Video games, often vilified in the media as a corrupter of the United States’ precious youth, fall under the auspice of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB rates each game based on its content, and what age group the game would be appropriate for. It does this so that people like Jack Thompson don’t have to (how nice of them).
This article will explore the end of the scale not often seen – the Adults Only rating. First, we’ll discuss some of the impacts of such a rating and follow with some notable AO games and controversies.
As stated above, the ESRB uses a sliding scale to rate each game it reviews as seen below:
Similar to how the MPAA rates movies, the ESRB review the games for certain types of content to arrive at its score. Of course, this involves a lot of censorship issues and the availability of certain games (which is a whole blog article unto itself).
Most of the games you’ve probably played fall into the first three categories. The last category is for “Adults Only” meaning it should only be played by those 18 years or older. These games typically involve explicit nudity/sexual content, but also may include extreme violence or drug/alcohol abuse.
Effects and Impact
Given the social stigma associated with explicit violence, nudity, or drug abuse, AO-rated games are difficult to find or acquire. This is no accident, and receiving such a rating typically ensures commercial non-viability for the product, and is thus avoided by publishers and developers.
Besides the lack of mainstream appeal, games rated AO are not allowed to be published on Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft platforms, at the behest of each company. Even Twitch has stated that streaming of AO games will not be allowed.
Furthermore, most retailers will refuse to stock games rated AO. Thus, if a game receives an AO rating, they are precluded from any console release, physical distribution at most retailers, and cannot be streamed. Essentially, the AO rating will kill any ability to market or sell the game (although there are examples of using the rating to invert this process).
So given that AO = Death of Game, we have not really seen much in the way of AO games (for better or worse). However, given the above restrictions, AO games have found their niche on PC, and Steam has allowed the sale of Hatred, a recent AO game, on its platform. Therefore, most AO games are to be found on PC, or released in “Unrated/Uncut” versions elsewhere, to avoid the AO penalties.
Do We Need an AO rating?
Should games like RapeLay exist? As mentioned earlier, the ratings system could have entire volumes written on whether it is a “need.” However, the ratings system is not legally binding in any way, and really was born out of the de facto industry self-enforcement of content in its games.
Part of the genesis of the controls we have in place now comes from the infamy of the 1982 Atari title Custer’s Revenge. At the time, there was no rating system, and the Atari had no set customs or rules for what could be published. Given the “newness” of games at the time, Mystique (now out of business) published several adult-themed games.
Custer’s Revenge became reviled for its depiction of a rape of a Native American woman by General Custer. The game was intentionally marketed as inflammatory, and caused considerable outrage at the time of its release. Video games were “kids toys” in the eyes of the public, and so publishers began to monitor the content of its releases, to help maintain their brand (a la Nintendo).
Given that video games have moved a long way out of the shadow of “kid’s toys,” the AO rating and what is acceptable has changed. Just like the X or NC17 rating for films, the video games as art movement has created games that have pushed boundaries of what may or may not be acceptable. While an AO rating would’ve formally precluded any ability to get the game to a wide audience, the rise of PC gaming and Steam have allowed for adult themed games to find a crowd.
Whether the new means of distribution will allow adult themed games to survive despite the market’s restrictive measures is “enough” is a hotly contested point. Parents want to be able to monitor their children’s purchases, and retailers want to maintain a “family friendly” environment. The balance of these forces produces the AO rating, which does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
Notable AO Games
In the future, I’d like to take more critical and analytical looks at some more controversial games, but for now, I’ll briefly highlight a couple of notable adult games that have caused a stir in the industry.
#1 “Hot Coffee” modded Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Never a series to shy away from adult themes, Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto series has seen a string of attacks from politicians and interest groups against its glorification of sex, drugs, and violence. Most of the games have made it to shelves and sold terrifically well.
One exception has been GTA: San Andreas, where enterprising players managed to hack and enable a hidden minigame labeled Hot Coffee. This displayed crudely animated polygon intercourse between the main character and his girlfriend.
The mod gained exposure and drew further criticism from GTA’s traditional critics. Eventually, the enabled mod rerated San Andreas from M to AO and required its removal from retail shelves. Eventually a new version of the game, without the controversial content, was released, and the series lived on.
#2 Manhunt 2
Rockstar found themselves in hot water again with the scheduled release of Manhunt 2, a sequel to Manhunt, which had carried its own notoriety as game which featured torture and murder. It would be one of the first games to receive an AO rating for violence.
The aforementioned Jack Thompson led a crusade to prevent the distribution of Manhunt 2 by Take-Two, citing the motion controls on the Wii version where players would stab or cut with the Wiimote. While the game had not been released, attention was drawn to the game, including commentary by Hillary Clinton.
Manhunt 2 eventually received an initial rating of AO, which was met with condemnation by Rockstar and Take-Two. In order to get the game on shelves and on consoles, they made the following revisions to tone down the violence:
- Removal of innocent victims from some levels
- Removal of rating system based on severity and gruesomeness of executions
- Removal of several decapitation scenes
- Removal of explicit depiction of some executions, instead flashing colors across the screen
- Removal of execution sequences involving pliers, that included use on the genitals, throat, and head
The game was then released under an M rating, but was later released on PC in an uncut, original AO rating form. The game was interesting in that its violence was the fixture, compared to most AO games problems with explicit sexual content.
The most recent of notable AO games (released in July 2015), Hatred focuses on a sociopathic killer, whose only goal is to kill as many people as he can before dying. The game received an AO rating for violence and is only available on Steam.
The game generated controversy with its misanthropic marketing, and focus on mass murder. Steam originally pulled the game from its platform, but returned the game with an apology letter from Gabe Newell.
The game was a landmark as the first AO game to release on Steam, and may set a precedent. It actively used its AO rating and extreme nature as its main marketing angle. This led to widespread belief that it would lack gameplay, and that it was simply a cashgrab.
The game released with less than positive reviews, garnering a 42/100 on Metacritic. While some praised its isometric stick shooting core, many cited its dullness and lack of variety in truly engaging the player, or making use of its extreme themes.
The AO moniker has become synonymous with controversy, not unlike its counterparts in other media. While a “true” AO game had not been developed from some time up until Hatred, the rating still garners a bit of interest due to its more political issues.
An Adults Only rating is the death knell for many commercial games, while also a pointed tool to use in marketing (like Hatred). It’s effectiveness in preventing gratuitous violence and sexual content is consistently tested, and while likely need to be revisited in the future.
Do you have any experience with AO related games? Any thoughts on the censorship issue? Comment below!
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings are designed to provide information about video and computer game content so parents can make informed purchasing decisions. ESRB ratings have two parts: rating symbols suggest age appropriateness for the game and content descriptors indicate elements in a game that may have triggered a particular rating or concern.
To take full advantage of the ESRB rating system, it's important to check both the rating symbol (on the front of the game box) and the content descriptors (on the back of the game box).
Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages.
Cartoon or pixilated depictions of blood.
Depictions of blood.
Blood and Gore
Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
Violent actions involving cartoon-like characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted.
Scenes depicting slapstick or gross vulgar humor.
Moderately vulgar antics including "bathroom" humor.
Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs.
Content of product provides user with specific skills development or reinforcement learning within an entertainment setting. Skill development is an integral part of product.
Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life.
Overall content of product contains data, facts, resource information, reference materials or instructional text.
Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death.
Vulgar and/or crude jokes and antics including bathroom humor.
Mature Sexual Themes
Provocative material, possibly including partial nudity.
Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use.
Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music.
Mild scenes depicting characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity.
Brief and mild depictions of nudity.
Depictions of rape or other sexual acts.
Some Adult Assistance
Early Childhood descriptor only
Profanity and explicit references to sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use.
Profanity and explicit references to sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music.
Strong Sexual Content
Graphic depiction of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity.
Mild provocative references or materials.
Reference to and/or images of tobacco products.
Use of Drugs
The consumption or use of illegal drugs.
Use of Alcohol
The consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Use of Tobacco
The consumption of tobacco products.
Scenes involving aggressive conflict.
Additionally, online games that include user-generated content (e.g., chat, maps, skins) carry the notice "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" to warn consumers that content created by players of the game has not been rated by the ESRB.
The ESRB rating system is designed to give parents the information they need to evaluate a computer or video game before making a purchase. The ratings are not meant to recommend which games consumers should buy or rent or to serve as the only basis for choosing a product. Rather, parents should use the ESRB ratings in conjunction with their own tastes and standards and their individual knowledge about what's best for their children.
ESRB recommends that parents learn about games before making a purchasing decision. Game reviews printed in newspapers and Web sites are excellent sources of information. To search for games that are appropriate based on age categories and content, use the ESRB online ratings search feature.
ESRB also urges parents to talk with their children about their favorite games. Playing the games with your children helps stimulate those discussions and is a fun way to spend time together. For more information visit the ESRB Web site.