Destiny's Teen rating fixes Halo's goofiest problem: a Mature rating that never made sense

Opinion

Destiny is rated T for Teen by the ESRB, Polygon has confirmed, and the content descriptors — the short bullet point lists that share what sort of content is in the game — are tame. We now know Destiny will have "animated blood" and "violence." That’s it. No harsh language. No gambling and no tobacco use. Nothing that would cause Destiny to be tipped over into a Mature rating.

This is a game that you’ll be comfortable playing with people in a broad age range, as long as they can hold a controller and you don’t mind the use of science fiction shotguns against alien creatures. That is by design.

"We’ve always set out to make games that lots of players can enjoy, and to build experiences that matter to people," Bungie told Polygon.

"For Destiny, we didn’t aggressively pursue one rating over another, though. We constructed foundational pillars that have guided development from start to finish. We wanted our worlds to be a place people felt good about spending time in. We wanted our worlds to be worthy of heroes," the company spokesperson continued.

"For us that meant Destiny would never be reprehensible, but rather bright, hopeful, and adventurous. That’s a world that resonates with us, and we hope it resonates with gamers, too."

The ratings game

What’s interesting about this news is that many parents I’ve spoken to already let their children play the Halo series; that game’s world of energy weapons and menacing aliens is a long way from the bloody, amoral tone of games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Halo has long been a Star Wars in a world of Pulp Fictions, and the Mature rating never seemed to make sense.

Halo has long been a Star Wars in a world of Pulp Fictions

Bungie claims that it didn’t "go after" any particular rating, and since the Halo series also avoided sexual content, drug use and harsh language there’s little reason to doubt that claim. On the other hand, this is a franchise that’s beginning with a $500 million investment from Activision, and is launching across a variety of platforms. Giving the game a Teen rating assures that everyone can purchase it at retail without needing to show any identification, and could conceivably lead to higher sales.

It’s worth remembering that video games are actually the most tightly controlled mainstream art form when it comes to children having access to product at the retail level. It’s easier to buy an R-rated movie or a CD with a parental warning label than it is to buy an M-rated video game. If you’re going for the broadest possible market and sales for your game, a Teen rating makes sense.

On the other hand, there is little evidence that says a Mature rating hurts sales overall, and the best-selling games often carry a Mature rating. Still, it doesn’t hurt to stack the deck in your favor in every possible way. From a cynical perspective this is a wise move. It also exposes a few cracks in how we rate games.

The problem with ratings

Halo 3 carried the "Blood and Gore," "Mild Language" and "Violence" descriptors and was given a Mature rating, which means you have to be 17 to buy it. It’s not perfectly analogous to an "R" rating, but it’s close, and it’s more heavily enforced at the point of purchase than movie ratings.

I doubt anyone would argue that if Halo 3 were a movie it would earn an R rating.

Having a game like Halo 3 share the same rating as Saints Row IV, which carries the "Blood," "Intense Violence," "Partial Nudity," "Sexual Content," "Strong Language" and "Use of Drugs" descriptors was always silly, and it weakened the thrust of the ratings system.

The fact those two games shared the same ratings shows just how broad the "Mature" rating has become, and I would argue that the tone and playful nature of the Saints Row series is less harmful to children than a movie like The Dark Knight, which carried a PG-13 rating.

You may also disagree with this, which is why being aware of the content and paying attention to what your children play is so important. As parents we know what's right and what isn't for our kids, and being aware of the content they consume is a large part of our job as parents.

I'll likely play Destiny in co-op mode with my 12 year-old son

We know ratings systems only tell half the story, and giving Destiny a lower rating than Mature goes a long way to telling parents that it's a game with much lighter content than other, darker and more violent Mature-rated games.

It's good news, in other words, and knowing that Bungie wants to make a game with a certain tone, that's focusing on heroics and that you "feel good" spending time with goes a long way to getting me interested in the game.

I'll likely play Destiny in co-op mode with my 12 year-old son, and I'm looking forward to the Master Chief collection so we can play through that series together as well. The two games may have different ratings, but the content and tone of each feels very similar. It's important to pay attention to ratings, to understand exactly what they mean, and to ignore them when appropriate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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