During the ’90s, the entire video game industry was under fire. This was due to concerns of violent content that some video games were showing. It was perfectly okay for a chubby plumber jumping on creatures and squishing the life out of them in the process because it was cartoony violence. But most parents were concerned with the more realistic looking violence portrayed in games like Lethal Enforcers, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap… wait. Really? Night Trap? That campy parody of horror movies doesn’t look violent, even when it was released!
Anyway, thanks to games like this, the United States government threatened to regulate the entire video game industry wherein they would develop a rating systems. This didn’t happen, however, as the entire video game industry decided that they would be the ones to police themselves in this case. And thus the Entertainment Software Ratings Board or ESRB was developed. It is a generally an independent board where games are screened and graded on things like violent imagery and sexual content. Since then, other countries and locations have adopted their own version of the ESRB. Japan has CERO and EOCS. Europe has PEGI. Essentially, all games today have some kind of rating on it to classify which age bracket the game is appropriate for.
However, no one today actually pays attention to them.
I will acknowledge that the ESRB and other ratings classification systems has been a boon to the entire video game industry, most people have forgotten it’s there. I wish I had a nickle for how many times my friends have come up to me and asked if a game would be appropriate for their kid, niece or nephew because I would be… well, I wouldn’t be a wealthy man. But I would probably have enough money to buy myself a Nintendo Switch by now. Initially, I would just tell them that the game itself already has a ratings guide on them. However, as the years passed, I gave up and just told them outright that, no, don’t get your 8-year old nephew Grand Theft Auto V as a birthday present. It’s called “Grand Theft Auto!” What did he expect? Rainbows?
I can forgive that guy, though. He doesn’t know anything about video games except for maybe Candy Crush, so I didn’t expect him to know about the ESRB or PEGI. That doesn’t excuse the other people that ask me those kinds of questions, though. I’m talking about the ones that have played video games before. These are the people that I used to talk to about video games during the original PlayStation’s heyday. This was generally because, in the Philippines anyway, games were dirt cheap as most local stores didn’t sell original games: they only sold bootleg copies.
But by this time, all the hullabaloo about violent video games and the government’s threat to regulate the industry had already died down. The ESRB had already been created and have been putting up the age ratings on game packaging. This was even true for all the bootlegged games as the manufacturers of the pirated copies would just photocopy the cover of the original game’s packaging. And I know they know about the ESRB and the ratings they have because we talked about the exact same topic before when it was just established. However, these same guys have lost their passion for gaming as they got more “responsible” with their lives and yet they’re not “responsible” enough to give age appropriate games to their kids.
I remember one of my older friends who I used to discuss video games with extensively when we were both in high school. For some reason he was aghast at how his kid got his hands on a copy of the latest Mortal Kombat and how violent the fatalities are. He didn’t have a problem when we were playing Mortal Kombat and ripping out people’s spines and pulling out the still beating hearts of our opponents before. He thought it was just disgusting the way Mortal Kombat allowed you to finish off your opponent in such bloody ways despite him doing those same moves over a decade or two ago. Okay, to be fair, graphics have gone a long way from the ’90s and the fatalities do look more violent but incredibly creative. Even so, I was actually shocked that he was shocked at how violent Mortal Kombat looks today. I wonder when becoming a parent made him an old fogey?
Oh, and did I mention that he actually bought Mortal Kombat for his 12-year old kid as a birthday present? His being horrified at the violence level of Mortal Kombat felt weird because this very same guy should have known about the ESRB and the age ratings that are right on the packaging as he grew up playing these games that were violent and bloody. He should’ve known better. His excuse? He knew that Mortal Kombat was super violent but he didn’t expect it to be that violent.
And that’s precisely the thing. The ESRB and most of the age rating panels were created when games like the original Mortal Kombat was considered harmful for children. Yet, as the years pass by, the level of acceptable violence has kind of slipped and slid around because people have pushed the envelope much further than before. As such, something that may be considered uber violent for some conservative people can’t believe that a game would be rated T for Teens. Of course, the opposite happens as well where something that was rated M for Mature when it should actually be rated T for Teens. The best example of the latter would be most of the Halo games. Even though the violence is typical for any first person shooters out there, it hard for any serious gamer to think of it to be too violent that only people over 17 can handle it.
I do think that they are trying their best to keep the general public informed about the content of the games. However, they are slowly but surely becoming a relic of an older time. During the early days of the ESRB, it was difficult for a parent to actually see how violent a game was and if they wanted to show it that level of violence to their children. The only ones who really knew about how violent a game was were the gamers themselves. This just isn’t the case anymore.
Thanks to the Internet, that miracle of technology where people can just look up stuff in an instant, you can look up any specific game and look are screenshots and previews immediately. We don’t even have to do any extensive research because there will definitely be people out there giving their opinion if a particular game is suitable for the little tykes or not. So, even if the ratings boards are doing an adequate job, it’s easy to see why they’re being ignored for the most part.
Now, I’m not saying that the ESRB or the other video game ratings boards are useless and they should be disbanded. They’re still an important part of the gaming industry and they did save them from them becoming regulated by the government. What I do hope is that they do a much better job in promoting themselves. They’re supposed to be the de facto guide for parents to determine if their kids should be playing what games. Now, I’m not sure how they would do this, though but I do know they should be a better job than what they’re doing right now because, like I said, no one really pays any mind to that little symbol at the lower corner of those games any more.
What do you think of the ESRB and the other age rating systems? Let me know in the comments section below!