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The Fallibility of the ESRB

March 3, 2010

It’s not as if I’ve ever treated the ESRB as some gold standard for what my kids can and cannot see in terms of video games. Sure, I know it’ll be a long time before they ever get their hands on an M-rated game, but even the M rating will be open for discussion at some point — after all, there’s a big difference between, say, Halo 3 and, oh, Aliens vs. Predator, even if we take the sticky conundrums of sex and nudity out of the equation.

See? That's not so scary, is it?

As such, there are some T-rated games that I allow my kids to see now — the Super Smash Bros. series was their introduction to video games, after all, and those games feel like “light” T ratings if I’ve ever seen them. After much begging, I let them try the Metroid Prime series as well when the Trilogy appeared, and they handled that just fine. It seems in some cases, if the “fantasy” in “fantasy violence” is, uh, “fantastical” enough, it’s far enough removed from the real world to not really be scary anymore. At least in my house. If you’d rather not show your kids giant wasps getting blown away in the first person, well, more power to you.

That said, until this week, I had yet to see a single game rated E10 that I wasn’t OK with my older kids playing. Most E10 games are like animated features that are rated PG — there might be a little bit of language, or an uncomfortable double entendre, or some scary moments where it looks like the world might end, but it’s still an animated movie and the kids are going to be fine as long as we talk about it. PG ratings have gone soft since the 2000s started — they don’t have the F-word in them anymore (Beetlejuice) and they’ll never scare the hell out of you (Gremlins) like they used to.

Spike was a baaaad dude.

Okay, I was five when I saw Gremlins in the theater. When you’re five, that’s some scary shit right there.

I’m getting off track. I’ve railed on Ragnarok once already for its awful tutorial approach, and I’m going to rail on it again. Probably won’t be the last time. This time, however, my ire is not directed at the developers so much as it is the ESRB. Here’s a smattering of dialogue from the first three hours of Ragnarok:

“Shut the hell up!”

“What the hell?!”

“I’m pissed!”

“I don’t give a damn about that.”

…my memory’s not strong enough to remember the exact quotes, but the naughty words are definitely the same, as is the spirit of the exclamations. Perhaps worse is that a helpful character is a complete ass while totally hammered. Or, there’s the “bunny ear” headgear, actually stronger than most of the early-game headgear options, which contains the following kicker in its in-game description: “Hef would be proud.”

Hef? Hef?!

To borrow an earlier phrase: What the hell?!

Like I said earlier, the ratings are clearly fluid, and yes, I do have to acknowledge that humans make these ratings; they’re not just a product of some massive algorithm. I’m sure they’re doing their best, and a niche product like Ragnarok simply isn’t going to get the sort of attention that a massive release like, say, Grand Theft Auto will. One almost gets the sense that they took a look at the style of the game, played it for a few minutes, and figured E10 would cover it. Unfortunately, what this means for my household is that even the E10 games are going to have to get a good hard look before I decide that my eight and five-year-old can get their own hands on it.

Because the last thing I need is my eight-year-old daughter asking me (or her teachers, or her classmates) who “Hef” is.

(This blog is Rated T (Teen) for some strong language and rampant egomania.)

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