How Should Game Trailers Be Rated?

Originally published on Trevor Trove on October 31, 2017

Despite announcing a few new games and showing off a lot of new footage from their current lineup, it would appear the big story out of PlayStation’s Paris Games Week conference has centered around the level of violence shown within an extended The Last of Us Part 2 scene. While I personally took no real offence from watching the brutal imagery (i.e. hammering woman’s arm, a person being shot through the face with an arrow, another person being killed with a claw hammer blow to the face), I can very easily understand how people who might not be interested in that type of game would have been upset by it, especially as there was no warning of what you were about to see going into the trailer. Even the fact that it was in the world of The Last of Us was intentionally kept a secret until the ending title card splash.

When I saw that trailer, even before seeing some of the backlash surrounding it, I immediately thought of using it to draw a comparison between the ESRB and the MPAA for today’s post as it suddenly became very apparent that the ESRB falls a bit short of the MPAA when identifying what video game advertising is suitable for all ages versus a mature audience. Yes, the games are rated in a fashion similar to film but as evidenced by this very example, the games industry has shown that it has no issue bypassing the ESRB’s trailer rating in favor of its own marketing machine. I imagine all it would take would be a particularly vocal parent’s advocacy group to have seen the end of yesterday’s conference to lead us down to the path of more prominent ESRB-generated trailer ratings akin to those of the MPAA.

And Now: A History Lesson

In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) trade association was formed to simultaneously ensure Hollywood remain financially stable relationships with its investors on Wall Street as well as establish a general code of conduct for the burgeoning film industry. The MPPDA was later rebranded in 1945 to what we know today as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

The code of conduct established by this group has gone through various revisions with the times but has existed in its current form as the MPAA film rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) since 1990. The ratings, nor the MPAA itself, hold no legal authority but theater owners will often refuse to show unrated or NC-17 films, making the MPAA the de facto law of the land. If you want people to see your film in the mass market, you have to play by the MPAA’s rules.

The color-coding makes the MPAA trailer ratings immediately identifiable.
The color-coding makes the MPAA trailer ratings immediately identifiable.

The MPAA also rate the trailers and other advertisements shown to the public at large with a bright, color-coded system in place. The ubiquitous green placard stating “The following preview has been approved to accompany this feature.” is known to anyone who has ever sat through a film at the theater. With the influx of trailers posted directly online, they’ve also modified the language to read “The following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences.” This “Green-Band” trailer is designed to be appropriate for all audiences. In researching this topic, I discovered that there is also a “Yellow-Band” rating designed specifically for “age-appropriate internet users” but I’ve never actually seen one in practice. A quick YouTube search showed very few actual instances of it as, more often, the film companies will jump straight to the Red-Band trailer, which will include “restricted” content not suitable for all ages. These are often locked behind an age-verification check online or set to accompany specifically delineated movies (i.e. you’ll never see a red-band trailer before anything lower than an R-rated movie as it is effectively the R-rated trailer).

So Why Does Any of This Matter?

When the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was established in 1994, it was modeled in many ways after the MPAA to show that the video game industry could self-regulate without the need of government intervention. Congress was riding high on having driven the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to include the Parental Advisory label on music with explicit lyrics and Mortal Kombat fatalities were all the rage so they set their sights on video games.

parental advisory label.png

Just as there is no formal legal requirement with the MPAA to have a film rated, so too is the case in gaming but retailers like Walmart aren’t going to stock an unrated game or even an AO (Adults Only) game so submitting games through the ESRB for wide release has become the standard. And these same retailers are admittedly likely to self-select away from showcasing this latest Last of Us Part 2 trailer even without a warning label because they recognize as well as anybody that an overprotective parent walking into the electronics department of a Wal-Mart and seeing a woman having her “wings clipped” is gonna be bad for business.

This warning is present on the individual trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 but was left off the version shown in the PlayStation conference.
This warning is present on the individual trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 but was left off the version shown in the PlayStation conference.

If we were to apply the common MPAA standards to this trailer, its inclusion of graphic violence would certainly lead it to receiving the age-restricted Red-Band trailer. And this is clearly not lost on PlayStation and the ESRB as choosing the watch the trailer on YouTube will require you to pass the age verification check and the very first placard of the video is an ESRB warning that the video “may contain content inappropriate for children”. So the problem here is how these live stream/conference “reveal” moments are handled.

With no such age check required in the setting of yesterday’s conference, there was no warning that somebody who might have shown up excited for any news on the new Spider-Man game could also be exposed to the intentionally-uncomfortable violence of The Last of Us Part 2. The fact that PlayStation knowingly requires the age-check to view the trailer itself, but provided no such warning in advance of the scene during the conference suggests they may have even anticipated the backlash but chose to showcase the “shock” factor of their own marketing over pushing back against the narrative that exists to the casual observer that video games are just getting more and more violent.

The Last of Us Part 2 should absolutely be a violent game and I’m sure in the context of the overall title, the scene showcased will help color the bleak, brutal, and desolate world of that franchise that its fans will appreciate. But taken in isolation as part of a press conference aimed at a general audience, it was wildly darker than anything else shown and probably should have been flagged as such. And much like the ESRB recently weighed in on whether or not the growing loot crate trend constitutes gambling, I imagine it’s only a matter of time before they take another page out of their MPAA big brother’s book and start paying more attention to how these companies go about handling their new reveals as well.

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