The ESRB is a parent's best friend, there is no question. In a large percentage of cases, this organization can help you make sound decisions in your game purchases. However, it's far from perfect, and some game content is bringing the gaps in the system into sharp relief.
The ESRB is not really aimed at "gamers" per se. When it was established in 1994, the concept that people who played games would be parents wasn't on anyone's radar. Its true target was and is parents who aren't gamers. And while we have our own troubles with it, there is a prevailing attitude suggesting that any mainstream parent who can pour Pepsi out of a boot without a road map will be happy if only they pay attention to the sign in the game store and the big white letter in the black box.
That's not at all an accurate stance in the real world. The ESRB's age ranges and content labels are applied inconsistently. Even with the context that the ESRB's descriptions of gaming experience provide, the labels are so vague and overlapping that they're almost meaningless on a practical level. The system is missing labels that are vital to making a truly informed decision about issues that some parents are really concerned about. And beyond that, the "T" rating fails to take into account the giant gap in age and development between ages 13 and 17.
A couple times a year we get games that highlight the worst of these weaknesses. This year's best candidate would be Batman: Arkham Asylum, with Infamous and Prototype vying for second.
Before I go any farther, I want to say I'm not suggesting that Batman should be re-rated to M like they did with Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion back in May of 2006. But this precise question was asked me by a neighbor with a 14-year-old who begged and pleaded for it for Christmas: Why is Batman: Arkham Asylum T-rated, while Oblivion was changed to an "M" rating?
She and I had gone through the Oblivion mess with his older brother, and after watching her younger son play this, she was upset. And she's got a point.
Inconsistent Application Of labels And Age Ratings
That disconnect with Batman's labels and other games isn't a new problem. I had to come to grips with my boys back in the day over Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which is T rated (for Blood, Drug Reference and Violence) but includes such fun as hanging off the rafters cutting throats, while the M-rated (for Animated Blood and Animated Violence) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which involves sneaking up behind people and breaking their necks. Both have players shooting realistic people in realistic settings with very similar results. The section where Raiden is running around naked can't be the difference. In an interesting omission, MGS2 doesn't have a nudity label.
Vague And Overlapping Descriptions
There are five labels for violence. Seems like they cover it all in a fairly straightforward fashion, until you try to figure out what they mean when they're applied to a game's specific setting. To juxtapose two games close in age and general type, how about Prototype and Infamous?
The T-rated Infamous comes with "Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, [and] Violence" labels. Prototype comes with just "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language" and an M rating. The setting of the two games is quite similar: You've been changed into something more than human and you're running through city streets, fighting roving gangs of civilians, military/authorities, nasty things and pretty much anything else that moves to accomplish your goals.
What's the difference between "Violence" and "Intense Violence?" Let's look at the ESRB's
You're punching helicopters in Prototype. This is not realistic. Much of the over-the-top gameplay of Prototype comes off like The Incredible Hulk for the Xbox360, which had a T rating and a "Violence" label. In Infamous, you end up frying people all around your character like you're a human electric eel. This is not realistic, and there's a label for unrealistic violence that's not bloody—"Fantasy Violence." Wouldn't it would be more accurate to use that?
I'm not suggesting Prototype didn't earn it's M rating. You grind your dead enemies into your skin like a ghastly beauty treatment so you can disguise yourself with their likeness. Ick. In Infamous you're electrocuting things to a crisp and sucking charge out of living people, but at least you're not wearing them. On the other hand you do plenty of other bloody damage, and I'm not sure scorched corpses littering the street are a better end product.
Stack up the labels and there is no way to really understand what the qualitative difference between the two games is, or why I should choose one over the other in reference to my children's gameplay.
Issues Not Covered By labels At All, But That Are Important To Parents
I know it's hard to imagine everything anyone can come up with, but there have been a few common ones brought up over the years.
- They try to cover various types of violence, but no label discusses the scale. In the ending of Infamous the player is allowed to choose to murder thousands of people in cold blood. Having to beat a big bad guy is one thing; killing everyone in a large radius is another. There's no label for "Mass Murder," or however you want to term this kind of bloodbath.
- Guns and other realistic weapons. Some parents don't have a problem with little Jimmy's character using some sort of cartoon ray-gun, but if he's picking up real guns and ammo like in the E-rated Shadow the Hedgehog they're not happy.
- Illegal activities aren't covered. For a blatant example, The Godfather games are based on your character performing the acts of a '20s Italian mobster. You run racketeering, bootlegging, gambling and hook-houses, on top of carrying out extortion, blackmail, and murder. None of this is called out unless it involves violence or sex. For a less charged but more insidious example, take a look at the rap sheet you'd get from most Tony Hawk games, particularly Underground and American Wasteland.
- Whether the player is the instigator or not is never discussed. Batman himself may not be killing anyone at Arkham, but that doesn't stop anyone else in the game. Between the virus and the thugs, you are constantly wading through piles of mingled dead and unconscious bodies. To some people, the fact that Batman isn't doing the killing matters.
- Another question I get—mostly from people I know through church—is occult and religious references. For example, I know someone who doesn't have a problem with something like Ninja Gaiden but was a little squicked by Darksiders and the way it implied that God was absent.
The Age-Chasm Between The T And M Ratings
Please understand that as a gamer and as a fan of Batman for many years, I enjoyed the game thoroughly. I believe it deserved all the positive reviews it got. But ask yourself honestly: Do you think your wife would like to have your 13-year-old play this game unsupervised? Do you? And not just your centered, mature and properly supervised youngster. Think of the least balanced latch-key kid in his homeroom class. That's what a T rating means—all the content in the game is suitable for anyone 13 years and older with no restriction or supervision.
I do not understand why anti-game mavens have a cow about M-rated games they think should be AO while ignoring this issue completely. Getting supposedly AO content in the hands of a 17-year-old is only one year early. Getting M content in the hands of a 13-year-old is a much more worrisome proposition. There are four very important growing years between 13 and 17. Trying to limit all 16-year-olds to the same content as all 13-year-olds is laughable. They are so completely different. Go to a junior high and compare the eighth graders with the juniors at your local high school.
But I Did What You Said...
The part that ticks his mother off most, I think, is that she did what we all keep saying was due diligence and she still got burned. When he'd asked for it on his Christmas list, she looked it up. She found out the rating, and also found that Common Sense Media suggested it as a replacement for Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony in their list of
What Parents Can Do
There are things that parents can do to make this system more approachable for themselves. If you know where to look, there is more information available now.
- Ratings Summary: Used to be, all you got was those cryptic phrases to judge the content. But now the ESRB's website offers more detailed descriptions of newer games. They're not printed on the box, but if you look up a specific game via their website or other search tools, you'll find a paragraph or two describing the game's content in more detail.
ESRB Rating Search Widget: If you want to add a quick and easy way to search the ESRB on your website or personal blog, you can download and install a widget that will allow you to search the ratings system and get the platforms, rating, rating summary and content labels right there at your fingertips. There's also a desktop version for your PC.
- ESRB Mobile Ratings Guide: If all the ratings on the boxes and posters on the wall in the stores aren't enough, you can also use the ESRB's mobile version of their website. Download the app for your iPhone/iPod from iTunes or the App Store, or go to http://www.esrb.org/mobile from any other mobile device's web browser.
I've long been a proponent of responsible consumption across all media. How did I handle stuff like this when my gang was younger? Well, it's not a solution all parents can put in place. We had a rule that I had to finish all games rated T or above before they were allowed to play it until they were 13, and even at that point I reserved the right to do so if I felt a game was risky. That held true until everyone in the house was M-rated or higher. It has already been suggested that I'm a jackbooted fascist, but I got burnt just like my neighbor did on games like Def Jam Vendetta and Jet Set Radio.
A more generally practical solution all of this is for parents to do the best they can with what the ESRB gives. Follow the age ratings, have intelligent limits on duration, and pay a lot of attention to the kids while they're playing. If something seems off to you, talk to knowledgeable friends or helpful game-store employees. Renting a game and giving it a try yourself may also be an option.