With the torrent of controversy surrounding Rockstar after their mea culpa on the hidden sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it seems the dangerous publicity which Rockstar so happily embraced to promote its games has finally come back to bite them (and perhaps the entire industry as well).

Rockstar screwed up big time, and anyone who defends the company’s objection to an AO rating for GTA:SA is fooling himself. The content may not have been accessible without hacking the game, but it was still created by the developer and shipped with every copy of the game. It was the product of Rockstar, not that of creative modders (a la the nude patches for Tomb Raider or Dead Or Alive). There’s no way to get around the reality: a game’s rating must be based on the entire content shipped to the consumer, not just what is normally accessible. It is safe to assume that Rockstar must have cut normal access to the content because it would have resulted in an AO rating; if it was intentionally left in (as an anti-establishment programmer just might do), it was blatant circumvention of the rating system, and the game should be re-rated. But you can bet your sweet ass we will never know the real answer to that question from Rockstar, FTC and Mrs. Clinton be damned.

On the broader question of videogame ratings and the recent trend towards mandatory enforcement (partially thanks to the Hot Coffee controversy), I don’t believe that government enforcement on the M and AO ratings is an outrageous notion if the retailers themselves refuse to make it official policy to enforce the ESRB guidelines. In a perfect world, we would rely only on parents to decide what their children play, but that is not our world, and where parents are neglectful, you’ll find elected officials only too happy to step up and take credit. Consider the v-chip, shipped in every modern television sold today and indeed more pervasive in the U.S. than any other country in the world (at least 40% in 2003). It allows parents to block content they object to, based on a voluntarily adopted television rating system. However few parents even know what the V-Chip is, much less actually use it. So the rating system is toothless in the face of ignorant parents. Contrast that with the voluntary rating system adopted by the movie industry. It needs no/less government intervention because movie studios will not permit their movies to be shown in a theatre that does not enforce the R and NC-17 ratings. Could you imagine how quickly retailers would reform if game publishers only shipped to retailers that enforced M and AO?

As with so many things, it all comes down to money. Admit it or not, publishers market their games to teenagers whether it is rated T or M, and an enforced rating system would create a fiscal incentive to shed the violence down to T (much like PG-13 is considered the sweet spot of MPAA ratings). That would result in a squeeze on developers’ ability to express their art with unbridled freedom, hence the outcries from the industry against the government attacking their First Amendment rights. If those in the industry truly stand behind their rating system and the assertion that M rating games are not meant for children, they should stop marketing to them and do more to enforce the voluntary system. It’s the hypocritical idea that Mature games are not meant for children, yet the ability to sell said games to them is too important to the publisher’s bottom line to demand strict enforcement, that has put the industry in the situation in the first place.

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