Global Ratings Systems: Does the ESRB Even Rate, Bro?

Prior to the release of Mortal Kombat, gamers were living in a sort of utopia where their parents wrongly thought that all games were "for kids", and knowing this, the kids themselves could play whatever they wanted without consequences. "Hey, Mom, there's a cool new Chiller cabinet over there! Can I have some quarters?"

Sure, Timmy. Here's $10.00, and take your time. Mommy's having a drink...

Prior to the ESRB's launch in 1994, games with questionable content such as Chiller were already floating around, such as Custer's Revenge, Death Race and Night Trap. Even though these games featured adult content ranging from exploitation to straight-up murder, parents just blindly assumed that all games were created with an all-ages audience in mind, and turned little Timmy loose in the arcade with reckless abandon. As technology improved and added realistic elements such as FMV and digitized actors getting their heads ripped off in gory fashion, U.S. lawmakers threatened intervention and thus, gave birth to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.

Remember when I talked about subjectivity regarding reviews? Well, it works here, too, and you should play or disseminate what's right for your family. However, many of us think that we set the gold standard for the entire world, but nothing could be further from the truth. Other markets the world over have their own standards of what is acceptable for certain audiences and what is not. Some are more open, while others are more restrictive, so how does the ESRB rate against the likes of Europe's PEGIGermany's USK or Australia's Classification Board systems? Below are examples of the various standards employed by each system for select games.

Wolfenstein 3-D

The crazy, much-haired geniuses at id Software didn't get their start with DOOM, but rather a pseudo-3D first-person shooter where mowing down wave after wave of Nazi soldiers was your modus operandi. Released way back in 1992, Wolfenstein 3-D did what other games weren't doing at the time, featuring buckets of blood and dog murder, all in a first-person perspective! Here in the United States, id Software took home the "Best Arcade/Action Game" award at the Shareware Industry Awards in 1993, along with multiple accolades from other sources such as Compute! Magazine, Computer Gaming World and VideoGames & Computer Entertainment

Due to its Nazi symbolism, the game was never released in Germany, and was even blocked within the country when the free-to-play browser version was released. Even though Germany recognizes the PEGI system and even employs some of its logos on their video game releases, you still can't play it there due to it being refused classification under USK. PEGI itself rates Wolfenstein 3-D as a "12", or rather a game that shows "violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category." So in essence, it's available everywhere else in Europe that utilizes the PEGI system, except Germany.

Click here and see where your country stands, and feel free to share your findings below in the comments.

I should also mention that even Australia found the violence in Wolfenstein 3-D somewhat farcical, though not enough to dodge a "Mature" rating. The classification was doled out on July 13th, 1994, and seemed on par with the United States. However, this standard would not set a precedent for The Land Down Under, especially when this bloody whopper was released...

Manhunt

Australia flat out refused to classify this game for release back in 2004, and if PSN forums are to be believed, Manhunt still hasn't seen a down-under release as of 2016, even with the institution of an "R" rating. However, back in The States, Manhunt was not only enjoying critical acclaim, but was also very effective in singling out human race hemorrhoids Jack Thompson and Joe Baca, who attempted to write off Manhunt as a simple "kill simulator" that is "less a video game and more a weapon of personal destruction." Their vitriol even crossed the pond, where Manhunt was even implicated in the murder of Stefan Pakeerah. Even though cooler heads in English court dismissed these ludicrous claims, the controversy generated by the media remained.

The insanity that followed was even outlined in an infographic, courtesy of some clown guy over at Gaming Rebellion. And though the infographic doesn't touch upon it much, things got even crazier in Germany, where all copies of Manhunt were confiscated by the Amtsgericht post-release on July 19th, 2004. You won't even find it in their database if you attempt to search for it, even though the game was released in the European market as early as late 2003!

Imagine your shock when some random government body posthumously decided that the much-praised game that you personally love was simply too much for society to handle, took it away by force, and attempted to erase any history of its existence? What if the reverse happened, and the formerly offended country has suddenly deemed you worthy of ingesting such previously objectionable content? Does that even happen? Well...

Carmaggedon

That's right...Carmeggedon has the dubious honor of being the only game on this list whose formerly offended country deemed its citizenry worthy of ingesting it in its natural state. Released in 1997, Carmaggedon is a vehicular combat game akin to Road Rash, featuring multiple settings such as a mine, a city and industrial areas, oh, and pedestrian murder...lots of it! Mowing down realistic pedestrians proved too much for the talking heads at PEGI, who would only release the game if the human pedestrians were replaced with zombies and green blood.

PEGI later revised their terms and released a patch that would allow consumers to play the game in all of its uncensored glory. Prior to that, players could only enjoy the somewhat watered down joy that comes with murdering those who are already dead. Zombie tears may matter as well, but hearing the cries of joy from their American counterparts who could enjoy the game in all of its raw glory, the green-tinged (re)death of zombies may have felt somewhat hollow.

However, Germany took it one step further, by outright banning the game with no hope of a release. A search of USK's database turns up zero results, and German fans are still pissed in 2016, almost 20 years after its initial release. Could you imagine the insanity that would ensue if an already censored game was further censored or even refused classification? Guess what? There was even a game that pulled that one off!

The Punisher

Released in North America on April 12th, 2004, this is a game that was threatened with an AO rating by our own ESRB simply due to its grotesque, over-the-top kill scenes. To dodge this rating and get the game in stores, developer THQ added filters similar to those seen in Manhunt 2 and called it a day. The Punisher was blessed with an "M" rating and found itself sold across the country alongside the likes of friendlier titles like Monster Rancher 3 and Sonic Heroes

So how did it fare around the rest of the world? Well, PEGI has given the game an 18 rating, or rather a game that features extreme violence, but only after THQ zoomed the camera out on executions and make all scenes even fuzzier, really. However, in Germany, not only was our favorite blood-covered vigilante refused classification, but the game was also placed on the infamous Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons list, forever damning it to oblivion to German gamers.

Things got even kookier in Australia, where an MA 18+ rating was granted in 2004, but only after a few scenes were deleted altogether. So it can be surmised that some versions of murder/torture are more "acceptable" than others? Maybe hanging a mark over a pool of pirahnas is more socially acceptable than feeding him into a wood chipper? Who knows!

Mortal Kombat

So what of the series that started it all? Surely, we've evolved as a society more than 20 years later, but sadly, this is not the case. Mortal Kombat (or rather Mortal Kombat 9) ups the gore by featuring grotesque fatalities such as literally ripping an opponent in half or pounding your opponent into the ground like a tent spike and kicking their head off like an errant soccer ball. Of course, with two decades of experience (desensitization?), the ESRB assessed an "M" rating without hesitation.

However, in Australia, the game was refused classification, even jarring them into forgetting how words work, with the quote "violence that exceeds strong in impact." Funny enough, the talking heads in Australia later allowed its release as The Komplete Edition, with an R18+ rating. German gamers, however, were not so lucky, where once again, it was thrown under the rug and added to the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons list, where it will never see the light of day.

It's hilarious that a series, with over 20 years of history, can still raise hackles after all these years. Perhaps a bloody throwdown between The Simpsons is in order? Oh wait, that'd probably be banned, too, but in the end, no one's right and we should all think for ourselves. Who knew?