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

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.

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