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July 13, 2010 / Joe Osborne

Coffee Talk: Those Pesky Game Ratings

Welcome to Geekadelphia’s weekly discussion column, Cofffee Talk, where we talk about the finer topics concerning video games, technology and all the other things you can’t talk about with your slightly-less-geeky friends. Have questions or suggestions? Send an email to or tweet with us. Follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep this week’s discussion alive.

We apologize (sort of) for the completely unrelated image, but that reference has been ignored for far too long. Anyway, Nintendo will be releasing an eReader game for the Nintendo DS called 100 Classic Books this summer, says Kotaku. Wait, that’s our inspiring piece of news for this week?

Here’s the catch: the game appears to have no ESRB rating and simply states, “This product does not require age verification.” That’s a bit odd. And here I thought all games required an ESRB rating to be released for retail sale.

Now, it’s easy to argue that this is barely a video game and more of an application, which may not need any sort of rating. While it does still provide influential content, writing 500+ words on a petty argument would be wasting our time. So, let’s keep it light(ish) this week and give a brief history of the ESRB and poke some fun at it, shall we?

ESRB rating stamp collage, not sure if want…

The ESRB, or The Entertainment Software Rating Board, is a self regulated, non-profit organization created in 1994 as an arm of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), according to the ESRB. Essentially, the non-profit spawned out of Joe Liebermans’ 1993 hearings on video game violence as a means to enforce the restriction of violent and lewd interactive content to minors.

In other words, parents didn’t really feel like taking the time to learn about their kids hobbies by, oh, we don’t know, interacting with them and were appalled at the atrocities of the games they were playing. More importantly, parents were distressed about how these ‘sex and murder simulators’ were effecting their childrens’ behavior. While it goes without saying that these game do, in fact, leave an impression, the gravity of that influence is up for debate. Thus the ESRB was born and changed the face of video game content forever.

Well, sort of. Okay, not much has changed at all, but who’s counting?

However, the ESRB has not only gotten in the way of several releases over the years (Manhunt 2, anyone?) but has essentially given many titles the death sentence via the “Adult Only” rating, which prohibits the sale of a game to a minor regardless of consent. This is due to the fact that many retailers refuse to sell AO rated games because of not only their negative connotations, but the liability they place on the store in question. In a way, the ESRB have pretty good leverage over what gets put out by publishers by swinging the good ole AO hammer around.

I pity da’ fools who let their youngins’ play Grand Theft Auto (couldn’t resist)

However, enforcement has become another issue entirely, as it has with jsut about all mature material. Kids will sneak into R-rated movies, download offensive music and pornographic films and share M-rated (Mature Audiences Only) video games until these ratings boards hire a private A Team to smash through the windows of families’ homes every time their little one pops in Grand Theft Auto.

So, what does it come down to? Yeah, you guessed it, the parents. Being a former GameStop employee for over a year (until the insanity took one bite too many of what’s left of my soul), the amount of parents I’d see allowing their kids — and we’re talking children here — pick up M-rated titles was depressing. Now, whether said parents have had all the right talks with their spawn is unknown, but I’d rather not give them the benefit of the doubt.

What’s the big deal, then? It’s not really our problem if my neighbors’ 8-year-old is playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (remember those kids I mentioned last week on Xbox Live?). Well, how about if your single digit son is over your neighbors’ house. Regardless of whether it’s allowed in your household, you can bet your kid’s weekly allowance (parents still give those?) he’s playing that game, slaughtering thousands of terrorists. Unless you want him to grow up to be the next Liam Neeson in Taken, this is can be a bad thing.

The bottom line here is that ESRB ratings mean less than the mindless dribble most of the games they attempt to enforce produce when parents (do I sound like a broken record, yet?) care not to involve themselves with what games their children are playing and, more importantly, how they feel about them. However, the ratings nonetheless exist and will continue to have a gripping effect on the content featured in mature releases in fear of the dreaded AO rating. Unless, the responsibility hot potato game finally stops and paren — damned turntable broke again?


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