It's been a long time coming. Envelopes have been pushed and boundaries have been challenged. Technology has given us the ability not only to depict levels of violence that were unimaginable a decade ago, but to actually flail our arms about in a spastic mimicry of the act; meanwhile, the public sees increasing levels of violence among the young in schools and homes and cries out for something to be done. The biggest surprise is probably that it took this long for it to happen, but nonetheless, the Entertainment Software Rating Board's decision to slap an Adults Only (AO) rating on Rockstar's soon-to-be-released killfest Manhunt 2 has created almost as big a splash as the game itself is expected to.
Despite Rockstar's apparent assumption that the game would receive a Mature (M) rating, no one can seriously claim they didn't see this coming. Shortly before the ESRB announcement, the game was banned in both the U.K. and Ireland by the British Board of Film Classification and the Irish Film Censor's Office, respectively; following the BBFC's decision, the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood called upon the ESRB to issue an AO rating for the game. Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB, responded with a statement to The Escapist in which she said the rating for Manhunt 2 had been issued prior to the CCFC's letter, but the pile-on was growing. Rockstar didn't help its cause with a marketing campaign that focused on the disturbing and violent aspects of the game, playing them up for maximum effect. There was a wall, and somebody had written on it.
In order to qualify for the dreaded AO stamp, according to the ESRB website, a game must include "prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity." So far, very few games have met those requirements: The ESRB has rated over 13,000 games since its inception, and of that number, only 23 have earned the distinction. The vast majority were given the rating because of nudity or "strong sexual themes," whereas prior to the arrival of Manhunt 2, only two games made the grade strictly for violent content. The first, a Mortal Kombat-style fighting game for the PlayStation known as Thrill Kill, was canceled shortly before release because Electronic Arts, which had recently acquired the property, didn't want to be associated with the game's excessive and gratuitous sadomasochistic violence. The second, THQ's more recent Punisher videogame, was modified before release in order to quality for an M-rating.
By far, the bulk of AO-rated games come from small, niche publishers, led by Peach Princess and MacDaddy Entertainment. Peach Princess is the leading importer and translator of Japanese Bishōjo
games, while MacDaddy, broadly speaking, does porn. Both companies have very narrow target audiences, resulting in a complete indifference toward conventional off-the-shelf sales. You don't want a Peach Princess game unless you want a Peach Princess game, and if you want a Peach Princess game, you know where to find them. Companies that rely on profits from high revenues in order to create original, top-quality games - companies like Rockstar, in other words - simply cannot afford to operate in this sort of environment.
One novel but still rare approach to this dilemma is simply to publish two versions of the same game. The "Director's Cut" edition of Atari's Indigo Prophecy, as well as an "Uncut" version of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude from Vivendi, were given AO ratings by the ESRB, but because they were released to compliment existing M-rated titles, the publishers could make them available with minimal effort and no risk. In reality, they were little more than promotional tools: The AO rating gets some press and extra attention, but the M version is still available for sale at the local EB.
An Adults Only rating is intended to keep strongly objectionable material out of the hands of children, which in itself is a laudable goal. Unfortunately, it can also very easily serve as a sort of "back-door censorship," prohibiting game development by virtually ensuring the financial failure of anyone who makes the attempt. By just about any measure, an AO rating is death sentence for any mainstream videogame release. While the difference in intended audience is slight - according to the ESRB, M-rated games are suitable for people 17 years of age and older, while AO-rated games are only appropriate for 18 years and up - the fact nearly all videogame retailers will not stock Adults Only games makes the difference much more significant. Wal-Mart, GameStop, Target, Best Buy and many others have policies prohibiting the sale of AO-rated games, and without regular retail channels, the chance one of these games will become any sort of financial success is very nearly zero. Given the growing development costs of modern games, it's hardly surprising that developers will do just about anything to avoid the rating.
And yet Rockstar often seems to go out of its way to court controversy. Of the 31 Rockstar games rated by the ESRB, 16 have received an M rating (with at least a few very likely close to the upper limit of the rating), while the infamous Hot Coffee-enabled Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was given possibly the most infamous AO rating ever awarded. The company's Grand Theft Auto series, along with titles like the Warriors, Bully and of course Manhunt, are a blood-soaked litany of all that anti-violence crusaders find wrong with videogames; and still, Rockstar continues to up the ante.
Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, issued a statement in response to the uproar saying that the assignment of an AO rating to Manhunt 2 was actually issued earlier this month, prior to the UK ban, in order to accommodate Rockstar's 30-day window of appeal; more pointedly, she also dropped a hint that the Rating Board may be in a mood to begin flexing its muscle more than it has in the past. "The ratings assigned by ESRB are based on the consensus of our raters, who consider several factors including not only the content itself, but also elements such as the reward system and degree of player control," she said. "It should be noted that this is not the first time that an AO rating has been assigned for violent content, nor will it likely be the last. However, our system affords publishers the opportunity to modify and resubmit games that receive the AO rating in light of the business ramifications that such a rating currently presents." With Rockstar still considering its options in response to the rating, she said it would be "inappropriate to comment further at this time."
In a statement, Take-Two Interactive responded to the ESRB's rating by saying, "The ESRB has issued an initial rating of AO (Adults Only) for Manhunt 2. We believe the process of rating videogames is to help people make informed entertainment choices and not to limit them. Manhunt 2 was created for mature audiences and we strongly believe it should receive an M (Mature) rating, aligning it with similar content created in other forms of media. We are exploring our options with regard to the rating of Manhunt 2." Among these options is a 30-day window for Rockstar to make changes to the game and resubmit it in hopes of a more retail-friendly rating, or to appeal the decision to the ESRB appeals board. The company could also simply make the game available via mail order, or perhaps through a Steam-style digital distribution service, and hope a combination of hype and quality gameplay turns the game into a success despite the lack of retail availability.
Rockstar is essentially faced with two choices: Tone it down and get in line or throw caution to the winds and become the Peach Princess of gratuitous, ball-crushing violence. Could they survive as The House That AO Built? Possibly. Their reputation for producing top-flight games is beyond reproach, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the most recognizable in the industry. Embracing their dark side might also have the side benefit of throwing some light on the flaws inherent in the ESRB system as it stands, as well as the "no-AO" policy held by major retailers. We might even get some cool games out of it. Only one thing is certain: It sure would be fun to watch them try.