ESRB Defends Oblivion Rating Change

When the news broke yesterday that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) had decided to change the rating on Bethesda Softworks' and 2K Games' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion largely because of a third-party mod that could allow gamers to play with topless female characters, both Bethesda and the gaming community responded by saying the decision was bogus.

GameDaily BIZ was flooded with reader email on the subject. "I don't just believe that the re-rating of this product is unnecessary, but it is downright offensive to Bethesda Softworks and gamers alike," wrote a reader under the moniker Disgruntled Fan. "Firstly, there were no 'hidden' elements in the game that can be used to amplify gore to the extent that it was when ESRB originally rated the game. The 'gore' reasoning to re-rate the game is a shameless and transparent attempt to make it seems as though they have some justification to change the game's rating. They certainly do not.

"As for the 'nudefemaletop.nif' file included in the game, people don't seem to know how easy it is to access pornography on computers. What teenager who would download such a mod to replace the normal, scantily clad top female bodies would download that over the many free and easily accessible pornography agents strewn across the internet?"

Another reader, Jason, wrote in: "How can the ESRB base a rating off of a third party modification of a game? This seems completely illogical since any game, given enough time, can be modded into showing nude models, more gore, sexual themes, etc. I bet if given enough time and some motivation, experienced modders could turn Dora the Explorer for the PC into a M rated game... I am very disappointed with the ESRB."

In its response to the ESRB yesterday, Bethesda insisted that "nothing was hidden from the ratings agency," and furthermore that "Bethesda didn't create a game with nudity and does not intend that nudity appear in Oblivion. There is no nude female character in a section of the game that can be 'unlocked.'"

Despite the uproar in the gaming community and the insistence by Bethesda that they strictly followed ratings protocol, the ESRB stands firmly behind its decision. We contacted ESRB President Patricia Vance today about the seemingly adverse reaction to the ratings change. Vance noted that Bethesda should have been more careful when submitting the final game for review.

"When we brought the topless female images to Bethesda Softworks' attention, they confirmed that the art file existed in a fully rendered form in the code on the game disc. The ESRB's investigation found that the mod allowed users to change the filename for the female character mesh in order to access the art file that was created by Bethesda. While true that a modification was required to access this file, the changes we implemented last year - expanding our disclosure rules to include locked-out content - were made to prevent these kinds of situations," Vance explained to GameDaily BIZ.

"It is obviously unfortunate for everyone involved that no one at Bethesda deleted this file before the game went Gold, contributing to our changing the rating after the game was released," she added.

Vance then proceeded to put the onus on Bethesda:

"Bethesda is fully aware that the content in question, both the more extreme depictions of blood and gore as well as the locked-out content, should have been disclosed to ESRB, which is part of why they have wisely chosen not to contest the rating change. Our raters re-reviewed the game along with the more extreme depictions of blood and gore that ESRB uncovered and felt that the game was deserving of a Mature rating. Though Bethesda may believe their submission was 'full, accurate and comprehensive,' our investigation proved otherwise, forcing us to correct what was found to be an inaccurate rating."

We understand that the ESRB is just trying to do its job, but we still respectfully disagree with the outcome. GameDaily Senior Editor Robert Workman summed it up best in his blog:

"The ESRB jumped the gun and avoided some heavy government finger-pointing when they found out that some weird person had made a 'topless' mod for the hit Xbox 360 and PC game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Because of this mod, which in no way is attached to the actual game, they went ahead and scrapped its Teen rating, instead slapping it with a Mature one.

"Um, OK. So someone adds something from the outside and the developer and publisher have to suffer as a result? Am I the only one who sees a problem with this? I'm sure that someone like Clinton or Liebermann would've eventually complained but I don't see this being the fault of the ESRB nor Bethesda, just someone creative who obviously can't get enough of female breasts. I can see why the tip-toeing was put into play with doing it before someone complained (or pressed charges), but, really, there are other ways of dealing with this than slapping hands unnecessarily.

"Like what? Patches to eliminate the topless mods, or a warning that such mods exist to parents of teenagers who are playing the game. Notification of mods that actually add to the game through the Xbox Live service. That sort of thing. Re-rating the game changes nothing, as people will still pick it up in droves. But it's sort of like changing a PG-13 to an R rating on a film because you could see Scarlett Johannsen's nipple or something stupid. (Believe me, I'm not calling her nipple stupid- just the issue at hand.)"

[Update] It was only a matter of time before politicians and anti-game activists used the re-rating of Oblivion to once again criticize the ESRB and the video game industry as a whole. Today California Assemblyman Leland Yee, whose violent video games bill was blocked by a California Judge, took the opportunity to slam co-publisher Take-Two Interactive and the ESRB.

"Take Two Interactive just doesn't learn," Yee said in a statement. "It was only ten months ago that this same publisher deceived parents by first putting hidden sex scenes into their already ultra-violent video game and then lying about the fact that they allowed the content to be included."

Moving on to the ESRB he said, "Unlike the movie industry's rating board which reviews the entire content of a film, the ESRB rates games based on very limited viewing of the game and rely almost entirely on information provided to them by the game manufacturer."

"While the retailers may have been made aware of the re-ratings, how many parents are still unaware that these games include such graphic content?" continued Yee. "In both instances, thousands of children had already purchase the game as well as many parents who bought the game thinking it may be appropriate for their child. Take Two Interactive continued to receive all profits and was not penalized in any way."

"The ESRB again has failed our parents and clearly has shown they can not police themselves. Plain and simply, the current rating system is drastically flawed and here is yet another reason why we need legislation to assist parents and protect children," he concluded.

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