I always remember it on the stone bridge stage – Scorpion or Johnny Cage was my opponent; I took a few licks but always came out on top; that unforgettable gravelly voice would utter the phrase, and my fingers would go into robot mode: forward, down, forward, forward, high punch.
It was always quick, I remember looking away once just long enough to have missed it: my character, Sub-Zero, grabs his opponent’s head and pulls it cleanly off the shoulders, spine and all. He then turns and presents it to the screen, a new accolade to adorn the wall next to your soccer trophy and 2nd place in last years’ spelling bee.
Back in 1991, the video game industry was still a fledgling market still trying to carve its own identity amongst the media giants. Software engineers and designers were still struggling to understand this new frontier of storytelling. But more importantly, games were largely ignored as flashy distractions from the real world, another electronic toy hoping to be wrapped under the tree for little Grayson.
That is, until the spine rip heard around the world.
All of a sudden, TIME Magazine started running feature length articles titled “Are Video Games Too Violent?” Parents started asking their children questions about this “Mortal Kombat” thing they kept hearing on the news. And on the hill in Washington, A relatively young politician by the name of Joe Lieberman made history by advocating for a stand against violent video games getting into the hands of our children and demanding the industry to do something about it.
Congress agreed, and in one short year, the Electronics Software Rating Board was established as a self-regulatory system to provide easy to understand classifications of video games for parents and to help prevent particularly violent titles from being sold to underage teenagers and children. As their first act, they gave Mortal Kombat an M (Mature) rating for significant gore, violence, adult themes and use of martial arts—thereby making it illegal to be sold to anyone under the age of 17.
Video games have come a long way since then. The industry is now one of the largest international markets in the entire world, video game studios spend upwards of $100 million on making a single AAA title, and the ESRB has – well, they’ve actually stayed pretty much the same. And that’s where the problem is.
Like many readers and gamers out there, I have my own thoughts about the ESRB and their role in the video game industry. But lately I have seen a sharp rise in this exhaustive debate in which many people think the ESRB is a broken system; that their role in the industry is all but non-existent, and their effect on keeping violent games out of the wrong hands has disappeared.
If that were true, and if there is evidence that indicates the ESRB is a null system, why haven’t we gotten rid of it for something new and fresh? Why haven’t industry leaders gotten together and come up with something more comprehensive?
Well, the short answer is that the ESRB isn’t broken. It just needs to make some adjustments that help represent a much more detailed, more complex industry.
SAME BOARD, DIFFERENT INDUSTRY
Perhaps the biggest fundamental change since the inception of the ESRB has been the video game industry itself. In the early 90s, gamers passionately debated the nuances between Nintendo’s SNES and Sega’s Genesis; Chrono Trigger versus Final Fantasy 6 (3 if you’re reading this from the Western Hemisphere); pros and cons of the introduction of shoulder buttons. It was an analog era where a few players had to orchestrate a Saturday at a friend’s house before they could do any kind of multi-player.
Look at where we are now: mobile gaming rife with micro-transactions; Internet rankings and instant co-op matches and team multi-player; computer processors and hard drives capable of rendering vast worlds in complete photorealism, even bordering on true virtual reality. To put it simply, it’s not the same industry.
When the ESRB was first founded, video games were produced and delivered in a one-dimensional basis. The most popular platforms developers could design games for were pretty similar, those platforms were built and operated in a single, isolated environment that couldn’t be changed or altered from the outside world, and games could only be purchased from a well-known brick-and-mortar shop. If you look at each of these variables, you can see that they were each very manageable to oversee and control using the traditional system. Unfortunately, today’s digital environment has almost erased the need for each of these avenues.
I currently own (and regularly use) four devices that all have access to a virtual library of games spanning the entire spectrum of ESRB ratings. By the time you finish reading this article, I will have all of them pre-loaded and ready to be played. Instead of a time when a teenager needed to go to a Toys-R-Us, find the game in stock, purchase the game, bring the game home, and begin playing it, that same teen can complete that same process five times over without ever leaving the house and, more specifically, without ever needing permission from anyone. And finally, that same studio may decide to provide an update for that game with new content, special deals, or a new monetized system that encourages me to pay a few more dollars for exclusive and rare goodies.
Moreover, video game platforms have become synonymous with any “smart” device. Every bit of what a gamer used to need in order to play a video game has been consolidated and streamlined into a single device no bigger than a solar-powered calculator. With the proliferation of mobile, tablet and portable gaming into the market, it’s impossible to think a single organization can monitor, much less accurately rate, every game you or your child can get access to.
The ESRB is a product of its time and was meant to help organize and bring solutions for the problems we had back then, specifically with violence becoming prevalent with popular video games. They weren’t prepared to handle the evolution of the Internet, the globalization of independent video game studios, or digital distribution. As such, the ESRB simply hasn’t kept up with the times. Success is not so much about striking it rich at the perfect time, so much as evolving with the progress of the market and staying in-tune to what the developers need and what the consumers want.
WHEN IS AN “M” NOT AN M?
As many have pointed out in the past, the ESRB has a lot of similarities to the ratings system used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the system used for Television by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Both ratings board have classifications based on the themes and level of violence portrayed in the final product.
Of course, those rules have been tested and bent over the years. So much so that some movies given an “R” rating in the past would probably be considered an average “PG-13” today. Now, while most video games are more cut-and-dry when it comes to being given a “T” or “M” rating, the ESRB hasn’t been as progressive with their rules as the FCC or MPAA have been in the past decade.
Saying the word ‘shit’ has become more and more common in prime time TV shows, and movies can get away with saying ‘fuck’ once and still get a PG-13 rating. Of course, games aren’t so much about the cursing as they are about the cleaving, maiming and dismemberment. No one would argue against giving the latest Call of Duty an M rating, but when you try to discern the differences between InFamous: Second Son, Devil May Cry and Watch Dogs, those lines start to blur.
Why would a man with comic book like powers tasked with either saving or killing the people of Seattle, be more appropriate for a younger teen than a guy with a sword the length of his body taking on a legion of demons? According to the ratings, the word “strong” must carry a great level of murkiness only the ESRB would understand.
PUTTING IT INTO PLAY
Unfortunately, all of this change and improvements would mean nothing if the ratings system isn’t actually enforced, which might be the ESRB’s biggest problem of all.
Much like the MPAA, the ESRB is a self-regulatory system put in place so that the Government doesn’t enforce their own sanctions, but when it comes to enforcing the ratings, it’s also the responsibilities of the industry itself. When you try to enforce a ratings system that less than fifty percent of parents actually know exists (and even less understand what those ratings mean), many patrons give you looks as if you just stared speaking some foreign tongue.
Brick-and-mortar shops have worked in tandem with the ESRB by educating the staff to inform parents when they try buying any particular M-rated game, and putting large display boards up in their shops that clearly explain each rating. But they have done little to quell the ignorance. On top of that, if shops are found guilty of ignoring the ESRB ratings and selling violent games to minors, there’s very little in the way of punishment. Sanctions take months to process, and can even be repealed if the store owner is inclined enough.
IS THERE A FUTURE?
There’s little argument that the ESRB is fighting a losing battle today. With digital distribution on the rise and mobile gaming taking a majority share of how most of the public plays video games, it has become nigh impossible to enforce any kind of restrictions on gamers. Some might argue that the ESRB should simply be dissolved, but a future without the ESRB is far grimmer than a future with a useless one.
In the months following major shooting tragedies like Columbine and Sandy Hook, parents and politicians alike clamored for more restrictions on violent video games, believing them to be a major factor in leading up to these terrible shootings. The industry fights back with studies that refute the claims and point the finger back at the NRA for allowing teens the ability to get their hands on automatic weapons so easily. The rabble-rousing continues, and ultimately nothing is done.
If the ESRB were to dissolve, it would only be a matter of weeks before another Lieberman walked on the Hill and proposed a newer and more restrictive system onto the gaming industry. I know their intentions would be for the benefit and the protection of our youth, but I’d be far more afraid of lobbyists trying to come up with rules about an industry they know little about.
The ESRB was founded by leaders of the industry, for the industry. But it’s a new world out there, and the new leaders need to step up and take the board to a new chapter. It doesn’t mean banishing the letters away and going back to the drawing board; systems are meant to be refreshed and updated from time to time (any DirectX fans out there?).
The ESRB was a step of maturity for our industry when we needed to take responsibility, and the time has come to take another – something that takes digitized distribution into account; something that separates the evaluation of the game from the multi-player community. And most importantly, something that’s easy to teach others. If I can’t explain a ratings system in less than ten seconds, most parents won’t take the time to understand it, much less enforce it.