One problem with the AO rating as it stands is the perception that it's a bogeyman that should be avoided at all costs. In some ways, this is good, because it keeps developers in check. We don't need another Custer's Revenge in the modern generation. But then again, that's part of the problem. AO basically tells consumers that "this game is full of filthy deviant sex." It really doesn't need to be that way. Case in point: Japan.
The Japanese rating system uses a bit of a different setup than the ESRB. The Computer Entertainment Rating Organization, or CERO for short, breaks down games into one of five categories:
CERO A: suitable for all ages.
|CERO B: Suitable for ages 12 and up|
|CERO C: Suitable for ages 15 and up|
|CERO D: Suitable for ages 17 and up|
|CERO Z: Suitable for ages 18 and up. This is the only rating regulated by Japanese law.|
What makes the CERO system different from the ESRB is the content descriptors that they factor into the rating. CERO also factors the volume of questionable content in addition to type. However, when games earn that CERO Z rating, there's a difference in the response. Retailers still sell it, and any respected adult can purchase it without shame or scorn for buying something with "adult" tastes. It's not considered a "terrible, horrible monster" like the AO rating tells consumers here. Not only that, but a lot of unique games wear the CERO Z badge.
Shadows of the Damned, the cult hit that I've raved about on several occasions, is rated CERO Z. You have to be 18 to buy it. Same with L.A. Noire. In both cases, they have violence and sex, but they're rated M on the other side of the Pacific. For both games, they effectively received an AO rating in Japan, yet nobody bats an eye over it. L.A. Noire has plenty of scenes with content that is definitely not safe for the young or impressionable. Mark Bishop comes to mind right away. Roy Earle, Vice Detective, is very, very racist. He talks about "negros" in ways that nobody could in the present era. For those reasons, amongst others, I think that L.A. Noire is definitely not meant for kids.
Reducing the stigma of the AO rating could have other benefits, too. Games that are meant to be marketed to adults, such as Grand Theft Auto, could get that AO rating, leaving room in the M rating for games that are more intense than a T rating can afford, but not to the point of restricting it to minors. Games like Call of Duty or Skyrim would still be able to fit into the M category, and offer a different alternative to games like Dead Space or Heavy Rain. Furthermore, I suspect politicians like Joe Lieberman would support something like this, because games that are meant for adults can be kept out of the hands of "impressionable children."
When you think about it, the only reason game publishers don't use the AO rating more often is because of the negative associations that consumers and retailers have over it. Of the 21 titles currently rated AO by the ESRB, one is a Playboy Screensaver, one is gruesome and just plain difficult to enjoy. Two are "unrated" director's cuts and only available via digital distribution for PC, and all the others involve porn stars or dating simulations. It's not a very savory crowd. The one "humorous" outlier in the group is a video edition of the 1972 sex guide The Joy of Sex for the Philips CD-i. Even then, it's not exactly the kind of company a publisher would like to have associated with their title.
However, the two director's cuts, might be on to something. Indigo Prophecy was a real cult hit on the PS2, and the PC version saw reasonably decent sales. Unrated director's cuts of movies are rather commonplace in retail stores, and most places just card the buyer. Target does this for their unrated movies. Nobody really cares about it, because it's believed that the buyer is mature enough to handle viewing it. Adding the purchase restrictions of an unrated director's cut video game would be a simple task for retailers, and not all that different than what they do for unrated movies. What if the ESRB willing allowed a game to go "unrated," but listed it as AO to relieve themselves of liability? Personally, I like checking out the director's cuts of movies, because there's often additional insight into how the movie was made, amongst other things. Director's cuts often include scenes that were clipped from the theatrical release. Often, these clips are unnecessary. Sometimes, they're cut due to time constraints. Scenes along those lines, like this one in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, are entertaining to watch in their own right.
It's deleted scenes like this one that are sheer gold for movie buffs. Then again, this isn't a movie exclusive deal. Gears of War 2 sported a deleted scene in the "All Fronts Pack," which was highly entertaining. What if developers were given the freedom to experiment when they're making the game, then include the removed parts in the director's cut? They could go the avenue of receiving a rating, or, if the suggestion I submitted above actually goes through, eschew the rating and give the developer free reign over their creation at the expense of reduction of potential customers. I suspect we'd see more games that really show the creator's ideal.
Console Manufacturers could stand to get on board with this, too. With the parental controls built into the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii, it's easy for parents to restrict what their kids are playing, just by the rating. A parent could allow their kid to play Call of Duty with their friends, while still sheltering the kid from that evil "sexual menace." There's a huge marketing opportunity here. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo could stand to make a lot of money by allowing AO ratings on their consoles. Developers of unrated director's cuts could pay a "special fee" to the manufacturers to be allowed to sell their product for consoles. Gamers could get a better insight into the director's "vision" for a game. And hey, Nobody bats an eye over The Hills Have Eyes Unrated Director's Cut, why should it be any different for a Dead Space Unrated Special Edition?
What do you think? Is this something that could be done? Would you buy an AO game if it wasn't straight up porn? Would you go for an unrated director's cut of your favorite game? Sound off in the comments below!