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Jakob's recent prompt on book censorship reminds me of the AO video game rating, even though it's a completely different situation.

I believe the AO game rating is bogus. AO is Adults-Only, but the thing is, it's only a 1-year difference from the M rating. Obviously, this one-year difference doesn't logically support a separate age-group audience. So if it's the same age group, why does it have a separate ESRB rating-- when each of the ratings are based on age groups?

Consider the fact that no retailers carry the games, AND that console companies don't allow these games to be published for their systems. Effectively, it is a ban on AO titles.

I understand that this sort of thing is inappropriate for younger audiences (unless the parents are OK with it). But the reality is that this censorship is hampering the creativity of developers, and preventing mature adults from accessing the games they have the right to play (on the platform of their choice). Also to consider is the problem that AO games are crap because of low budgets and since no good developers will even consider making one. In fact, avoiding the AO rating is one of the rules when making a game-- because it WON'T sell since it's pretty much banned.

Let's take the upcoming online game Age of Conan. Anyone familiar with the Conan setting knows that it's not innocent. It's filled with blood and sex and nudity. Funcom is doing their best to uphold this setting of a harsh, primal way of life. Unfortunately, they cannot take such artistic freedom since they have to avoid the AO rating-- or their game will be effectively banned and only available through download (which doesn't work as well as one might think-- the box on the shelf of the store is an advertisement as well as the product). I admire what they're doing with this game-- they are definitely setting the stage for more artistic freedom in the future for developers. However, I would like it better if there were no constraints at all on their creativity. Funcom is an awesome developer and I'm sure they could pull off some fantastic stuff. But they can't pull off frontal nudity at all-- something I see as a huge step towards creative freedom in mainstream gaming, as well as freedom for adult gamers to have a more mature experience.

It also gives you an idea of how it's going to ruin the community, with only boobs being shown. It's going to be a bunch of salivating teenage boys, probably some middle-aged men as well, who play the game with their penises. It's only go to accentuate the gender problem going on already in online virtual worlds. I have a feeling that if they allowed complete nude freedom to male and female characters, that the audience might be a little more balanced-- and that they may be able to do a better job of portraying it in a realistic sense (which may encourage the players to approach it realistically).

Of course, can't show a p***s in a game. Such a perfectly natural part of the male body would be AO-- inappropriate for the M rating for 17 year-olds! But OK for 18 year-olds. confused This makes absolutely no sense. Nudity should be treated the same regardless. One body part should not be more inappropriate than another. If boobs are rated M, all nudity should be. Please note that that nudity isn't necessarily in a sexual context.

The real problem is the ratings (and lazy parents).
M and AO should not be separate. They're the same age group, they should be together. We can argue that children can play M rated games if their parent lets them, and that this might open up some can of worms. It definitely will. But the point is, that parents who really care will be forced to check the content descriptors-- which most don't do. They're on the back of the box, it's not difficult. Parents need to stop relying on the general ratings and badgering developers when they discover their children killing people in Grand Theft Auto. They need to take responsibility for the fact that they're the ones who didn't check the back of the box, that they didn't try the game first, etc. People attacking developers are truly hurting the industry. They should really be attacking the parents, and the retailers.

Speaking of retailers, the retailers need to do a better job too.
  1. They need to ALWAYS check for ID when selling M rated games. ALWAYS. They don't always do this and it's a problem, because the parents get mad when they discover their kids playing a mature game that they didn't give them permission to do.
  2. They need to point out the content descriptors to the parents before purchase. They need to bring the parents' focus to these descriptors rather than the general rating. These descriptors are what a parent should base their purchase decisions on.
  3. They should provide content demos to parents. This is a new concept. When a developer submits a game to the ESRB for rating, they usually submit a video clip and report which detail the most extreme of the content in the game. Something similar should be available for parents to review. I'll explain this more below.

Content Demo DVD & Companion Pamphlet
Content demos for each game would be available in the form of a DVD and companion pamphlet. These should be available before the release of the game. Retailers would have a small restricted room or booth in the store where parents could review the DVD and read the pamphlet. Additionally, retailers could provide copies of the pamphlet and DVD for parents to take home and review in their own time, in the comfort of their own home, and with the other parent. There should also be the option to order the DVD/pamphlet to have them mailed to you. They could be available online for review, but this brings up complications in itself.

So where does the industry go from here? People are definitely not liking the current situation. If things continue down this road, the industry is going to continue to suffer. There are obviously problems with the ratings system, and it needs to be revised. Parents and retailers need to take responsibility, and retailers and console companies need to loosen up on what ratings they'll carry/support. The developers and publishers need to make it easier for them to do this, such as by providing content demos to parents via retailers, mail, or download. And developers need to keep experimenting with content and opening new pathways for creative freedom.

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