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Video Game Industry in New Fight: Rockstar’s Bully May Have T Rating

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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.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • Andrew Eisen

    “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?”

    Absolutely without question.

    “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…”

    There’s a difference between giving the game a lenient rating and the rating it deserves. If a T is what it deserves, then it is not a lenient rating.

    “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.”

    It is not possible for me to disagree more. Give the game the rating it deserves. The ESRB will be doing everyone a disservice if they do anything but.

    Andrew Eisen

  • http://www.gamepolitics.com Colin

    Just FYI, GamePolitics didn’t report that the ESRB HAD given Bully a “T” rating, just speculating that sans blood & death, it was a logical rating to give.

    And I agree. How can you justify the ESRB ratings as being fair and impartial if they would give a bloodless, deathless game an “M” rating? Would anyone trust the ratings at that point?

  • http://torricane.blogspot.com Mark Buckingham

    I, too, feel that giving the game a Mature rating as a knee-jerk and pre-emptive measure is bending to the will of the wrong people. I personally don’t think San Andreas should have been re-rated Adults Only because the content that led to the change was not strictly part of the game. Someone made a nude cheat for Tomb Raider, but that didn’t get re-rated.

    Giving a game a misleading and dishonest rating because of a company’s reputation or to pander to a bunch of crybabies who don’t even understand the issue they’re shouting about will hurt the credibility of the ESRB more in the long run than the overall impact Bully will have on the industry OR the ESRB.

    Damaging the credibility of the ESRB could rapidly lead to its dismemberment, at which point I can easily imagine the government or some privatized agency with an agenda of their own stepping in and mucking up the works worse than anything a Teen rating on Bully could have done.

  • http://onemanpityparty.blogspot.com Blair Corbett

    I’d have to say I don’t find this article very clear at all. At first it seems to be building towards a conclusion that says that the ESRB should indeed give Bully a Teen rating, but then the author suddenly decides it should be given an M rating. Why? To protect the gaming industry from a little controversy over a game that, from the description here, got the rating it should have instead of the rating minority groups of people uninformed about the game decided it should have? Are you saying that it would be a good idea to make the ESRB ratings system meaningless, starting a problem of not only have ratings that are lower than they should be, but also ratings that are higher than they should be, just to keep up appearances for the people who decided what content the game was going to have in advance and campaigned against it? Because that doesn’t sound to me like a good idea at all.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    I protest buying anything from Rockstar until they make a game that is fun.

  • Cock Kent

    I’ve read Matt’s work and while he’s a solid reviewer his opinions on certain matters such as this are severely flawed and far too general.

    If Matt or anyone else cared to read the rating systems website and learned how they “do business” you may see things in a different light.

    They simply can’t assign a particular rating because some asshole lawyer is bitching.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    I know the process of the ESRB, how they work, and what they do. They have all the power in the world to assign whatever rating their deem fit.

    It’s not only about “you know who” whining and crying. It’s the media and their reporting of it. Look at it this way:

    Over-the-top lawyer heads to CNN to scream about Bully. Mainstream public now believes the game is some “Columbine Simulator.” Now, we as gamers knew that was crap from the start. On the other side, the general public does not. Let’s face it. We’re still fighting off the whole thing about GTA featuring points for raping woman.

    True or not, that’s what the public sees. Now when the game hits, it’s going with a T most likely because it’s not the game as its been billed. The damage it done though. The ESRB knows it. The general public will always see it as a Columbine title; it’s what they associate it with.

    That said, it’s the right thing to do. Play it safe. The last thing the industry needs is something like Bully out there with a T with wild accusations of Columbine running around.

    If you want another example, the Illinois game law was struck down. How many of the people that knew Rod Blagojevich made the law know that he just lost $500,000 fighting it to lose in the end? The media reported the law, not the loss.

  • Cock Kent

    From your statements it seems you don’t know how they do things.

    While I understand where you’re coming from, you clearly don’t understand the issues and to an extent how the game industry works in general.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    I really don’t see how the thought of rating the game an M is so “outside” the lines, or off base with how things work. It’s protecting more than just the ESRB. It’s a way to hopefully keep the game a little quiter from those who want to make it into something more than it is. That’s it, and it’s completely plausible.

    If Doug Lowenstien ends up on the air of a major network trying to push off the claims of the game like the ridiculous Columbine comparisons, at least he’d have the M to give him something to work with. The ESRB can hand out any rating they want, and we’d be none the wiser since they don’t release rating reasons/determinations to the public.

  • Tom

    Surely all this media coverage is a godsend for rockstar! So long as the game doesn’t get banned as a result they will be laughing. More free advertising than you can poke a stick at!

  • Cock Kent

    Your comments continue to reenforce what I’ve said.

    Your opinion pieces, esp. recent ones are far off base.

    What may be true of your own experience doesn’t mean it’s applied to the industry as a whole.

    I’d stick to reviews.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    You’ve replied four times now and have yet to say what exactly is so far off base about Bully getting an M rating.

  • Cock Kent

    This is my forth time!

    Have you played through Bully? Have you experienced the most extreme content this title has to offer? I would bet you haven’t. So to make a value judgement on a rating for a title you haven’t experienced is far off base.

    If this particular title deserves a T-rating it will receive, or should receive it. Caving to anyone would completely undermine the ratings board.

    Your whole stance on the subject, along with anyone else who thinks along the same lines demonstrates little understanding of how they do business.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    I never commented about Bully’s content. I only know what I’ve read, and I never said what the rating should be on content alone.

    My stance that was because of the soon-to-happen backlash, the game should be given the M.

    How would this be different than GTA and the Hot Coffee stupidity? They re-rated the game based on a mod. Same goes for Oblivion. To say it undermines the rating system isn’t right either. It could be argued that in both instances, those games recieved a higher rating based on political pressure.

    Then again, we’ll never really know, certainly more so with the Oblivion incident. Again, political and non-political pressure is a defnite influence on the rating system, video games, TV, or movies. Giving Bully an M even if the content is a T would only help the situtation. Multiple governing bodies are looking into the game, and that’s a sign things won’t die down.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com/ Ken Edwards

    Should Bully or any other game be rated “M” if it only has “T” rated content? No. If it deserves the “M” then that is why it will get it.

    Giving the game an “M” rating will not quell the shitstorm that is about to happen when the game is released in October. Giving it an “AO” wouldn’t help it either.

    Bully will be scrutinized by the government no matter what rating it gets.

    Oblivion? That is a sticky subject. And who knows if or how political that was. But I said Oblivion was “M” the first time I played it. And look, they re-rated it as an “M” rated game.

  • Dynamo of Eternia

    Matt, I see where you are coming from, but I do disagree.

    I think that rating the game inappropriately could potentially do more damage than good.

    I mean, if we allow a game with content that is clearly Not “M” rated to be given said rating, then that juse could open up a whole new set of problems.

    For example, maybe some parents (who are more informed and find out that it was only given the M rating for the reasons you’ve stated, and in reality is more of a T rated game) buy this game for their teenage kids. But, then friends of those kids come over and play the game (or the kid who owns it takes it to a friend’s house), and that other kid’s parents find out and are not as well informed and assume it’s as bad as the rating would imply.

    Well, now you’ve got a whole new contraversy right there. Kids playing a game that based on the rating they shouldn’t be, but based on the content is not really a problem.

    And it could just lead to harsher restrictions on more mild forms of violence, etc. It could result in people looking at a video game character giving a wedgy to be just as ‘M’ worthy as a character blowing another away with a machine gun. At what point does it end?

    I just think it needs to be rated appropriately. As others have stated, there will be contraversy over this game no matter what the rating. And if anything, a lower rating will most likely help people calm down about the game since it would imply that the content isn’t as bad as GTA (as opposed to the M rating which would imply it is as bad, maybe worse).

    I see your logic, but it could backfire.

  • Joe Budismo

    How does someone review a game they have never played? That is some magic talent I must say. I guess you could speculate that the game is about bullying, being that it is the title. Good hint. Although “Harvest Moon” didn’t even have a harvest moon in it….strange how that stuff happens.

    It is in the opinion of someone who has actually played the game that this is not a “bully simulator” but more a life simulator. Not that it simulates 100% accuracy, but who cares. It gives an inside look to life at school, and for those of us that didn’t go through without some form of harrasement (bullying) it is all too real.