The ESRB and Grand Theft Auto: Round 50... or something around there

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 , it's an odd situation. The segment of the game causing the problems as of late cannot be accessed, in any form, without either a modification of the source code or without an external cheat device, as recently discovered. However, the content is on the retail copy of the disc. It was, obviously, never meant to occur through the course of normal play.

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.

Comments (10)

LKM:
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.

I agree with most of what you say. But not with this. The simple fact is that today, lots of children are raised by single parents. Even if they aren't, often, both parents are forced to work. This means that the kid is alone for quite a bit of the day.

Presumably, most children get pocket money. My mom always told me not to spend everything on sweets, but to try and save some. I guess most parents do that. It's quite possible for a kid to end up with 50 bucks of his own money, especially after his birthday or something similar.

So you have parents who can't possibly watch over their kids all day, and kids who have money. Obviously, those parents can't know what the children are buying and playing at home. I agree that parents are responsible for what their children turn into, but they need a little help, too. I really don't see the problem with keeping shops from selling violent games do children. You don't sell porn or booze to a 10 years old, why should he be allowed to buy, say, BMX XXX (just so we don't constantly talk about GTA)?

I like your story and I agree with a lot of your conclusions. Hillary Clinton is crying that this is hurting parents abilitiy to raise their kids, but any responsible parent wouldn't let their kid play the game in the first place. Rockstar does need to take responsibility for this though, because whether or not they condoned this, its in their game. Microsoft wouldn't get away with having an extra Windows exploit that an employee hid in there.

I do think stores should be responsible for upholding the ratings and not letting kids buy adult games. I think most of the major chains have it programmed into their registers anyway. It's just another defense for parents when their kids get older and try to sneak around them. Ultimately, though, a parent needs to know what their kid is up to.

Blame Canada!

Many stores do have their own individual policies. Whether or not the employees pay attention to them is the supposed problem.

As for LKM's assesment, if the government is so worried about these games entering into the hands of children, they should be doing something about the sad situation of two parents working. They should make it easier for them. They're not going to do that because that would make them look bad, because then they're supporting the "enemy." That's where the real problem is here. They should also be supporting the ESRB, even promoting it with the $90 million Hilary is blowing on research into this topic.

Besides, this is not a hard situation to pay attention to. If a single parent took three seconds out of their day to scan a childs game racks or sit down for a minute or two to watch them play, this isn't an issue anymore. The bigger problem is if the kid is influenced by the game, not so much that he plays it.

They're worried about them turning into "trained killers." You don't become a murderer because you play GTA, otherwise all of us would firing at each other. It has to do with their upbringing and how they're raised, their mental stability and such.

For instance, a kid just hanged himself after his mother took away his Playstation. What's the media do with the story? Use the games are addictive angle. Never mind the fact that the kid was under other emotional distress.

And video games do not have the harmful effects of alcohol and cigarettes. BMX XXX was already rated M. It's softcore. No one in the game is doing, well, you know what. It's just cheap nudity, and it's not even real. Same goes for GTA. If kids want porn, they'll hop on their PCs and track down real porn through Google, not buy GTA. The only reason a kid is going to know about this now is because of the controversey, when it shouldn't be there to begin with.

Ok, that's whole 'nother editorial... I'm out.

LKM:
As for LKM's assesment, if the government is so worried about these games entering into the hands of children, they should be doing something about the sad situation of two parents working.

Pray what, specifically, should they do? Force single parents to not work?

20 years ago, you might have had a point. Nowadays, not so much. Many women want to work, whether they need to or not. And many men aren't willing to stay at home. Are they bad parents? I don't think so. The social structures (day schools and similar things) allow for such a lifestyle. But the society needs to help these people. Not selling violent games to kids doesn't really seem like such a big thing to do for these parents.


Besides, this is not a hard situation to pay attention to. If a single parent took three seconds out of their day to scan a childs game racks or sit down for a minute or two to watch them play, this isn't an issue anymore.

Aw, come on, kids aren't stupid. They know their parents are going to take GTA away from them if they see it. So they're going to hide it under their mattress or whatnot.

I really don't understand why you're against this. It's not like I'm asking you to give up any of your personal freedoms. You want adults to be better parents, why don't you want to help them doing that?

Pray what, specifically, should they do? Force single parents to not work?... 20 years ago, you might have had a point. Nowadays, not so much. Many women want to work, whether they need to or not. And many men aren't willing to stay at home. Are they bad parents?

You're making excuses for them. Look, that's great that they want careers. I'm sorry if they need to work two jobs. You have a kid, you're agreeing to take on the extra responsibility. It's no ones fault but your own. If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be having children. Monitoring what they watch, play, and do is one of the most important things that's required of parent. This is a nation where people blame everything and everyone except themselves. It needs to stop, NOW. It's grown to absurd proportions.

Aw, come on, kids aren't stupid. They know their parents are going to take GTA away from them if they see it. So they're going to hide it under their mattress or whatnot.

I really don't understand why you're against this. It's not like I'm asking you to give up any of your personal freedoms. You want adults to be better parents, why don't you want to help them doing that?

And the parent can look under the matress. If a mother believes her child has a drug problem, is she not going to investigate when he/she is not around? Same goes for violent games. Maybe they could actually *gasp!* discuss the games they play, or is that asking too much?

Like I said up there, retailers are not parents. They didn't make a choice to be. They are not the ones who should face the biggest responsibility, hefty fines and job loss. It's a scapegoat.

With all of this controversey, with all the fliers, with all of the magazine ads, with all of the commercials, the parents who care enough to know about the ESRB follow it. The ones that don't still won't care, yet people could lose their jobs. We're not talking about selling a 9-year old alcohol or guns which can/will have detremental effects on their health, or even cause death. We're talking about an entertainment medium, nothing more, nothing less.

LKM:
Many women want to work, whether they need to or not. And many men aren't willing to stay at home. Are they bad parents?
You're making excuses for them.

Yeah, of course, because you're too hard on them. You can't seriously expect parents to constantly control everything their kids do. Nor would that be a good idea, because you want kids who can make decisions independently from their parents. Maybe I'm not quite getting what exactly you want parents to do. Keep watch over their children all the time? Implant GPS sensors so they know when their children were at the store and can interrogate them to find out what they bought?


Look, that's great that they want careers. I'm sorry if they need to work two jobs. You have a kid, you're agreeing to take on the extra responsibility. It's no ones fault but your own. If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be having children. Monitoring what they watch, play, and do is one of the most important things that's required of parent. This is a nation where people blame everything and everyone except themselves. It needs to stop, NOW. It's grown to absurd proportions.

Yeah, but you're going in the other direction so far that it's equally absurd.


Aw, come on, kids aren't stupid. They know their parents are going to take GTA away from them if they see it. So they're going to hide it under their mattress or whatnot.
And the parent can look under the matress.

Yep, that's a good idea. Shows how much you trust your kid. I'm sure these are going to be great kids.

Besides, even if you were to do that, the kid would just find another hiding place. Or store it at a friend's place, where mom can't go look.


If a mother believes her child has a drug problem, is she not going to investigate when he/she is not around?

So now you are comparing games to drugs :-)

If a kid has a drug problem, it ususally becomes obvious pretty quickly. If a kid is playing violent games all day, well, not so much.


Same goes for violent games. Maybe they could actually *gasp!* discuss the games they play, or is that asking too much?

How can she (or he, for that matter) do that if she doesn't know what her kids play because you want stores to be able to sell kids whatever game they want without their parents knowing?


I really don't understand why you're against this. It's not like I'm asking you to give up any of your personal freedoms. You want adults to be better parents, why don't you want to help them doing that?
Like I said up there, retailers are not parents.

Nor would they become parents. They didn't become parents when they stopped selling booze to kids. They didn't become parents when they stopped selling pr0n to kids. Why should they become parents when they stop selling violent games to kids?


They didn't make a choice to be.

Yeah, because it's not their job to make that choice. It's the legislator's. If it were legal and would make them money, most shops would sell crack to kids. Doesn't mean it's a good idea.


They are not the ones who should face the biggest responsibility, hefty fines and job loss.

And they won't, because all they have to do is not sell violent games to kids. It's not rocket science. It's being done already for all kinds of goods. There are no hefty fines and job losses because shops can't sell jack daniels to 10-year-olds.


With all of this controversey, with all the fliers, with all of the magazine ads, with all of the commercials, the parents who care enough to know about the ESRB follow it.

But that's the whole point! How can parents follow the ratings if their kids can go to a store after school, buy GTA, hide it in their tree house and play it if parents aren't around?


The ones that don't still won't care, yet people could lose their jobs. We're not talking about selling a 9-year old alcohol or guns which can/will have detremental effects on their health, or even cause death. We're talking about an entertainment medium, nothing more, nothing less.

We already had the discussion about the effects of these games. We disagree, but it doesn't matter. The tobacco companies claimed for decades that smoking isn't bad for your health and won't make you addicted, it's just entertainment. Movies are just entertainment, too, but we don't let 5-year-olds watch "evil dead".

There's really no reason why stores can't stop selling violent games to kids. It's not hard. It won't cost anyone any jobs, and there won't be any fines, because it's easy to do. Stores won't become parents if they do it, they'll just help the parents do their jobs. If a parent decides that his kid should play GTA, great, he can go to a game shop and buy it. But unlike now, he has to make the decision.

This will help adults be better parents, and it will give them more responsibility, not take it away from them.

Yeah, of course, because you're too hard on them. You can't seriously expect parents to constantly control everything their kids do.

I never said control. Monitor, big difference. And it's not being too hard on them to ask them to do the most basic, common sense, important job they need to do. I don't care about your career. If it's so important to them, they should have probably considered not having a kid in the first place. No one is forcing them to have a child. Doing so is a parents choice, and of course in some cases not. That doesn't excuse them from a basic responsiblity.

Yep, that's a good idea. Shows how much you trust your kid. I'm sure these are going to be great kids.

Besides, even if you were to do that, the kid would just find another hiding place. Or store it at a friend's place, where mom can't go look.

What, if you think your kid is smoking crack you're not going to be sure before accusing him/her? What kind of parent would you be?

Kids will always hide something from parents. It's their way, and I'm sure you did as a kid just like I did. Still, there will be times when he needs to play the games. Looking at a screen and asking what they're playing is not hard. The Xbox even has ESRB locks (and I thought the PS2 did too, but I think I'm wrong now about it).

How can she (or he, for that matter) do that if she doesn't know what her kids play because you want stores to be able to sell kids whatever game they want without their parents knowing?

Because it's not hard to track a 10-year old's funds. My mom knew where every cent I had was and what I did with it. If your kid has $50 to blow, you should be with them when they spend it.

Yeah, but you're going in the other direction so far that it's equally absurd.

Yes, it's oh so absurd to ask someone to take responsibility for something that's their fault.

*end sarcasm*

Nor would they become parents. They didn't become parents when they stopped selling booze to kids. They didn't become parents when they stopped selling pr0n to kids. Why should they become parents when they stop selling violent games to kids?

Games aren't real life. They're an entertainment medium.

Yeah, because it's not their job to make that choice. It's the legislator's.

Out of all the comments made since you showed up here and we started up (and we would have one hell of a debate), this one ticks me off the most. There is NO place for any type of regulation against games, the same way there isn't for movie, comics, etc. Political bickering should not be involved here.

If it were legal and would make them money, most shops would sell crack to kids. Doesn't mean it's a good idea.

No ill side effects on video games, but, we've been there once, and if you need a refreseher on my thoughts, you know where to look. =;)

There are no hefty fines and job losses because shops can't sell jack daniels to 10-year-olds.

Of course not, but even 10-year olds know alcohol isn't for them, whether or not a parent tells them or not. If games are suddenly government regulated, which is the worst possible scenario, you really believe millions of retail employees, even with training, won't make the mistake?

It's one thing to lose a job for making a kid drunk. It's another to sell them a video game, but that takes up back to the previous piece.

But that's the whole point! How can parents follow the ratings if their kids can go to a store after school, buy GTA, hide it in their tree house and play it if parents aren't around?

As I said above, kids always hide stuff. There will always be things they get past their parents. We both did. That's why it's not just important to monitor them, but they need discussion. The whole fantasy/real life talk is perfect here. That covers video games and movies nicely.

It's not hard

Neither is having a basic conversation with a child, but how often does that happen nowadays?

We wouldn't be having this discussion if the central problem was fixed. Again, if our politicians are actually worried about this, they should find a way to fix the problem where it starts. They won't; that's not going to win them voters. It will make them look bad to a bigger voting demographic. That's what this is really all about.

LKM:

It's quite obvious that we're not going to agree, but I must say that I find your opinion on this matter particularly weird. The idea that parents shouldn't be working would have been acceptable 20 years ago. Even if you think this to be the case, it's very obvious that it's simply not going to happen.

You think parents should search their children's rooms, and that they should track all their expenses, but frankly, parents who do that are not good parents in my book. I would want my children to take on responsibility of their own, without me keeping constant track of what they do. I would want my kids to know that I trust them.

I still don't understand why it's so bad if shops don't sell violent games to kids. You don't perchance work in a video game store, do you?

Still, I want to specifically address one point you made:

Yeah, because it's not their job to make that choice. It's the legislator's.
Out of all the comments made since you showed up here and we started up (and we would have one hell of a debate), this one ticks me off the most. There is NO place for any type of regulation against games, the same way there isn't for movie, comics, etc. Political bickering should not be involved here.

That's an interesting reaction, and it's something that is very typical of Americans. Many or even most Americans don't trust the politicians which they have elected. Or maybe they don't vote at all. "Political bickering"? You voted these people into their jobs. If you didn't vote, it's your fault that the people you want to get elected didn't get these jobs. Either way, the job of these people is to enact new laws. Again: that is their job. They look at the issues people think need to be changed - whether it's just perception or reality. Then, they talk to all parties involved. Then, they try to create some kind of law to fix the issue. Nothing is exempt from this. Not games, not movies, not comics. Most people think that children shouldn't be allowed to watch porn, so there's a law that says you can't sell porn to kids. Most people seem to think that you shouldn't sell violent games to kids, so there will eventually be a law to govern this.

It's not the retailer's choice to make, and the reason for this is simple: Retailers represent their shareholders. They want to maximise their profits. Politicians, on the other hand, represent (well, should represent) the people who voted for them. They represent society as a whole. That's what gives them the right to enact new laws governing these things.

If you think there shouldn't be such a law, you should vote for people who are against these laws. You should write to your representatives explaining them why laws are bad. You should start a group, or you could give money to an existing group who is against such laws. But simply saying "There is no place for regulation against games" isn't only wrong, it's useless.

Right now, christian fundamentalists have a huge influence on American politics. That's why issues like this get so much mindshare. Obviously, we both agree that this is wrong, but it's not the politicians' fault. They are simply doing their jobs.


Anyway, two more points :-)

Neither is having a basic conversation with a child, but how often does that happen nowadays?

Definitely more often if parents were forced to make a conscious choice regarding what their children are allowed to play.


We wouldn't be having this discussion if the central problem was fixed. Again, if our politicians are actually worried about this, they should find a way to fix the problem where it starts. They won't; that's not going to win them voters. It will make them look bad to a bigger voting demographic. That's what this is really all about.

You're right, they won't fix the parents. They can't fix the parents. So why not settle with the second best option? Forcing parents to look at what their children play seems better than not doing anything. It also helps the gaming industry if they can say that they didn't sell any of these games to kids, that the kids' parents made that choice.

It's quite obvious that we're not going to agree

You expected us to? =;)

The idea that parents shouldn't be working would have been acceptable 20 years ago. Even if you think this to be the case, it's very obvious that it's simply not going to happen.

I never said they shouldn't work. I said working doesn't excuse them from their parenting responsibilities. And if they want to work, want to have a career, they need to be sure they can do that and still raise a child. Some parents have no problem handling that.

You think parents should search their children's rooms, and that they should track all their expenses, but frankly, parents who do that are not good parents in my book. I would want my children to take on responsibility of their own...

Because an 8 year old is perfectly capable of raising themselves. *end sarcasm*

They need that type of strict supervision, and with it, a kid is going to be less inclined to pull something.

You don't perchance work in a video game store, do you?

In the past, long before this became such an issue.

You voted these people into their jobs. If you didn't vote, it's your fault that the people you want to get elected didn't get these job

The day a politician comes out and says he won't regulate games sales because they shouldn't, I'll vote him into office.

Most people seem to think that you shouldn't sell violent games to kids, so there will eventually be a law to govern this.

Never happen, no matter what they want. If movies, books, and TV aren't regulated, there's no way they'll make one for games.

Definitely more often if parents were forced to make a conscious choice regarding what their children are allowed to play.

If they're not doing that now, they shouldn't have a kid.

You're right, they won't fix the parents. They can't fix the parents

Of course they can't. They can inform them. They can support the ESRB. They can support the MPAA (like they did years ago). That's not going to make them look good. Their job, like you said, is NOT to put in laws they feel are neccesary, but to become re-elected. They'll say they support any hot topic to look good. That's far more dangerous than profit margins.

LKM:

I think the main disagreement lies in this point:

If they're not doing that now, they shouldn't have a kid.

I think it's obvious that this is not going to happen. Stupid people are going to have kids. This is why I think we should force them to look at what their children play. If we do that, it'll make sure that they can't blame the video game industry if their kids turn out to be crooks.

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