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Mature video games fare well on year-end best-seller list; are they becoming more mainstream?

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 4 2013 5:55 a.m. MST

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Activision

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Looking at the video game industry’s year-end stats for 2012, some consumers might be wondering if the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s M rating doesn’t stand for “Mainstream.”

According to figures provided on the video game number-crunching site vgchartz.com, five out of the 10 best-selling video game releases of last year were rated M or Mature by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Ranking in spots 1, 2 and 3 on that list were new installments to some of gaming’s most popular franchises — Call of Duty, Halo and Assassin’s Creed.

For parents concerned with the content of their children’s games, that number might be startling, especially when seen side by side with gaming’s closest direct competition, the film industry.

The M rating, which has been used by the self-regulating video game industry since the establishment of the ESRB in 1994, is meant to be the game equivalent to the Motion Picture Association of America’s R for movies.

As described on the ESRB website, M is assigned to games with content “generally suitable for ages 17 and up,” which may include “intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”

Like the R rating, that could mean anything from realistic wartime violence to cartoonish geysers of blood and viscera.

However, there’s a big difference between M-rated games and R-rated movies in terms of profitability and mainstream appeal.

Unlike last year in gaming, when it comes to the film industry’s end-of-year lists, it’s invariably the PG and PG-13 titles that dominate the box office.

In fact, in 2012, only one R-rated movie, the Mark Wahlberg/Seth MacFarlane buddy comedy “Ted,” earned itself a spot among the year’s top 10 highest grossing films, with the rest of the list filled out by superheroes (“The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”), young adult novels (“The Hunger Games,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2”) animated fare (“Brave,” “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”), one quintessential British spy (“Skyfall”) and a Hobbit ("The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey").

What’s more, no R-rated movie in history has been as successful as some recent M-rated games. Last year, for instance, the multiplatform megahit Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 delivered “the biggest entertainment launch of the year” with sales in the first 24 hours exceeding $500 million. It went on to reach the $1 billion mark in only 15 days (two days faster than “Avatar,” the highest grossing film of all time).

Just one week before that, Microsoft’s Halo 4 had broken the record for the highest-grossing platform-exclusive launch, earning $220 million in just 24 hours with Xbox users logging a collective 31.4 million hours of gameplay in the first five days following its release.

By contrast, the biggest single-day box office for any film was set by the PG-13 “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” which made just more than $91 million. And the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time by a wide margin, “The Matrix Reloaded,” fizzled out at $742 million in worldwide box office.

Surprisingly, though, only a small fraction of the total games released in a year receive an M rating, although that number looks like it could be on the rise.

In 2010, roughly 5 percent of games were given the Mature rating, according to the ESRB, while in 2011, that number grew to 9 percent.

Once again, this is the reverse of the film industry, which typically releases more R-rated features than G or PG despite the fact that the restricted rating is less profitable.

Along with the five M-rated titles, the list of bestselling video games of 2012 includes Ubisoft’s wildly popular dancing game Just Dance 4, two sports titles (Madden NFL 13 and NBA 2K13) and two handheld games for the Nintendo 3DS (New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Pokemon Black/White Version 2).

Conspicuously absent, though, are any games rated T for Teen — the gaming industry’s equivalent of the PG-13 rating.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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