Break It Down: Why the ESRB is Full of Crap

In: Articles by Leah "WhiteGodiva" Haydu

3 Apr 2011

By now (particularly if you listen to our podcast), you’ve probably heard that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board forced a change in the logo of the upcoming zombie title, Dead Island, in North America.

If you haven’t followed the controversy, a couple weeks ago the ESRB decreed that the logo for the Techland-developed, Deep Silver–published zombie co-op shooter was a bit too gruesome for its liking and banned the original cover art from North American shelves.

Oddly enough, European ratings boards — which are usually far more squeamish about violence than the ESRB — had no problem with the logo.

However, Techland and Deep Silver have been forced to change the logo for the Americas.

Personally, I liked the original better.

Dead Island original

Yes, it’s disturbing.  The game, after all, centers on a family that has been torn apart by a zombie attack, and if you’ve seen the amazing, gut-wrenching trailer, then this feels perfectly appropriate.  If you haven’t, watch it now.  Seriously, go.  I’ll wait.

The ESRB, however, has put its collective foot down regarding the image of the zombie hanging from the tree in the logo, prompting a change. In the United States retail release, the cover will feature a zombie simply standing/shambling next to the tree, rather than hanging from it.

Dead Island revised

The European release will remain unaltered.

This is hardly the first time the ESRB has deemed it necessary to alter the external packaging of a product as well as the internal content; who could forget their condemnation of Left 4 Dead 2‘s de-fingered hand?

Left 4 Dead 2 original

The banner image in the background shows, again, what one might expect from a game infested with — and centered on exterminating — zombies.

In addition to the missing thumb from the cover art of the first game, the outer two fingers have also been chewed off by an undead enemy, continuing the visual pun. Apparently only the thumb could be missing, though, because the ESRB made Valve change the image to one slightly less dismembered.

Left 4 Dead 2 revised

In this, the familiar release cover, the fingers are merely bent down, not missing, although the thumb remains gnawed off. Why exactly it’s more acceptable for one finger to be missing than it is for three escapes me, but apparently the ESRB has a one-finger limit.

Of course, we can’t talk about violence without its trampy cousin: Sex. And be assured, the ESRB has its eyes open for any instances of too much skin shown on covers as well.  Most recently, they had Tecmo change the cover art for Dead or Alive: Dimensions for the 3DS.

Dead or Alive Dimensions original vs revised

On the left is the cover of the original Japanese release, and on the right we have the edited version for us sensitive US types. I’d be more likely to notice that the ratings information is displayed differently, but if you shift your gaze a bit to the right, you’ll see the actual alteration: The character’s dress flap has been shifted slightly to cover more of her thigh.

Rest assured, though: her cleavage remains unchanged between the two. Apparently, side-boob isn’t as big a cause for worry as leg — Jack Thompson be damned.

I realize, at this point, that I’m sounding very anti-ESRB, and that’s not precisely my position. I do support the idea of there being ratings on games and that they be restricted so that children don’t get their hands on too much murderous rampaging. In a perfect world, these children’s parents would actually be paying attention to what their kids are playing so that we wouldn’t have to restrict sales, but obviously that’s not always the case.

Climbing down off my soapbox, though, I have two major problems with the ESRB’s approach to censoring cover art. The first is that there doesn’t really seem to be an appeal process or way around proposed changes. If a game’s content results in what developers believe to be an unsatisfactory rating, they can either accept the rating as given or choose to alter the content to shoot for a lower rating.

With cover art — or any other promotional materials, for that matter — you have one choice should the ESRB deem it unacceptable: Change it or…?

Or what?

I spent a lot of time looking around the ESRB’s website trying to find out if there’s any sort of alternative, or even just what precisely happens if you won’t change the art or other offending materials, but all I found was this:

The following ARC Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices (the “Principles and Guidelines”) apply to all “qualifying advertising” for games rated by the ESRB, and all publishers utilizing ESRB ratings are legally bound to comply with the guidelines and to ensure compliance by their co-publishers, licensee, agents and/or other third parties authorized in connection with the development, creation, distribution or placement of qualifying advertising. Failure to comply with ARC requirements can result in points, corrective actions, and monetary fines.

I understand the “monetary fines” part, but what if, say, Techland were to ignore the ESRB’s decree and put out Dead Island without the cover alterations? It might get fined, but what about those “corrective actions?” Would the ESRB have the authority to pull the game off the shelves? Forcibly change the cover art? Make gamers request it from behind the counter, like a porno magazine?

Oh, wait — that already happened, albeit not at the ESRB’s request.

I want to make sure I’m being clear about this. Gamestop was offended enough to pull a game off the shelves that the ESRB didn’t even touch! It rated the game “T.”

Two girls, one banana

That’s “T.”  For “Teen.”

My second problem is the utter inconsistency that the ESRB’s whole system of altering cover art seems to perpetuate. Again, I support the rating of content, but how can we legitimately censor cover art with the excuse that anyone could see it when other readily available media seem to be perfectly okay with showing the same things in the same context?

The best analogue I can think of for this situation is the Motion Picture Association of America, which bears a similar responsibility to the ESRB when it comes to marketing movies. Neither website specifically addresses the issue of disc-packaging on its own; both lump it in with the rest of the game or movie advertising. But it is mentioned as part of both. However, despite being part of a larger industry, the MPAA seems to be vastly more hands-off when it comes to home media packaging.

Check out some of these horror movie DVD covers, for example.

Shocker DVD cover

This is a relatively tame image, but if what the ESRB is worried about in the Dead Island logo is that the hanging figure might be mistaken for a human rather than a zombie, then it’s pretty clear that movies aren’t too shy about showing the execution of a human on their covers.  (Note: although, as you can see, this image is taken from the international version of the DVD release, the US image is the same — this one was just clearer.)

Need more? How about these DVD covers?

Not precisely chewed-off fingers, but if what we’re worried about is this:

Graphic and/or excessive depictions of blood and/or gore
For example:
Excessive and gratuitous amounts of blood and/or fleshy body parts, blood spurting from wounds.

I’d say both of these fit the bill quite nicely. You don’t get much more excessive or gratuitous than a bucket of pig blood, after all.

Skinned Alive DVD cover

I Spit On Your Grave DVD cover

Ah, yes.  Even — perhaps especially — in movies that espouse large amounts of blood, gore, and violence, you’ll still get your sexualized women. I think there’s a bit more on display here than on the DoA cover, and in context, both of them show not only women’s bodies but also women who have unquestionably been subjected to violence.  That’s three ESRB violations right there:

Allusions or depictions of violent or degrading behavior toward women
For example:
Women harassed, abused, punched, beaten, bound, or gagged

Allusions to or depictions of acts of sexual violence
For example: Rape, molestation, sexual assault

Graphic and/or excessive depictions of nudity or sexual situations
For example:
Overtly sexualized depictions of a character’s body parts, such as breasts, buttocks, etc., partial or full nudity (e.g., female breasts, pubic hair, genitalia), depictions of sex or sexual references (e.g., intercourse, oral sex, masturbation)

And yet, the MPAA seems to have no problem with allowing anyone to view these covers with no restrictions.

However, the MPAA does have rules, and while their enforcement of them may differ from the ESRB, there are still boundaries which are, presumably, observed.

I think that an even better argument against the idea that “graphic” video game covers could be seen by children exists in magazines. While the ESRB seems ready to go to war over a few inches of thigh, popular magazines can display full-on nudity without fear of being pulled off the shelves.

Vanity Fair cover

Shocking?  Perhaps.  But this is far more likely to be considered “art” by a popular audience, than, say, Mass Effect.  Even with the copious side-boob.

Entertainment Weekly cover

This one’s clearly okay because it’s a political statement.  But I can still see thighs in there.

Rolling Stone cover

And here we have it.  Not only is everyone involved totally naked, they’re also clearly engaged in some sort of sexualized situation, and there’s blood all over everything.

The ESRB, meanwhile, is concerned about a zombie silhouette. Does this seem balanced to you?

It doesn’t to me.

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5 Responses to Break It Down: Why the ESRB is Full of Crap


Pete Dodd

April 3rd, 2011 at 5:28 pm

The reason the Dead Island thing is being removed in America and not Europe has to do with the fact that America has a past of stringing up and hanging black people from trees and europe doesn’t (well, as much atleast).


Holy Goalie

April 4th, 2011 at 9:29 am

all I know is that I need to start watching True Blood now after seeing them on that magazine.



April 4th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Great story! Even though I can see the artwork changes on DoA, when I look at the old one, I get the exact same feeling as the new one. It isn’t that her thigh is showing more, it’s the fact that in both pictures, you are almost looking up her dress. Plus, the ESRB rating doesn’t exactly distract you from seeing that, it guides you there.

Oddly enough, I bet that if theDead Island hanging person had been changed to a hanging skeleton, the ESRB would’ve said, “yeah, that’s better!”



April 4th, 2011 at 3:15 pm

I don’t remember where it was, but a comment on one of the articles I saw specifically about the DoA cover described it as “Highlights for Perverts.”

It resonated.



April 5th, 2011 at 7:28 am

Leah – Great Article.

Goalie – You would love True Blood.

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