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All good parents want to keep their children away from games that will magically turn their children into sadistic murderers. The ESRB is here to help, with ratings such as T for Teen and M for Mature, and content descriptors to explain why the rating was applied. Unfortunately, they're doing it all wrong.
The Europa Universalis games perhaps best illustrates the absurdity of the ESRB system. They are rated a mixture of E and E10+ with warnings of mild violence, alcohol, and tobacco.
So let's look at how the game got the alcohol warning. Every province in the game produces some trade good. Some goods are more valuable than others, and more valuable trade goods are one of several things that makes one province more valuable than another.
One of the trade goods is wine. It doesn't show characters drinking wine. It doesn't feature drunkenness. They could have changed a few strings of text from "wine" to "grape juice" or "grapes" and eliminated the alcohol warning. They wouldn't have had to change any graphics or any game mechanics. But wine contains alcohol, so the ESRB dutifully listed the game as having alcohol references. The tobacco warning is for about the same reasons, as tobacco is another of the trade goods.
You know what else is a trade good in EU2? Slaves. It's done for reasons of historical accuracy, of course, as the slave trade was pretty significant in the game's time period. I'm not here to criticize Paradox. But slavery wasn't on the ESRB's checklist, so it's not included as something that they warn parents of.
Now, I can understand that some people may be offended by pretty inert references to alcohol and/or tobacco. But is there really anyone who would be offended by either of those, but not that the game implicitly has players participate in the slave trade? Really?
Now, in one sense, the ESRB has a formula and they stick with it. Different people are offended by different things, and asking reviewers to turn up a list of everything offensive could mean that a reviewer ignores something without realizing that some people will object to it. So they have a checklist.
The problem is that they're trying to rate games about the way they might rate movies or television shows. They look for the sort of things that people would find offensive in movies or television shows, principally sex and violence.
The problem is that there are game features that gamers (and for children, their parents) should be warned about that have no analogue in movies or television. So the ESRB doesn't look for them, and doesn't give the warnings that it ought to.
For example, there are the random item boxes in some item mall games. You want some really nifty item, but it only comes from the random item boxes, and with a small probability. Each box only costs $1. So you buy one, and it doesn't have the item you want. So you buy another, and another, and another. Each time, you only plan to spend $1 more. Finally you get the item you wanted, and all is right with the world. And then the credit card statement comes and you realize that you spent $260 on that stupid item--and that was $260 that you couldn't afford to spend.
Sound familiar? Some people can't relate to spending money they didn't intend to like that. But people who are vulnerable to that sort of gambling ought to be warned of it. There are people vulnerable to that, which is why so many item malls are structured that way. Surely that has caused more harm to real people than an inert reference to wine.
And then there are the rewards for doing the most of something or other in a particular period of time. Kill the most players in PVP this week, be the first in the game to complete some raid, or whatever. Think of the WoW PVP rankings shortly after battlegrounds were added, for example.
We've seen the occasional stories of people who go on marathon gaming binges and end up dead. While those are rare, people skipping work or school to play games is considerably less rare. Games that reward world firsts or doing the most of something in some particular time period encourage that sort of behavior. People ought to be warned about it. That has done considerable real-world harm to real people, not merely the hypothetical, maybe kids will mimic the bad behavior they see sort of problem.
And then there are the games where you have to do something every single day in order to be competitive. I haven't played FarmVille, but my understanding is that it's like this. Even if it doesn't take very long on any particular day, the game harshly punishes you for going on vacation for a week. On days that you're busy with other things, games ought to make it easy to just not play the game that day, without worrying that you're going to lose out on something important. That can push people to worry about some stupid game when they have more important things that they ought to be busy with.
And even if you're not inclined to cause trouble for yourself by getting carried away with games, wouldn't you like to know up front that a game will demand it in order to be competitive? Maybe you'd play the game anyway, or maybe it would ruin the game for you. But if it's the latter, wouldn't you rather know it within 5 seconds of looking into a game, rather than discovering a month later that you need to buy a bunch of random item boxes to stop getting ganked?
Usually the problem with media is not what they depict, but what they advocate. One can debate when depiction turns into advocacy; millions of people watched Wile E. Coyote try to catch a roadrunner with various Acme contraptions, but I've never heard of anyone doing likewise in real-life. But some games do very clearly reward such bad behavior as skipping school or work, or spending money that you don't have on the game. Isn't that worth a warning label, if there are to be warning labels at all?