California State Senator Leland Yee (D) continued his defence of his bill that is up before the Supreme Court of the United States by slamming the organization that currently acts as the regulatory arm of the industry. In an interview with Gamespot, he implied that there is a conflict of interest involved that requires the government step in for the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
GS: Now I know you’re aware of the ESRB, the ratings system the games use. What is your issue with that? Do you think the system just doesn’t have enough teeth, that it just doesn’t promote enough what ratings mean to parents, that it doesn’t give enough information to let parents make decisions on what games to buy for their children? Or is it that children already have access to violent games and it doesn’t matter what their parents do or say?
LY: No, I think the problem with the ESRB rating is that the ratings system itself is rather biased. The ESRB is funded by the industry, so it’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. Clearly, they’re not going to legitimately and appropriately place any markings on any video games, because it’s in the interest of the video [game] industry to sell as many video games as possible. You never heard of an AO rating whatsoever, because that would limit your market share.
Senator Yee was, of course, asked about how the ESRB, which is a subdivision of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). He pointed out that there’s more to games than just a couple hours worth of images.
“It’s a different technology. You go to a movie and you just sit there for two hours and see everything. Within video games, content is so embedded that you are unable to look at all the content in one sitting. For parents, it’s hard to really know what the content is as opposed to a movie. Parents can sit and watch a movie. Within a game, you have to be pretty sophisticated to get to a level to see some of the more atrocious [in-game] behavior.”
Yee says he had these concerns for years but decided to introduce legislation when an aide brought in a video game that had been recommended to her young daughter. In it, Yee says, players could urinate on women, then ignite them.
“As soon as I saw the game on the computer screen, all of my academic training and experience came to the forefront,” he says. “It’s the interactive nature that concerns me. When you are pushing a button, you are lighting the match.”
Mr. Yee is correct in one thing. There is more to video games for parents than meets the eye, and to see everything in a game, hours of gameplay are often necessary, much more than to see a 90 minute screenplay. But either due to ignorance or self-interest, Mr. Yee doesn’t mention that the ESRB actually describes – to the point of giving away spoilers sometimes – the games that they rate in minute detail, telling people exactly what they can look for. While it is true that these descriptors aren’t on the labels of the games at retail, a quick search on the ESRB’s website is sufficient in determining what a rated game has in it. In fact, let’s see what the ESRB has to say about the first Mature rated game I find… here we go, here’s the write-up for the Windows PC game Greed: Black Border.
This is a third-person shooter in which players assume the role of interplanetary soldiers fighting for control over a new energy source. From a top-down perspective, players explore dark corridors and use flamethrowers, plasma rifles, and chainsaw guns to kill various enemies (e.g., enemy robots, humanoid zombies, alien insects). Gameplay includes some hack-and-slash combat, though most combat sequences depict short bursts of laser gunfire, explosions, and/or instances of creatures set on fire. Enemies often screech in pain and emit spurts of blood when killed. Some levels depict human corpses and body parts amid large smears of blood.
I’d say that description leaves no doubt as to what a parent is getting into. Neither does this one, for a more well-known property: Konami’s Rush’N Attack: Ex-Patriot.
This is a side-scrolling action game in which players assume the role of Sid Morrow, a special-forces agent tasked with escaping a Russian prison and investigating a mysterious weaponized substance. Players traverse underground environments while using knives, machine guns, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, and chainsaws to stab and slash at enemy guards and boss characters. Sometimes players utilize stealth attacks to stab enemies or slice their throats; enemies groan and cry out in pain before slumping to the ground. Injured characters emit large splashes of blood from their chests and necks, and some levels contain large bloodstains on the floor or walls. Dialogue contains profanity in both English (e.g., “a*s” and “bastard”) and Russian (e.g., “f**ker” and “sh*t”).
Trust me. Even if I knew nothing about the games industry, I would not buy that game for a 10 year old child.
However, I do know about the games industry, and I know how to use drop-down menus well enough to prove that Mr. Yee is wrong in saying that there are no AO rated games “whatsoever”. In fact, there have been 24 of them (thanks to GI.biz for the usable link). Looking at that list, one can only see a few notable games such as Manhunt 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the latter of which was reclassified after the Hot Coffee scandal. Of those 24 games, only three of them have their console versions listed (GTA: SA, Thrill Kill for the PSX, and The Joy of Sex for the CDI, of all systems; Manhunt 2 was toned down for console release), and every other game is playable on a PC or standard DVD player, with the vast majority of them being sex games, most of those belonging to Japanese hentai game distributor Peach Princess. In other words, the games on that list are going to intentionally wear their AO rating on the case as a badge of honour, and Peach Princess, distributors of Princess Waltz, make a point of never selling to children. This isn’t because the ESRB is funded to avoid console games. It’s because no major publisher will carry an AO title, period. Walmart, Gamestop, Best Buy, Target, you name it, they will not carry AO under any circumstances, which is why Manhunt 2 had to be toned down. This is why we don’t see console-based AO games: because it’s retail suicide, and the games that do get AO are sold through alternative, non-mainstream means, be they adult novelty stores, through the distributor (Peach Princess is a JAST company, and JAST is owned by Peter Payne, who owns and operates J-List), or via online distribution.
I’m honestly not sure if Mr. Yee actually believes what he said about the ESRB or if he’s simply pandering for support, legal funding and/or votes in what is easily the most hardcore liberal district in America. I’m surprised that he hasn’t considered these facts, and is so blatantly ignorant as to just how the ERSB and ESA work. I’m also surprised that he blew off the same “conflict of interest” that would exist with the MPAA. With that said, the efforts by lawyers arguing for the State of California to apply Ginsberg v. New York to video games failed against the 9th District, and I expect it to fail against the Roberts Court for the same reason legislation against the film industry failed. Freedom of speech and expression is protected under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, and there are enough self-regulated safeguards to ensure that children do not get materials that they are not intended to have so that the government doesn’t have to step in.