I spent a few hours last night with Naughty Bear, a new action game from Artificial Mind & Movement. But rather than review it I'd rather use it as a launching pad for a discussion about limitations inherent in the current age ratings system employed by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
As I reported in a brief preview a few weeks ago, this is a game about a tattered, worn out old teddy bear shunned by his fellow stuffed animals on a paradisiacal island. The game begins with our bear being left off the invitation list for a birthday party. He decides to take a gift to the birthday bear anyway, but his clean, colourful companions laugh him away from the party. This sends our protagonist over the edge. He spends the rest of the game exacting lethal revenge on those who wronged him.
The things our naughty bear does are truly terrible. He slams heads in doors, straddles downed bears and mutilates them with an axe, uses a golf club to choke them, and guts them with a machete. There are apparently some 200 ways to kill his enemies, and more points are awarded for imaginative kills. The score multiplier increases if you manage to drive your fellow bears mad with fear and make them start clubbing themselves to death or go screaming around the village and terrifying the other bears.
It's a clear example of interactive satire that runs along the lines of a game like Conker's Bad Fur Day. Just how amusing it is will be a matter of personal taste.
A question I'm more interested in is this: For whom is this game appropriate?
The ESRB has stamped it with a Teen rating, citing "violence" and nothing else. Based on this rating and content description (as well as the game's name and picture of a teddy on the box), parents of early teens and perhaps even late tweens might well decide that this game is fine for their kids.
But it's not.
There may not be any blood, and the violence being perpetrated may be teddy bear-against-teddy bear rather than human-against-human, but the game's vibe is extremely dark, it's humour decidedly mature.
The problem is that the ESRB gets caught up in details. They don't like profanity, references to smoking, drugs, or alcohol, the appearance of blood and gore, or sexual themes, subtle or overt. Naughty Bear has none of these things, so it falls through the cracks.
Meanwhile, a game like The Beatles: Rock Band gets punished. Harmonix's popular music game was rated Teen for "mild lyrics" and "tobacco reference." I strongly disagree with this rating, which suggests that the Fab Four's music is unsuitable for pre-teens. My five-year-old daughter loves their music. She plays the game with me, singing back-up vocals. If she has questions about the lyrics--which I see as quite mild compared to the booty anthems that seem to dominate modern pop radio--I'll answer them.
When it comes to age appropriateness, does it make sense to put a game that simply has players performing some of the world's most beloved pop songs on par with a game involving axe murders, planned land mine kills, and gunshot suicides?
The issue, obviously, is context. The ESRB appears to be bound by empirical rules that state particular imagery and words dictate certain ratings, regardless of the bigger picture. A more thoughtful system would take into account a game's intent and atmosphere.
But I'm not holding my breath for changes. The ESRB is a 16-year-old bureaucracy, and such organizations aren't prone to making sudden, sweeping shifts in policies and processes. What's more, a contextual system would open the door to a wide variety of rating and enforcement issues. There would be a greater chance of personal opinion seeping into final verdicts (though specially trained for their job, the ESRB's game raters are, after all, only human). And without set rules that leave little to interpretation it would be much easier for publishers to dispute the ESRB's ratings.
This means that, as usual, the best way to ensure your children are playing age appropriate games is simply to supervise them and vet the games they play. That's not a problem for adult gamers who enjoy playing games with their kids, but parents who don't play games are likely to rely more on the ESRB's ratings system.
Or perhaps conscientious reviewers.
So, if you clicked to this story to find out whether or not your kids should play Naughty Bear, let me be clear: This game is not suitable for early teens (by which I mean seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders). If your older teens want to play, I'd recommend giving it a go yourself before letting them take the controller. It's the only way to be sure.
Follow me on Twitter: @ chadsapieha