Upon reading over at Gamepolitics.com that the New York governor has signed a video game bill into law, I got thinking about the role of the ratings system in both video games and film. The law is unconstitutional and pointless; essentially it spends taxpayer money on ensuring that new video game consoles have parental lockout features by 2010 – which, of course, this entire generation of consoles already has – and mandate that games sold at retail will have to display the rating given by the ESRB – which, once again, they already do, and have for years.

Ratings systems are, of course, imperfect. The ESRB does much better than the film industry, I have to say; the ratings they give games are, for the most part, pretty fair. But like the film industry’s NC-17 rating – which effectively blocks any film from making significant box office money – the ESRB has the Adults Only rating, which blocks the game even more effectively – retailers won’t carry it, and the console manufacturers won’t allow it on their console.

It seems established that these ratings aren’t for pornographic material, which falls into a completely different realm. Ever since the embarassment of Custer’s Revenge and the other 2600-era porno-games, they’ll never allow them; and fair enough, because it would attract even more outrage from the sector who reckons most gamers as borderline psychopaths, to little benefit for gamers.

This leaves the question; what exactly is the AO rating good for, other than as cudgels by the corporations involved in distributing these products, in order to enforce their own sense of morality about them. They’re saying that in the case where a review board – no matter how flawed – determines that a given piece of art is suitable only for adults, that they will not allow adults to see it. The retailers don’t hold absolute power there; online retailers will still offer pretty much anything to anybody with a valid credit card. That leaves these ratings left as the tools of only the console manufacturers.

It might not be a bad idea to keep pornographic games off the modern consoles (not that you can’t always pop in a Blu-ray anyway), but placing arbitrary limits on how much digitized blood is too much? Why the double standard with some games, like the CSI series, which are rated for 17+ year olds yet their far gorier franchise parent is available on prime-time over-the-air broadcast for anyone with a TV?

All of this confusion and complications over the ratings is serving to do little more than self-censor the form of art the studios produce – much as the comic industry did for decades – and contribute to public perception that there is something dangerous about video games. Every form of art – from ballet to novels to film and comic books – has gone through this period early in their lives, when perception is that while the content of the art form isn’t necessarily much different than the content of others media, the delivery method poses a danger unto itself. Sure, when films came along, they didn’t have much different content than novels did – but the way people saw this content was different, so films were held to a stricter standard than novels (and still are in many ways, as any Stephen King fan can inform you). When television came along, same thing – this was being delivered into people’s homes, not a theatre you need to buy a ticket for; broadcast television is still treated much differently than film, though the advent of cable networks like HBO has changed that equation considerably.

Today, it’s this idea that because video games are interactive, they somehow pose a greater threat to people’s minds (especially the minds of THE CHILDREN, an excuse I’m so tired of… but that’s another blog) because they’re interactive. They somehow supposedly train people to act like the characters in video games. Research into this area is, of course, spotty at best, though Grand Theft Childhood has finally given gamers some strong, unbiased research into how video games affect minds. It’s most of the stuff you’d expect, of course, with cause and effect getting all mixed up; ie. while violent people are drawn to violent games, nothing indicates that non-violent people who enjoy violent games become violent as a result of them… etc. etc. As Jack White says, if you’re headed to the grave you don’t blame the hearse, and there’s nothing that these do-gooder politicians, who reckon that railing for anything “for the family” will get them elected, love more than blaming the hearse.