Adam Thierer Offers Reaction to Former Rater’s Criticisms of ESRB

Recently, former ESRB game rater Jerry Bonner penned a critique of the video game industry’s content rating system for Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Adam Thierer (Left), a senior fellow with market-oriented D.C. think tank the Progress & Freedom Foundation, finds himself in disagreement with a number of Bonner’s suggestions and has issued a point-by-point response.

For example, in regard to Bonner’s suggestion to tweak the current rating system by discarding the useless AO (adults only) rating, making M (mature) the new 18+ high end of the scale and adding a T-16 (teen, 16+), Thierer writes:

Why screw with the ratings system? Indeed, the change Mr. Bonner suggests will invite far more pressure by critics and lawmakers for oversight or direct regulation of games since they will make the old “ratings creep” argument…

Moreover… the fact that AO-rated games are currently kept off the major consoles and off the shelves at some major retailers… is probably the most important thing holding back a full-on legislative assault on video games. 

While, like some game industry critics (most notably Sen. Sam Brownback), Bonner advocates playing games all the way through prior to assigning a rating, Thierer disagrees:

Let’s get serious. Games are not linear media like TV shows or movies. Gameplay is highly unique and multi-dimensional, and often there is no clear “end” to the game. Raters would have to spend days – perhaps weeks – trying to “finish” some titles.

While Bonner argues that the solution is to hire more raters, Thierer views this as unworkable:

Mr. Bonner is underestimating the challenge at hand here. The ESRB would have to hire a small army of new, full-time raters… Who’s going to pay for all that manpower? Answer: Gaming companies. And they aren’t going to be very happy about it… More importantly, it would likely slow down a system that is fairly responsive right now.

Regarding Bonner’s call for additional transparency in the rating process, Thierer writes:

There are actually some very good reasons for the ESRB… to not be perfectly open as Mr. Bonner suggests… if those assigning video game ratings weren’t anonymous, [raters] might be harassed by both game developers (who want to make them more lax) and game critics (who want to make them more stringent)… if the ESRB was forced to make their ratings process completely open… it would result in a circus-like atmosphere and little content would get rated in a timely manner…

You’d have Jack Thompson screaming bloody murder (literally!) from one side of the aisle while the guys from Take-Two would be going nuts on the opposite side…

Thierer also takes Bonner to task over his call for competitive rating systems:

I’m about as rabid of a capitalist as you will find… But capitalism also depends on standards… If you hope to build acceptance and awareness about a voluntary rating system, you need a certain amount of stability and scale. Everything needs to be rated according to a widely understood benchmark and then branded accordingly…  

And I’m happy to report to Mr. Bonner that there is a lot of [non-industry] competition out there already in this regard [from media outlets and watchdog groups]… But if Mr. Bonner seriously believes that an entirely different, competing rating system is going to develop from within the industry as an official alternative to the ESRB, I think he’s dreaming. Developers would never tolerate it.

Thierer wraps up with: 

What critics consistently forget – or perhaps intentionally ignore – is that media rating and content-labeling efforts are not an exact science; they are fundamentally subjective exercises… In a sense, therefore, all rating systems will be inherently “flawed”…

In many ways, although [ESRB] is the newest of all industry content rating and labeling schemes, the video game industry’s system is in many ways the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America…

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  1. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    You are missing the point again, and I’m starting to worry you are doing it on purpose, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and try one more time: Blaming the limited distribution of “AO”-rated games on the “AO” rating itself is like blaming the poor box office sales of a movie on a critic’s bad review. Suggesting that removing the “AO” rating from the system would magically remove all the problems the mainstream market has with the content of “AO”-rated games is like saying that if Roger Ebert stopped using his “thumbs down” judgments, all movies would suddenly be “thumb up” good. Your arguments are backwards.

    I agree with your sentiments but you are mistaken on the facts.

    There is absolutely no U.S. law (or active state or local law as far as I know) which requires a movie be rated before it is released. Any such law would be a violation of the First Amendment. Visit your local art film theater, check the shelves at your local DVD retailer, or browse though Netflix and you will find a plethora of “unrated” movies for sale or rent.

    The same goes for games. There is no law requiring they be rated, and there are thousands of unrated games that are easily available to consumers. For example, nearly every GameStop/EB I have ever visited sells used games for NES, Genesis, and other old systems, that are unrated because they were released before 1994, when there wasn’t an ESRB in existence to rate them.

    It seems yours is another comment that favors ESRB raters playing games but gives no explanation of how this would be beneficial. How would limited play time help the ratings process? Once you allow “cheating,” you are no longer experiencing the game as it was intended anyway. Why not just consider the video submitted by the publisher to be one big “cheat code” that skips ahead to all the noteworthy content contained in a game?

    As it stands, it is the publisher’s responsibility completely to submit any and all potentially objectionable content to the ESRB for rating. That is how the system works, and it’s working better than any other system of its type, according to most analysts. If you want to change the way the system works (such as requiring raters to have limited play time), you need to explain how that will make the system work better than it currently does.

    Also, ALL rating systems are subjective. That is not that same thing as being broken. Reconsider the purpose to the ratings system. Visit the websites of the ESRB or MPAA is you have questions. These organizations fully understand that their work is subjective, and plainly state that they exist to give age-appropriateness suggestions, not laws. Taking those ratings as anything more than suggestions, in a legal sense, is ethically incorrect and constitutionally dangerous.

  2. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ TJLK

    Except movies and games can not be released without a rating, you can’t do away with the AO rating. To do so the next strongest rating present is an M.

    Lets go by the closest medium to games, movies. To do away with the NC-17 rating the movie would now be rated to the closest thing “R.” To have an R rating there are so much of one thing that can be present, NO SEX is one, they skim this rule by showing “blanket sex” not full sex. But NC-17 has full sex scenes, by getting rid of NC-17 it should be R, but it can’t be given an R. So movie goes unrated.

    Same goes for games, only so much of certian things gets ratings. You can’t show full on sex (which would certianly found in an AO) in an M rated game. You can skim by making it cartoony, bluring, or just not showing it.

    Granted one can always shovve things to the internet without getting it rated. But to get it released in a retailer you have to get it rated. Retailers will not carry an AO, or NC-17 (Best Buy has sold NC-17, but it’s rare) The ESRB has no power to tell retailers to stock games rated AO. What whould there threat be “Stock this or we won’t rate it”? Retailers will laugh game industry will go “damn it!” ESRB holds power over games, but that the limited power they have.

  3. 0
    tony selby ( User Karma: 0 ) says:


    if you removes the AO rating, what do you do with the games that currently get AO ratings? i’m not talking about the controversial manhunts and thrill kills, i’m talking about games like “captain pornography’s tentacle adventure” (made up title don’t know if it really exists) you can’t just say that should be an M rated game, and forcing it to go without rating doesn’t change the problem at all

  4. 0
    TONy says:

    i have never seen an ao rated game iv been gaming since the atari so why does anyone care if the esrb has an ao or not?? id rather they left it maybe 1 day a game just might pass to the public as ao who knows it could be the next man hunt. im 24 i can handle it.. so why are ppl acting like the esrb having an ao rating is hurting anything?? i really dont understand why the esrb is getting bashed so much the damn thing is easy to understand.. what the hell you want a damn manual from them stating word for word whats in the disc

  5. 0
    Kei says:

    Good points around the board, though I think there is some degree of merit to Bonner’s suggestions – many of which have been leveled before by the Nielson Report, National Institute on Media and the Family, etc.

    I do agree that raters should play a portion of the games. A few hours of gameplay can get you through a good amount of most games if you are ‘cheating’ by using dev copies to eliminate difficulty. Given that these reviewers need not be paid an astronomical amount and the huge profits of the industry, I think the cost of doing business here is manageable. The real problem is probably deadlines and completion of games, which is something that work work its way out of the system if developers unilaterally accounted for this downtime.

    Regarding the AO rating, I think the best thing is to keep questioning its usefulness and continuing to be indignant about it. Like many things in the (US) media, the rating system is highly subjective and broken – I honestly do not see why “Adults Only” should be a kiss of death if that’s the way we describe Mature games – especially if this games-as-porn legislation gets passed. In time, one of three things should happen:

    1. The industry ‘grows up’, sees the larger number of aging gamers, and starts releasing “AO” type games to consoles.
    2. The mass culture ‘grows up’ with the wave of gamers and the ‘games are just for kids’ argument evaporates.
    3. Digital Distribution begins to eliminate retail’s interference, and already-developed ‘parental controls’ on consoles prevent youngun’s from playing the games.

    Personally, I am hoping for a combination of all of the above. The way my peers view games and their role in mediating their children’s consumption of games is markedly different than their parents before them. I suspect that within a generation the whole situation will have largely been settled.

  6. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ TJLK

    The US has a law where unless a movie is rated it CAN NOT be released. Now Porn is rated NC-17 (replacing the old X and XXX ratings)
    Major retailers WILL NOT STOCK them, so if they don’t stock them where would one buy a porn? Simple adult store and internet. DUELLY NOTE: Porno is the LARGEST industry in the US.

    Now gamers have the same rate system CAN NOT, be released with out a rating. Now major retailers WILL NOT STOCK AO games. So how would one come about procurring an AO game. I would assume if it’s heavily based on sex maybe a Adult Store, and definatly the internet.


  7. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    StinkingKevin – They ARE overstepping their boundaries. How are they not? If their main purpose is purely to inform the consumer what the rating of a product is and one of the ratings they assign is an effective ban I don’t see how anyone could consider that not overstepping their boundaries. They are screwing the developer and the consumer by not adhering strictly to their intended purpose. When they find out that their system is being used for something other than what it is intended for they simply keep on trucking. They need to fix the system because it is being manipulated and used in ways that were not intended. It is harmful the the wellness of the developer’s creative freedom and in turn harmful to the consumer because they desire to play content as it was originally intended, not something that was changed just because the ESRB gives it a particular rating.

    The argument is not backwards. It is their system that is being manipulated and used in ways in which was not intended. Even the ESRB says their intention is to be sure that the consumer is well informed about the product they are purchasing. The effort to inform is being killed by those who wish to prohibit AO titles. What use is the AO title when the consumer doesn’t even get a chance to read what it entails on any given product. It has no use. Its intended use is not implemented in the slightest because its intended use is being manipulated. So change the system so it can no longer be manipulated. It is definitely a DESIGN ISSUE.

    If you make a game and gamers don’t play it the way you wanted them too then who is to blame? The gamer certainly isn’t, it is your fault for making a faulty design. So what can you do? Well you can continue to allow people to use it as it was not intended or you can fix it. I say the ESRB should fix this issue because the Big3 and retailers are screwing with the system and that is not good for the consumer or the designer.

  8. 0
    Monkeythumbs says:

    @ -Jes-

    You make it sound as if playthroughs are impossible. You do realise that other ratings and classifications boards from other parts of the world do employ playthroughs as part of their ratings process? So it’s not exactly like it’s unfeasible…

  9. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Jes

    Viva Pinata VERY linear
    Area 51 linear
    Area 51 Black Mesa VERY linear reminds me of a 2d shooter more than a 3d squad game

    thats just 3 and off the top of my head I could throw more in if you would like.

  10. 0
    tony selby ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    the biggest problem with dropping AO ratings is that games that truly deserve the AO rating would then either get no rating (also effectively banning them just like in the UK as stores wont sell unrated games, and consoles wont take them either) or it would lump them into the M rating with everything else, meaning “captain perverts tentacle adventure” would be in the same catagory as GTA, is that really what people want?

  11. 0
    -Jes- ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    There is no real “playing fully through a game”, as almost NO game made in the last 10 years has such a linear gameplay that 10 playthroughs leave the EXACT same taste in your mouth.

    You can “complete” the main part of many games easily, 4-20 hours by seasoned gamers. But these ratings aren’t just for seasoned gamers.
    Hence we need people that are NOT seasoned players to try them out as well.

    NOT TO MENTION, that gaining every unlock, finding every egg, opening every exploit, using every bit of old data unused in the game, completing every quest line in every concievable way…

    It’s just NOT possible within moderate funding and limited time.
    And what company would bother with the rating if it took a year and 10 billion dollar?

  12. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:


    Nobody is forced to play games on Wii or Xbox or PlayStation, but if you choose to, you are subject to their rules. As soon as you start making the argument that we all should have to go along with whatever the retailers or the Big 3 think is most legally safe or financially profitable, you are no longer “looking out for the consumer.”

    I disagree that the ESRB is overstepping its boundaries by assigning games to one of the ratings categories it established 14 years ago. I find the argument that the rating board is somehow at fault for adhering to its own guidelines to be backwards, especially considering the ESRB has been in the gaming business for longer than two of the current “Big 3.”

  13. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    It is an effective ban because AO titles are not allowed, in the United States, on the Big3’s consoles. Computer games are a different story but console games are not allowed to be AO. Digitally distributed computer games are not banned if they are AO but they are crippled in terms of sales because of the retailers (and the restrictions consoles have placed)

    Console Games and Games sold in major retail chains = AO Ban

    Digitally distributed computer games = Not AO ban.

    Obviously you can order specialty stuff but I’m trying to look out for the consumer. Why be forced to go through all of that just to play a game? Why have to deal with an organization that is overstepping its boundaries? I don’t think the consumer should and currently they have to.

  14. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    I think Princess Peach games are now available by mail-order only (and to be fair, there are many other unrated hentai games available in this fashion as well). There was an import shop in my hometown that sold them too, “behind the counter,” but that was a while ago, and I live in a fairly liberal-minded hometown. I believe games like Singles, Leisure Suit Larry, and Lula 3D were available both by mail order and direct download. I wouldn’t be completely surprised if an “original uncut” version of Manhunt 2 were released in this fashion as well, eventually.

    “Displacement of usable abilities” is OK, so long as we are all clear about who is doing the “displacing.” It is the retailers and the console manufacturers, not the ESRB.

  15. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Stinking Kevin

    Curosity is about to kill the Ebonheart, were did even get AO games?
    And it’s not so much as banned as it is a “displacement of usable utilities”

  16. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Stinking Kevin

    Hmm I figured games like that had been made, I just never knew they were fairly main stream.

    As for Oblivion, and Hot coffee. I find it incredably funny that you can show just short a nipple and few peple would be in arms, but show just short clevage in a game and people get up in arms.

  17. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    Stinking Kevin – The ESRB’s purpose is to inform the audience about games contents and what age group it should apply to based on the requirements outlined for each game rating. That should be their one and only purpose.

    The AO title is an effective ban and because of that, it grants them another purpose. To ban games that they feel are too violent or sexual for the M rating. This is not the intended purpose for the ESRB and it really makes the actual purpose for the AO rating to be meaningless since consumers will never see it.

    Remove the AO rating and just force the Big3 and retailers to enforce their own rights to allow or not allow a game on their machines/stores. It is their job to decide what is on their machine or inside of their stores not the ESRBs. ESRB should stay within its own intended purpose which is purely to inform the consumer about the contents of a video game. Having the AO title allows the ESRB to overreach their intended purpose and I honestly think that they like that a little bit. It is detrimental to the developer and to the consumer. (And if you think about it the Big3 and Retailers as well… though they aren’t going to raise any fuss).

  18. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    Going by their official definitions at the website, all of the ESRB’s ratings and content descriptors concern narrative content exclusively. I can’t think of a single example in which an ESRB rating was influenced by the way the game plays, just as I can’t think of any example in which the style of cinematography directly affected the MPAA rating of a movie.

    As I say, I’m sure someone will call me out if I am wrong about this, but when the ESRB talks about “content,” it is never talking about how a game plays, only about the game’s narrative elements. To be clear, when I say “narrative content” I am talking about characters, dialog, settings, and any other element that is part of the story.

    No, that’s not what I meant — sorry if I misunderstood you. It sounded to me like you were saying there are games from Japan that could not be released here because they’d receive an “AO” rating. I was just trying to show that there are games from Japan released here that did receive an AO rating, and to suggest that without the AO rating their releases might have been more limited, if they were released at here all.

    As for the age-appropriateness rating system in Japan, I don’t know much about it. It is my understanding that all entertainment media is regulated by content a little more strictly by the Japanese government, but I don’t have any first-hand experience.

    (And in case you were wondering, those Princess Peach games are all “hentai” dating sims. That is what comes to mind when I think of adult-oriented Japanese games.)

    Oblivion is a famously huge game. I disagree that a few hours of playtime would have revealed the violent content that was one factor in the re-rating. That is, how long would it take a play tester to get to the ‘Dark Brotherhood’ content you mention? Like you, I also heard that the other factor Oblivion’s last-minute re-rating was the discovery of some unplayable code for topless character graphics. I agree that this was probably an over-reaction in the wake of Hot Coffee, but this content certainly would not have been caught by some play-tester at the ESRB

    More importantly, as it stands now, the publisher is responsible for disclosing all potentially objectionable content. Shifting any of that responsibility whatsoever to play testers only makes the ESRB more liable and the publishers less. Currently, at least, the system relies on publishers taking full responsibility for divulging all noteworthy narrative content in a game.

    As for credibility, the only people who find the current system untrustworthy are those who do not understand how the system works, do not understand what the system is intended to categorize, or both. In my opinion, giving game-ignorant people like Sam Brownback a false peace of mind is not a good enough reason to change the way the system works. I think it would be better to try to help more people understand how the rating system is supposed to work, instead of pretending it works in the way they think it should work.

    As for the difference between 17 and 18 years old, this is also the difference between being a minor and a legal adult. It’s the same one-year difference between whether or not you can vote, or have to sign up for selective service, or can buy a pack of cigarettes, or can enter into legal contracts, and countless other distinctions. It’s fine to argue that it’s arbitrary, but the age limit has to be set somewhere.

    Moreover, I’m not sure it even matters so much exactly what the particular age suggestions are. The point is that the market wants a distinction between Halo-type content and Tomeki Check-in-type content. Would it make any more sense if we widened that “just one year” gap by moving the suggested age for AO up to 21?

  19. 0
    JB says:

    Couldn’t they just go by each year? The problem with the ESRB is it just does not use any goddamn common sense at all. Halo for 17+? Seriously??? Star Trek is more violent than Halo.

    Halo (Suggested for 13+)
    Bully (Suggested for 14+)
    Mass Effect (Suggested for 15+)
    Devil May Cry (Suggested for 16+)
    Manhunt 2 (Suggested for 17+)

    So on, and so forth. You’d think that would make sense, wouldn’t it?

  20. 0
    Are'el ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @Stinking Kevin

    On the playing of games, you ask, “what good it could do.” I’ve already given two answers.

    1. Fewer mistakes. They don’t make too many, but they do happen, and they usually gain a lot of negative press. Take Oblivion, for example. They originally gave the game a T rating, which is absurd (anyone who has played the Dark Brotherhood quests would argee, but also the fact that just about everyone is killable). Now, the problem wasn’t noticed until game critics went after a mod that allowed for nudity, but the faulty T rating still gave them ammo. Then, when the ESRB changed the rating to the more appropriate M, they looked incompetent in the public’s eye.

    2. Credibility. For now and into the forseeable future, the game industry and the ratings system is going to be targeted by critics and people looking for a scapegoat to their troubles in life. If the ESRB actually played the games, even a little, then their stance will have more credibility.

    On the AO issue, the reason a lot of us think it’s useless is, it’s covering the same demographic as the M rating. 17+. 18+. Really, they’re both describing games intended for adults. AO is just a little more hardcore than the M in content. If parents are ok with their kids playing an M game, that’s fine. But it’s still an adult oriented game.

    Perhaps it’s the name of the rating, “Adults Only.” It’s actually makes the whole system misleading, as M games are basically for adults as well. Maybe if the ratings depicted content instead of age groups (teen, mature, adults only), it would make more sense to have a level higher than M.

  21. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Stinking Kevin

    So to make sure I understand, Japan DOES have games that are rated lets say the equivilant of T or M that would be the quivlant of a AO here? I did look up Princess Peach, unfortunatly the limited discriscription doesn’t say much.

  22. 0
    Monkeythumbs ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Stinking Kevin

    I was completely unaware “that the ESRB rates narrative content only” – whilst I could formulate several arguments as to the benfits of hands-on experience with a games, they become pointless when taken in that context.

    Exactly how does the ESRB define the difference between “narrative” and “gameplay” content? I’d be very interested to learn more.

    Is this difference well advertised? That is to say, does the ESRB do its best to make parents aware of this difference?

    On a more philosophical level, can the two be reasonably seperated from one another in the level of immersion or impact a game has on a player?


  23. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ MonkeyThumbs

    I agree fully to that, just watching a video doesn’t really tell you every thing you need to know. Playing a game a few minutes could tell you everything you need to know.

  24. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    I think you are mistaken when you suggest that Japanese games worthy of an AO rating will not be released in the U.S. — this is the same misunderstanding the console-centric “lets drop the AO rating” crowd seems to share. Go to the ESRB homepage and search for the publisher Princess Peach; I think you’ll find a number of games that fit the description you give. And on the contrary, WITHOUT the AO rating these games might NOT have been released in the U.S.

  25. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    @those who want to get rid of AO:
    I feel that you folks who favor getting rid of “AO” are still trying to wag the dog. It is shortsighted to believe that removing a ratings category will somehow remove the marketplace’s objections to the content demarked by that category, yet that seems to be what most (if not all) your collective arguments boil down to. Am I missing something?

    Why would it be better for anyone if the ESRB were to suggest a person needs to be a legal adult to buy Halo? How will it be better for anyone to lump the most objectionable content of Halo 3 and the most objectionable content Lula 3D in the same age-appropriateness content category? Who is going to benefit by making the ESRB system less specific?

    The ESRB exists to serve the market. Ultimately, the market does not care whether I or any one of you individually agree with the distinctions it makes, as long as they reflect the sensibilities of the mainstream public. The market wants a distinction between the age appropriateness of the kind of content in Halo 3 and Lulu 3D, even if some of us do not.

    We can whine all we want about the “AO” rating being nothing but a “ban hammer.” Fact is, it’s a ban hammer the market has demanded.

  26. 0
    Are'el ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    I agree with Monkeythumbs, to a degree. I think they should have to play the games, get a feel for that the game is like, before reviewing it for a rating. It doesn’t have to be the entire game, or even most of it. You can get a general sense for what to expect with just a few hours of gameplay. I suggest 1 game played by each reviewer for 5 hours. I know that each game has a panel of 3 reviewers, but not all of them would need to play the game, just one of them. Surely that wouldn’t burden the ESRB too much.

    I believe that if they actually played the game a little, then they wouldn’t make the occasional mistakes (like Oblivion), and they would have more credibility when faced by critics.

  27. 0
    Monkeythumbs ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Ebonheart

    I think we can all agree that the critics are wankers and that 100%ing a game is simply not feasible in a number of cases. That doesn’t mean, however, that that incorporating a hands-on element should be dismissed out of hand.

  28. 0
    Ebonheart ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Doesn’t Japan have some games over there that would never be released in the US due to an AO rating it would recieve? Heard from friends who’ve gone to Japan but never proved it.

    @ Monkeythumbs

    Except some critics DEMAND start to finish and every where in between. Every possible foot step, combo and god knows what else they would demand happen. Though I do agree with the “play the game” some what instead of “videos of people playing”

  29. 0
    Timmay! says:

    There is one other way to get AO games on consoles, but it will never happen.

    Start a massive campaign across the gaming community and just flood Nintendo, MS, and Sony with demands to allow AO rated games. Send e-mails, write letters, call, go nuts on the forums, create enough of an uproar and they’ll have to pay attention.

    But it will never happen. There aren’t enough people in the community who actually care enough to get behind something like that to make it noticable, let alone make it an organized effort.

  30. 0
    destijlcat ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    the biggest problem with both the AO and NC-17 ratings is that they have more to do with enforcing conservative values (particularily concerning sex) in movies anything other than heterosexual missionary position is NC-17 in games even dry humping (hot coffee) gets an AO but stabbing someone in the neck is fine
    their is very little risk of government regulation as it would require significant changes to the first amendment, which if made would crush free speech across the board, not just for videogames but all media
    Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange were X rated when they first came out but are now considerd two of the greatest movies ever made. Art always thrives when it pushes the limits and challanges society so as far as im concerned the more videogames push the bounderies the better off videogames will be just like film, novels, comicbooks, music, etc, etc…

  31. 0
    Monkeythumbs ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @ Pierre-Olivier & Timmay!,

    I still hold the assertion that having some hands-on experience with a game is still of material benefit when it comes to determining their rating. It shouldn’t be the only method by which a game’s rating is ascertained, but I can’t see how factoring it into the process does any damage. The more data or experience to hand, the better.

  32. 0
    Timmay! says:


    Doesn’t matter if an MMO is going to be E, T, M, or AO, when you suggest that a game should be played through to rate it, instead of the current process, you’re still looking at taking a huge amount of time. If you skip side stories and quests, you could be skipping something that could have an affect on the rating.

    Taking your example of Mass Effect, if you skipped everything that would lead up to the “love scene”, the game may have gotten a Teen rating instead of Mature. If that were to happen, then the game critics would have something viable to complain about, and it would give more fodder for government regulation. Then you have God of War, with a sex mini-game that’s completely avoidable if you’re not paying attention.

    Even if both games were rated Mature, if those parts were skipped and never taken into consideration, you’d still have all the critics clamoring for the government to take over the ESRB.

    If you’re going to play a game to rate it, you need to play it all the way through.

  33. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    Monte – I meant for my post to pretty much agree with everything you’ve posted. My main point was that the AO only serves as a ban hammer and that it is detrimental to the game developer and ultimately the consumer.

  34. 0
    Artifex says:

    About AO being blocked on consoles –
    Perhaps the Big3 would take the rating more seriously as a potential market if the games that have already warranted the AO rating were of much worth. As it stands, there really isn’t much incentive for the Big3 to go after a marginal to non-existant market. Ostrasizing AO games does not hurt the Big3 because they don’t really see it as losing any profit, and at the same time it makes them look “better” in the eyes of the average uptight american consumer. However, here’s the deal: The Big3 have a weakness – money! What it ultimately comes down to is money. You want AO games on consoles and not just PCs? The Big3 will have to be shown that they’re losing a significant potential profit by blocking AO rated games, and the game industry needs to create AO rated games that consumers demand to play on said consoles. Untill that starts happening, I don’t see the Big3 having a whole lot of reasons to allow games with an AO rating to be unlocked.

  35. 0
    Monte' ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Actually, having console makers and retailers pick and choose titles would be an improvement over the current “ban everything AO”… lets look at Manhunt 2 for instance… really, tell me, had the unedited version of Manhunt 2 gotten an M rating despite its content, do you think the console makers and retailers would have voiced their objection to the game and refused to carry it? i doubt it… they very fact that they just ban based off the AO rating is enough to tell me that those two do not even look at the content of the games they except. Manhunt 2 would have gotten a quick pass… the only games that would be brushed off are porn games since they are the only ones that would be obviously objectionable to the console makers and retailers.

    Really, having them refuse to carry games through pick and choose would give developers more leeway and allow them to try a few more risky things… for instant, sex is something that developers tend to avoid and offer only a small amount of it… that’s likely because its very easy to get an AO rating by including a just a bit too much sex in the game… however, sex is not just for porn and can be done in a very tasteful and artistic manner; i’m sure their are plenty of non-porn novels that include a good amount of sexual material, that if visual would be AO rated. The developers might have more of a chance if they knew that a certain rating would not result in an immediate ban on their game… and when it comes to the console makers and retailers, they are likely to only be watching for games with enough sexual material to be classified as porn and as such, the developers game may still get the pass

    However, i do agree with the rest of your post… the AO rating is necessary for the ESRB to do it’s job as an informer, but that it’s purpose is broken due to console makers and retailers banning everything that gets that rating… the true ideal solution would be to convince those two groups to end their ban on everything that gets an AO rating all together… that way, everybody wins… the developers can take a few more risks, and ESRB can keep doing it’s job… but again, it may be too soon to do such a thing as the critics would unleash hell if the industry did that; seems the only chance we have to convince the industry to accept the AO rating for what was orginally meant to be will be after games are no longer in the eyes of so many watchdogs

  36. 0
    TBoneTony ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Like I have sometimes said before about the ESRB and even in my essay, the ESRB may not be 100% perfect, but it is far more better and far more balanced than any other ratings system in the world when it comes to ratings for a commerical audience.

    Also they still have an AO rating, but it is there IF the BIG 3 Console companies are willing to allow AO rated games on their consoles and IF the retailers want to sell AO rated PC games.

    Also it is detailed when you look at the back of the box and on the front says either E, E10+, T and M17+.

    So it is far more better than anything from any other country…

  37. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    Without the AO rating console manufacturers could STILL keep titles that they believe are too graphic off of their systems. That whole argument is rubbish. You can’t just make a game for any console you wish to. You have to get permission to do so. Seriously… at least argue a point that holds ground.

    Same applies to retailers. Retailers are still free to decide what products they wish to carry in their stores. Nothing is stopping them from not carrying a game they don’t think will sell well so why can’t they not carry a game they believe is too graphic for their customers. Doesn’t anyone see that this entire AO rating is good for console manufacturers and retailers argument just breaks down when you take well known factors into account?

    Its just a ban hammer, that is all it is and until console manufacturers and retailers agree to allow AO titles that is all it ever will be. Period. It is a fact, the arguments are broken. To prove me wrong you have to explain how console manufacturers wouldn’t be able to deny a game developer access from making games for their console as well as explaining how retailers can’t choose what games they wish to sell in their stores without the AO title. Because both entities do retain control of what is in their stores and on their products regardless of any rating system.

    In other words, that entire portion argument is broken.

    The only argument that stands is what Tony Selby states.
    “Even as a ban hammer the AO is a necessary benchmark for when a product outreaches the M rating.”

    Well thats one opinion. I see it as being an unnecessary benchmark but is just reflective of the fact people have different opinions. Which brings me to the beginning of the statement. For the most part AO is a ban hammer. This mean the existence of AO accomplishes two things. It notifies the consumer that this game is supposedly really bad and it is for Adults Only. That is an excellent use, it serves its purpose in that sense… EXCEPT… The second purpose is that it is an effective ban on all console games and cripples retail success for computer games. So that renders the first purpose meaningless BECAUSE CONSUMERS AREN’T GOING TO SEE IT.

    Realizing all of this you will notice that the ‘AO being a necessary benchmark’ argument is now broken. (As it has been all along) There is no purpose. There is intended purpose but it is basically meaningless considering the fact AO an effective ban on console games and games to be sold in retail stores.

    Perhaps it serves the purpose of giving consumers some kind of illusion that the rating system is fair and is only used to inform them of what is in the game but that is easily seen through after realizing certain facts.

    “Its all bullshit, and its bad for you.” – George Carlin

  38. 0
    Robert Gauss ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    “Mr. Bonner is underestimating the challenge at hand here. The ESRB would have to hire a small army of new, full-time raters… Who’s going to pay for all that manpower? Answer: Gaming companies.”

    More importantly, if it increases the overhead cost of development, the games will naturally be higher-priced. Mr. Bonner’s idea would cost all gamers a lot of money.

    As for rating based on videos of the games? We are talking a huge lead-time to games that are often finalized 2-3 weeks before release. The games will naturally be unplayable, so the video screening is the best you can do. The real solution to the “big picture” is something the ESRB probably does: random audits of published or soon-to-be-published games.

    Always take a grain of salt with any disgruntled employee’s whistle-blowing. It’s rarely accurate. And that’s not a criticism of Mr. Bonner, it is an aspect of human behavior.

  39. 0
    Monte' ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    @E. Zachary Knight
    “Getting rid of the AO rating will simply make M the new AO.”

    Very unlikely to happen… there are far to many games that make up the M rating. Console makers and retailers are willing to sacrifice the AO rated games because there is very few of them; getting rid of them won’t hurt them. Getting rid of all M rated games on the other hand would do them far too much damage, and as such they would not be willing to turn the M rating into a banhammer. Its a question of how much money they face to loose versus the hell the watchdog groups will bring down on them… AO are few in number so that have little money to gain so it’s not worth the controversy, but M rated games can be real system sellers and console makers and retailers stand to loose alot by sacrificing them.

    So no, getting rid of the AO rating would NOT result in M becoming the new AO… cause as long as the ESRB stands by it’s rating standards, games like Halo, GTA, bioshock, Mass effect, etc will still be rated M and not dumbed down to T so that the console makers can have a ban-able rating. Hell, if anything, having only the M rating would force retailers to pick and choose what games they don’t want on their shelves; a great improvement over banning EVERYTHING with a certain rating

    However, i do agree that (even with retailers picking a choose not to carry certain titles) getting rid of the AO rating would result in bring down alot of hell to the industry from the critics… perhaps getting rid of the AO rating is something to be saved for after video games becomes recognized just as comics, movies, music and so forth… Y’know, deal with one problem at a time… If their are no anti-gamers, then there is no one to complain about what the industry does, except for a few like an aging JT who is by then completely ignored and a lone nut

  40. 0
    Monkeythumbs ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    It’s utter tripe to suggest that it’s unreasonable or entirely impracticable to play games all/some of the way through before assigning a rating. Even the big open world games, the GTAs, Oblivions and Mass Effects, can be completed enough in a relatively short amount of time (no more than three weeks) if one were to concentrate on the main story branch rather than all the side quests. This can be reduced even further were the publishers to provide unlocked versions of the game or cheat codes. How do you think these games are tested in the first place?

    And lets not forget that massive games like these are in by far and away the minority. Most violent games fall into the Halo/Gears/God of War mould, all of which can be completed in their entirity with little effort… or whining.

    Anyway – how can a play-through – even a cursory one – not benefit the overall ratings process, if it’s done in conjuction with the existing apparatus already employed by the ESRB?

    To dismiss playthroughs altogether smacks of (a) laziness and (b) not taking this issue seriously enough. It’s that laissez-fair attitude that gets gamers into trouble in the first place.

    As for Bonner’s suggestions regarding AO and implementing a mid-teen rating – all excellent suggestions, IMHO.

  41. 0
    Dog Welder ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    This is why I said, at the time, that Bonner is not in any way credible. I still contend he was a guy who thought, “Golly, I’m going to get paid to play games,” and then when the job didn’t turn out that way and the ESRB dismissed any suggestions he had or that he wasn’t running the place, he got huffy and left. I still don’t buy his response of “the 2-hour commute each way was too much.” It seemed to be just fine for 6 months, and then it wasn’t.

    Maybe I’m misjudging here, but that’s just the way it came across.

  42. 0
    tony selby ( User Karma: 0 ) says:


    even as a ban hammer the AO is a necessary benchmark for when a product outreaches the M rating

    AO really isn’t much different then NC-17, with the exception of the fact that retail stores wont carry AO (which is not the fault of the ESRB) both ratings mean it will be a monetary disaster which is why when most movies get rated NC-17 they are edited to receive an R rating when resubmitted

    what needs to happen is not the removal of the AO rating, but a change on the retailers and console makers front to make AO a slightly more viable rating

  43. 0
    Are'el ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    While I don’t think that a game has to be played “completely,” I do think that the ESRB reviewers should play them reasonably. Would it really be that hard to spend one work day (8 hour shift) on one game (per reviewer)? They only rate just over 1,000 games a year. Right now, they are not required to play the games, only to read a questionare filled out by the developers, and view a video made by the developers.

    I think you can get a good sense for the overall game by playing it for a few hours. Like I said, they shouldn’t need to play it completely, just enough to get a good idea of the game.

    As for the AO rating, it’s really nothing more than a placeholder to distract legislators from the M rating. Even Thierer admits as much in his responses. It’s a useless rating.

    I agree, for the most part, with the rest of Thierer’s statements.

  44. 0
    E. Zachary Knight ( User Karma: 2 ) says:

    @ Yuki

    But you see, the problem is not in the AO rating though. It is in the console manufacturers and retailers unwillingness to support the rating. Getting rid of the AO rating will simply make M the new AO. Nothing more, nothing less.

    As is suggested in this article, getting rid of it will not fix anything. You have to convince the console manufacturers and retailers that there is a valid market for those games to get the change.

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  45. 0
    Yuki says:

    While I agree with most of Bonners points, I do have one that I disagree with, and thats is the AO rating issue. The ao Rating still needs to go, mainly due to the fact that it serves no purpose, and is completely worthless as a rating. It is only a ban hammer, nothing more, and a such, is a fraud and should be disposed off at once.

    Thats juat how I see it.

  46. 0
    kurisu7885 says:

    “Let’s get serious. Games are not linear media like TV shows or movies. Gameplay is highly unique and multi-dimensional, and often there is no clear “end” to the game. Raters would have to spend days – perhaps weeks – trying to “finish” some titles.”

    As we’ve been saying for age,s but it’s nice to see someone in a higher position state it.

    AS with his other comments, some of it is exactly what critics want. They want the process to be so long ot so expensive it becomes financially unsound to release a game at all, or they want it so they can scream bloody murder to try and pull the rating in a certain direction.

  47. 0
    E. Zachary Knight ( User Karma: 2 ) says:

    I’ll just say the same thing I said on his blog:

    That is a great look on Bonner’s “suggestions”. I believe I said pretty much the same thing when discussing this on here.

    One thing that I would like to point out here that was missed, is that the ESRB has already gone through the competition for ratings. Several agencies sprung up during the birth of the ESRB. Sega had their own, the ESA had their own and there were a couple of others. There was plenty of competition. So what happened? The industry chose the one that worked the best for them and went with it. The ESRB thrived while all other fell off the map.

    When the game industry is unhappy with the ESRB, then there will be room for more competition. Until that day, there is no need.

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  48. 0
    TJLK ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    Yes, I agree that is the ESRB’s purpose but they have to take into account other entities using their system for other reasons than it was intended to. So they hold the key to fix it just as much as the Big 3 and the retailers. They could pick and choose without the AO rating being present and just because a game rating system doesn’t contain an AO rating doesn’t mean it is going to go unrated.

  49. 0
    Stinking Kevin says:

    @those who want to add play time to the ratings process:
    Playing through games costs time and money. If the ratings process becomes more expensive, the cost will be passed on to the publishers, who in turn are more than likely to pass it on to the consumers. Who here is ready to pay more for our games at retail so that some schmo at the ESRB can get paid to sit around playing games?

    In any case, the question is not “what harm could it do?” (although I think I’ve just given at least one valid answer to that). The question should be “what good could it do?” To those of you promoting a change to the current process, It really falls on you to explain how a play-through (even a cursory one) is going to benefit the ratings system.

    Before you answer, remember that the ESRB rates narrative content only — NOT gameplay. Remember also that the ratings are intended to reflect the sensibilities of the mainstream, and not the sensibilities of a subset of the population proficient enough to pick up and play through parts of an unfamiliar game.

  50. 0
    Pierre-Olivier ( User Karma: 0 ) says:


    I don’t agree with you there. It’s not laziness, it’s practically impossible.

    Even God of War, which is considered quite short, would take at least three days to complete.

    And there’s also one thing: all raters/gamers are human so there will ALWAYS be things they’d miss. The best example are the Metal Gear Solid games. Even if the game is quite short, there are A LOT of easter eggs. If they want to find them all, it will take them weeks. And they’d have to ask the game company about it which brings the same issue that when they only had a video to watch: a matter of trust between the ESRB and the game company. In other words, nothing will change. The possibility of a mis-rating (a la Oblivion) would still be there.

    The ESRB rates at least 1000 games a year (maybe more). If they had to play through the entire game, to keep this number, they’d have to hire more peoples (especially experienced gamers, not something you’d normally find on a CV), making the games more costly.

    Try to think of all the possibilities before speaking such things.

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