The Game of Revising Ratings
In the late 1980s, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating in an effort to make a stepping-stone between PG and R. Now, the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB) has made a similar move with their video game rating system—except it’s near the tamer end of the scale.
In an interview, Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB, explained the change is part of a "top to bottom review of the rating system" that she has conducted since taking the top job at the ESRB two years ago.
Her long list of plans includes making content descriptors more prominent and expanding the number of preset descriptors to over 30. Content descriptors are the short messages that accompany the rating, offering additional information to parents with statements like "fantasy violence" or "blood and gore." According to Vance, the ESRB was the first ratings organization to use ratings and content descriptors together.
Another identified concern was the gap in the ratings system between the "E" and "T" category (ratings that refer to a game being suitable for "Everyone" and "Teens," respectively). Citing child development experts who see age 10 as a "developmental milestone," Vance felt a new rating category would be best placed within that age range.
She also says the new rating won the approval of 79% of people whom were questioned about the need for a rating of this type.
At first, the president of all things game was concerned there may not be enough products to qualify for the new category, but there are already titles bearing the board’s new E-10 moniker. A check in the third week of April 2005 revealed nine games on the ESRB site with the new rating—most of them falling into the category of games with mild amounts of violence.
"The games that will fall under this designation were high ‘Es’ or were being pushed into the Teen category in the past," explains Vance, who feels the ESRB’s ratings error on the side of conservative. She backs this up with numbers from frequent surveys conducted by an independent firm that indicate the vast majority of respondents felt the ratings were "about right," with 5% feeling they were "too strict." (During the interview, Vance didn’t give any particulars of the types of people polled for this particular survey.)
However, gamers question whether this was the right change to make to the system.
A check of some discussion boards on the Internet regarding the E10 mark had some wondering why the ESRB bothered with such a subtle modification. On evilavatar.com, a site offering "Daily gaming news… with attitude," one person writing under the name Bydo_Empire says, "We DO need another rating. But I think there should be a rating between T and M. I think there’s a huge difference between Halo (basically shooting aliens, a little blood, but nothing too extreme - you’re saving the world after all) and GTA (seriously offensive, more "real-life" violence and behavior). In other words, they need a PG13-equivalent."
Says another writer, known as Hieremias, "If the game says E or T, I pretty much know what it’s going to be like, but if it says M I have no idea, the category is too broad."
AzN.Homeboy makes another important observation: "Maybe they’ll up the ‘T’ rating’s implications, giving you the equivalence of a PG-13." In other words, this writer questions if the E10 rating will open a void for games with higher levels of content to creep into the Teen rating category.
Only time will tell how the new rating scale will factor out, but the idea that the "M" rating is too diverse appears to be a common opinion—not unlike those who feel similarly about the MPAA’s "R" rating for movies.
However it’s important not to forget who and what the game ratings are for: Parents attempting to make a wise decision for their children. Because of that priority, there is a high water mark that is reached at a certain level where anything above likely isn’t suitable for children. An "M" rated game, or an "R" rated movie, may have various levels of content, but it’s likely safe to assume that, for most parents, the lowest levels of content in these restrictive ratings categories would cause some concern. At the very least, these restrictive ratings could force a parent to become involved in the purchasing process—assuming the retailer selling the game cares more about children than profits.
Obviously, ESRB president Vance wants to have a rosy outlook on the state of the industry. She does her best to stress that for all the negative press games receive, they have advantages over other media.
"Video games take place in your home, making them much easier to supervise. Adults should be taking time to look at what the kids are playing, and where the game console is located in the home." She also states the majority of game purchases—over 80%—involve an adult who is either buying the game with or for his or her children, or for themselves.
Like every other form of media, it’s unfair to blame the technology—especially considering the large number of games that are suitable for all family members. But unlike family rated movies, which usually fare better at the box office than their R-rated counterparts, the Mature rated videogames, like Grand Theft Auto and Halo are the big rising stars of the game world. (See Brent Bozell’s column, M for Menace for some other upcoming games due out soon that will darken more screens.)
Why do M-rated games make huge profits when R-rated movies often fail? Because, for all the failings of the voluntary movie rating system, it still turns away thousands of underage patrons. At this point, the gaming world welcomes those rejected consumers with open arms.