The Controversy over Video Game Ratings

The Controversy over Video Game Ratings

by Ellen Rosner Feig, December 2009

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was rated M for mature, meaning it was suitable for ages 17 and higher. But when gamers discovered the "coffee" cheat, a downloadable code that allows a gamer to access parts of the game not visually apparent, they found they were able to enter areas hidden by game developers - areas that were sexually explicit, extremely violent and definitely not rated M. Parents all over the country became anxious with the realization that a game's rating (which appears on the game sleeve) was meaningless. It raises the question - does the current video rating system work? Do video ratings actually inform parents as to the content of a game?

The Senate, spearheaded by NY Senator Hilary Clinton, began an investigation of RockStar Games, the developer of Grand Theft Auto. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Clinton wrote, "We should all be deeply disturbed that a game which now permits the simulation of lewd sexual acts in an interactive format with highly realistic graphics has fallen into the hands of young people across the country."

Clinton requested the FTC to review whether or not retailers had "adequate enforcement policies" to insure that adult rated video games did not fall into the hands of youngsters. In response to the outcry, RockStar Games (a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.) claimed that hackers were responsible for the modification in San Andreas and that the company supported the video game rating system.

Video Game Rating System

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is the organization responsible for rating video games. In the case of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the ESRB had given the game an M (Mature 17+) rating but changed it to AO (Adults Only 18+) after revelations about the game's modifications. ESRB President Patricia Vance stated that such "modification" had "undermined the credibility and utility of the initial ESRB rating."

The ESRB utilizes the following rating symbols which can be found on the front of a game box with content descriptors on the back of the box:

EC (Early Childhood) - content that is suitable for ages 3 and older; contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.

E (Everyone) - content that is suitable for ages 6 and older; may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence.

E10+(Everyone 10 and older) - content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older; may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, and/or minimal suggestive themes.

T (Teen) - content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older; may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood and/or infrequent use of strong language.

M (Mature) - content that may be suitable for ages 17 and older; may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.

AO (Adults Only) - content that should only be played by ages 18 and older; may contain prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.

The ratings are intended to provide purchasers with information about computer and video game content so they may select those games which are appropriate. According to the ESRB, the majority of parents support the rating system and have found that the ratings have been correct 83% of the time.

Recent Developments

In October of 2005, the Video Software Dealers Association and the Entertainment Software Association filed suit in Federal Court over a California law which prohibits the sale of extremely violent games to children. The bill, signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, allowed for $1000 fines for violation and required all violent games (those portraying serious injury, heinous, atrocious or cruel activity) to be labeled accordingly. The Governor of Michigan has signed a similar piece of legislation.

These recent laws and the FTC investigation into RockStar Games have caused extreme concern in the gaming industry. RockStar has recently announced that it will delay release of the controversial game, Bully, which focuses on the life of bully Jimmy Hopkins, who torments his classmates with violence.

But like all things technological, video gaming is a quickly changing, always advancing field. If you really want to know whether or not your child's video game is safe, you'll have to experience it for yourself.