Last week, the Electronic Software Ratings Board (aka the ESRB, responsible for the black-and-white ratings symbols on game packaging) announced that Warner Bros’ upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight would be hitting shelves with an “M” rating, meaning that it could not be sold to individuals under the age of 17. This was surprising since Warner Bros’ previous DC Comics games have closely stuck to the “T” rating. Every past game featuring the caped crusader avoided the graphic depictions of violence, even going so far as to turn Mortal Kombat (a franchise so violent it forced the creation of the ESRB itself) into a less graphic affair when DC stars came to play. It seems that Warner Bros. has finally decided to stop fighting, and accept the reality of a Batman game that officially can’t be sold to minors-because know that the kids will buy it anyways.
In theory, the ESRB ratings system should be a parallel to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film ratings system. Both are established on a series of ratings that narrow the potential audience for a game from “all audiences” to “adults only.” Yet when you look at the top-selling products in the gaming and film industry, it starts to become clear that the ESRB isn’t holding up. Of the top ten grossing films of 2014, only one is rated R. Comparatively, the majority of top-selling games in the same year were rated M for Mature. ESRB ratings don’t work as a sales deterrent, which highlights the simple fact that they don’t work.
Now, the source of the problem can be attributed to any number of sources. For one, it’s easier than ever for kids to purchase games without parental consent. Digital distribution has taken the storefront clerk (who can check ID) out of the equation, replaced with an age gate that most tech-literate kids could walk past before the age of ten. Even with parental controls available on the consoles, they mean nothing for parents that don’t adhere to ratings. Yet why would they, when the ratings themselves often don’t reflect the content within.
As we mentioned before, Destiny earned a T-rating from the ESRB last year. That game’s production studio, Bungie, is also well known for the Halo franchise of first person shooters. Both franchises feature masked individuals in spacesuits, shooting down countless alien hordes, and getting yelled at by 12-year-olds over XBox Live. So why did the same ratings board award Halo: The Master Chief Collection an M? Judging from the two games’ ESRB breakdowns, the biggest difference seems to be in what you’re gunning down – Destiny‘s foes are “insect- and robot-like”, while Halo has you killing “human and fantastical enemies.” But, looking at the T-rated Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, killing human enemies seems to be within the guidelines. This rat’s nest of contradictions only gets deeper as you dig further into the system – and it’s a dangerous one to rest upon.
Although they served at least one concrete purpose in years past, it’s hard to say if the world even needs a ratings system on video games. The earlier statement that Mortal Kombat created the ESRB is no joke. The popularity of violent games like MK, Night Trap and others caused a media circus back in the early ’90s, which led to a congressional hearing where industry professionals were given an ultimatum: either self-regulate, or the government would take it into its own hands. This resulted in the standardization of internal content ratings, culminating in the modern ESRB. Since then, it has come under no shortage of scrutiny, with laws that ask for government enforcement making it all the way to the Supreme Court (where they were deemed unconstitutional). The presence of ratings is the biggest protection games have from unjust litigation. Continuing to accept a system that fails to deal out fair scrutiny only leaves us vulnerable.
Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @Mushroomer25