[Despite Monday's Supreme Court victory, we still have a long way to go until the general public understands our ratings system and acknowledges their children are safe. Gamasutra editor at large Chris Morris discusses why our jobs now are to help them understand.]
For the past year, I've pretty much lived and breathed Brown v. EMA.
I kept a close eye on the case as the Court considered whether to address it. I was in the room in November when oral arguments were presented. And I've stayed in touch with attorneys about ramifications in the long wait for a ruling.
With the decision now in, I found myself doing a series of round-robin interviews today on morning radio shows on news/talk stations around the country.
And as I fielded the questions from the hosts (most of whom were genuinely curious about the case and didn't feel the need to demonize games), I realized something: there are a ton of misconceptions among the general public about this industry, and that's a big part of the reason video game makers so regularly find themselves on the defensive.
The hosts, who were located in a dozen cities ranging from Charleston, SC to San Francisco, were almost exclusively casual-, lapsed- or non-gamers.
That might make their misconceptions easy to dismiss, but after spending nine years of my career in radio, I can tell you one thing authoritatively: people listen to news/talk stations they can identify with, meaning the audiences of these shows likely had many of the same mistaken beliefs.
Most surprising was the repeated confusion surrounding the games ratings process. With very few exceptions, the hosts believed that retailers were unable to enforce ratings and young kids were free to buy whatever game they wanted, regardless of rating.
If you're familiar with the industry, of course, you know that's not the case. Sure, it happens, just like a minor can sneak into an R-rated movie, but most retailers are pretty good about enforcing ratings. We know that, but it would appear that a large part of the outside world does not.
The ESA and ESRB are rightfully still running their victory lap, but when the hangovers clear up after the celebration, priority one for both organizations should be to ensure that it's clear to people that the "M" on a box isn't something retailers ignore.
Fortunately, they've got the spotlight shining on them right now, a perfect opportunity to say "while we disagreed vehemently with California's law, we understand the concerns behind it – and here's what we're doing to ensure kids don't have access to these games without parental consent."
While they're at it, it might be time to do another educational campaign about what the ratings mean. "E," "T" and "M" baffled folks until I compared them to movie ratings. (In fairness, the ESRB has been banging this drum for a long time and the MPAA has a big head start in people's minds.)
A few hosts, especially those that were parents, wanted to talk about the escalation of violence in games over the last few years. This, as you might guess, ties directly to mass media attention of certain elements of select games (i.e. Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level or Six Days in Fallujah) along with a lingering memory of the heyday of the Grand Theft Auto brouhaha.
That's normal. People remember and gravitate towards controversy. But as I thought about it more, I realized when most people see ads for games on TV, it's usually a shooter that's on display.
From a business standpoint, it makes sense to heavily market those games, since that's where a big chunk of the money is. But from a public perception perspective, it just reinforces the impression that today's games are nothing but over-the-top orgies of violence.
This won't change, of course. Activision shareholders would draw and quarter management if they didn't actively promote each successive Call of Duty title, just as there would be a public stoning of John Riccitiello if EA didn't spend heavily on Battlefield 3 marketing this fall.
But as gamers, we know that the industry is capable of so much more, from gut-busting humor (like in Portal 2) to heart-wrenching sorrow (see Shadow of the Colossus). They're games that rarely justify a major marketing spend, but that only reinforces the perceptions.
It's wishful thinking, I realize, but if the industry wants to show the general public that it actually has matured and is capable of nuance and subtlety and any number of mannerisms beyond balls-to-the-wall blood and guts, it needs to take a close look at how it presents itself to the outside world.
Because it's not just opponents watching. If this morning's talks were any indication, there are a lot of fence sitters who fully support the industry getting First Amendment protections (and were happy the matter was clarified), but still feel like it too often abuses them.