When I started reading articles about Senator Brownback’s bill - the one that would require that the ESRB play through games in their entirety - I expected to agree with it in principle, but take issue with its execution. The shrill phase of the site, where I would don armor and ride under the aegis of the true gamer no matter how mild the incentive, now rests in the reliquary with Xbox Controller Jokes and Jabs At User Friendly. I had chosen a singularly poor moment to become reasonable. Upon further examination, the Senator’s plan (which I think may be rightly called a machination) is the sort of thing one might forge in the fires of Mount Doom.
1. "Playing through" games would not have discovered the content that got us into this mess.
Hot Coffee is one thing. That’s low-fi erotica secreted away somewhere, dormant on the platter. But Oblivion is actually the better test, because it presents several cases that make the playthrough "thing" unworkable. Oblivion was re-rated based on a nude patch, i.e., user created content. There was some other rationale based on violence, but the ESRB was in an impossible position politically, needed to move, and Bethesda took the fall. But no playthrough is going to detect questionable content based on mods you have not installed. Oblivion also features in-house downloadable content, made by people who are not perverts - official enhancements and powerful horse clothes that can alter the experience. What’s more, Oblivion is a vast, vast game - one that I’m sure some are still playing. This isn’t a two-hour film or an album by controversial hip-hop firebrand Ice T. It’s a dynamic experience based on player input - you might as well hire a cartographer to map the paths of electrons around a nucleus.
There’s no turn-key solution to this problem, and I think most people agree it is a problem. At first I thought our noble Senator was simply being naive. I can be forgiven for that, most of the mainstream "sins" we decry are due more to a paucity of experience with the medium as opposed to authentically nefarious intent. He’s not naive, though, because
2. "Playing through" games isn’t really what the bill is about.
That part is powerful, yes, but it’s prestidigitation. Let me tell you that Gabriel will be angry at me for using that word. I hope you aren’t - but yes, the notion of them playing games or not playing them is sleight of hand. The bill is actually designed to seize editorial control from the electronic gaming industry. They create their own terms for describing game content - we might call such a thing a ratings system - and then they gin up their own body to discipline this rambunctious industry that has been at the root of so much controversy. Indeed, one can almost imagine the American flag gently billowing.