Video-game ratings: My strange, brief career as an obscenity watchdog.

The art of play.
May 12 2011 5:55 PM

Pixelated Breasts and Fountains of Blood

My strange, brief career as a video-game obscenity watchdog.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Earlier this month, the Entertainment Software Rating Board—the video-game equivalent of the MPAA—announced that its ratings for online games would soon be determined via an automated questionnaire. Such news would reverberate little outside the industry had it not seemed like the latest evidence that humankind would soon be supplanted by its own doodads. (See, most notably, the trouncing of Jeopardy! hero Ken Jennings by a large, rectangular box.) For me, though, this announcement was personal. That's because I was lucky enough to intern at ESRB, sifting through video games in search of sexual, violent, and obscene content.

In the summer of 2000, my fellow employees and I vetted releases like Wargasm and Punky Skunk for human blood and female nipples. My job was to plow through the venerable ESRB library, scouring older games for dubious content. Since "historical parity"—that is, comparing the latest games to similar titles from the past—is central to the rating process, my work helped ensure the fairness and accuracy of our mission. Sticking me on older fare, I imagine, was also a way to keep a greenhorn from screwing up anything that was actually important.

In early-21st-century style, I made a VHS tape of each game, noting the time code whenever my avatar was offered a beer or encouraged to kill a stranger. I puttered around first-person shooters until getting blasted by a tank at close range produced a geyser of neck blood. These were moments of great excitement. While the potentially offensive material I culled seldom amounted to more than a 10-minute reel, I could spend hours on a run. I had to be thorough. After all, that's what they were paying me for.

As a game tester, I had a job that my higher-ups likely envied. In the interest of time, the raters of new releases did not actually play the games. Rather, they scrupulously reviewed DVDs of the most-questionable content. This is all part of the legal agreement that ESRB—a nonprofit that has patrolled the industry since 1994—makes with game publishers. In order to dispense a rating, the board requires that game-makers self-report their titles' most-explicit moments, including whatever gory treasures await a player in "unlocked" realms of play. If later play-testing reveals that the publishers have not disclosed each drop of blood or sexual encounter, ESRB reserves the right to levy fines or force corrections. (In 2005, for instance, the ESRB ratcheted up the rating for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to "Adults Only" upon discovery of the game's infamous "Hot Coffee" modification.)

Immersing oneself in a simulated dreamland can be a deep, vicarious pleasure. Watching a video of someone else's PlayStation adventures is not anywhere near as fun. As a result, ESRB staffers tended to wander around the office in a bleary-eyed, somnambulistic state. On their breaks from watching blood-and-sex highlight reels, they would gather around my console like dazed woodland creatures drawn to a campfire.

At these moments, I felt guilty about landing such a plum gig. I had never been much of a gamer. Like many a teen who came of age in the mid-1990s, I surrendered a chunk of my allowance to Mortal Kombatat a nearby arcade, trying with great earnestness to dismember my friends and lord over their tapering spines. That said, I never owned a game system, and outside of deeply fruitless obsessions with NHLPA Hockey '93 and Mario Kart 64, I was never more than an average player.

This was a fact I guarded zealously from my colleagues. Around those guys, I did my best to feign a gamer's expertise, that rare mix of clubby cynicism and boyish wonder.I was an inversion of the clichéd office-newbie, eager to prove my bona fides in the realm of professionalized recreation—chuckling awkwardly at Final Fantasyin-jokes, interrupting the holy silence that followed even passing mention of Street Fighter Alpha 2.

A tape of an early, exploratory run of Metroid likely blew my cover. I stood in my boss's office, head bowed, as he reviewed footage of me—rather, of intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran—plunging off a cliff. He fast-forwarded the tape, watching me tumble off the same cliff again, and again. "Those jumps can be tough," he said.

It's been more than a decade since my tenure at ESRB, and the video-game industry has grown massively since my days there. Online games now multiply at such a freakish rate that automation seems a necessary step in guarding a new generation of gamers from swear words and genitalia.

ERSB form.
A screenshot from the ESRB's automated questionnaire

In this sense, the ESRB's new questionnaire does not supplant human labor but augment it. Indeed, these games will still be thoroughly "play-tested" by real people who will confirm the algorithmically assigned rating. The multiple-choice questionnaire itself is impressively concise, a nifty checklist of obscenity. (The ESRB allowed me to look at a copy but would only allow a short excerpt to be reproduced, in the form of the screenshot above.)

The questionnaire includes eight questions in all, with pointed sub-questions mapping all vagaries of violence, sex, gambling, substance abuse, and foul language. (Helpful stills from reference games such as Borderlands and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater have been included to guide publishers through the brisk form.) Publishers must categorize the potential targets of violence: adversaries/opponents or non-adversaries/by-stander. (Examples of the latter include random pedestrians, scientists, or technicians.) They must clarify if violence, or its avoidance, is rewarded. They must report whether all rendered feces is realistically or whimsically depicted—I'm happy to tell you that the questionnaire features the term "poo coils."

As I paged through these questions, I was impressed with the technology, which seemed thorough and responsibly designed. And yet, there was something surreal about seeing obscenity so dryly classified. Breasts are either fully or partially (pasties, long hair) exposed. Blood levels are either high (dismemberment, "large fountains of blood"), medium, or mild/limited ("infrequent pools of static blood"). Depictions of violence are committed against "human or human-like creatures," or "anything other than humans or human-like creatures." It was the kind of drudgery that befits a machine—and no cause for concern for us humans just yet. Let me know when the machines learn to ogle pixelated breasts and delight in the slaughter of humanlike creatures. For now, it appears, the jobs of my fellow interns are safe.

Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City.