Game ratings were designed to open the door for different kinds of content, not limit what can be shown or addressed in a video game.
The idea was that developers and publishers would be given more freedom in their games if it was simple to indicate that some games were aimed at an adult audience. The games were clearly marked that they weren’t for kids, retailers would enforce the ratings, and the stigma of gaming being a pursuit where children would stumble across potentially damaging content would be removed.
The system worked, after a fashion. We’re starting to see games deal with sexuality in a limited way, although graphic sex will usually land you with the dreaded Adults Only rating, which is the kiss of death for any mainstream game. The stores won’t stock it, the console holders won’t release it and you’re stuck with a PC-only game that won’t find a home on many digital distribution platforms.
The ESRB is working as intended, it’s the rest of the industry that’s keeping an artificial ceiling on what can and can’t be shown in a video game. This has to stop.
The clerks are the real heroes
It’s important to note just how effectively game ratings have been implemented. The ESRB ratings are enforced much more often than the ratings for movies and other forms of adult entertainment, according to the Federal Trade Commission. When people are talking about keeping this content out of the hands of children, they’re discussing a solved problem. No retailer wants the negative publicity that comes from selling a Mature-rated video game to a child, and every school shooting places the video game industry at risk for future legislation.
The industry is aware of how badly things can go if children are sold this content, so they’re careful to make sure it doesn’t happen. As anyone who has worked video game retail can tell you, enforcing the ratings will often make parents angry instead of grateful; discussing the content of Mature-rated games with families as they try to purchase the latest first-person shooter for their child often ends poorly for the clerk. Ratings enforcement at the retail level is a thankless, often demoralizing job, and clerks and retailers deserve much more respect than they’re given by making sure it gets done.
It may not seem like that Walmart clerk is helping to keep the video game industry free to explore adult themes when they ask for your driver’s license to purchase a Mature-rated game, but that’s exactly what they’re doing. "13 percent of underage teenage shoppers were able to buy M-rated video games – the highest level of compliance among the industries," the FTC report stated. These numbers show how effective this ground-level work has been, and they deserve our thanks for doing the hard work in the retail trenches.
If you ever hear a politician say that violent content needs to be kept from children, you need to remember that they’re absolutely right. If a parent decides that their child is mature enough to play an M-rated game, they need to be the ones who go to the store and make the purchase. The ESRB rating places the onus on the parent, not the retailer, to make that decision, and that’s how it should be.
It’s a solved problem, and it took a strong ratings system with a high level of retailer buy-in to make sure this happened. So why are we still talking about this?
Not for children
The problem is that the Adults Only rating kills games. This isn’t an exaggeration; most retailers refuse to carry AO games, and no console will allow them on the platform. This isn’t the fault of the ratings board, the existence of an NC-17 equivalent is a healthy rating, this is the fault of the retailers and platform holders falling for the fallacy that video games are still for children.
Imagine if stores ceased selling unrated films. Can you imagine the average retailer pulling 50 Shades of Grey off the shelves? Erotic and BDSM literature have gone mainstream, except that no one worries what happens if a child picks up a copy of the book from the drug store and thinks that whips and chains are how two people say they love each other.
There is the clear idea in film and books that some content is for adults, and other content is for kids. You don’t have to worry about what would happen if a child picked up the wrong book and read it while deciding what to release, because it’s up to retail and parents to make sure that doesn’t happen.
There is no other art form that begins with the presumption that the content will be consumed by a child, and then works backwards to make sure the content won’t be damaging to that child.
That industry's inability to stand up and say that video games are an adult pastime that deserve the ability to explore whatever they’d like in terms of sexual content and violence is infuriating. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo often discuss the strength of their parental control features and they’re right; properly configured it can be made next to impossible for children to play Mature-rated games on each console. I use these controls in my own home. If the ability is there to make sure children don’t see or play certain games, why are they so afraid of that content that it isn’t welcome on the platform?
Imagine if the company that created your Blu-ray player told you that unrated films couldn’t be played. There would be furious opinion pieces about how no company should be able to determine what content adults see on the players they purchased to watch movies. But we see no such defense for video games.
The situation is the same thing for retail: You can have a section for R-rated or unrated films, and erotica is now sold as mainstream reading, but the idea of a section just for Mature-rated or Adults Only games is greeted with disdain and scorn.
We don’t have a chance to say no to the content, as the industry itself has already decided we can’t be trusted with that power.
It’s time to ask for the same respect from the people who sell us games that we get from the people who sell us films, books and music. If a game is too adult, or is given the Adults Only rating, the decision should be up to the consumer as to whether it should be purchased.
Since these games aren’t allowed on the consoles or sold in stores, there is crushing economic pressure to avoid the rating altogether. The players don’t get to decide what content is right for them, that decision is being made by the platform holders and retail. We don’t have a chance to say no to the content, as the industry itself has already decided we can’t be trusted with that power.
No one is advocating for more sex and violence in our games, and personally I’d likely steer clear of most titles that earn the AO rating. But as war games become more realistic and developers begin to experiment with relationships and sexual content in their games it’s likely that the AO rating will be a limiting factor in how far these titles can go. Commerce is limiting the content that can be shown and experienced in games, and that’s an intolerable state of affairs for a maturing art form.
I want to decide what I play, and I want to be able to make that decision for my children. It should be possible for a developer or publisher to decide that scenes of realistic sex and violence, or even stylized sex and violence, are needed to tell their story. The artists make the content, the ratings board decides the rating using a full range of appropriate ratings up to and including Adults Only, the retailer keeps Mature and AO-rated games from children, and the adult consumer decides what they themselves play. The blueprint for a healthy ecosystem already exists, and it’s already working.
Is the video game industry ready to let the players decide what they should and shouldn’t play? Walmart, Best Buy, Gamestop, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, along with many others, look down on us and say "No." It’s time to start telling them to say yes.