Matt Cassamasina talks about the situation of game ratings nowerdays, ESBR giving Manhunt an AO rating and Sony and Nintendo not allowing AO rated games on their systems.
-The below text was taken from Matt’s blog on IGN.com
“Software company executives love to draw parallels between the videogame industry and Hollywood, but I think the recent Manhunt 2 debacle shows how different the two remain. Hollywood makes movies for kids, for teens, and for adults. If you so desire, you can see an NC-17-rated movie — you have that choice. However, according to console manufacturers like Nintendo and Sony, adult-targeted software is not welcome on Wii and PlayStation 2 respectively. You have been removed from the equation.
I recently gave an interview to USA Today where I spoke about how seemingly broken the videogame rating system appears to be — partly by fault of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which takes a look at the most offensive content in videogames and then assigns them a rating – but also because the big publishers won’t license titles that don’t fit snugly within the confines of the E to M standards. And also because the big retailers won’t carry AO-rated titles, even if they somehow slipped by the watchdogs at the console companies.
So you have to wonder, why does an Adults Only rating even exist if nobody save for uncensored PC users could possibly even buy these games?
Nintendo calls itself “an ‘and’ company, not an ‘or’ company,” and yet it has specifically told third party Rockstar that Manhunt 2 must make an M rating “or” it may as well go crawl under a rock and die. Wii is designed for everybody, from “age eight to eighty,” as we’ve been told so many times in official Nintendo hyperbole, so I’m curious, do Adult Only games somehow miss this 72-years-wide demographic? Perhaps you need to be 81 to appreciate Manhunt 2.
According to the ESRB, an M-rated game should only be played by gamers ages 17-years-old and up. Mature titles encapsulate content that “may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.” I have played several hours of Manhunt 2 and I can tell you that this description very accurately describes the content housed within the game. Is it violent? Absolutely. Is the violence intense? Yes. Does it include blood and gore? Yes. What about sexual content and strong language? Check and check. That is why we have an M rating.
What, then, makes a game cross that unseen chasm that separates M-rated games, which frequently sell into the millions (just ask Rockstar about its GTA series) and AO-rated titles, which aren’t licensed or carried by retailers, thus guaranteeing financial disaster? Well, let’s go back to the ESRB ratings descriptors. Apparently, 17-year-olds just don’t have the stomach for these AO-rated games and that’s the real distinguisher. Sorry, teens, you’re just not ready for this type of content. But tell you what, on your next birthday, it’s all good. Turn 18 and you’re fit for AO, baby! A mere 365 days is what distinguishes the two ratings, from what I can tell, because the qualifier for Adult Only software is otherwise unspecific at best.
AO-rated games may include “prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.” There’s the difference. Now, you could say that Manhunt 2 features prolonged scenes of violence, but that depends on how you define prolonged. As has been established, there are some particularly brutal and grotesque situations in the title, but are they prolonged? No, not really. No more than any other violent games. What is the difference between a five-second death animation in Manhunt 2 and a three-minute-long chainsaw massacre created as a gameplay objective in Scarface: The World is Yours? I would argue that the latter is more violent in many ways. At least in Manhunt 2 you’re only killing one person at a time and not 10 or more. And yet, Scarface had no problem obtaining that coveted, beautiful M.
I think early coverage hype for Manhunt 2 may have contributed to its undoing. Too often, critics cite Manhunt 2’s main character’s ability to use weapons to mutilate an opponent’s testicles, a mechanic only unveiled after initial eyes-on impressions by enthusiast press. Maybe it was the early buzz or the fact that Rockstar is again pushing the digital content boundaries, or maybe it’s just because Manhunt 2 is coming to the family-friendly Wii, but I think the ESRB buckled, lost its nerve, and smacked the title with an unfair rating. By the Board’s own definitions for M and AO-ranked software, Manhunt 2’s content is at the very least open to interpretation and while it is incredibly violent, neither its violence nor sexual scenarios are more prolonged than the majority of M-rated games on the market.
Nintendo and Sony had the chance here to step up and to mimic Hollywood, but they both proved that even as they trumpet that videogames are all grown up, they are unwilling to let the games speak for themselves and for buyers to make up their own minds. Maybe they are collectively afraid of backlash. Certainly Nintendo has something to lose if Wii’s squeaky clean image becomes tarnished by an AO game, right? I can understand that point of view, but if that is the case, let’s stop with all the talk about how Wii is for everybody, unless you want AO software.
Imagine if DVD manufacturers like Hitachi and Samsung came out and said, “Sorry, folks, but you’re NC-17 movies won’t be allowed on our players.” These hardware manufacturers create the platforms, but they don’t police them. There is another difference between the two industries.
Manhunt 2 is a landmark game because it brings these issues to the forefront. Clearly, something is not quite right when consumers are not even given the option to buy a title that receives an acceptable rating by the ESRB. And clearly there is something wrong when the ESRB seems to hold some games to different standards than others. When you get a chance to play it for yourself, you will understand that it is one of the most violent and in many ways disgusting games to ever grace a console, assuming it does, but also that its content falls within the boundaries of an M rating. If not, well, then that’s another bag of worms because it means there are several other M-rated titles that could just as well be rated AO, too, in my opinion.
Right now, this is just one game, but as software makers grow as storytellers, there will come a time when many games are concepted for and targeted specifically to adults. Whenever this shift happens, the ratings system will definitely need some new definitions, bare minimum, and quite possibly a complete overhaul. Perhaps then, console makers like Nintendo and Sony will also consider the possibility that their respective audiences may actually want to make their own choices about the games they buy. “