Crispy Gamer

GamerParenting: Ridin' Fences


At we?ve always tried to "go beyond the ESRB" -- meaning, we review a game and then break down the ESRB ratings descriptors to try and figure out, and tell parents, what "Mild Sexual Content" or "Cartoon Violence" actually means in the context of this particular game. In Mass Effect it means a fairly chaste love scene involving an alien (if you want) or even an alien of the same gender. (Is it homosexuality if the species are different? Do I want to know the answer to that question?) We figured parents needed to know this stuff and there just isn?t room on the back of a game box for the ESRB to make lists of specific content. Good ideas get copied, so I wasn?t surprised when Common Sense Media launched and started doing the same thing.

So you might say, for the past five years I?ve been judging the ESRB judges -- trying to pierce the veil of secrecy to figure out what the heck in Halo 3 merits an M rating (it appears to mainly hinge on the horrific Flood, if you?re curious), or why Call of Duty 4 is rated Mature while the first three were rated Teen (it could be the modern setting or it could be the missions based on reality, like the one where you drop ordinance on little green and white people from above), or why Super Smash Bros. Brawl is rated Teen -- and not E10+. Wouldn?t you think E10+ was created just for games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Well I sure would, and I?m supposed to be an expert!

So why does this happen? Actually it?s amazing it doesn?t happen more often. The ESRB is shrouded in secrecy but it?s also remarkably consistent. In five years and about 1,200 game reviews at GamerDad, I?ve disagreed with their rating only four times:

1. I think Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3 should be rated T-Teen. Here?s why.

2. I thought Oblivion should have been rated M even before that stupid nude patch controversy started.

3. Super Smash Bros. Brawl should be E-10.

4. I think Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas should have STAYED M despite the "Hot Coffee" controversy. I won?t rehash that nightmare but even if that hidden (orphaned) code wasn?t hidden, that sex game was pretty inoffensive and I think the fact that the game had a "Strong Sexual Content" descriptor meant that content was covered. The ESRB did have the right to punish Rockstar for making them look foolish, but the AO retail kiss of death was a bad compromise if you ask me.

Four times (five if you allow that Halo 2 was released during this period) out of 1,200 reviews. It sounds like the ESRB does a good and very consistent job overall, doesn?t it?

For conscientious parents -- and all of you are conscientious parents, right? -- these are the games in question. These are the games that give us fits. See, Manhunt 2 isn?t the problem. Manhunt 2 IS exactly what it looks like. Parents can judge this game by its cover and then move along -- nothing you want your kids to see here. That?s why I found the "Save the Children" reaction from the mainstream press, parents groups like the Parents Television Council, Parents for an Ad Free Childhood, and -- disappointingly -- Common Sense Media, so very frustrating.

These are what I like to call "fence" games. These are games that have a few features that are M-Mature but they are nothing like the Adult Only-rated poster-children (Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, etc.). Halo 3 contains horror (the Flood), but it?s the kind of horror found in PG-13 movies or in television shows rated TV-14. It has blood and gore, but again, it?s the kind of blood and gore found in movies, on TV and even games cleared by their respective ratings boards as safe for teenagers. It lets you kill other humans, even with a knife, and does so with a little bit of blood. Or, the same amount of blood that's in your average T-rated shooter.

The T-Teen fence is best exemplified by the Medal of Honor series, but any shooter rated T fits. These games feature minimal blood and gore, the kind found in movies and TV cleared by their respective ratings boards as safe for teens. They let you kill other humans, even with a knife, and sometimes contain horror. The degree is minimal, but something we?ve never been able to put our fingers on puts some of these titles in the M-Mature range.

The SingStar games (and Rock Band and Guitar Hero) are perfect for roughly nine or 10 and up, but these games are on the fence and deemed T-Teen because of the lyrics -- which any kid can hear on the radio or MTV (does MTV still play videos? I?m too old to care). Let's face it, with the prevalence of rap and metal in your MP3 collection, your iPod would be rated M-Mature by the ESRB. So, because of lyrics like "I Touch Myself" these games are out of reach to an audience that is perfect for them.

Then there are recent series like Syphon Filter, which omits the blood in the latest version. Suddenly an M-rated series is okay for kids? Heavenly Sword, a game that features an impossibly buxom woman with two swords killing a lot of creatures is rated T-Teen. There are countless examples.

Remember, we?re not talking about babes in the woods, here. If your teen is exposed to words like "damn" and even "shit" for the first time in a videogame, then you?re raising a very secluded and naive child. Fourteen is high-school age. They aren?t adults; they should be protected from the more vile and disturbing -- adult -- stuff out there. But they shouldn?t be overly sheltered. Recommending the content in Halo 3 to a teen seems to me, and many others, to be fine.

Despite what and Jack Thompson would like you to believe, that?s the real controversy in game ratings today -- as far as parents are concerned. It?s not Manhunt 2 -- that?s just what the pundits are jawing about. Parents are grappling with Halo 3, Heavenly Sword, SingStar, Rock Band, Medal of Honor -- games like them, with their confusing "fence" ratings.

How to solve this? Another rating, I?m afraid. 15+ would be good. We could put the lighter shooters there and save the M-rating for the Manhunts, Grand Theft Autos, Silent Hills, and "Resident of Evil Creek" games out there (if you get that joke, you might be a hardcore gamerparent).

That?s what GamerParenting is all about: making informed decisions. The ESRB does a wonderful job, but when it comes to these, our judgment of their efficacy is "on the fence."