The purpose of a rating system is ostensibly to provide the market a useful means of distinguishing different grades of a product. They’re also often used to endorse products whose creation or delivery conforms to certain standards of practice. For the more cynically minded, they can be effective public relations tools whose existence preempts efforts by other groups to exert control on an industry.
Cynically or otherwise, the ESRB has fallen down in each of these functions. At the outset it’s only fair to recognize that any system that tries to rate games at this point has a Herculean, though not Sisyphean, task. The primary challenge is the fact that videogames, qua model-based communication, are the utterly new kid on the cultural block.
In any event, the ESRB is certainly not without a system for distinguishing grades of its product. The organization proudly boasts of its 30+ content descriptors. There are five kinds of ‘blood’ content alone, including ‘mild animated blood,’ ‘animated blood,’ ‘blood,’ ‘mild blood,’ and ‘blood and gore,’ and there are no fewer than seven kinds of ‘violence’ in general.
But the ratings system, as it stands, is surely a case of ‘more is less.’ What is the point of having a system that requires consumers to be fluent in so many subtle and often arbitrary distinctions? One of the fundamental flaws of the ESRB system, and why I believe it is so vulnerable to attack, for example, is not that it doesn’t do it’s job, but, really, that it makes little sense. And its lack of coherence makes the whole thing seem ginned up.
The ESRB is also misguided in its steadfast attempts to rate videogames just as if they were television or movies. Videogames are simply a different medium. The strategy of rating ‘content,’ for example, while it works creakingly for more traditional media is not sufficient for videogames. No matter how many content descriptors the ESRB comes up with, until they are able to give consumers a sense of things like the relative frequency or repetition of violence, whether violence is required in order to complete the game and whether violence is committed against the player, by the player or in non-interactive elements, the ratings system will always be lacking.
An example is that you could simply play Deux EX and finish the game without even unholstering your weapon. But of course you wouldn't have access to all violence that the game has to offer.
And though I’m going to be completely reduced to a mess of carbon ash and caramelized fat for saying this, I find it alarming that the ESRB does not bother to base its ratings on the entire experience of playing a game, instead relying far too much on submitted clips—not even complete gameplay run-throughs, mind you. Even if you think the idea is unnecessary or even absurd, there’s no getting around that failing to do so lends an impression of incompleteness and an ad hoc quality to the system that invites skepticism. It’s like rating movies based on storyboards.
The ESRB’s content-driven system also neglects to address what is becoming both the great boon and bane for videogames in society, namely what kind of skills players can acquire from different kinds of game. Consider Grand Theft Auto III and Full Spectrum Warrior, for example. Both games are rated ‘M’ for ‘Mature.’ ‘Hot Coffee’ nonsense aside, there are really no ‘skills’ related to carjacking, abusing sex workers and causing astonishing levels of property destruction that a player can plausibly said to acquire in the Rockstar opus that caused so many in the industry to turn on the studio.
Full Spectrum Warrior, however, received no such treatment, despite being built very closely from software commissioned by the military to teach squad-level tactical combat to soldiers. It is designed to teach players things like how to flush occupants out of multi-story buildings, stack fire, and set up kill zones.
While each game was appropriately rated ‘M,’ and both games were masterful in their own right, the ESRB system has no way to deal with differences of the sort just mentioned. And, again, that’s because the system is geared to mimic systems used for other media.
Look at this picture:
Thats one more of ERSB mistakes: Dog’s Life
In fact, the entire continent of Europe will agrees with me. Instead of the ESRB, Europe uses PEGI, (Pan-European Game Information), and if you compare the North American box and the European box side-by-side, you'll notice that while the North American version (left) has a "T" rating, the European version (right) is rated "3+".
Why the 10-year discrepancy? What did the ESRB see that’s so harmful for North American children under the age of 13? What did they see that an entire continent missed? Are Europeans born with a 10-year head start on Norteamericanos in terms of maturity? No, that couldn’t possibly be the answer... right? ;o)
Could it be that the main character says "that sucks" a few times (I'd rather he didn't, but I just explain to the kids that it's not a nice way to talk)? The dognapping, perhaps? Or maybe the dreaded "running of the rodents?"
The likely truth is as funny as it is pathetic. My educated guess (based partly on remarks made by a Sony Europe exec at an E3 marketing conference panel) is that it the T rating is a result of simple potty humor. You see, Jake has the ability to perform bodily functions - pooping & farting - on cue. Horror of horrors!
If you don’t want your kids to play any dog-pooping games, that's certainly your parental prerogative. But kids think it's hilarious, and it’s all good, clean... er... well, it’s good fun anyway. In addition, the pooping isn't completely arbitrary. You can only make Jake "do his bidness" after he's eaten. If that ain’t edutainment, I don’t know what is.
All left for me is to repeat what was said on the Tenth Annual MediaWise® Video Game Report Card
"After years of criticizing the ESRB ratings and calling for improvement and overhaul of the system, we have come to the conclusion that the system itself is beyond repair. The system supposedly put in place to keep killographic games out of the hands of kids seems to often produce the opposite results."
"Chile is a thin and tall country"