Is it a smart thing to do?
Even if it falls within the standard guidelines of a "T" (Teen) rating, should game developer Rockstar's controversial video game Bully be given anything less than the "M" (Mature) rating? Given the state of the industry, the rampant (and horribly uninformed) critics, and the way the game has been billed in the media, it doesn't seem like a smart move on the ESRB's part to give the game a lenient rating as Gamepolitics.com has reported.
Truthfully, long before details of the game slipped out, opportunist and outspoken critics ripped the company for the creation of the game. They protested, wrote letters, and slapped it with the absurd title of "Columbine Simulator." That was what the media reported.
Now, as the game nears its October release date, we know slightly more about the title and its probable rating. The game is lighthearted in nature, letting players control a frustrated child in a private academy who finally decides to stick up for himself. Yes, there's punching, kicking, and a few swirlies. No guns, no murder, and as far as anyone knows, no blood either. It's obviously a game that strays from the company's Grand Theft Auto in terms of style.
The Xbox version of the game has recently been cancelled due to the rapidly declining sales of the console as its successor, the Xbox 360 takes over. The game now resides on Sony's Playstation 2 as an exclusive.
However, the damage has been done. Those few who were vocal enough managed to get their message out. A group known as the Peaceaholics publicly protested the title before they even knew what it would entail, with of course an opportunistic anti-game attorney Jack Thompson tagging along. The latter member of the protest also made his way onto supporting radio and TV stations, proudly proclaiming — incorrectly of course — that the company was releasing a Columbine Simulator.
That leaves the question as to why the ESRB would even bother. The game will garner enough attention as it is, and in an election year, any politician would grab the opportunity to point out the problems in a system that has been overly scrutinized. After an overblown sex debacle in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas last year that was mistakenly reported by nearly every media outlet that ran it (claiming it was easy to access even though it required an external cheat device to find), what will happen with Bully?
The mainstream media can spin a story anyway they wish, and as they've done in the past, will take random, out of context footage from the game to shock the audience and parents who fail to pay attention to anything their kids are doing. Imaging hearing this:
"From the makers of the video game Grand Theft Auto comes a school bullying simulator for 13 year olds! Your kids can get it today!"
If you're the ESRB, the least you could do is put up the shield in the form of an M rating and have something to go on when your PR team needs filler. With a T, the game is accessible to children at the age of 13, right around the high school years.
Should things need to happen this way? Should the ESRB be picked apart on a daily basis? Absolutely not. However, until things finally pass over, it's a common sense move. The game will be used repeatedly by those looking for a few minutes of airtime on the nightly news, and that's Rockstar's problem.
For the industry as a whole though, the ESRB needs to protect more than Rockstar. Letting Bully out with anything less than an M is the wrong move for the industry as a whole, and damage control is already spread thin.