What does the ESRB do right? Everything. Unfortunately, there are those people out there who would like to think other wise, and the controversy over the recent Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee sex sequence is about far more than sex in a single video game. It's a deep look at what the ESRB does, and who they are.
After a few failed attempts at a video game rating system, the ESRB was formed, and they've consistently improved their methods. This year, a new rating was added, to further designate appropriate software. The ESRB is funded by the game companies, who submit their games for approval. A random selection of people, both gamers and non, rate the game after viewing the most extreme footage, provided by the game maker.
That part is causing the most controversy. Leland Yee, an aggressive critic of the system, said this in an interview with Gamespot:
"The ESRB is not an appropriate forum to rate any of these games whatsoever. There's a conflict of interest. It's the fox guarding the henhouse. ... If you have the industry paying for the rating, and your salary comes out of their money, the last thing you're going to try to do is try to upset them. The last thing you're going to do is limit their market share by rating a game AO."
The MPAA follows, roughly, the same method (Yee fails to address this). The studios pay to have the rating. The biggest difference is that the MPAA has an established board, and they view the entire film, not just the worst content. There's a reason the ESRB doesn't work the same way, and it's common sense. There are 1100 games being released within the next year or two. Video games have average playtime of around 10 hours, some much longer (40+), some far less (5-6). There's simply no possibility of playing through and entire game and determining a rating. The ESRB plays fair, by allowing even non-gamers to make the call.
What happens if the "worst content" isn't shown to the ESRB? The same thing that gamers are already sick of hearing about: an investigation. The responsible company can be fined if the non-submitted content is severe enough.
In the case of the latest
Things simply don't add up. The most obvious problem is that Rockstar claims to have never put the code in the game. Knowing the backlash they receive, lying is the worst possible situation for them to be caught in. It's a PR department's worst nightmare. It's depressing that one single game and a one-minute sex act can do so much harm to the industry, but it does, and it's beginning to look like Rockstar will face the brunt of a federal investigation.
The game has been out now for over one year. This just recently surfaced. Someone, somewhere, should have found this earlier. That's the biggest discrepancy, and the reason things just are not adding up. It was the PC version of the game, not the PS2 or recent Xbox release, that started the controversy. Once the PC version was cracked, it was found on the PS2 as well afterwards, in a standard retail copy.
Knowing that, what should be done? If the content was intended to be seen by players, what does that change? In gamer's eyes, nothing. The game already features graphic fatalities against police. Why is a sex scene so controversial, especially one as dry as Hot Coffee?
The ESRB describes its strongest rating (of which very few games have received, all on the PC) like this:
"Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity."
Mature is described as this:
"Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language."
Grand Theft Auto carries the latter rating and this descriptor on the box:
"Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs"
It's already marked for the sexual content. With this latest development, does it deserve to have a new rating? GTA fits into both categories, almost perfectly. Does this mod, or unlockable content with an outside device, constitute a higher rating? Does it change the fact that if your child has this game, he has already blown away countless police officers? No. If you're old enough to play GTA at 17 with the included content, this one minute sex sequence (in a game some people can muster 100 hours or more in) isn't any worse. If GTA doesn't pull in an AO rating, what does?
The bigger question at hand, aside from the integrity of the ESRB, is whether it should be government regulated. Hilary Clinton, who failed to say anything about the game's violence content, has proposed fines for retailers, set up by legislation.
This is where things have gone to far. There's something obvious at work here. Parents in America, somewhere, have lost their touch. There are millions of fantastic, caring, and loving parents out there, raising their children properly. Unfortunately, it only takes a single lackluster one to start a debate after their children go on a shooting rampage. These parents are then lured in by video game chasing overpriced lawyers to sue the game companies, only to have the case tossed out of court (if you ever see Jack Thompson spouting off his same boring tirade on TV, that's exactly what he has done multiple times). It's that process that pulls in politicians and money-hungry lawyers, and scares parents all over this country.
All of this debate, and it's over one single game. There are thousands of video games out there, and it's completely irrelevant if GTA sells by the millions. That's a sign that three things are happening:
1. Gamers have grown up. Kids who grew up on Pac-Man have moved on.
2. GTA is the new scapegoat for an entire industry.
3. It's a scare tactic to earn voters trust and viewer ratings.
The only statement that is important is the first one. It's also the one TV news stations, politicians, and general media fail to mention. The recent presentation on World News Tonight about this mod didn't feature anyone involved in the game industry. It's a one sided war, and gamers are stuck, being forced to watch as their hobby is being shredded on the inside. If you're asking yourself why they're not putting up a fight, they have. There was a recent incident involving a gaming journalist being invited to a talk show, only to be ambushed with the violence debate.
If video game violence is such a concern, why are the opponents only fighting against one game? Why are they not going after God of War? It also features nudity and a sex scene, very early on, and it has the M rating. Should it have an AO rating? Possibly. There are problems here as well.
Retailers, like Wal Mart and Best Buy, refuse to carry games with the AO rating. It's hypocritical. Close to or directly in the same section, they offer unrated and NC-17 films. Why are they refusing to carry video games with the equivalent rating? Because of this absurd controversy, their PR departments don't want any part of it. In other words, if the media and certain politicians would stay out, there may not be any concern over the AO rating.
Does that mean the ESRB is doing something wrong? Should the AO be used currently? Does it show they're corrupt? No, they're not corrupt. They're protecting themselves and an industry. If that rating is handed out, the criticizers still will complain and debate, even louder this time. It turns into "Video game ratings too lenient" into "Video game ratings equal that of porn." The difference between the two ratings is negligible anyway. Is viewing a one-minute sex scene going to make an impact if you're 17 and not 18? No.
If the AO rating is put into play, should stores be fined for selling such an item to a minor? Again, the answer is no. The average retail employee is not responsible for what a child is purchasing. The guardian of the child is. Fining a retailer for selling a violent video game to your child is not the fault of Best Buy, it's is YOUR FAULT as a parent. If you are completely unaware of where your child is, especially with $50 in his pocket, why is the store being blamed? How difficult is it to read the front of game box and look for a giant bold letter? Why is it impossible to simply sit down and discuss the differences between fantasy and reality with your children?
We live in a country where people are now consistently getting away with things, simply because they can blame it on something else. It's the easy way out. We are desperately in need of laws to make people responsible for themselves and their actions. If a 15-year old walks into a school and shoot his classmates, the person who pulled the trigger is responsible, no one else. If there is any other method of thinking here, it's one that breaks the most common laws of sense.
So, if you're reading this, and you're agreeing with Mr. Lee or the former First Lady or Jack Thompson, stop. Re-read this piece. Understand what's going on here. It's about so much more than a video game. It's a very long, drawn out process of censorship. I've been writing on the video game violence debate for roughly seven years now. They haven't, and besides the president's wife, you likely never heard of any of them before Grand Theft Auto.