Thursday, October 25, 2012

About the ESRB....

When I got my Nintendo 64 it came with three games, two I won't mention here because they're irrelevant, but the third is, it was called Mace: The Dark Age and it was rated M For Mature, ages 17 and over.
Well because of the time period it was made in naturally I knew it couldn't be as realistic as it would have to be to earn its M rating, so I stuck it in and played it for a bit.
When I was done, I felt a little odd. The ratings board, which parents, stores, gamers and reviewers put so much stock in to keep certain content out of the hands of children had gotten something wrong, the game didn't deserve its M rating, it didn't even deserve a T rating, the pixels that made up the blood were the size of dimes, and the characters barely looked human in the combat arena (not counting the hell-knight, which doesn't look human at all) and the "heads on spikes" looked.... Like pictures that had been dropped in front of spikes and had red confetti thrown about. I cross-referenced the ESRB website to see if they had updated the rating for modern standards but they hadn't.
A few months later I got Rogue Squadron for my N64 because I had heard good things about it, I played it and found that I liked it. Again, the ESRB had gotten the rating wrong, it was rated T for ages 13 and up, but nowadays it'd probably be rated E or E10+, when I cross-referenced again with the ESRB site I found that they hadn't updated the rating for modern standards for it either.
Sometime after that I read about the "Hot coffee" patch for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and how the ESRB had upgraded it from an M rating to an AO18+ rating (which meant that almost all stores pulled it from the shelves), and then back to M when Rockstar removed the content from all future discs and made a patch that crashed the game if you tried to use the patch that was used to access the content and "Mini-game" I wondered how they had let that slip through, surely they must decompile the games to see if this exists right?
Fast forward two years, I had already played Goldeneye Reloaded on my Wii and wanted to see about an FPS I had read about in some old Nintendo Powers called Perfect Dark. At that time I had begun to not trust the ESRB ratings, but I checked out the website entry for it anyways, and found it was rated M. In Nintendo Power they said it had earned its M rating because it had swearing and blood in it. I convinced my parents that it wasn't that bad that the M rating was genuinely needed, and bought it. I played it for a bit and made a few comments on how unrealistic it was while I was playing it. Again, the blood was pixelated and the swearing was cleaner than you'd see on prime-time TV, nothing graphic, nothing that'd be censored on network television nowadays. At that point I figured out that in that time-period the ESRB must have either been on the take or completely and totally incompetent. Later on I played DooM, a game that has been given an M rating for nearly every release and re-release it's seen and I just....
It's even MORE unrealistic than Perfect Dark, it PALES in comparison in every way to modern FPS, which makes me wonder why they go by the original rating even with the datedness of it, DooM wouldn't scare a five year old, much less a teenager, so why don't they at least downgrade the rating to T?

It was at this point I found out that the ESRB doesn't play the games the rate, nor do they root around in the files to see what unused code and content is left from development that the devs were too lazy to delete, and therefore gets encoded into every copy of the game that is made from the master copy, they watch gameplay footage and cut-scenes from the game, and don't bother doing anything that might actually make for an accurate rating, more like one that hits in the general area. If they played it through, got people with experience to play them instead of a randomly assigned panel the five, and did a decompile to see what remnants are there from the development and maybe even play the beta/debug versions to see what was on there they might be able to get a more accurate rating on the games.

A while later I bought Devil May Cry 2 and by that time I was completely disregarding ratings on games. I played it a bit, saw the warning on the intro and found, that even though it warned of "Explicit scenes of blood and violence" that the blood was mostly blue (or purple, or pretty much nothing resembling red) and that that the blood and bodies vanished after the creatures were defeated. There was almost no level of realism to the game, for instance the guns have unlimited ammo, and Dante can leap off of buildings of any height and survive (which is more reminiscent of a Sonic game than anything ultra-real) and get hit square in the chest with almost anything and (as long the the vitality meter is fairly high) survive, and that he has gold orbs that can bring him back to life. They really don't have a good sense of the word "realism" do they?

At this point I consider ESRB ratings more of suggestions than rules, I don't know about the CERO, PEGI or other systems, but in my opinion the ESRB has absolutely no clue as to what they're doing, they over-rate some games and under-rate others (which is what led me to think they might have been on the take) but seeing as their process is so sloppy as to let things like the Hot-Coffee content through and to rate The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion T and then to re-rate it as M due to previously hidden content (with both sexual and overly bloody and violent content enabled by the aftermarket patch) Now, Bethesda didn't disclose the fact that the content was there but the ESRB didn't play the game to find out for themselves (nor did they re-re-rate the game as they did with GTA:SA when the anti-mod patch was released) which, although Bethesda should have come forth about the restricted content on the disc, does in no way excuse the ESRB for not putting more work into rating research, if they put more work into it, they might not get their accuracy questioned so much, and there would have been no fallout. Within that statement lies a question, should the ESRB put more work into rating the games they screen? In my opinion yeah, they need to at least put as much work into rating the games as the gamers put in playing. Some might bring up the Skyrim mods, or other user-generated content, but the ESRB has already said that it will only rate what is on the disc and in the expansions made by the company that made the game. Now, the ESRB isn't as dumb as it seems, they DID tighten their standards after both the Hot-Coffee and Oblivion incidents, but if they'd had a better system in the first place, they might have never lost face and I might still put stock in their ratings.
That's not to say you SHOULD disregard the ratings, like I said, they're usually right within one rating level, but that's not saying you should pay TOO close attention to what they rate games, especially ones older than ten years. Times and standards change, and so should the ratings, not just for games, but also for old movies and TV shows, the ratings should reflect modern standards, not the standards of the past. Most old movies would be rated G or PG but seeing as before a certain point they used an arbitrary system or no system at all the information to reflect against modern standards SHOULD exist. Perfect Dark and Goldeneye Reloaded should be rated the same by modern standards, and Rogue Squadron should be rated at maximum E10+. The ESRB may have its standards for rating new games, but they didn't bother updating the old ratings. DooM remains its old spritey self in every release it's had and that just seems lazy not to update the ratings. Seeing as open-source and community projects are coming to the fore-front it might be prudent to start a community ratings board based on the experience the players had with the game and what content the hacking and modding community found within the game.