NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If you thought the controversy over "Grand Theft Auto" was a spectacle to behold, you ain't seen nothing yet.
"Manhunt," the latest game from Rockstar Studios (developers of the GTA series), explores new levels of videogame violence, featuring grisly, brutal depictions of murder. It has also exposed some significant flaws in the way the gaming industry ratings system works.
In hopes of keeping the flood of hate mail from hardcore gamers to a minimum, let me first point out that I'm a big fan of Rockstar. I heartily recommended the "Grand Theft Auto: Double Pack" in our 2003 game buying guide. And a quick look back through some of my past columns will show I'm fully aware of the fact that it's the parent's responsibility to monitor what their children play.
Responsible parents rely on game ratings from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to make those decisions, though. And the ESRB either dropped the ball or had the wool pulled over their eyes this time around.
"Manhunt" earned an M rating, which is the equivalent of a film receiving an R rating – the content is suitable for players over 17. The ratings board stopped short of an AO – adults only – rating, though, leaving some to wonder exactly how violent a game has to be to earn that label.
|One of "Manhunt's" cinematic style executions.
"Manhunt" is a cat and mouse-style game that fuses the stealth elements of "Splinter Cell" with unflinching acts of sadism. Your character wakes up after a staged execution and is told he will be allowed to go free – after he does what he's told. What he's told to do is kill – brutally, frequently and with as much style as possible for the entertainment of snuff film aficionados. Use stealth to take out one of your fellow thugs and you'll see the murders you commit replayed in cinematic style.
Trust me, it's grisly stuff. I've played the game for several hours to see if it lived up to all of the gory hype.
The AO rating hasn't been utilized too often. In fact, only 16 games have earned it since the creation of the ESRB in 1994. So far, it has served almost exclusively as a warning for sexual content, rather than violence. Of those 16 titles, 15 contained strong sexual content, while one featured an online component that linked players to an Internet casino. Only one AO game ("Rhiana Rouge") has been cited for violent content – and it contains strong sexual content as well.
Just as many theaters won't carry NC-17 films, most mainstream retailers - such as Wal-Mart and Toys R Us - refuse to carry adult-rated games. And with the millions of dollars spent developing new titles today, publishers can't afford to cut out that segment of the market.
Game ratings are decided upon in a subjective process that leans heavily on the honor system. Publishers submit footage of what they consider to be the extreme elements of their game. That footage is then viewed by three individuals, who submit a recommended rating. If there is a consensus, the rating stands. If not, more people are brought in to view the elements.
Can a publisher submit gameplay elements that don't show the extent of the sex or violence? Sure. There's nothing illegal about it, though if caught, they would be subject to a fairly significant fine from the ESRB and the Entertainment Software Association.
Would Take Two Interactive (TTWO: Research, Estimates), the publisher of "Manhunt" do this? It's extremely unlikely. The company is too high profile and knows its games make it a magnet for lawsuits already. (The company did not respond to questions by press time.)
That puts the onus on the ESRB and its raters. The moving line of what's acceptable and what's not works against both publisher and consumer. If seeing a gang member cough up blood while his head is removed by three solid machete chops is acceptable for a Mature game, does that mean a higher degree of violence is now acceptable in Teen games? Whatever the answer, the M rating now means less for consumers than it used to.
When asked about the rating decision on "Manhunt," the ESRB replied, in a prepared statement, "The ESRB encourages parents to check the rating when shopping for computer and video games, so they can determine which ones are 'OK to play' for their kids. The ratings and content descriptors printed on all game boxes, including Manhunt, tell consumers what to expect from the game and provide the detail parents need to make informed purchasing decisions."
Those descriptors are definitely handy, but they're not as descriptive as the ESRB would have you believe. By way of comparison, "Deus Ex: Invisible War", which hits streets next week, is also rated M. Its descriptor guide cites blood and violence, as opposed to "Manhunt's" blood and gore and intense violence warnings. For a consumer trying to get out of the holiday stampede at the mall, those are essentially the same thing.
Yet, it's entirely possible to play through "Deus Ex" without taking your gun out of the holster. And even when you do, the results aren't nearly as brutal. It's a game I wouldn't mind seeing a 15-year old play, where as any responsible adult would cringe if they saw a child or young teen playing "Manhunt".
If ratings are going to retain their credibility, the ESRB needs to find consistency and be willing to take the heat from publishers – fast.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.