Commentary > Game Over
Should Grand Theft Auto be rated XXX?
New titles raise questions about effectiveness of game ratings.
October 30, 2002: 12:12 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The trouble usually starts around this time each year.

Parents hit the malls in droves, descending on Toys R Us and Software Etc. like locusts, looking for holiday gifts to make their children smile. Somewhere on that list is a video game or two. Some parents will scan the box, using the screenshots on the back as a barometer of whether this is something they want their child to play. A smaller number take note of the rating on the front cover, wondering what it means. Most simply grab the game and check an item off of their list.

Flash forward to the end of December. Children are blowing enemies into gelatinous piles of goo, hacking off limbs with a shotgun or watching a stripper bump and grind in DVD clarity. Parents go ballistic, blaming video games for the downfall of civilization, and the gaming industry goes on the defensive, saying parents need to more closely monitor their children's gaming habits.

If you think the typical outcry is loud, just wait 'til this year. Controversial titles such as "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" and "BMX XXX" will stir the pot more than usual and 2003's lineup, which includes "Doom III" and "Duke Nukem Forever" (well, maybe... the game has been stuck in development since the Mesozoic era), doesn't promise any relief.

"Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" is bound to be one this year's best selling - and most controversial - games.

The group responsible for the ratings on video games, the Electronic Software Rating Board, has tried for eight years now to pre-empt this controversy. Formed in 1994, the ESRB has been widely praised for its comprehensive system. The problem is: Parents don't seem to understand the ratings.

This year, the ESRB is going on the offensive. Starting in November, movie goers at 700 theaters in major cities around the country will see a public service announcement featuring Tiger Woods explaining the ratings system. With the ads running on 5,000 screens, it's one of the largest pushes in the ESRB's history.

Some might argue that's overdue. Out of curiosity, I recently conducted an informal poll at a suburban mall. Parents, generally, had no idea what the difference is between E, T and M. They recognized it as a rating, but weren't sure what it meant and didn't realize they could usually get more information by turning the box over and looking at the bottom left hand corner. Those same people all knew the difference between "G", "PG" and "R" the ratings for the film industry.

This raises the question: Why not adopt the same system as the Motion Picture Association of America (which doles out movie ratings)?

"The MPAA system is like comparing apples to oranges," said Mark Szafran, acting executive director of the ESRB. "It's different content and different criteria. Film is linear entertainment that lasts two- to two-and-a-half hours. Games are non linear and offer a lot more time to enjoy them."

The content being reviewed might be different, but the ratings are actually pretty close. "E" games are for players of all ages. "T" games are recommended for players 13 years or older. And "M" games are meant for players over 17. ("AO" is the gaming industry's equivalent of the "NC-17" rating and it's used just as rarely for mainstream fare.)

As the industry continues to mature, though, it might be time to introduce another game rating something akin to the film industry's PG-13. It was films that straddled the "R"/"PG" line, such as "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins," that spurred the MPAA to add a rating for 'tweens. These days, gaming seems to be walking that fine line as well.

Need an example? Take "Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project": This 2002 game had suggestive language and plenty of arcade-style violence. It was a fun, cheesy throwback to gaming's early days and was inappropriate for young children, but there was nothing there that deserved the game's "M" rating. "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault," on the other hand, had players storm the beach at Normandy, in a scene incredibly reminiscent of the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" and received a "T" rating likely because it did not show blood when soldiers were mowed down.

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Szafran says the ESRB's system is constantly under review. And while another ratings category is not under active consideration at this point, the board has not ruled anything out.

"We're always looking at trends in content and advances in technology," he said. "Our goal is to make sure the system informs the consumer in the best way possible before they make a decision."

The education campaign's a good start - but there's still a lot of ground to cover before buying a game is as simple as going to the movies.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development at CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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