Abolish The AO Rating

My apologies for two columns in a row about video game ratings, but the big news this week is the shellacking Rockstar's taking over its upcoming title, "Manhunt 2." If you haven't seen or heard anything about the "Manhunt" series, here are a fewimagesto sumit up. If you don't have time to look at pictures, here's the story -- you play a convicted murderer on Death Row who gets kidnapped by a psychotic snuff film director and forced to run a gauntlet of gang members. You're awarded points for how brutally you slaughter them.

"Manhunt 2" promises to be more of the same. But not everyone gets to play. The British Board of Film Classification, which is in charge of rating video games, has effectively banned the sale of" Manhunt 2" by refusing to rate it, which prevents game stores from stocking it. Ireland and Italy have followed suit, and in the U.S., the Entertainment Software Rating Board, our own (non-governmental) rating board, has slapped the game with an AO -- adults only -- rating. While it doesn't legally bar the game from going on the shelves, an AO rating is the kiss of death for a video game. Many retailers won't stock AO games, meaning that sales are stunted, even if the game is stellar.



Video games get ratings similar to movies -- AO corresponds to NC-17 and M (Mature) corresponds to R. Critics of the ESRB claim that the only time a game catches the AO label is when it has sexual content, but "Manhunt 2" seems to be the first game to buck that trend; its rating is based solely on its violence.

Since the kerfuffle over the game's content, Take-Two Interactive, parent company of publisher Rockstar, has decided to suspend publishing and "consider its options." The game will likely be a financial failure if they publish as-is, but Take-Two may do it anyway. The company's chairman, Strauss Zelnick, had this to say about the title: "It brings a unique, formerly unheard-of cinematic quality to interactive entertainment, and is also a fine piece of art."

The truth of the matter is that the AO rating is economically devastating for a video game, and, given the fact that "Manhunt 2" is being rated thusly based only on violence, there's very little distinction between AO and M. The ESRB should scrap the adults-only category, in favor of M as the most restrictive rating.

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