ESRB: 10 Years Later (Part 2)

PART 2: ESRB vs. MPAA

Upon its creation, the ESRB faced inevitable comparisons to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). While these comparisons arise simply due to the similar nature of these two entities, they are not as closely aligned as one might think.


The MPAA
The MPAA states that its original purpose was to “stem the waves of criticism of American movies… and to restore a more favorable public image for the motion picture business.” (http://www.mpaa.org/about/) The group was created in 1922 to carry out this task. The job of the original MPAA was made tougher by the simple fact that there was nothing to compare movies to. An incendiary movie, argued people of the time, was as deplorable as an actual incendiary act.

One of the MPAA’s most successful early attempts at regulating the movie industry became known as The Hays Production Code. Rather than rating movies, this set of rules, which was based on The Ten Commandments, sought to give guidelines as to what was acceptable. For example, mischievous deeds performed in movies could not go unpunished. This code lasted until the 1960’s, when society’s entire infrastructure was thrown for a loop. Suddenly, the word of the MPAA mattered little to ambitious film developers who sought to push the envelope in every way possible.

To respond to this, the MPAA brought in Jack Valenti as President to bring order back to the movie industry. Valenti responded by introducing the “modern” system of motion picture ratings in 1968. Rather than censor, these ratings allowed filmmakers the freedom to create any kind of content they would like – provided they didn’t mind getting a more restrictive rating as a result. Over the last 36 years, adding sub-groups and rating qualifiers, which better educate parents about the contents of a given movie, have refined the system.

Just the same, over those 36 years, the role of the MPAA has changed – its main goal now is to inform parents. Says Joseph Valenti, “If parents don’t care, or if they are languid in guiding their children’s moviegoing, the ratings system becomes useless.” However, the ratings aren’t useless to movie studios, which often see a rating as more than just a letter.

Ratings And Marketing
Motion picture ratings can often be used as a marketing tool. This is one area where the products of the MPAA and ESRB differ greatly. The MPAA’s former rating of X was a self-applicable label that came to conjure images of a most raunchy and sleazy nature in the minds of viewers. Reacting to this paradigm shift, the MPAA replaced the fledgling label with the more politically correct NC-17 rating. The ESRB’s equivalent of this, AO (Adults Only), has yet to be similarly tested, if only because of the lack of AO releases to date.

Movie producers are notorious for using the MPAA ratings system to their advantage. Often, movies that receive unfavorable ratings upon first submission are edited so that the movie might get the desired rating. That rating depends on the movie. Sometimes, a studio will want a more accessible rating, like a PG-13 to attract the teen crowd. Other times, an R rating is desired so that fans of a particular genre (i.e. horror) know that the movie has a high level of the material they desire. In the end, the rating becomes what the studio wants it to be – even if that means leaving some of the movie on the cutting room floor.

Has this phenomenon manifested itself in the gaming industry yet? Not exactly, says Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB. Says Vance, “There’s always going to be an aspirational quality to entertainment when it comes to kids – kids are going to want to be playing the games the older kids are playing. But, the older kids are playing E games half the time.” And despite what conservative social commentators might have you believe, this is the truth. All sports games based on professional leagues, including the Madden series, come with an E rating. For every game like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that takes up shelf space in a teenager’s game collection, there’s at least one game like Gran Turismo or Tiger Woods Golf that anyone can play.

Granted, the game industry has had only ten years to exploit the ratings system and use it to its advantage, but it hasn’t happened yet. It took time for movie studios to realize what ratings could do for their motion pictures, just like it took time for the MPAA’s system to gain the credibility needed to become such an important part of the movie industry. In ten years, we may see a situation where video game ratings, like movie ratings, become more than just a tool to educate parents. However, that date has not arrived yet.

Ratings Creep
If you’ve ever watched a movie from 2004 and compared it to a movie that was released with the same rating in 1994, you might notice some differences. Movies today are far more sexually explicit and have come to leave much less to the imagination. The gradual lessening of acceptability standards in society has resulted in the lessening of acceptability standards in movie ratings, a notion defined by “ratings creep”.

An example of ratings creep is a movie that was rated PG-13 upon release, but could pass for PG today. According to Kimberly Thompson at the Harvard School of Public Health, ratings creep is a force to be reckoned with in the movie industry. In a July 2004 press release, Thompson states, “Today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex, and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago.” (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/press07132004.html)

Is this the MPAA’s fault? That’s tough to say. The MPAA isn’t the group that has decided that the average television commercial must contain at least one instance of sexual innuendo, and you can’t blame the MPAA for the creation of a society where 12-year olds dress as if they’re 22. All the MPAA – and the ESRB, for that matter – can do is rate by the standards of the society in which America’s parents live.


“I’m not an expert on other systems, but I do know ours – and I can tell you that our criteria hasn’t changed.” – Patricia Vance, ESRB President

As for ratings creep and the ESRB, it’s a different story, simply because the ESRB hasn’t been around long enough to experience ratings creep on the scale of the MPAA. While a game like Night Trap might not be an automatic M in 2004, odds are good that it would receive it anyway. As Ms. Vance says, “I’m not an expert on other systems, but I do know ours – and I can tell you that our criteria hasn’t changed.”

For proof of this, look at the Tony Hawk series. The original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in 1999 with an E rating. As the series gained notoriety and began to explore more “edgy” content, the game was rated more restrictively. In fact, each title in the series has come with more content descriptors than the title before it. Compare this to the movie world, where sequels often attempt to receive the same rating as the rest of the series so as to accommodate longtime viewers of the franchise.

Who Has The Tougher Job?
Obviously, the MPAA decides who gets to see a movie and who doesn’t. Like the ESRB, its role is not to censor, but to prohibit questionable material from those who are simply not ready to view it. However, there are two major intangibles that apply to video games that do not apply to movies. For this example, we will use a game and a movie that have often been lumped together and have some striking similarities – the motion picture Scarface, and the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Control. Comparisons have long been made between Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and the movie Scarface, all of them valid. However, to compare the two without accounting for the issue of control is to miss the point completely. A 10-year old might be able to watch Scarface without incident and without parental concern about the future welfare of the child. If that same 10-year old were to play Vice City extensively, it would be a different story entirely. This child is now controlling the action and seeing first-hand the consequences of the actions he/she is performing. This type of conditioning is far more powerful than simply viewing a film. When control is involved, much more discretion must be applied. After all, behavior is learned by example.

Length. The average movie holds the imagination of the viewer for 90-120 minutes. A highly involved game can take over 50 hours of gameplay to complete. Video game raters are experienced parents, but not necessarily active gamers – in fact, the ESRB does not require gaming experience as a requisite for being a game rater. The rater must be able to correctly evaluate the impact of the gameplay; that is, the subject matter might be too heavy for a child. This is why many RPGs are rated T – because the games just cannot be completed by children under 13.

These two categories are the main differences between rating video games and movies and, by extension, the differences between the ESRB and the MPAA. Because of this, it’s not truly fair to classify the ESRB’s system as a “clone” of the MPAA’s system. Again, the influence is clear, but the end products are different. Just as movies and games are different, the MPAA and ESRB are different. Who has the tougher job? Who’s more effective? That’s up for debate. But you really can’t argue the relevance of either system or the influence they have.



PART 3: Parents of Today