In light of the recent developments involving the “Hot Coffee mod” making waves like a tsunami around the world, and the subsequent ‘call-to-action' by Senator Clinton (D-NY), I have to add my rant on the issue to the mix.
The current issue has to do with a modification that can be made to a game that has sold well over 12 million units since it first arrived in October last year. Supporters of the (M)ature-rated game—as determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)—claim that since the content must be unlocked by entering secret codes, not published by people responsible for the game, there has been no wrong-doing. Furthermore, because the resulting content that is unlocked contains a sexual mini-game with a fully-clothed central character, claims that the game is “pornographic may seem extreme to some.” [Source]
I believe those points are irrelevant, and only serve to skirt around the real problem.
Game developers include program code that must be unlocked with secret 'cheat' codes all the time. Doing so does not put that content into a different category than other content shipped with it on the game CD or DVD. Devices have existed on the market for years that are able to unlock that content for consumers. Game developers and publishers know this.
The ESRB is a games industry organization that exists to self-regulate and police the content that the industry publishes as a public service to the publishers, the retailers, and the consumers (includes parents). It can do its job and provide its services only when there is full disclosure of the nature of the content that is being shipped to consumers. Furthermore, consumers and parents can know what they are buying only when the ESRB is effective in rating the industry's content appropriately.
Without full disclosure, the ESRB risks damaging its credibility by rating products improperly. That is precisely the precarious position that Rockstar has put the ESRB in by withholding disclosure of the "hot coffee mod" from the board during its evaluation of the game. The US now awaits the ESRB's response.
What I would like to know is: Why aren't more games receiving an Adults Only rating?
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.
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.
While only 1 year of age separates the two very similar classifications, the fact is the board does not rate games as AO because those titles don't make the kind of money that M titles do. Statistics published by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) confirm this. In terms of computer and video game units sold in all of 2004, 16% were rated Mature while Adults Only titles accounted for less than 1% of sales. According to Dan Hewitt, Manager of Media Relations, Entertainment Software Association, "Major retailers don't sell AO-rated games. The market is extremely small and most are sold only online, which nobody has tracking data for."
The single most important problem about adult oriented content in video games is that the games continue to get into the hands of minors, according to the FTC in a report to congress last year:
- As part of an undercover survey of teens shopping for games, the FTC found that 69 percent of unaccompanied shoppers under 17 were able to buy an M-rated game at a retail outlet.
- The FTC also found that ads for M-rated games continue to appear in game enthusiast magazines popular with teens.
The controversial game mod is not an issue in the UK because the Brits have already given GTA: San Andreas a rating equivalent to that of an AO rating here.
The truth of the matter is, the current US ratings system is ineffective in keeping these violent and sexual games out of the hands of minors. Senator Clinton hopes to "put some teeth into video game ratings". This, of course, would be unnecessary if the ESRB were allowed to do its job.
I believe that the ESRB must act firmly against Rockstar for the offense, and voluntarily become more strict with their ratings, in general, if their self-regulating system is to mean anything in the future.
The blame is squarely with Rockstar and companies like them who continue to push the envelope of acceptable content while marketing and delivering it to an impressionable audience. The ESRB is also to blame for not handing out more Adults Only ratings to software that is clearly designed for adults.
CNN has also published an article today discussing this angle of the issue.
Raising awareness of violent and sexual material in games is one way to get the information to the parents, the ones who should be policing what their children are playing. Unfortunately, leaving it entirely up to the parents doesn't work either since there seem to be many parents out there that just don't care what their kids play. A more concerted effort across the board is obviously needed to help regulate the advertising and sale of these games. Senator Clinton's federal crime bill could eventually raise the stakes at the local retail store, as well as with the publishers who continuously produce these types of games.
In addition to the proposed legislation, more research is also needed into the long-term effects that violent and sexual material has on children. While a recent study at Indiana University School of Medicine shows that “playing violent video games triggers unusual brain activity among aggressive adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders,” it behooves us all to find and document the potentially damaging impact that these types of games have.