S Batman: Arkham City is a wonderful and violent video game. It's rated T by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the group that applies ratings to all major games released in the United States. T games are for gamers who are 13 or older.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a remake of a beloved sci-fi first-person shooter. It was rated M, for audiences 17 and up.
Both games came out last fall.
The funny thing is that, after playing both games, I would have told you that Batman deserved the M and that Halo, a tame shooter by 2011 standards, would be a T.
How did these games get these ratings and what's the difference between Batman's T and Halo's M? First, let's look at the games, then I'll tell you what the ESRB said.
Punching, Not-Killing, and Catwoman vs. Shooting and Explosions
We've cut together footage of some of the most extreme moments in both games. The video is embedded at the top of this post.
You'll see Batman kicking and punching bad guys just short of beating them to death. You'll see Catwoman get all sexy, and you'll hear bad guys call her a bitch. (There are Batman end-game spoilers at the end of the video, but we warn you in time for you to stop playback.)
In Halo you won't see any more sex appeal than a blue computer-lady's rear end, and you won't hear cursing. You will see down the sights of a gun and hear lots of explosions. You'll see alien blood spurt as alien bad guys are killed with wartime impunity.
The website for the ESRB includes descriptions for each game. This is what they say about the M-rated Halo remake:
Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Violence
Rating summary: This is an enhanced remake of the 2001 first-person shooter Halo: Combat Evolved. Players assume the role of Master Chief, a super-soldier who engages in futuristic battles against a powerful alien alliance. Players use plasma pistols, sniper rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers to kill enemy creatures in frenetic combat. Firefights are accompanied by realistic gunfire, large explosions, and cries of pain. Frequent blood-splatter effects occur when enemies are shot, sometimes staining the surrounding environment; aliens often break into bloody fragments when killed.
Online Notice: Includes online features that may expose players to unrated user-generated content (Xbox 360)
This is what they say about Batman:
Content descriptors: Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco, Violence
Rating summary: This is an action-adventure game featuring characters from the Batman franchise. Players assume the role of Batman as he investigates Arkham City, a neighborhood overrun by psychopathic criminals and former prison inmates. As players explore the city and infiltrate hideouts, they punch and kick criminals in melee-style combat, using various gadgets (e.g., explosive gel, smoke pellets, a grappling gun) to defend themselves against gun-wielding thugs and villains. The frenetic combat is highlighted by cries of pain, punching sounds, realistic gunfire, and slow-motion effects. In some sequences, players must solve puzzles or use stealth to incapacitate enemies and free hostages; when players fail a challenge, the hostage will lose his life. Some environments contain bloodstains on the floor or furniture; other cutscenes depict spots of blood on injured characters. During the course of the game, some female characters are dressed in form-fitting outfits that expose large amounts of cleavage; one background sign depicts the silhouette of a woman and the words "Live Nude." The dialogue also contains some suggestive references (e.g., "The anger, the frustration, the hints of repressed sexual tension" and "Sure could go for some porn right now."). One sequence depicts a character smoking a cigar, and there are various references to alcohol (e.g., "She got a little drunk and killed her classmates," "I'd give anything for a nice cold beer right now."). The words "b*tch," "a*s," and "bastard" can be heard in dialogue.
The Game Company's Take
I couldn't imagine that a Batman game would get an M, but Arkham City seemed borderline. The game's publisher, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, declined to tell me anything about their experience with the ratings process, so I can't tell you if they had to cut anything, if they lobbied for the T or what.
A Microsoft rep did comment, noting Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary's unusual status. The game is a remake of a 2001 game that got an M-rating. Every first-person Halo since then has also been M-rated. So here's Microsoft: "Microsoft has always been a strong supporter of the ESRB ratings system and adheres to its decisions. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a faithful remake of the original Halo campaign, so it was rated 'M' for Mature like the original classic. We recommend you contact the ESRB directly for more details about 'Halo: Anniversary's' ESRB rating."
I had a feeling that the remake thing was the factor for Halo. Societal standards can change dramatically in 10 years. If you watch TV, you know this. HBO's Game of Thrones has sex scenes in it you'd have had to pay a quarter to see in New York's Times Square a few decades ago. People can curse on network TV these days, or at least say things that would have been banned not long ago. Violence on TV? More extreme than ever.
It follows that the Halo that got an M in 2001 might not deserve an M in 2011 when you're stabbing realistic-looking human beings left and right in M-rated Call of Dutys or rending them in two in Bulletstorm.
What the ESRB Says
I e-mailed some questions about these game's ratings to the ESRB, whose spokesperson, Eliot Mizrachi was ready to field them. I figured I'd put him in a tricky spot, because, well… look at those ratings descriptions up there! I expected a pat answer, maybe a brush-off.
Instead, I got more information about how the ESRB rates specific games than I've ever seen before. Because of that, I'm going to share all of our Q&A, so you can get the nuances.
Mizrachi gave me one meaty answer for my first two questions, which had been:
1) Clearly one game was seen as having less kid-friendly content than the other. Can the ESRB share some insights about why the games earned their respective ratings?
2) How close to an M was Batman? What keeps it from deserving one?
"Assigning ratings is inherently an exercise in balancing subjective judgment with objective analysis and trying to assign a rating that is felt to be most reflective of consumers' expectations about content. As your questions suggest, these two games illustrate why it can at times be difficult to determine where to draw the lines. The M rating for Halo is undoubtedly at the lower end of the Mature spectrum and the T that Batman: Arkham City received is at the upper end of Teen. It's always at the border between two categories where there is the greatest divergence of opinion, and that's to be expected.
"In terms of ratings it usually boils down to exacerbating and mitigating factors, and one of the most significant of these is blood and gore. Batman engages in hand-to-hand combat, uses no gun and only depicts "static" blood (i.e., on walls, floors, etc.). These factors tend to diminish the intensity of the violence, which can help it to remain a T-rated game. Halo, on the other hand, is a first-person shooter that graphically depicts "dynamic" blood and gore (i.e., blood splatters, chunks of flesh, etc.). While most of the blood is purple, some of it is red, which to your point is a noteworthy distinction. All of these factors usually raise the intensity of the violence being depicted.
"As you correctly point out, there are other elements that can weigh in as well – such as suggestive themes, language, tone, etc. Batman does include suggestive content and potentially offensive language, neither of which in this case warranted a Mature rating. Bottom line, it's hard in many cases to point to any single factor and say it alone is responsible for the rating assigned. Sometimes depictions are the determining factor whereas other times it's context. Most of the time it's a combination of things that are considered within the context of the whole game to make a judgment about the most appropriate rating."
3) The M for Halo feels, frankly, severe, as the game looks tamer than many more gory and more M-rated games. But this Halo game is a re-make of the original Halo, which was rated M in 2001. Did the remake receive the same M because the original did?
Mizrachi: "When a game is simply a "re-issue," meaning that it's just a re-release of the exact same game, then the originally-assigned rating continues to apply. In this case, however, the graphics were updated, which made the depictions more realistic. So it was put through the rating process and received an M rating."
4) Does the ESRB believe that the standards for what is or isn't an M-rated game can shift over the course of, say a decade? If so, how is the ESRB addressing that?
Mizrachi: "This is a tricky question. On the one hand, as a rating system, it's important for our ratings to be reflective of cultural norms and of consumers' expectations about the age-appropriateness of content, and these can and do change over time. On the other hand, there's value in maintaining some degree of consistency, which allows consumers to develop an understanding of the type of content that is associated with each rating category. The challenge is to strike some balance between these two seemingly opposed interests, to make sure our ratings remain consistent, relevant and reliable without being so rigid as to not be able to adjust when called for.
"We regularly do consumer research that measures, among other things, the degree to which consumers find our ratings helpful and their confidence that our rating will be accurate and consistent with their feelings about the age-appropriateness of content. Ultimately our goal is to make sure that our ratings remain a trustworthy resource for parents, and according to the research we've done, and that done by the FTC, our ratings continue to be regarded by them as a very reliable source of guidance."
What's Your Take?
TV shows have ratings. Movies have ratings. But no other form of entertainment in America has ratings that are as clearly explained as video games. Those official ESRB listings tell you all you need to know about what's in Batman and Halo. And yet… do these ratings really fit?
I'll leave that for you to decide.