games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Game Ratings

December 14, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Game Ratings

I was eight when I saw my first R-rated movie. I had two friends over – Jake and Michelle – and my mother took us to the video store to rent a movie. No doubt Mom expected us to pick something Disney, or, if not that, something on the G-end of PG, like The Goonies. But Michelle – a raven-haired little angel who might’ve been the inspiration for Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years – had another idea.

Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter.

Mom was … a bit dismayed. This wasn’t Gremlins or Ghostbusters, where the scares aren’t grounded and, maybe, even a little campy. Jason loves murder more than his victims love not being murdered, and this installment, with SFX legend Tom Savini handling the gore, was especially visceral. Also, up to this point in the franchise, this was the movie with the most nudity (and responsible for my first crush, Judie Aronson), so we were getting exposure to everything a parent might find objectionable. My mother was not the Helen Lovejoy type, but she was sure one of us would break. Instead, we sat on the floor, eating Burger King, giggling whenever we saw boobs, and cheering at the blood-soaked carnage. It took us all of a few minutes to get wise to the tropes, too; we facepalmed when would-be victims would go into the basement or wander in the wilderness. Looking back, this should’ve been a warning sign for my parents to get me into therapy as soon as possible.

Having proven my tolerance for all things scary, I set out to rent as many of the 80’s slashers as you can name. A Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, April Fool’s Day, Slumber Party Massacre, Prom Night; if it had a killer looking for horny teenagers, I watched it. With every rental came the “if you have nightmares, no more scary movies” warning, and every time, I proved again it was wasted breath. The blood and carnage had no ill effect on me. Well, maybe that’s up for debate.

If you don’t teach your children about sado-masochism and Faustian bargains, who will? School, their friends, those fat cats in Washington?

Despite this steady diet of cinematic depravity at a young age, my mother drew an interesting line: raunchy teen comedies like Revenge Of The Nerds and Porky’s. Even though most slashers had more breasts than a KFC, seeing boobs in a non-horror context was a step too far for my mother. I’d have to wait until I was pretty much a teenager to see teen sex comedies. The dichotomy made no sense to me, but it didn’t have to; it made sense to Mom, and her vote was the only vote that mattered.

Parental concern over the media children consume has been an thing since about four seconds after someone figured out how lucrative it was to create media for kids. When pinball machines first came around, then-New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, thought it was a Mafia-run racket stealing money from kids. Pinball was actually illegal in NYC for thirty years, until 1976. Elvis, The Beatles, horror movies, Dungeons & Dragons, everything that existed in the 80’s (thank you, Satanic Panic); if there’s a kid wanting to watch, listen, read or otherwise engage with something, there’s a parent looking over their shoulder worried about it. Even MAD Magazine, which is as edgy as an episode of Full House, was a target of parental ire at many points during its publication.

I heard if you connect the dots of his freckles in just the right way, it looks just like a pentagram.

As adults got hip to youth-oriented media, they decided that the best way to govern it was to, well, govern it, with ratings boards. Now, you might think I might be here to dump on the idea of ratings, and, surprise, I’m not. As a concept, it makes sense. Parents should have a way to discern the content of the media their kids consume without having to helicopter over them 24/7. If parents are denied access to intelligent, objective data, you wind up with morons suing Judas Priest for supposed suicidal instructions recorded backwards in their songs, and video games getting blamed for mass shootings.

However, concept and execution don’t often mirror one another. Since their inception, ratings boards of all kinds have operated on the principles that their membership and guidelines must be held in secret, like they’re The Bavarian Illuminati. A quick Google search will provide you with plenty of cases of supposedly august bodies like the MPAA rendering bizarre, indefensible, almost Draconian ratings. In the 1950’s, comic books were thought to be some combination of Mein Kampf and the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, so the Comics Code Authority was established to quell the fears of pearl-clutching moms who were positive reading Superman would turn their kids into hardened criminals. The CCA’s outright baffling standards did not allow for any kind of nuance; good always had to triumph over evil, authority figures could not be portrayed negatively and criminals could not be portrayed with any hint of sympathy. Until the 70’s, any kind of supernatural monster was off the list, and even after a revision, zombies were still forbidden. And yet, Hank Pym back-handing Janet Van Dyne was allowable, because shrug guy emoji.

And then there’s video games.

When the 90’s rolled around, everybody was used to Nintendo’s bowdlerization policies being the standard: no adult language, no religious content, no sex (not even in the champagne room!), and no blood or graphic violence. Of course, if you look at the NES’ library, you can see those restrictions had a lot of wiggle room. Mario may not have been Rambo, but considering the amount of sea life he slaughters, he’s an honorary Exxon employee. Double Dragon‘s Jimmy and Bimmy inflicted more brain damage on aggro alpha males than the NFL. The protagonist of NARC, an anti-drug PSA disguised as a video game, straight-up kills suspects, no arrest, no warrant, no due process. I guess because the bad guys blink out of existence and/or puff away in a cloud of smoke, that’s not “graphic violence”.

All that changed when game companies not named Nintendo realized that the kids who grew up with an NES were becoming teenagers, and their G-rated fun was starting to look childish to them. Namco went in a horror direction, releasing Splatterhouse in arcades and for the TurboGrafx-16, while Razorsoft created Techno Cop, first on home computers and the ZX Spectrum, before porting it to the Genesis. Splatterhouse, at least, could say its violence made sense contextually, since the game was an homage/ripoff of slasher movies. Techno Cop, on the other hand, was violent for the sake of it. I mean, bullets caused the human body to explode Scanners-style. And you could kill innocent bystanders, some of which were children. Somehow, Sega allowed this without being deported.

Sega censors: “Just make the kids fall dead instead of explode, and we’re good”.

Moral outrage wouldn’t reach a fever pitch until a pair of games dropped that, by today’s standards, wouldn’t get so much as a shrug from one of those hip youth pastors that like to sit in chairs backwards to relate to the kids. These “offensive” milestones would be the lurid-only-if-you-squint-after-suffering-a-head-injury Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat, a game whose violence would only be considered realistic if your occupation was a Cenobite. The subsequent media coverage and government inquisitions led to the creation of ratings boards around the world for video games.

Unfortunately, like any other form of media, the ratings assigned to video games suffer from wild subjectivity and gross inconsistency. Ratings, unless backed by a quantified, measured set of standards, descend into unwinnable, arbitrary arguments in taste, like you’d see in the comments section of most websites. For example, Midnight Cowboy, which won Best Picture, was originally rated X for a “homosexual frame of reference” (homophobia, a measurable standard for sure) and “possible influence upon youngsters”. That second part … what even? Possible influence? That’s not content, it’s a guess about what might happen, never mind that it’s assuming someone seeing this movie is so imprintable as to have their personality and/or sexuality changed by a movie. Also, this supposed someone is a youngster, who, by virtue of the X rating, couldn’t see the damned movie in the first place. How was this rating valid, when it was clearly driven by personal prejudice, subjective taste, and a theoretical outcome? Answer: they don’t have to justify it. It is what it is. Ratings boards are entities unto themselves, answerable to no one.

Sadly, video game ratings have proven to be no better. The ESRB has – and I cannot emphasize enough the weight these quote marks are carrying – “processes” and “standards” on their website, and they’re juuuuuuuuust wordy enough to sound official, and juuuuuuuust vague enough to be a step below utter gibberish. My full-time job is in a corporate environment; I’ve seen a lot of corporate buzz-speak about optimizing workstreams and silo mentalities in the past twenty years. This? This is Orwellian newspeak bullshit at its finest. Exactly how are the raters “trained”? I want to see pictures of the academy or syllabus more than I want my next 60 seconds of oxygen. How is unplayable content pertinent to a rating when it’s, by definition, UNPLAYABLE? Isn’t that like Midnight Cowboy being rated X for possible influence? Pretty much, it boils down to “we’re experts, don’t ask questions, trust us”. Yeah, that’s the same argument I made in my first column for the existence of this column, but I admit my expertise consists of observations derived from life experience and nothing more. If you position yourself as an official authority figure, you need to elaborate on how this authority was bestowed. Higher education? Farcical aquatic ceremony? Or is just a bunch of uptight, suburban jackasses who think their opinions are objective fact?

The stupid, uninformed, subjective ratings are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!

The answer to that question is them jingling keys and hoping you’re distracted enough for them to run away, because there is NO evidence on their website of actual qualifications. Quite the opposite, the evidence on their website proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re making it up as they go along. That’s what you get when ratings are decided by uptight suburbanites. Go to esrb.org and start searching games at random. Compare notes from one game to the next. It won’t take long before you are left scratching your head so hard, you’ll hit gray matter. Here, I’ll even give you some examples.

Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City got T ratings, thanks to references to drugs and alcohol, blood, mild language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco and violence. Fine, seems logical. But Arkham Knight got slapped with an M for fewer content descriptors: blood, language, suggestive themes and violence. How do you have fewer objectionable content categories and get a higher rating? 2+2=5, yo. Then there’s the Dark Souls series. The first one got an M (blood and gore, partial nudity, violence). DS2 went down to a T, despite having ticked MORE boxes on the scorecard (everything DS1 had, plus mild language), and DS3 went back up to an M for FEWER instances of bad content than either of the previous two (blood and violence … THAT’S IT). It’s clear the content categories do not have defined values. Instead, their weight seems to fluctuate depending on … I don’t know, what they had for dinner that day? Cycle of the moon? Random number generator? It’s the only way to explain how Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is rated E-10. It failed to qualify for an E because it contains cartoon violence and [checks notes] [checks notes again] that’s it? Nothing else? Oh, wait, it somehow gets dumber with more context: it’s the only game in the entire series to be E-10. You can go back over the course of every Donkey Kong game, all the way to the original, and they’ve all been an E. Except this one. Hide your third graders from DONKEY KONG JUNGLE BEAT, parents. It’s pure, unadulterated moral cancer.

First this, then it’s heroin, then human trafficking, you see it all the time.

And lest you think I’m picking on the United States’ hallowed ESRB, this is a global issue. There’s a whole page of games on Wikipedia, divided by country, that have not just been rated questionably, but outright banned by their region’s review board. You’ll wonder if we’ve fallen into some puritanical dystopia like The Handmaid’s Tale. Australia, the country known for having an ecosystem that makes Hell look like an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, has banned so many games, it has its own damned page. It’s like discovering The Terminator has a pollen allergy. Is the entire continent just the town from Footloose with murderous spiders? And not just games you’d expect like Manhunt or Postal. They banned Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure – yes, we live in a world where Star Wars 1313 got canceled but THIS made it to store shelves – because it “glorified graffiti”. Not blood, not nudity, not wanton destruction and large-scale loss of life. Graffiti.

GRAFFITI! SPRAY PAINT ON WALLS!

What is a gamer parent to do when faced with this? What are you supposed to do when the gaming industry’s mechanism for providing parents with a content guide is as useful as a concrete boat? How are you supposed to tell if that M rating is justified, or Karen in Redondo Beach was super-pissy that day because the barista forget the whipped cream on her Chai latte, so she decided to take it out on Guitar Hero III?

This has songs about women who know black magic AND the Devil setting foot on the soil of these United States? UNACCEPTABLE!

Well, there’s no one magic bullet answer, but we do have an advantage our parents didn’t: we’re gamers. We’ve got decades of gaming experience on our CV’s. Yes, the ratings systems are an absolute joke, but we’ve grown up with the joke. We know how the set-up and the punchline work. We know that the ratings are, at best, a blurry guidepost, and at worst, political pandering from ignorant laypeople.

But even a broken tool can be useful if you know how to use it. Let’s go back to Batman: Arkham Knight and compare it to, say, Saints Row The Third. Both have a lot of violence, with the protagonist unleashing a trail of carnage on a city-wide scale. Both have some coarse language, mature themes, and forms of sexual content. But we also know that one of these games has a egocentric lunatic in a weird outfit running around a lawless city, beating up everyone they see with a preposterous arsenal of armed vehicles and weapons. And the other is Saints Row The Third (HI-YO!).

All jokes aside (that’ll last half a paragraph), you should be able to look at most games and have an idea if the ratings and its accompanying content descriptors are reasonable. Tom & Jerry in War Of The Whiskers is, and I swear I’m not making this up, rated T. This is not a gritty reboot from the folks who did Bomberman: Act Zero, though every fiber of my being wishes it was. Uncharted 4 – a game that is, for all intents and purposes, Tomb Raider with a guy – has the same rating as Tom & Jerry. Just looking at the names, you should know which of these is justified and one is lunacy. Now, not all cases are so cut and dry. Look at the Tomb Raider reboot. Gone are the days of “Indiana Jones if it was a Playboy Playmate”; Lara Croft is now a more fleshed-out (heh heh) human being that, in her first outing, suffers traumatizing attacks, psychological torture and is generally put through hell. It earns its M rating through violence and intensity. But does that M rating exist on the same plane as Grand Theft Auto V‘s? Not in my book. But your book may read different.

It would’ve been rated T, but you can see her bra strap.

Only you as a parent can make that decision. Fortunately, if you’d like help, there’s options out there. For how much I’ve dogged them in this article, the ESRB can be somewhat useful here. Under any game’s rating on their website, you’ll find the ratings summary, which will list in exhaustive – almost pedantic – detail, what they found that contribute to the rating. It still won’t help situations like the Dark Souls series’ ratings hop-scotching around make any sense, but at least you can get an itemized preview of what might be in the game.

There’s also the medium upon which you’re reading this: the internet. It does have more than social media rants and cat memes. Reviewers on some sites use their platform to write long-form reviews that go into pain-staking detail, from which you should be able to glean a picture. Kotaku and Polygon are two wonderful examples, that is, if you have designs on venturing out of the 411mania ecosystem. And why would you ever do that? I need the clicks! I got kids, man! There’s also YouTube, offering up reviews and play-throughs. Sure, you may have to deal with some derp-faced moron talking over it, but you’ll still get to see the game in action.

Last, may I suggest something a bit out of the box. Our generation and our kids don’t approach gaming the same way. This is a golden opportunity to open a dialogue with your kids. If you know they want a game you’re on the fence about, find out why they’re interested in this game. If they’re just too young, fine, you’re the parent, close that door and tell them why they’re stuck with Kirby. If they’re old enough, though, take the time to learn something about them and their views on gaming. You can even use it to spin a life lesson or two out of it, if you’re clever. Some games use their medium to bring up very mature subjects that are worth the discussion. Spec Ops: The Line is brutally, uncomfortably violent (if you’ve played it, all I have to say is “white phosphorus”, and you instantly shuddered), but also raises thought-provoking questions about whether or not there’s room for personal responsibility within the confines of duty. 2018’s God of War is a harrowing study of grief, regret and shame, all wrapped up in a story about father and son forced to bridge the gap they’ve uncomfortably lived with for years. Games like these can teach adolescents complex life lessons and emotions that may resonate with them for a long time, and being in control of the narrative that delivers it will only help drive the message home. Not every game has the depth to pull this off – we do live in a world where The Guy Game happened, so set your expectations accordingly – but maybe these more mature-rated games can be spun to our advantage. Kids can learn from the media they consume. Maybe we should too.

From this, I learned that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

And in closing …

Me on Twitter!

Or you could email me at [email protected]!

PSN gamer name is thegrayjedi. Look for the Journey avatar. The game, not the band. Been playing a lot of Diablo III lately, trying to get the Platinum. If you play it, hit me up for some co-op.

So, the surprise I teased last time around. Next week will be the first edition of a sub-series for this column. There’s a lot of games that kids play that, by and large, leave us gamer parents looking at them wondering where we went wrong. It’s high time a parent actually dipped their toes in the water, and I am that dip. For seven days, I’ll spend an hour every day playing one of these games as a gamer dad, trying to understand what the hell our kids are playing. The format will be different, as it’ll read more like a day-to-day diary than my normal blathering and bad attempts at humor, but I think it’s an idea that has some legs. I’m also going to stream it on Twitch, so, if you’re interested, you can see my utter humiliation in real-time. If you’d like a heads up on when, shoot me an email or a DM on my Twitter and I’ll let you know. Here’s a link to my Twitch channel.

So. Two weeks hence — the Monday after Christmas — will be the first edition of The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide presents A Gamer Dad’s Week-Long Diary with …

Fortnite.

Pray for me.