In the four years since I launched GamerDad.com, we’ve only disagreed with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board a handful to times. We felt that The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion deserved an M-Mature ( the ESRB actually changed the rating soon after, but not because of us) and we’ve always felt that Microsoft’s best selling Halo series was far more PG-13 than Rated R – or to put it in ESRB speak, T-Teen versus M-Mature. Despite the purple and blue alien blood, Halo has always seemed so… tame to those of us actually familiar with M-rated fare. Well, Halo 3 comes out today and it’s sure to be a massive hit, but once again the ESRB has rated it M-Mature. I received my copy on Friday and I’ve played through most of the short single player campaign and I keep asking myself the same question, over and over again: Why is this game rated M-Mature?
Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in the ESRB and support its mission. I know how hard their job is. GamerDad is built to go beyond what they do and speculate why a game gets the rating it gets but as I mention, we very rarely disagree with them. They do a fantastic job. But what exactly are they protecting teenagers from in Halo 3? BioShock, another Xbox 360 first-person shooter with an M-rating earns that rating by challenging the player with horror, creepiness, audio logs delivered by insane people, harsh language, and blood covered zombies being dispatched with crude weaponry, including a wrench. And that’s not even mentioning the 8-year old genetically modified little girls and your upsetting option to Harvest (read: kill) them or save them from their weird and twisted fate. BioShock is fantastic because it’s mature in the truest sense. It’s made for adults, not kids. The rating is appropriate.
Grand Theft Auto is a series that lets players indulge in fantasies of lawlessness. They present the player with an open playground where they can hijack an ambulance and rescue people, a taxi and earn money from fares, or, more likely, a backdrop where they can kill innocent people and police in an effort to get to 5 stars and the inevitable Army tanks. If that gets old, there are plenty of missions based on popular adult films like Scarface, Boyz in the Hood, and Goodfellas (depending on the edition you buy). Clearly mature content for an adult audience.
But what is Halo? Halo is the story of Master Chief, a guy in powered armor, who fights alien monsters through a series of mostly clichéd backdrops and missions. It’s a simple, non-challenging storyline. Basic sci-fi. Nothing upsetting or inappropriate here.
The ESRB descriptors mention:
VIOLENCE: Combat is constant – you’re always trying to kill, or being killed by, aliens ranging from wicked to silly. But there aren’t gratuitous blood spatters on the walls and ceiling. The graphics are sensational, but little time is spent on making bodies fall in twisted heaps. There are friendly soldiers and they can die, but they never lose limbs or die gasping in excruciating pain. The alien blood is about the most violent thing present and it’s the only difference between Halo and the similarly sci-fi Metroid series on the Nintendo Wii. A game rated T-Teen.
LANGUAGE: I heard the occasional “bastard”, “hell” and “damn” – meanwhile at the local playground I heard: “Sh*t”, “F*ck”, and “Motherf*cker”
BLOOD & GORE: I’m playing the game in HD on a 32” screen and I sit about 5 feet away from it and… where’s the blood and gore? There’s alien blood, but it’s bright blue or purple alien blood, and it looks like someone cut into one of those carnival glow sticks and shook it all about. I can vaguely remember maybe a hint of red blood but in the heat of combat I can’t swear I actually saw that.
So there you have it. Halo 3 has been rated M-Mature, that is to say it’s been brought on par with games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto: Whatever, Manhunt, and several other truly mature or boundary-pushing games for reasons that seem primarily limited to fluorescent alien blood and the word “damn.”
For the sake of contrast lets look at a PG-13 film like, I dunno, the latest James Bond flick (several brutal murders, truly harsh language and the hero gets tortured by having his testicles repeatedly struck by a knotted rope) and Aliens vs. Predator (which had fluorescent blood plus lots of red blood spatters, people murdered by monsters, harsh language, and horror).
Now lets look at television rated for teenagers. Heroes is a pretty good example to start with, sorry for the spoilers but on Heroes your teen saw several people get the backs of their heads removed so a villain to consume their brains, the shooting of several characters, and all the unnerving “readjustments” the cheerleader would make after surviving death (her superpower is self-healing and we get to see her move her spine back into place, or remove a giant piece of glass from her chest). Heroes also featured a heroine addict. This is material deemed appropriate for 13-year olds in TV land.
Look, I understand that these are different ratings systems and the ESRB isn’t beholden to the ones for TV and movies, but shouldn’t some sense of parity be maintained? For the sake of parents, I mean? Is a 14 year old – that is to say a High School student – really going to be shocked by the brightly colored glowstick blood in Halo and baseline combat violence in Halo 3?
I don’t think so. I think this rating misleads parents and is unfair to Bungie and Microsoft.
That’s why GamerDad strongly urges parents to seek as much information as they can about the games they let their kids buy. Truly Mature games like Grand Theft Auto and BioShock should be given to kids reluctantly and carefully, if at all. The rating is accurate for those games. But to lump Halo 3’s Star Wars-esque gameplay and violence on par with those more mature titles only muddies the waters, confuses well-intentioned parents. And makes them not trust a ratings system that 9 times out of 10 is exactly right. M-Mature needs to mean something substantial and my argument is that Halo 3 isn’t substantially mature enough to warrant this kind of warning and scrutiny. Nobody needs to be carded for Halo 3, except those under 13.
Halo 3 has one heck of a co-op system in place. If you’re the parent of a teenager, why not pick it up as a rental and have a grand time blasting aliens in an effort to protect future Earth together. It really is the right kind of militaristic sci-fi action game that’s appropriate for most of today’s teenagers. It’s time for the ESRB to get with the program and rate games based on criterion that makes sense to today’s media saturated teens and parents.
GamerDad maintains that video games are no worse than other media. It’s time for them to be rated in at least a remotely similar way other media is rated. For the sake of the parents – and the children.
Thanks for reading and note that this isn’t a full review of the game, it doesn’t take into account the incredibly offensive and rude multiplayer community this game typically attracts.