Halo-in-Church Controversy Points Out Flaw in ESRB Rating System

October 14, 2007 -
From the New York Times on down, newspapers and bloggers - including GamePolitics - have had a field day recently with the news that some Christian youth ministers are using Microsoft's best-selling Halo series to attract teens to church.

The major point of contention for critics seems to be that, since the Halo games are rated M (17 and older) by the ESRB, they are inappropriate for use by church youth groups.

The problem with that logic is that the M rating encompasses too wide a variety of games, including some military shooters as well as other titles with clear good vs. evil themes, like Halo.

Also included in the M's broad swath are games with less lofty ideals such as the Grand Theft Auto titles, the ridiculously gory Manhunt series, and controversial offerings like last year's 25 to Life, which featured violence against police officers.

When you look at it like that, it's hard to blame those who criticize bringing Halo into sacred space. For the most part the critics are not gamers and have no concept of the vast difference between Halo and GTA. All they know is that the games share a common M rating, a designation assigned by the game industry itself, theoretically for the protection of impressionable youth.

For the uninitiated it's only logical to assume the content must be of a similar character as well. As somone who has played both, I'd argue that there is a world of difference between Halo and GTA. In fact, as a parent I saw Halo as digital cops-and-robbers with the player in the role of the good guy. I let my sons play it at 12 and 13. Anecdotally, I can say that a lot of their friends were allowed to play at that age as well.

On the other hand, GTA was always verboten. I never wanted to expose my kids to the pretend hardcore criminality. And Manhunt? Fuhgeddaboudit...

Now that they are older, I'd be okay with GTA, but so far there's no interest. World of Warcraft and Neverwinter Nights 2 are the games of choice lately at GP HQ.

So what's the solution?

There are those who have called for an AO (18+) rating that means something other than a de facto sales ban. Under that scenario, perhaps GTA is an AO while Halo is an M.

On the other hand, M is currently the most serious marketable rating, but leaves in its wake a four-year gap to the next lower step, T (13 and older). As any parent can tell you, from 13 to 17 is a huge span, developmentally. 

There are those who argue for something similar to the U.K.'s 15+ rating. Would the critics object if church youth leaders were exposing their young congregants to a game cleared for 15-year-olds?

They might, but probably with less force. And, they'd be making their case without the industry's own flawed rating system to back them up.

As the differences between games become increasingly nuanced, the ESRB really needs to look into fine-tuning its system to better meet the needs of those who must make game choices for adolescents.


I agree with what Pen gun's trying to say - change it now and it'll just be a mess. I'm actually not sure if the pundits would go crazy, but there's also the problem that, if people object to Halo for this reason it means they're finally paying attention to the ratings system! To alter the ratings now, and make them more complicated, when the public at large is only now starting to figure out they exist and are useful, seems like it'd damage what progress had already been made.

"Then we really should get rid of church softball leagues also. Church should be about Christ and not sports eh?"

True, although I'm actually inclined to agree with Jack. Church is spiritual time, and if you want to play Halo 3 you can wait until you get home.

That's odd...the Church should welcome Halo with open arms, after all, Religion has been the number 1 cause of death and violence in the World throughout history. Pot meet Kettle :)

The killings in the bible make the killings in manhunt 2 look very tame after seeing alot of videos of the uncut version of manhunt 2 and yet the bible is taught to very young children. I dont even understand why manhunt 2 would get the AO rating in its uncut form if manhunt 1 was more violent and disturbing in some ways and still got the M rating. Now back to this, I think that there is nothing wrong with grouping up to play Halo 3 when you cant do anything brutal like blow off a head and limbs, and there is not that much blood coming out when you shoot someone. If the majority of the teachings is very brutal, then I see no problem having halo 3.

You see, the problem with Jack Thompson is, he's so grounded in the past he may as well be a member of the Knights Templar... oh not a popular one, probably one of those annoying guys that gets sent out first into a battle and miraculously survives despite all attempts to have him killed, not because of skill... let's just call it the "jar-jar binks" effect.

What he fails to realizes is that children don't want to sit in church all mornings on a week day, they dont want to listen to an old man "prattle on" they want something interesting to do. In a world where every 3rd child is probably on ritalin because the parents are too afraid to discipline their children fearing state reprisals, if they're not going to obey they're parents, children are as sure as hell not going to listen to a stranger. The church is growing to adapt to the youth of this generation. Pity Jack wont...

For once Mr Thompson, I agree with you.

Church is about religion. Its not really a place for computer games. Especially using them as some sort of bribe to bring someone into religion. You are either religious or you aren't... You shouldn't wave Halo under someones nose then whilst there eyes are fixed on the game, fill their ears with preaching.


Very well Jack, by that logic, church groups should not organize baseball games, soccer matches, BBQ's, or any other get together that doesn't involve reading the bible and prayer. Now, it may have been a while for you, but most pre-teens and teens I know don't want to spend their weekends being taught about damnation and hell fire (an extreme example mind you).

You say that video games teach people to kill. The same thing can be said for groups that do things such as martial arts to teach troubled kids self respect and self discipline. Yes, they are fighting techniques, however there is more to them than just learning to throw punches and kick, or what not. The most valuable lesson I learned when I was a Civil Air Patrol Cadet is that the group cannot exist with the individual, and without the group the individual cannot support themself. This lesson was learned the hard way on a military confidence course that required us to work as a team and put aside any petty squabbles we may have had.
Much of these gathering have one thing in common, and that is the feeling on comradery. Whether it's a karate dojo, a fencing salle, a boxing ring, or a lan party you feel like part of something, joke around with people, and in the end respect them even if you lost.

The simple fact is that people like Jack Thompson are so deluded in their own self-righteousness that they fail to see the good before them, because it doesn't fit in the mold of their narrow perception. The fact that an event like this brought together people who may have never know one another before, let them have a good time, laugh, celebrate and make friends says more than any half-baked theory that this Florida lawyer may conjure.

It's not stupidity or insanity that Jack suffers from, its an even worse disease; petty narrow mindedness.

1. Read the descriptors..

2. Halo 3.. Believe.. in Christ.

3. Rated H for Holy.. Will see as much use as the AO rating.

4. Newflash: Church intended for sinners, not saints.

5. This is just like modern sex ed.. The adults should be embarrassed to talk about it, since the kids have much more experience than they do.

I think it's a fair idea. Put the game into the hands of those ready to deal with it. Why not?

Oh yeah, there's a flip side to my statement..

BRA-VO! I completely agree, honestly, the difference between halo and Manhunt is such a big difference.

I would be more inclined to see Halo like star wars, and Manhunt like Saw, in the movie world, one is pg(-13), and the other is R, in the game world, they share the same rating? I don't get it.

How the hell did Star Wars get a PG in the states? It's a U in Britain. I think..


They are All PG with the exeption of Episode 3. the violence level in halo and star wars seems about equivalent to me (maybe slightly more, but not a lot)

but what about the content descriptors?

I knew that.. I was just.. testing.. you..

Halo should be a T or a 15 if they ever make a 15 rating.



Yup, in the UK most of them were rated U.

Edit dammit, the link won't fit

Go to BBFC.CO.UK and search for Star Wars ;)

Nah, I believe you.

I think this is definitely an important issue. The whole "All M-rated games are equal" mentality is a lot more true then a lot of people think. I know that when Halo came out of PC I was 14 and really wanted to play it, but my mother was under the impression that it was just as bad as Grand Theft Auto or Postal, and everything she had seen in the media, etc. pointed to that. Hell, when I was in middle school they had some crackpot guy who had obviously never played a game in his life come in and talk about violent media, and he showed some footage of Vice City and Postal 2 before handing out a list of every M-rated game and several T-rated games that had been released in the past 3 years. (To be fair, he did the same thing with music and movies, for example putting 50 cent and Linkin Park at the same level content-wise.

Of course, this works the opposite way too and with probably even worse ramifications- a parent will see their child play a game like Halo or Time Splitters and assume that all M-rated games are similiar, then go out and buy their kid Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt without looking into the games any further. A ridiculous number of my friends' parents did this.

I would say that a good solution would be to add an OT 15+ category in which less violent and/or morally unsound games would be taken from M and added to, and change M to simply 17+ in order to distinguish it from current M-rated games, which would encompass the new OT games as well. I would not be opposed to a law requiring license in order to purchase a 17+ game.

I agree that the ESRB needs to rethink their system a bit. I also think that people who don't understand games should try to learn more about it and maybe even relax after they find out more information. I mean, isn't it the message that is more important? Right? Hello?

Why am I here all by myself? It's lonely here in the middle.

I definetely agree that the M rating is a little too all-inclusive. I work at a game store, and parents (brilliant creatures that they are) frequently look at M rated games for their children without knowing what they're about.

The trouble is defining that one title is or isn't as bad as a GTA and its ilk can be quite trying at times. Not too mention some games are either underrated, or (more frequently) overrated in terms of content classification.

Personally, I never understood why the Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall (the latter of the two being one of my very favorite titles) ever got the M rating. The former was rated M exclusively for swearing. EXCLUSIVELY. The sequel had swearing (though not nearly as much) and a bit of violence too, which was about as far removed as the goriest M games could ever manage to give you.

I've been stressing this for years! The ratings are vague and confusing, just like the MPAA. Saw is rated R, but so is My Cousin Vinny. Halo is M, as is Manhunt 2.

Clearly we need more room for distinction


excellent comment and i agree with most of it. the only problem i have is that i would oppose any kind of government involvement, but there is already a retailer standard in place (at least here in the U.S.) that requires an ID check at the point of sale for games rated M or higher. call me paranoid, but imo, any kind of government involvement and/or regulation is a stepping stone to a chilling effect and possibly even censorship.

The most serious flaw I can see in the logic of adding another rating - whether or not one's called for; is that the retailers and console companies would likely just blackball it like they have AO. People are already complaining that AO effectively equals ban - I see no reason to believe other ratings wouldn't get the same treatment.

I have to agree... I've seen enough of Halo and don't care for it, however the violence content doesn't really match alot of the rated M games of much more graphic violence >>

The PEGI system's age categories are : 3, 7, 10, 12, 16 and 18. The big difference with ESRB is that I can find games for 18 years old in big retail stores. I don't know if it's better.

But in my opinion, a clear difference must be made between the different contexts in which violence occurs : is it fantasy ? Sci-Fi ? Historic (WWII, medieval) ? Or modern urban ghetto ? Plus, a better difference could be made between the different kinds of violence : does the context fully justify this violence ? (for instance, in WWII games) Isn't the context enough to justify it ? (for example, in "Soldier of Fortune") Or does the context simply aggravate it ? (for example, crime in GTA-like towns, or Mahunt-like executions)

These differences between different violences and different contexts could be made in rating system. But above all, the public must be able to perceive them.

Step 1) Kill Ao change M to 18+
Step 2) Make a 15+ rating
Step 3) Start gloating about your improved system

And that's how to fix the ESRB. As it stands now it is a flawed system.

@Father time

apart from the legal backing, 18/15 is the same as our setup here in the UK, I find its a good bracketing distinction.

and for reference, I'm pretty sure Halo 3 did make 15.


It may be an industry standard, but since it's not legally binding many workers at big-chain retailers don't take it seriously (not so much the major game-specific retailers, who will at least warn and often fire an employee for selling an M game without a license) This is a major point of video game critics like Jack Thomson, and an industry-supported law requiring ID would show that the industry is serious about this issue, as well as allowing politicians a chance to jump on the "protect-the-children" bandwagon without harming people who are old enough to make their own decisions.

I would say that the PEGI ratings used on mainland Europe is far the most honest system.
Halo3 is rated as 16+, while a game like Manhunt is rated 18+. But here is the thing: Why is the ESRB being seen as the best way in rating games, while the console producers do not want AO rated games on their system. Yet, PEGI list pretty much any game that features gore as 18+.

I think console makers should stop using their stance against the AO rating, and allow these games on their consoles.

I think If we changed the system now all of the anti game pundits would swoop down and fuck up the system more.

But I do agree that there are many kinds of M.

Hl2 would be on in the middle. halo near the M boardering Teen, And The darkness would be closer to A.

And there is a huge difference between R movies like Good Luck Chuck, 300, and Saw. Rating letter systems of all types are flawed because they are too vague. People need to stop relying on the actual letter rating and pay attention to the description of the rating next to it.

the Bible itself should be AO, so meh.

like everyone else said, the problem is that the US doesn't have a 15+ rating, even for movies. There are plenty of movies that deserve a 15+ rating, as well as plenty of games, but the lack of a 15+ rating bumps them to a 17+ rating.

岩「…I can see why Hasselbeck's worried about fake guns killing fake people. afterall, she's a fake journalist on a fake news channel」

Maybe this is a potential moment in the evolution of this rating system as well as every other one. We've been using the MPAA's system since 1968, and every form of media except for music and books have gotten a rating system. It's not really all that ironic that music and books have been untouched, since both art forms have been in existence longer than modern civilization, and we've grown accustom to their subtlety. Since movies, TV, and video games have only been around the past generation or two, they haven't been ingrained into society as something that's totally part of life. When it comes to books, I've noticed that most parents know what to keep away from their kids, or at least trust them enough to read them, so why not everything else? I think it's because everyone sees it as different, even though if you think about it, these media forms aren't really different, just new.
Now that I'm done ranting, I think that rather than a tiered rating system, the real key is those content descriptors. Why tell parents their children aren't old enough, when you should tell them what they'll be exposing them to and let them make the decision themselves (in most cases, including you GP, they already do). Full frontal nudity and sex, religious themes, exorbitant gore and violence, and others would be in red ink instead of black, and require ID to buy them. It'd be more similar to how books are checked (reading difficulty and theme) and give more power to the parents.
Just my $3.25 worth.

Look at it this way. The M designates how old the buyer has to be. The buyer can then use this amazing concept know as COMMON SENSE to decide whether or not to let a younger person play it.

Case in point: A parent goes out to a video game store and sees Halo 3 and Manhunt 2 on the shelf. Halo 3's case states a battle of good versus evil, a battle were humanity's last hope must protect the Earth against aliens (I don't know if that is the actual plot, never played the games, so bite me if I'm wrong) whereas Manhunt 2 has a deranged serial killer murdering people as its selling point. Now, in an ideal world, the parent would use this newfound device, COMMON SENSE, to decide whether either title is suitable for their child.

However, in the real world, parent is stupid and buys games clearly not intended for children for their kids and then bitches when it turns out the game revolves around killing people with graphic violence.

Someday I wish to pioneer this common sense both in America and around the world and hopefully, we can live in a world where people will use common sense in making obvious day-to-day decisions, such as not buying unsuitable material for kids, not doing up their laces in a doorway, and, perhaps, if we're lucky, not vote Republican, although case studies have shown that incredibly stupid people are unable to grasp common sense, so we might have no hope whatsoever on that last point.

I think the best solution, instead of just saying the ESRB is flawed, would be to approach a more universal rating system, one that can be used for movies and music (not books though, that would cause too much trouble if some one were to rate sacred texts such as the Bible and Qur'an). The newer system could include appropriate ratings so that Halo wouldn't be rated the same as GTA, My Cousin Vinny wouldn't be rated the same as Saw, and Injected wouldn't be rated the same as 2 Live Crew. They would have market the new system not that the old ones were flawed but as a much better and easier tool for parents to make appropriate decisions for their children.

@ Decivre

There are ratings for music: non explicit lyrics and explicit lyrics.

Sorry about so many post

@ las, attorney

Given the political climate, common sense wouldn't have you voting either Republican nor Democrat. They are both just as bad as the other. Given the fact that Hilary will get the nomination for Democrats, I'd rather vote Republican, especially if its Ron Paul (hell, if he gets the nomination for Republicans, I would vote for him no matter what).

@ neoSpider

Those are descriptors, they don't tell you how old you should be to listen to them, just what they have.

@ Decivre

In Florida, don't know if this nationwide or just store policy, but you couldn't buy explicit lyric CDs unless you were 16.


Well, i say we turn the AO rating into something like M18, and turn the M rating into M15 (thus eliminating the M17)... games like Halo would fall under the M15 rating, while games like GTA would fall under the M18. The best part about this, is that it would get rid of the whole AO=death thing because now the 18+ rating is being used more often, and being used on hot titles. Console makers and retailers may not care about loosing Manhunt2, but when you are threatening hot games like GTA, god of war, and bioshock with the 18+ rating, those poeple will start changing their tune. Not wanting to loose so many hot titles, the companies will do what they should have been doing all along; instead of banning an entire rating, they will only ban games on a game by game basis... that way, we can still get the titles we want, and the console makers and retailers can still steer clear of the kinds of games they don't want on their consoles (porn)


I don't understand that. Your saying that games like GTA should be banned because they're for 18+?

@ neoSpider

That's fair, stores always have the right to refuse service. No one will argue that. But the fact of the matter is that an explicit lyric descriptor doesn't say what age they have to sell towards. The problem with an age specific rating system is in person-to-person maturity. I know a lot of teenagers that listen to music with explicit content. It's up to personal opinion whether or not they were old enough, but as far as I know they aren't acting on things they see and hear in music and movies. With specific age ratings however, it isn't up to personal opinion. A group of people decided that this game, movie or show is for people THIS old. In reality, only select things should be censored to specific age groups, and that's things we know should only be viewed by adults... we're talking enough nudity to be porn and enough blood to be snuff. Otherwise it should be up to the parents, and the parents alone to decide what's right for their kids at what age.

I think the more important question here, is why Manhunt and grand theft auto are there, when there are so many other games, a few rated T, that would be so much better in their place.

I think most of it is because it's much easier to bandy about an oversimplified rating than actually find out what the game is about. Because if you actually look a game up and read a summary and maybe a review or two, you might actually find the game is okay, after all, and the rating may have just been the result of an "abundance of caution."

But if that was the case, there would be so much less rhetoric to spew, wouldn't there?

And we can't have that now, can we?

this is where T15 would come into play M17 encompasses to much.

If the US adopted the 15+ rule then M17 could be treated like a R and not a obscure PG17............

The solution is that church groups are to be about Christ, not Master Chief. Pretty simple, really.

What the ESRB should do is take the content descriptors on the back of the box (Blood, Mild Violence, and all that jazz), and slap it on a FRONT corner of the box in BIG, BOLD font!
Forgot your password?
Username :
Password :

Shout box

You're not permitted to post shouts.
MattsworknameAndrew: If the new ghostbusters bombs, I cant help but feel it'll be cause it removed the origonal cast and changed the formula to much08/01/2015 - 8:31pm
Andrew EisenNot the best look but that appears to be a PKE meter hanging from McCarthy's belt.08/01/2015 - 7:34pm
Matthew Wilsonwhy, let me guess it runes like crap?08/01/2015 - 7:29pm
Andrew EisenInteresting. These throwers are different than the ones we saw in the earlier Ghostbusters prop pics. https://twitter.com/feigfans/status/62754147689817702508/01/2015 - 7:28pm
PHX Corphttp://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1088640 NeoGAF: Warning: Don't buy Binding of Isaac Rebirth on 3DS08/01/2015 - 7:26pm
MattsworknameYou know what game is a lot of fun? rocket league. It' s a soccer game thats actually fun to play cause your A Freaking CAR!08/01/2015 - 7:02pm
MattsworknameNomad colossus did a little video about it, showing the world and what can be explored in it's current form. It's worth a look, and he uses text for commentary as not to break the immerison08/01/2015 - 5:49pm
MattsworknameI feel some more mobility would have made it more interesting and I feel that a larger more diverse landscape with better graphiscs would help, but as a concept, it interests me08/01/2015 - 5:48pm
Andrew EisenHuh. I guess I'll have to check out a Let's Play to get a sense of the game.08/01/2015 - 5:47pm
MattsworknameIt did, I found the idea of exploring a world at it's end, exploring the abandoned city of a disappeared alien race and the planets various knooks and crannies intriqued me.08/01/2015 - 5:46pm
Andrew EisenDid it appeal to you? If so, what did you find appealing?08/01/2015 - 5:43pm
MattsworknameIts an interesting concept, but it's not gonna appeal to everyone thats for sure,08/01/2015 - 5:40pm
Andrew EisenThat sounds horrifically boring. Doesn't sound like an interesting use of its time dilation premise either. 08/01/2015 - 5:36pm
Mattsworknamean observer , seeing this sorta frozen world and being able to explore without any restriction other then time. no enimes, no threats, just the chance to explore08/01/2015 - 5:34pm
MattsworknameAndrew: I meant lifeless planet, Time frame is an exploration game. Your dropped onto a world which is gonna be hit by a metor in 10 seconds, but due to time dilation ,you actually have ten minutes, so you can explore the world, in it's last moments, as08/01/2015 - 5:32pm
Andrew EisenLP is 20, TF is 8 and has an old build available as a demo.08/01/2015 - 5:32pm
MattsworknameLast I checked zip, Lifeless planet was 10 bucks on steam I think08/01/2015 - 5:29pm
Andrew EisenMatt - Which one? Time Frame? How exactly does that play? What exactly do you DO in that one?08/01/2015 - 5:29pm
Andrew EisenZip - Neither game is above $20.08/01/2015 - 5:28pm
Mattsworknamefinished it, great game all the same.08/01/2015 - 5:22pm

Be Heard - Contact Your Politician