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Friday, July 06, 2007

Why wouldn't the ESRB act on Forza?

The Curmudgeon Gamer himself sent a note over pondering a very interesting question, "how is a paint job really any different from a mod for Oblivion that makes nudity visible?"

The paint job in question, in the image above, was available for Forza 2 for a while. It's from 360 Gamer and you can see the other side with some commentary on their site.

Three times the ESRB has recently changed a rating or packaging due to content which came up either at the end of their review or after the title shipped. Halo 2 for the PC shipped with a label warning of indecent textures which could be found via an editor. Oblivion was altered when a modder discovered the "bare" (from what I've read - that is more accurate than naked) textures could be made accessible. And most famously, the Hot Coffee mod for San Andreas unlocked a sex minigame that had been left out of the fina build.

So if someone has made racist textures available for Forza 2 - why shouldn't the ESRB step in and take action?

Patricia Vance recently said that the mission of the ESRB was "to provide consumers with the information they need to make informed computer and video game purchase decisions." Surely the knowledge that someone may find an object which essentially qualifies as a hate crime is something a consumer might want to have to make an informed decision? If the ESRB felt the need to slap a label on Halo 2 because of a booty shot, surely the N word would outpace that need?

I can think of two possible defenses for the ESRB. One is that a policing policy has been put in place and the company responsible is clearly making a good faith effort to keep this kind of material offline. Second is that these textures were not shipped nor created by the company, but rather by a user. These are in fact, it would seem, the very standards the ESRB tries to keep.

There is only one problem: it is a standard which is completely meaningless to the consumer and if anything ... counter-productive.

Your average parent could care less if an offensive image was downloaded or unlocked. Most, in fact, could probably barely describe the difference if asked. And it requires less technical savvy to simply download or find such an offense online than it is for many to juggle the more arcane methods of modified content. Plus the latter is an intentional edit - nobody stumbled onto Hot Coffee. Nobody button mashed accidentally and saw sexual content - they specifically downloaded the program to unlock it.

With Forza 2, my impression is that you could just find it in the auction house. The problem with the ESRB's stance on modified content is that is mostly of convenience to the ESRB ... not to the consumers they seek to inform.

Of course, many an experienced gamer will read up to this point and realize that if the ESRB were to treat the Forza content the same as the Oblivion content - then every virtually every game out there with any kind of modifiable access would require an AO rating. Certainly most any game on the PC ... and I imagine as user content becomes more and more of an aspect on consoles or at the very least relying on hard drives instead of static media - the majority of them as well.

Exactly. Which is why I said about two years ago that the ESRB was placing gaming on shaky ground.

If the ESRB is meant to inform consumers then the best course of action is not a reactive one to every kind of modifiable content. Including content which may be locked away on a disc. The focus for the ESRB should not be to distinguish what is downloadable or unlockable, but to help parents understand what all that means.

I'm not saying that games should not be flagged for this kind of content - but to rerate an entire game based on the fact that it could be modified is going to be an increasingly difficult stance to keep. Instead parents should be alerted that games might have online components, user generated content or even unlockable content.

In fact, this would be the precedent set with Halo 2, which included a label instead of altering the rating. The rating was still valid for the vast majority of gamers and the label gave parents the warning they needed.

The current line in the sand the ESRB holds simply holds no meaning to parents. And in a world of modifiable content and "Game 3.0" which promises more user generated content, it is simply going to have to change.


Troy Goodfellow said...

Re Oblivion, the ESRB says that the rating was changed not because of the nipple but because they were unaware of the level and nature of the violence in much of the game. In other words, Bethesda didn't give a proper accounting of the title.

The Escapist recently ran a comment from Vance that clarifies this point.

Josh said...

Well, she actually clarifies that it wasn't just the boobies.

And not to sound to critical, but this isn't the first time Vance has publicaly vacillated on an issue once it became heated.