The video game industry has been convinced, or coerced, into accepting a rating system similar to the one currently in use to categorize films for age-appropriate audiences. Ideally this rating system would match players with appropriate content.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, rating found on every copy of every mass-produced game in America, allows uninformed parents to determine the appropriateness of a game with merely a glance at this label. An “EC” rated game would be appropriate for early childhood, age 3 or above, and contains no offensive material. An E-rated game is appropriate for all ages, E10 for ages 10 and above, T indicates teenage content, MA indicates an intended mature audience, and an game rated AO would be appropriate for adults 18 or older. Oh parents, if only it were that easy! As an adult gamer I see my fair share of adult content: Pigsy tugging his bare penis with one hand while revving a chainsaw in the other, a guy with a pyramid for a head raping a mannequin, and other innumerable profanities, obscenities, and acts of gore-laden violence. While all in-game content is taken into consideration there is another part of all online games that cannot be predicted, rated, or shielded from: other players.
On of the more exciting parts of modern gaming is the ability to play with other players who are not sitting on the couch next to you. Technology allows gamers of all ages to compete and communicate with each other worldwide. XBox Live allows players to communicate with each other in several different ways, and many games provide an opportunity for user-created content to be introduced into the game.
Screenshot courtesy of Optimum Zero
Voice and text communication are an integral part of online gaming. The ability to communicate with other team members in military shooters gives players the ability to strategize and strike in a coordinated way. This technology also gives adult gamers the opportunity to tell dick jokes to your eight year-old daughter. It is not uncommon for underage players to play an M-Rated game in a public lobby. Youngsters are not willing to divulge their age for fear of getting in trouble or being made a public lobby pariah. They will, however, soak in every syllable of an adult conversation and commit it to memory in order to regurgitate the best parts at the most inappropriate time.
Text messages can be sent from a control pad to any other player on XBox Live. Women, and girls, are notoriously targeted by sexually inept and downright idiotic men and boys. It doesn’t matter what game your children play, they are susceptible to hateful, profane, and sexually explicit messages from other gamers.
Screenshots courtesy of Optimum Zero
Even E-Rated games may be problematic. Forza, a popular car racing series, was rated E, for everyone, by the ESRB. Forza gives players the tools to create text and images, and apply them to a car. These images can then be sold in the designer’s storefront for in-game credits. Naked women, profanity, ethnic slurs, and even the old cock and balls have all been well represented in this popular E-Rated racing sim. Everything a well-meaning parent wished to avoid when they chose that E-Rated game for their child is delivered anyway, likely without the parent’s knowledge.
Players and parents are not helpless against the scourge of mature content and children’s exposure to it. Microsoft will shut down or suspend a gamertag found guilty of threatening or obscene comments. Games such as Forza have language filters in place and can also marginalize or block a player’s ability to participate online. These prohibitions are implementable, but only after the offending player is reported. If I see someone violating the Microsoft code of conduct or driving around with a swastika and penis covered livery in Forza, I report them. If these folks play the same E-Rated game that my eleven year-old daughter plays, you bet your ass I’m reporting them. It’s not being a narc, and it’s not telling on someone: it’s being an adult and a responsible parent. If you enjoy the freedom of being able to personalize your game experience then you must report these things, or we may lose that freedom. Vinyl editors and user-created content give players the ability to enhance or destroy the game experience and the ability to communicate with players anywhere in the world gives us far more diversity than ever. Don’t let the bad guys ruin that for everyone. Keep it classy, keep it clean, and let’s move forward.