The ESRB is Stupid

The ESRB is Stupid

In an ideal world, parents would be responsible and would watch movies/play games/listen to music with their children so that they can accurately judge this media to determine if they are appropriate entertainment. But this is not an ideal world; in fact, this world sucks. And movie theater employees probably don’t care if you take young children to Nature Trail to Hell Part II. The dreary minimum-wage peons at Gamestop probably don’t care if you get Horrific Sexual Torture Fun Time Deluxe Overpriced Pre-Order Edition: Raging Upper for your impressionable kids. It’s not their responsibility, and it shouldn’t be. But have no fear; if you’re a bad parent who doesn’t know what to do, there is a self-appointed nanny organization to decide what video games you and your kids are allowed to play.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board was established in 1994, in clear response to bloviating moral panic about the pixelated blood sprays found in games like Mortal Kombat and Doom, not to mention the non-existent sex and violence from Night Trap. The three politicians that probably had to do with the ESRB being established were Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Lieberman. They had at various times threatened bans on games or laws about selling games to minors. To stave that off was what the voluntary rating was supposed to solve.

Warning: May be frightening to children.

Similar to the equally omnipresent and irrelevant MPAA movie rating system, the ESRB is ostensibly voluntary, yet video games that refuse classification are not allowed distribution in department stores such as the monolithic Wal-Mart. This is a pact between major retailers and major publishers to keep the heat off from government intrusion; games must have the rating or they won’t get sold. Similar monopolies on morality exist in Britain and Australia. Noteworthy is the fact that Australia’s outright forbids the distribution of anything it deems objectionable rather than hiding behind red tape as does the ESRB, because Australians are apparently cool with Big Brother as long as he lets them beat up aborigines.

M and AO rated games were squelched or downplayed; I think Blockbuster didn’t even carry M games until Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64. For gamers now it may not seem quite as onerous with digital distribution and appstores, but a lot of us grew up in small towns, and if Wal-Mart and Blockbuster wouldn’t carry it, it would not exist for us. That’s a contrast to today where every generic first-person shooter is M and sells fifty trillion copies, but that’s irrelevant for the purposes of this article.

The ESRB is not only pointless, but they don’t even do their job with any degree of adequacy. Ratings are of course one hundred percent arbitrary. For example, the plot of the 1996 game Persona (rated E for everyone [originally K-A, which carries the same meaning] including your most innocent and susceptible babies) begins with teenagers summoning demons, freaking out, and having their multiple personalities emerge in response to the trauma so they can fight more demons. Persona (and the Megami Tensei series as a whole) is filled with such themes as Armageddon, demonic possession, esoteric Judeo-Christian symbolism (Yahweh and Lucifer both appear in multiple games in the series), pagan mythology, shooting yourself in the head with magic guns, and shameful dating mini-games. Clearly intended for the consumption of children, of course! The ESRB is telling you if a game has titties or blood rather than actually informing you on a game’s age-appropriateness.

Warning: May be frightening to children.

OK, so that’s one game that the ESRB, in its early years, rated about as accurately as Gamespot reviewing the newest ad-encrusted triple-A game. That’s not necessarily proof that they are completely untrustworthy like their predecessor the MPAA, but they still have no reason to exist. Writings and paintings have gone without ratings for about 7000 years and they’re doing just fine without the need for a parental advisory sticker on the cover of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy to let you know it’s dangerous for your eyes and brain.

Conversely to Persona, the phenomenal beat-em-up God Hand for Playstation 2 was rated M for Monstrously Gruesome. The opening even warns the player about the game’s non-existent blood and gore. The supposedly terrifying violence is limited to cartoonish fireballs and kicking enemies into the stratosphere. OK, the game does let you spank dominatrices to death and lets you kill gay midget Power Rangers with a move called the Ball Buster, so maybe that’s not the best example.

I don’t want this article to come across as the knee-jerk ramblings of a smug gamer pretending that all video games are morally pure and that any reported negative effects are propaganda from fascist politicians who want to appeal to soccer moms. For every study showing that video games increase hand-eye coordination, there’s a dozen showing that children and adults become more aggressive when exposed to violent media, and I can’t tell which ones were surreptitiously commissioned by the gaming industry and which ones weren’t. Look at the weapons effect, as reported in the respected scientific journal Wikipedia. Video games may not teach you how to kill people, but they do definitely desensitize you. Even being exposed to a mere picture of a gun increases aggressiveness. So, based on these findings, the usual argument against video games would equally apply to all media.

Parents would do wisely to prevent electronic gizmos from becoming their babysitters. Otherwise they’ll wonder why their kids are harassing you to buy the toys they saw in the flashiest advertisements and have become as snotty as all of their favorite gaming protagonists. Maybe I should make the title “The ESRB is Stupid, but America is Lazy Enough to Think It Needs It.” The evidence is not clear that video games are bad in the way that propagandists claim, and as a country we need to get away from the “ban it, it is bad” mindset. Labeling is not the same as censorship, but it can certainly lead to it, and if often does. The labeling is, today, used both to censor products and to enable self-censorship through intimidation by forcing an unsaleable rating. I think some games are morally repugnant but trying to destroy them will only bring them to the forefront as exotic setpieces of forbidden fruit, and it’s risky to ban some speech as it enables banning all sorts of other speech.

Warning: May be frightening to children.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at even though Twitter sucks.
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