It’s hard to believe that when the ESRB began rating video games in 1994, only 23 ever received an AO (Adults Only) rating. What then is the purpose of the AO rating? It’s not like thousands of games are rated for adults only. Why aren’t many games given that rating? Should the rating system be changed to end the stigma against AO games?
What is the AO rating?
According to the ESRB, Adults Only games “have content that should only be played by persons 18 and older.” The Mature rating is for 17 and up. AO reads like a stronger version of M. It’s not really the content like violence or sex, it’s more about how much is in the game. Besides, what is the difference between a 17 year old and an 18 year old? It seems odd that a one year age restriction can make or break a video game.
What types of games are rated AO?
The majority of the games are rated AO because of strong sexual content. Only a few games on the list mention blood or violence in the rating. There have been some bigger name titles that caused scandals with AO rating such as Grand Theft Auto San Andreas or Manhunt 2, but these video game were ultimately toned down for consoles and received M rating. In the case of San Andreas the AO rated was given retroactively, after the Hot Coffee sex mini-game incident. The majority of the AO rating is a wasteland, stigmatized by interactive porn “games” and sexy Sims ripoffs.
Why aren’t more games rated AO?
The AO rating is referred to as the kiss of death for games. Retailers like Gamestop, Wal-Mart and Best Buy will not sell AO games. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony will not allow AO games on their consoles. Therefore, any game that hopes to reach a mainstream audience needs to be rated M at the most. Video games that go beyond the M rating are censored and toned down. The rating system seems to be inconsistent with what is or isn’t allowed in M games. Some games like God of War have implied sex mini games and are very violent, but are still rated M. I believe the Mature rating is being pushed to include content that might be better suited for an AO rating. Wouldn’t it be better if video games were allowed to be AO without suffering the kiss of death?
What should be done with the AO rating?
Right now, the M rating covers too much ground to get an accurate feeling for the content of a game, even with the summaries on the back of the packaging. Look at games like Halo then compare it to titles like Grand Theft Auto. There is a world of difference between these franchises, yet both are rated M. If the AO rating was revamped, developers would have more freedom without having to tone down games. There would be more quality offerings in the AO category. As an adult gamer, I feel almost like I’m being cheated out of what developers wanted to include in certain games. What needs to be done is to end the stigma attached to the AO rating. It comes down to how video games are perceived. Retailers and the console makers have to acknowledge games aren’t just for children. There are successful Mature rated titles proving there is an audience for more adult orientated games.
Ultimately, I hope the AO rating will be seen as viable option for video games and not just a dumping ground for interactive porn. If the stigma can not be overcome, perhaps the M rating can be expanded to include another section like an M+. That way retailers and consoles will still have an Mature rated game, but gamers and developers will have more freedom of choice.