If initial reports hold true, that’s the prediction I’m inclined to make. A couple days ago, Destructoid.com quoted a source at a manager’s meeting at GameStop, the world’s largest videogame retailer. From now on, Destructoid’s unnamed source said, GameStop would fire any staffer who sold an M-Rated game to a minor— and what’s more, the clerk’s manager would be fired, too. A harsh move, but an understandable one, considering the number of anti-videogame laws which keep cropping up around the country. Like the film industry’s MPAA rating system, the voluntary ESRB ratings are the best protection against parental concerns and subsequent state censorship— if they are enforced with an ID check at the retail counter, that is, and so games suited “for persons ages 17 and older” (the M designation) aren’t sold to people any younger.
Trouble is, they often are. In 2005 the Federal Trade Commission ran “a secret shopper” study in which underage gamers tried to buy M-rated games at retail stores, and discovered that 42 percent of them were able to do so. That nearly half the retailers sold these games without asking for ID strongly suggests that minors are a significant part of the M game audience. (For more compelling anecdotal evidence, ask your underage son or nephew if he and his friends have already killed the final boss in Gears of War yet.)
Two calls by GigaGamez to GameStop’s Corporate Communcations office have gone unreturned, but if the Destructoid story is confirmed, I suspect it’ll spell the decline of the M rating. Industry advocates are quick to point out that M games comprise just a small percentage of the total game market, and that is true; what is also true is that many of the very top-selling “killer app” games like Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Gears of War come with the M rating.
Which is why I believe any effort by large retailers to add real teeth to the ratings system will mean significant changes in game content. Rather than risk an M rating which will turn a substantial segment of their audience away, developers will simply tone down the violence, language, and sexual elements of their titles, to get a T rating.
“The publishers and developers who make controversial content and then cut and run when it comes time to defending their creative decisions… Nothing annoys me more. If you want the right to make what you want, if you want to push the envelope, I’m out there defending your right to do it. But, dammit, get out there and support the creative decisions you make.”
But will they, when it means so many gamers getting asked for their ID? Sad to say, I doubt it.