Halo 5 is Rated T: The Beginning of ESRB Ratings Creep?

343 Industries' latest is the only mainstream Halo title to be rated Teen by the ESRB.

Analysis by Mike Williams, .

Halo 5: Guardians has received a Teen rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), making it the first main Halo title not to be rated Mature. This is odd because Halo 5: Guardian doesn't seem to be a major departure from the previous Halo titles in regards to content. According to the ESRB, players can expect "blood, mild language, and violence" from the game, which actually puts it ahead of Halo 4, which listed only "blood and violence". The only thing Halo 5 is missing that was a part of some previous Halo content descriptors is "gore".

Why don't you bleed?!

The full summary provides more detail on some of the mild language we can expect from Halo 5.

"This is a first-person shooter in which players assume the role of a super soldier (Locke) searching for a missing character," says the ESRB's summary. "Players use pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, and futuristic weapons to kill alien and human enemies in frenetic combat. Battles are highlighted by realistic gunfire, explosions, and occasional blood-splatter effects. Characters can also use "assassinations" to kill characters by snapping their necks, or by stabbing them with bladed weapons. The word "a*s" appears in the dialogue, as well as occasional taunts/insults (e.g., "I have copulated...with your genetic progenitors!"; 'Your father was a filthy colo and your mother was a hole in the wall!')."

Looking back at Halo 4, that game's summary is largely the same with the exception of blood and disintegrations:

"This is a first-person shooter in which players control futuristic super-soldiers who engage in military campaigns against alien forces. Players use pistols, scoped rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and futuristic weaponry to kill enemies in ranged combat; battles are highlighted by cries of pain, realistic gunfire, and large explosions. Stealth moves (i.e., "assassinations") can also be used to attack enemies from behind (e.g., snapping their necks or stabbing/impaling them with bladed weapons). During one cutscene, a human character cries out as her body disintegrates, exposing layers of muscle tissue. Large blood-splatter effects occur when humans are shot; some sequences depict bloodstained environments."

Unless Halo 5 is completely bloodless, it's odd to see this title with a different rating. Personally, I've felt that Halo has always been on the lower side of the Mature rating scale, so this change to Teen is moving the series to where it should've been before. The change also makes me think that perhaps the ESRB is undergoing a change its older sibling, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) underwent with its rating system some years ago.

The MPAA film rating system has been in effect since 1968, with various changes over the years. In the early 80's, PG-rated films like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came under fire for excessive violence. In response, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating as a middle ground between the PG and R ratings. (MPAA ratings G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 are roughly analogous to the ESRB ratings of E, E 10+, T, M, and AO, respectively.) Each rating is assigned by varying groups of people, so there's no exact science to getting a specific rating.

In the past decade or so, there's been a shift in what types of content garner a PG-13 rating versus an R rating. The idea is referred to as "ratings creep". A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004 found that violence, sex, and profanity increased across all movie ratings between 1992 and 2003.

The Chronicles of Riddick movie carried a PG-13 rating while the game, Escape from Butcher Bay, carried a Mature rating. The content in both was similar.

"Thompson and co-author Fumie Yokota, formerly a researcher at HSPH, found a significant increase of violence, sex and profanity in films over the 11-year period, suggesting that the MPAA became increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings," noted a press release on the study. "Their results suggest that the overall increase arose largely from increases in violent content in films rated PG and PG-13, increases in sexual content in films rated PG, PG-13, and R, and increases in profanity in films rated PG-13 and R. They emphasize that while this ten-year period represents recent experience, it does not represent the full time scale of all films."

The study also noted the differences between movie and game ratings when the content was nearly same, citing the Chronicles of Riddick specifically. A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics acknowledged the same phenomenon.

"Results found that violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13–rated films has more than tripled since 1985," read the study. "When the PG-13 rating was introduced, these films contained about as much gun violence as G (general audiences) and PG (parental guidance suggested for young children) films. Since 2009, PG-13–rated films have contained as much or more violence as R-rated films (age 17+) films."

Less Master Chief, less violence?

The latter study pointed to film series like Die Hard. The first few films were rated R, but Live Free or Die Hard carried a PG-13 rating, despite having more gun violence than its predecessors.

"[1987 film The Untouchables] had gun violence in it that was comparable to a lot of the movies we're calling PG-13 in the last five years," study co-author Dan Romer told NBC News at the time. "I wouldn't be surprised if 'The Untouchables' today would get a PG-13."

In contrast, the ESRB ratings have only been around since 1994. It's possible that the re-classification of the Halo series as Teen-rated is here to stay, instead of being an aberration for this specific title. Society marches forward, changing what is normative as it evolves. What was unthinkable or horrific in film 20 years ago, may be normal now and the ratings classifications change to fit current social mores.

Bright side, this now means all those kids I play Halo against online are in-line with the game's actual rating.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #1 UnskippableCutscene 2 years ago
    Halo periodically had body horror moments, like Captain Keyes becoming a phlegmy pumpkin in the first game. I always thought that the Flood's desecration of human bodies to turn into soldiers was the basis of the M rating in the earlier games. But then, Reach had no Flood, and while I've never played Halo 4 I hear it's the same case there. While I dropped the series, I figured spiders burrowing into your brain and bursting claws out of your chest had always pushed things up from Teen to Mature.

    It's probably worth mentioning that the Half-Life series, which arguably set the tone for the dynamic between the combat-savvy Covenant/Soldiers and the dumb facerush Flood/Xen parasites, was also rated M.

    I think it would be a flaw to view ESRB through the prisms of the MPAA ratings board; a much older body that has had to endure many shifting cultural standards on what is and isn't acceptable; and has not fully kept up with them. It would be a derail to go into how the MPAA has different weights for displays of sex and displays of gun violence, and aside from a few contexts it doesn't always gel with what society is truly afraid of.Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2015 by UnskippableCutscene
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Our age-ratings are different to the US - here lots of games get an 18 rating, quite appropriately. Things like GTA, Mortal Kombat, etc. I don't think they should be reduced, but there's certainly some room for manoeuvre with other titles like Halo.
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  • Avatar for Da_Beerman #3 Da_Beerman 2 years ago
    The riddick movie that was PG-13 didn't have so many scenes of riddick chocking dudes, in fact most violence is offscreen and I don't remember any swearing compared to the game, though the film was re-cut for the rating and now you can find the R rated versions, but the game is better than all of them anyway.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #4 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    I think ratings creep in video games has been going on for a long time. I have mixed feelings about it, generally. It would be nice if the ratings could be more "objective" in which case they wouldn't "creep" unless the official rules/criteria changed. But practically speaking that's probably impossible. So instead we have subjective ratings which are of course socially reactive.

    I think the real problem with both game and movie ratings is the refusal to use the AO/NC-17 rating. This winds up encouraging (requiring?) ratings creep. After all, the M rating is expected to encompass everything from GTA 5 to Halo - and subjective reviewers of course want to say that there's a difference there. GTA 5 and Halo aren't really in the same category, right? I think most of us could agree about that. But because the AO rating is so stigmatized the only way to express that difference is by dropping Halo down to T. What is really needed I think is more granularity at the "M" level. I mean, "E" has that - EC, and E10+ exist. Something similar is needed for M games that avoids the stigmatization of AO. But that's easier said than done.
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  • Avatar for Thad #5 Thad 2 years ago
    I always thought it was ridiculous and arbitrary that Hot Coffee meant the difference between an M and an AO. The exact same content wouldn't push an R-rated movie into NC-17 territory.

    It bears noting that American films are effectively a three-rating system again; about the only G-rated movies being released now are documentaries. BoxOfficeMojo lists only 2 G-rated films released this year, both of which are documentaries; it lists 13 released last year, of which 8 were documentaries and 3 were rereleases of films from earlier years (and of those three, two were French films and one English).

    Ratings are inherently subjective, and often downright absurd. (Why does Once have the same rating as Saw? Why does the latest episode of Axe Cop have the same rating as the latest episode of True Detective?) I don't really care for them on principle and would much prefer a marketplace where parents were encouraged to pay attention to the entertainment their kids were interested in and use their own judgement about age-appropriateness, instead of some inexplicable standards body's. But given that they seem to be a necessary evil, it's always nice to see sanity checks and improvements to the system. The recent emphasis on content descriptors has been an extremely welcome change, and gone some way to clarifying that R-rated movies like The Jerk and This Is Spinal Tap are pretty different from R-rated movies like Scarface and Pulp Fiction.Edited August 2015 by Thad
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