The ESRB and Ontario

The other big problem with the ESRB is that it lacks regionality. Here is an American organization creating ratings for titles based on American value systems despite the fact that these same games are being sold in Canada. An American organization that caves to American government pressure. Our ratings come from such an organization? As a Canadian, I have a problem with this.

You could argue that since this is a voluntary system, it shouldn’t matter either way. However, that is not that case. Not here. But before I get to that, let me first draw some parallels between film ratings to set the context for game ratings.

In the US, film ratings are the responsibility of the MPAA and are regulated and self-enforced by the MPAA. There is no legal meaning to the ratings. People can sell, rent, or show rated (from G to NC-17) and unrated movies how they please (copyright laws not withstanding.) In Ontario, that’s not the case. Film ratings are determined by the Ontario Film Review Board and are (save for some exceptions) mandatory. Their enforcement is also mandatory by law.

Cultural differences between Canada and the US could mean that such a state of affairs might be viewed as profoundly negative in the States (free speech and all that.) I can understand those, and I definitely do see that putting such powers in the hands of government can lead to problems. Indeed, one does not need to look any further than Australia for proof — they have effectively banned Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — but as long as there are checks and limits to that kind of power, it’s not necessarily negative. In Ontario, these limits exist.

Recent changes to the Ontario Theatres Act reduced the scope of Ontario’s censorship powers because, according to the Superior Court, they were too broad and unconstitutional. Some movies can still be banned, but only if they’re exceedingly pornographic or explicit to the point of breaking the law. The law states:

(4) The Board may refuse to approve a film for exhibition or distribution if,

  • (a) the Board considers that the film has, as its main object, the depiction of explicit sexual activity; and
  • (b) the film includes a depiction of,
    • (i) explicit sexual activity coupled with violence,
    • (ii) explicit sexual activity that is degrading or dehumanizing, or
    • (iii) a person who is under the age of eighteen, or is intended to represent someone under that age, where that person appears,
      • (A) nude or partially nude in a sexually suggestive context, or
      • (B) in a scene of explicit sexual activity. O. Reg. 204/04, s. 1.

(5) The Board shall approve a film for exhibition or distribution if the criteria on which the Board may refuse to approve a film for exhibition or distribution as set out in subsection (4) are not met. O. Reg. 204/04, s. 1.

While it could be argued that there’s some grey area there, a movie would practically have to be illegal for it to be banned by the government (child porn, for example) All other films are still rated and enforcement, but they have almost no power to stop a film from being released. This I can deal with. This I can tolerate.

Video game ratings were adopted into the Theatres Act earlier this year. There are a few things of note about this.

  1. By acknowledging video games and treating them as movies, the government has, in a way, legitimized the form.
  2. To further enhance the idiocy of the Hot Coffee fiasco and the subsequent ESRB rating change (from M to AO), in Ontario there is no legal difference between a game rated M and a game rated AO. In other words, games rated M or AO are both treated as being a Restricted movie. So, the rating change shouldn’t mean a lick of shit over here — yet some places still pull the game for the inconsequential change.
  3. This is the one that prompted this post. The OFRB, which independently rates all films, does not rate video games and leaves it in the hands of a third-party. I have a problem with this.

As you may have noticed, throughout this entry I’ve been talking about Ontario ratings. You see, most provinces (All? I’m not familiar with provincial law across Canada) have their own film ratings board. Ratings like this can be inefficient — does the latest crappy Michael Bay film really need to be rated ten times by ten different boards? — and there is a slight movement to nationalize film ratings, however, there is one very strong positive: these ratings better reflect the values of the province. This is important because in a country as big as this, you better believe that there are moral and judgemental differences between the east and the centre and the west.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quebec. I think it’s safe to say that Quebec is more liberal (and mature) about such matters than the rest of Canada and, especially, the US. It’s more “European.” Films in Quebec are rated differently than anywhere else in North America, and while only some movies see any negligible ratings differences, they do exist and they are better rated for their culture. Their ratings board reflects this:

The Régie du cinéma is constantly striving to keep track of the ever evolving social consensus, a primary consideration in film classification.

Therefore it takes into account social concerns; it follows the evolution of public opinion on alll matters that can enlighten its decision-making process. It aiso calls on experts for issues that require specialised advice.

That is how it should be done, but it’s not. American ratings are being blindly regulated by an Ontarian body without any local input; the Ontario government is failing to listen to its own province’s “social consensus.” If we are going to have ratings, then I’d rather have our own.

Of all the issues that “Hot Coffee” has brought to the for front, this, of all things, annoys me the most. Perhaps I’ve been reading/watching too much about Canadian Northern sovereignty issues. Perhaps those issues are seeping in to my more local interests. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit of a nationalist (not sovereignist, that’s altogether different.) I don’t know. All I know is that it bugs me the wrong way.

Hopefully it’ll be a long time before I have to mention the ESRB again. I grow tired of them and the subject matter.

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