Video game content has been the subject of scrutiny since games first entered the home market, and retailers, consumers, and publishers alike have struggled to strike a balance between warning and restriction that suits the needs and wants of every party. Enter the ESRB.
The ESRB has been a major step forward for the industry. While its ratings are sometimes controversial, the fact that it’s self-regulated and not enforced by law but rather individual retailers means that publishers, retailers, and consumers all have their own role to play in deciding who should play what games.
But is the current status quo working? While the ESRB provides a good guideline, there are still young kids playing games with graphic violence and sexual content. Whose responsibility is it to ensure games with highly graphic content don’t fall into the hands of those who aren’t ready to play them? Does the fault rest squarely on parents, or is there more that the ESRB and Publishers could be doing?
How Much Responsibility Should Publishers Bear for Limiting Objectionable Content?
The easiest step to ensuring objectionable content doesn’t reach the eyes and ears of children would be to stop creating it. But such a solution would be highly objectionable—violence and sexual content have their place, and that place is in adult-oriented titles like Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat. To ban these elements outright would also constitute creative censorship, and set the medium back decades.
To another point, studies have repeatedly shown that the link between video games and committing violence is slim to nonexistent. Fewer studies have conclusively demonstrated the negative effects of playing games with sexual themes, though there may be some correlation between playing explicit games and the reinforcement of the sexual objectification of women. Still, when played responsibly, sexual and violent imagery doesn’t have to be harmful. Requiring all games to be accessible for children would eliminate some wonderful games from the market.
Essentially, eliminating the content itself is the wrong solution. While publishers and developers could probably handle explicit content with a little more care, eliminating it at the source won’t serve the industry any better.
The ESRB is a Guideline, Not a Law
The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is an incredibly useful organization to help parents decide whether the content of a game is appropriate for their child or not. Rather than being a government-mandated system, the ESRB is optional. The caveat is that games that are not rated by the ESRB, or that are rated “Adults Only,” are rarely carried in retail stores and tend to have a limited reach. But this is no longer much of a problem. The growing prevalence of online gaming and distribution means that games that once received an AO rating, such as Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Director’s Cut, can find an audience.
But that doesn’t mean it should be free of criticism. The ESRB has long been subject to scrutiny thanks to what seems to be an unbalanced view of sexual and violent content. The “Hot Coffee” debacle in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a perfect example. The game is incredibly violent, but it was the sex minigame, only available through a mod, that tipped it over into the Adults Only rating. Now the content is laughable, and later games in the series haven’t received the same treatment.
While the ESRB is a useful tool, it’s subjective. What’s considered inappropriate or obscene to one person is completely admissible to another. But that’s why they are merely guidelines; they’re meant to help consumers make an educated purchase, not to condemn or condone the content.
Parents Are the Last Line of Defense
Which brings us to the parental role. While it would be nice if games came with a content warning for each specific child, that’s not something we can count on. Some kids find graphic violence frightening while others don’t—these are judgments that have to be made on the part of the parent, not by publishers or the ESRB.
The best way to ensure that content is appropriate for your kids is to know and understand what your kids are playing. Rather than relying solely on the subjective, checklist ratings of the ESRB, parents should inform themselves about what their kids are up to—maybe even pick up a controller and experience the game content for themselves.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources for helping parents stay informed about games. Reading reviews is a great start, as they typically outline the content far more effectively than the little ESRB rating does.
There’s also pixelkin.org, a website focused on creating positive gaming relationships in the family. If your kids want to play but you’re unsure of where to find games that are appropriate for them, this website is the perfect tool to help you find a gaming experience that works for your family.
Regulating Content is a Balancing Act
The best way to ensure that objectionable content doesn’t reach kids is for all these resources to work together. Publishers don’t have to restrict the content they produce, but being thoughtful about the overuse of sexual objectification wouldn’t hurt.
The ESRB tends to paint with a broad brush and weigh sexual content more heavily than violent content, but it can be a good guideline for weighing whether a game is more appropriate at a glance.
Just like with film and literature, parental involvement is probably the biggest key to preventing young kids from being exposed to explicit adult themes. While many of us are doing just fine after playing hours upon hours of Mortal Kombat as kids, video game animation and violence are admittedly more sophisticated and life-like today, which parents should also keep in mind.