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The Story of AO

/ Apr 20th, 2017 No Comments

Since 1994, the Entertainment Software Rating Board has been tasked with providing content ratings for video games released in the United States and, to a smaller extent, Canada and Mexico. It is thanks to the ESRB that consumers are better able to know more about the content of a game before they play it.

The non-profit organization was created in the early 1990s due to high-pitched grievances toward highly violent video games, most notably Night Trap and Mortal Kombat. Its creation was a swift reaction to the potential threat of nanny statism forcefully being imposed on the video game industry. The ESRB would provide a fair, voluntary way to better inform consumers of the content of their games before playing them.

Mortal Kombat is one of the most cited reasons behind the creation of the ESRB.

The ESRB remains a popular institution within mainstream gaming, helping make it the norm for North American game makers to better let consumers know the content of theirs game in advance. It’s even spawned counterparts in other parts of the world, including the Pan European Game Information system in Europe and the Computer Entertainment Organization in Japan.

Yet, even the best of intentions can be exploited. Though the ESRB doesn’t directly engage in censorship, its rating system has been used as a weapon by more radically prudish individuals and groups as a means of undermining games they do not approve of.

One specific method that is used to accomplish this is via a single game rating the ESRB employs: Adults Only (AO). The rating is the most serious possible rating given to games, signifying they are only intended for adult players. While that may sound reasonable, it has been treated in a very unreasonable manner.

Take the infamous scandal in 2005 involving Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Though inaccessible by normal means, modders were able to unlock a sex-based “Hot Coffee” mini-game, leading the ESRB to briefly relabel the game with an AO rating. Developer and publisher Rockstar Games was forced to remove the code entirely in order to reacquire a Mature rating.

Not just explicit sexual references cause games to receive the AO rating. Exceedingly violent games receive AO ratings as well. The Punisher, also released in 2005, initially earned the rating. Its developer, Volition Software, censored much of the game’s violence in order to receive a rating of Mature.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas caused controversy with its Hot Coffee sex mini-game.

The fear game creators have of the AO rating is justified. Many stores refuse to sell games with an AO rating, making titles difficult to sell in physical and digital form.

But there’s an even more notable set of people developers fear: mainstream game publishers with rigid creative standards. The three major video game console companies (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) demand games not only be rated by the ESRB, but also prohibit AO-rated games from being officially published or sold digitally on their respective consoles.

Game creators who wish to sell their games through these mainstream methods must either comply by self-censorsing their games to the point they can at least acquire an M rating or look forward to a difficult time distributing their titles. It’s quite an unfair punishment both for developers and adult gamers, who are being denied games designed specifically for them.

Needless to say, it’s a situation that has to be remedied as such prudishness by mainstream gaming has gone on for a very long time. However, gamers have apparently had enough, and a notable incident in 2015 shows this is the case.

The top-down third-person shooter Hatred sees players control a mass murderer who seeks the total elimination of the human race. The game’s heavy-handed violence and misanthropic themes done purely for shock value netted the game an Adults Only rating.

Its developer, Destructive Creations, rather than being daunted by this rating, did something very rare: refused to change the game. This defiance didn’t come without consequences from mainstream gaming companies and vendors, most notably the online digital game service Steam.

Hatred is a recent controversial title to by labeled with an AO rating.

Despite being greenlit for release on Steam by the public, Valve promptly removed the game from Steam after the ESRB gave its official rating for it. Only after a large outcry against its removal did Valve reluctantly agree to re-add it to the site. To date, the game remains the first and only AO-rated game for sale on Steam.

True, Hatred has recevied some justifiably negative reviews for its exploitative nature, but it’s because of the demands of the gaming community that the game not only had the ability to be given a fair chance at being sold, but forced Steam to break with their irrational precedent of denying AO-rated games from being sold on its service.

The release of Hatred is just a small victory against the mainstream gaming industry’s irrational dislike for games with an AO rating. Such needlessly harsh behavior looks to continue indefinitely for no rational reason beyond maintaining rigid standards and practices that are outdated in the 21st century.

Actual solutions, not censorship and blacklisting, have to be found where adult-themed video games are concerned. It’s high time the mainstream gaming industry starts finding them. Perhaps, as the coup of 2015 demonstrates, the best way of doing that is by applying direct action to ensure such games are granted such privileges from an industry that commonly rejects them.


Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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