Oblivion Game Rating Changed to 'Mature'

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006

The latest best-selling game by Bethesda Softworks LLC will be relabeled with a new rating that prohibits sales to children under age 17. The game -- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion -- will now carry a "mature" rating, equivalent to an "R" rating for movies.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a trade organization that reviews video game content, announced yesterday that it had discovered "more detailed and intense depictions of blood and gore" than it saw in its pre-release review.

The board also objected to a software modification that was circulating among gamers on the Internet that allowed players to create topless versions of female characters in the game.

Bethesda Softworks said in a statement last night that it would place "M" rating stickers on games already in stores but that the game would not be recalled. While agreeing to comply with the board's decision, the company disputed the rationale behind the higher rating and said it would not alter the game's content to keep a "teen" rating.

"We believe that this critically acclaimed game is not typical of Mature rated titles, and does not present the central themes of violence that are common to those products," Pete Hines, Bethesda's vice president of marketing, said in a statement.

When game publishers submit upcoming releases to the ESRB, they also must include videos of a game's most intense sexual or violent content. Because games like Oblivion can be played for dozens of hours without players seeing everything in them, the organization depends on publishers to send them the most potentially objectionable content.

The company said that it did not hide anything from the ratings group and that its pre-release submission on Oblivion was "full, accurate and comprehensive."

Bethesda blamed the partial nudity of some characters on tampering by third parties who have modified the game's art files and said it appeared in only Oblivion's PC version. The company said it did not "create a game with nudity and does not intend that nudity appear in Oblivion" and added that it was taking steps to protect the game's art archive from tampering.

Local game designer Brian Reynolds, head of Big Huge Games Inc. in Timonium, Md., said, "It would be a disaster for us" if the ESRB re-designated one of his titles after its release.

"That's something you never want to see, games getting pulled off shelves," he said.

Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said pulling games and re-stickering them is an expensive process.

"Many people see the ESRB as a tool of the industry -- but, in fact, developers fear it," he said. "They are tough as nails."

Though it is rare for a game title's rating to be changed after its release, this is not the first time the ESRB has done so.

When a hidden sex game was discovered in the hit Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas last year, the board changed that game's rating to "adults only" from "mature" -- the equivalent of an "X" movie rating.

Eventually, the company removed the objectionable content and had its mature rating restored. But analysts said that the game's absence from retail shelves cost its publisher millions of dollars.

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