Have you ever spotted an AO-rated video game in a major retail chain? You’re better off looking for unicorns and hobbits. The AO (“Adults Only”) rating is an Ace of Spades for developers, a kiss of death, a black spot, a scarlet letter–or two ebony letters, rather. However you want to word it, the AO rating is a mark that console game developers try to steer far, far away from. To have your game branded with an AO essentially means that you cannot sell it, because big-name retailers will not carry it.
AO is a legitimate part of the ESRB’s alphabet. Its message is curt: “This game is not for children. No, it really is not for children.”
And that would be fine if AO games were simply a triple-X classification for ladies and gentlemen who wish to interact with video games capable of getting their rocks off. Obviously, Wal-Mart and Target don’t sell pornographic movies (unless you go up to the electronics counter and whisper “banana”–it will earn you nothing, but try it anyway), so the chains shouldn’t be expected to sell pornographic video games either.
Problem is, the ESRB’s ratings are not a letter-for-letter match with the MPAA’s movie classifications. Relations between the media, parents, and video games have improved considerably in the past couple of system generations, but it might be a long time before people can immediately think of video games as a healthy pastime for all ages, and not a mere distraction for children and man-children. This hard-to-kill outlook on gaming has crippled it as a means of expression; all it takes is an on-screen, clothed depiction of sex to whip the media and politicians into a frenzy, and for the ESRB to stick its AO brand in the fire.
Mention the words “Hot Coffee” on a gaming message board if you want to get a lot of groaning replies mixed in with angry frozen caps-lock rants. Rockstar’s 2004 release, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas featured a hidden mini-game that involved the main character, “CJ,” going into a female’s house for “coffee” and doing what came naturally. The minigame was supposed to be inaccessible, but teenagers are known to perform technical wonders when naked pictures of ladies are the prize. The PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game were hacked in record time, and those who did not have technological wizardry at their disposal had only to watch any of the hundreds of movies that popped up on the Internet.
Granted, there were no naked ladies involved in the Hot Coffee minigame. CJ and the women he kept company were all fully clothed, so actual sexual intercourse could not have logically taken place. That did nothing to staunch the subsequent wave of controversy, which led the ESRB to re-evaluate the game and classify it as AO, while Rockstar scrambled to release a “clean” version of San Andreas. All that for a “sex” act that didn’t rate far beyond any clothed gropefest that pops up in America’s theatres with a PG-13 rating, or an R at worst. Moreover, the righteous politicians and concerned parents never felt the need to remind the public that the Hot Coffee minigame was not supposed to be accessible through normal gameplay. Or that Grand Theft Auto is a series wherein you commit acts worse than dry humping, and that the games were never meant for children in the first place.
America is slightly paranoid about depictions of sex in movies; given the country’s already-uneasy relationship with games, it’s no surprise that Hot Coffee was handled with the grace of a ten car pile-up. It’s bad enough that video games use the wiles of interactivity to teach little Johnny how to kill, parents say. God help us if video games encourage him to have sex!
That doesn’t mean it’s fair to hold games at a different standard. Should the AO rating exist to warn parents about content such as on-screen sexual activity? Yes. But AO’s existence is useless–dreaded, even–unless retailers toughen up and begin treating it as a legitimate rating instead of a plague vector.
“With Manhunt 2 (and 2006’s AO re-rating of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas after the discovery of its hidden Hot Coffee sex minigame), we seem to have reached a point where game designers are pushing the limits of the ESRB’s Mature rating,” wrote Robert Ashley in the December 2007 issue of EGM, “yet the next step up is not a commercially viable option.”
Question is, will there ever be a “next step” for mature content in video games? So far, it’s not looking too good. It comes down to making a stand that nobody is in a position to make. Wal-Mart doesn’t want to stock AO-rated games because it’s a family-oriented chain. The ESRB caves easily to outside pressure. Game developers don’t want to go too far, because that means an unsellable game. Analyzing the fear of the AO rating is as distressing as watching an oroborus snack on its own tail.
Tomm Hulett, Senior Associate Producer at Konami of America, concurs. “AO-rated games are a tricky beast,” he says. “If they’re not available at retail then no big publisher will ever create one – it’s just not economically feasible.”
Hulett considers what the common usage of the AO rating might mean for retailers, too. “Putting [AO-rated games] out there creates a whole slew of other problems – parental awareness such games exist, retailers not being prepared to police what minors are buying, etc.”
Making the AO rating widespread would indeed be tricky. It’s not hard to envision the media explosion ahead of time: “Kids Can Now Buy Pornographic Video Games at Wal-Mart.” Never mind that AO-rated games, again, do not necessarily equate to an XXX-rated movie. But parents already put minimal effort into grasping the ESRB’s ratings system, leaving them vulnerable to frantic headlines. It all amounts to a can of worms that nobody in the industry wants to even look at.
The problem is compounded by cultural differences, says Hulett says. “There’s other territories to think about. If an American-made game veers into an ‘M’ [rating] accidentally, it’s probably for violence–which doesn’t fly so well in Japan and Europe.”
Making better use of the AO rating may well free up developers to say more and do more with games, but coordinating the effort would take a great deal of time, care, and old-fashioned chutzpah. In 2007, for instance, GameStop expressed interest in possibly carrying AO-rated games. There’s no guarantee Target, Wal-Mart, and the like would follow suit, but if even one major retailer had the guts to step out on the floor, it’d be the start of the game’s industry’s true maturation.
It would be a long, pain-inducing journey, mind, fraught with big fights and a billion small inconveniences–but battles over free expression would hardly be worth it if they were quick, neat affairs.