andreas notwithstanding). However, retailers are not doing a good job of controlling access. They are getting better but there are still many, many cases of “Mature” rated games being sold directly to children. Legislation is not the answer. The MPAA rating system is completely voluntary and agreements have been made with production houses and theaters to get films rated and to have those ratings enforced. The ESRB can be the same way, but it needs to do some serious work to forge the necessary relationships. Maybe they could partner with the MPAA and run a campaign that equates game and movie ratings: E = G, E10 = PG, T = PG-13, M = R, AO = NC-17. The public knows the movie rating system and the comparison can help them become more familiar with game rankings. It's important for game rankings to be separate though so that the industry maintains its identity as a separate medium. But the biggest key is probably getting retailers on board regarding store policy on game sales. It's the only way to prevent government intervention.
-Kevin Johnson, Electronic Arts

Honestly, the ESRB has done quite a good job of rating games and listing content that a buyer may or may not want in a game. I find the system rather good until you hit "Mature" versus "Adults Only." What exactly separates the two ratings, contentwise? In spirit, it feels like the difference between the R and NC-17 ratings in a movie thearter but once a game leaves the retailer, the retailers or creators have no way of controlling who sees or plays the game. Movie theaters have the luxury of turning people away from NC-17 films. Ratings cannot overcome consumer apathy towards the system. I've watched as a young mother with an 8-10 year old child blithely ignored a retail clerk's warning that Conker is not for children. I watched a local news story in horror as countless people stated how the "Adults Only" label sends a "clear message that this product is not intended for children. This should help keep the game out of the hands of 5 and 6 year olds." After listening to that, my one question was "who gets their children M-rated games?" Is the law going to change so that providing M- and AO-rated games to minors is going to carry a penalty like buying and distributing alcohol for minors?

Potential Issues With The ESRB?

On the flip side, a few respondents felt that, while the concept of a rating system was a good idea, the ESRB still needs work on its implementation in places - specifically, one respondent felt the the current system is too arbitrary and does not take context into consideration, and another reader felt it simply doesn't have the expertise to properly rate games.

I think retailers are doing a pretty good job now, but their unwillingness to carry AO titles is a serious problem. It clearly prevents AO titles from being made, despite a clear demand for such content. I think the ESRB is a good idea in principle, but in execution their methodology leaves much to be desired. It is the equivalent to having people who do not watch movies read bits of the screenplay and then pass judgment. Also, the ratings are inconsistently applied and there are no clear rules for developers to follow. The government should NOT be involved as this is clearly constitutionally protected free speech. The simple fact that youth violence has been on an unprecedented decline for over a decade is unequivocal proof that there is no link whatsoever between violent videogames and real world violence, and thus no compelling reason for government interference.

I think the ESRB Rating system is valid in its definition, but is stymied by two main factors: 1) The ESRB Rating is a *voluntary* rating and as such has no approval authority beyond the applied rating; and, 2) There is not enough general consumer awareness on just what the ratings mean. We're a long way from the universally recognized equivalent of an MPAA rating. Further, I do not think the retailers are picking up their end. To date, the ESRB ratings are being used as nothing more than guidelines for purchasers interested in reading the ratings at all, and that group seems fairly restricted to parents. I don't think we need government oversight. Rather, we need the industry to elevate the ESRB Board to an authoritative role. This will achieve: A) A more rigid series of guidelines and goals. B) Greater relevance of the Ratings for both retailers and consumer. C) A system of penalties that compel adherence to the standards, thus driving B. This can be pushed by the game industry itself. Some companies already practice strict self-regulation. However, the longer it takes for the rest of the industry to come on board, the more likely the government *will* step in to speed along this adoption. If that happens, then I have great concerns for the after-market customization side of the industry. Not only would the government require strict adherence to the guidelines, they could likely mandate that the rating with which the game is shipped forever remain the rating it is. This would effectively mean developers *couldn't* ship the creation tools necessary to create mods lest they get penalized for the creations of the consumers within their game engine.
-Scott Clark, Hasbro Games

The ESRB has done a poor job, in my opinion. Instead of looking at the context of the material they simply see if it has blood, foul language, and sex. For instance Doom was former champ of controversy until MK came around. The game was very violent and deserved its “M” rating. However console games like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty are rated T simply because no blood is in the game. Now while playing Doom, I never once felt remorse for killing what are in fact demonic creatures from hell. They were pure evil and for the most part didn't resemble humans. Meanwhile I can pick up Medal of Honor and blasts thousands of soldiers and simply because there is no blood it gets a "Teen" rating. Yes they will soon be implementing the equivalent of a PG-13 rating, but it's a little late. As someone who works retail I watch parents who actually take notice of the ratings and see how misleading they can be. Halo is rated M… but is it actually on the same level in graphic violence as Mortal Kombat? Hardly. However I see they are improving and adapting with the times, which is something I can't say the FCC has done well. As for government rated games… no! They already rape the TV industry and in my opinion are terrible at what they do. The FCC hurts creativity the way I see it and they are stuck on older mentality. I don't want someone who doesn't even know what an Xbox is having any judgment or effect in what I can or can't buy. The fact that the American government sees games as murder simulators and then turn around and give us a free FPS from the U.S. Army shows me that too much political [expletive] will effect game creation. I think it should remain industry run as they will adapt to the market and not simply set rules in stone and never budge for all eternity.
-Angel Vargas


[Article illustration by Erin Mehlos. Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]

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About the Author(s)

Quang Hong


Quang Hong is the Features Editor of Gamasutra.com.

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