Game Eaters

Friday, October 27, 2006

More on the ESRB ratings

(Rescuing this article from draft limbo)

As a follow-up to Matt's complaint about the double standards of the ESRB, I must post this practical example of what type of values the ESRB is watching over.

This started the day that Matt discovered that Indigo Prophecy, apart from having a different title in Europe (Farenheit), also had different content--there were sex scenes that had been censored in the US. If you go to the ESRB site and look for the game, you find that both versions have been rated by the ESRB. The European version is AO (adults only), while the American version is rated M (Mature).

The difference between both versions is that the AO version has "nudity" and "strong sexual content" and the M version as "partial nudity" and "sexual themes". By the way, the definitions of these ratings go as follows:

Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
(If someone can explain to me how you can get more intense violence than with the depiction of blood or gore, I'd be eternally grateful.)

Let's jump across the pond. Farenheit, that is, the uncensored game, is rated 16+ by the PEGI (European equivalent of the ESRB), for sex ("game depicts nudity and/or sexual behaviour or sexual references") and violence ("game contains depictions of violence"). The PEGI ratings are not as detailed as the ESRB, and the range is also different: the PEGI age bands are 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+, 18+. So basically what in the US is "adults only" (and it's actually not widely available), corresponds to a rating for younger people in Europe. What is more, in the UK, where publishers seem to alternate between the PEGI and their own rating system, the game is "suitable only for persons of 15 years and older". This rating system is the British Board of Film classification, that is, the standards for film have been extended to videogames.

You can see a scan of the European boxes here.

Case no. 2: Hitman Blood Money, which presents the same version on both Europe and the US. The ESRB classification is M, the PEGI classification is 18+, in the UK is 18 years and older. That is, the game is considered "adults only" in Europe.

The point I'm trying to make is that different game classifications reflect different values--sex is more "censorable" than violence in the US than in Europe, which is no news. The problem, as Matt pointed out, is that these classifications not only affect the marketing of the games, but also their design and content. Videogame makers must keep these constraints in mind while the game is in production, though the odds are that the rating boards would find something that is not appropriate for a certain age range that the designers had not thought of.

On the other hand, I don't want to give the impression that the ESRB is worse than PEGI, or the other way around--both organizations have difficult jobs, and mostly have to respond to people that don't play videogames or only talk about them in overgeneralized, stereotypical and uninformed terms. The ESRB is also trying to resist anti-videogame bouts -- for instance , Bully has been released in the US with a Teen rating, which has been protested by our old friend Jack Thompson (as a last stomping on the ground after failing to ban it altogether in the US). Apparently, "gay content" (meaning the possibility of kissing a boy in the game) should change its rating to Mature, or so Thompson thinks. Fortunately, the ESRB has not given signs of intending to change the rating. Sex may be taboo, but homosexuality is not for the ESRB.

Note to self: write more entries, but shorter. And publish them.