AO Games and Controversy


Video games, often vilified in the media as a corrupter of the United States’ precious youth, fall under the auspice of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).  The ESRB rates each game based on its content, and what age group the game would be appropriate for.  It does this so that people like Jack Thompson don’t have to (how nice of them).

AO Rating

This article will explore the end of the scale not often seen – the Adults Only rating.  First, we’ll discuss some of the impacts of such a rating and follow with some notable AO games and controversies.

The Basics

As stated above, the ESRB uses a sliding scale to rate each game it reviews as seen below:

ESRB Ratings Scale

Similar to how the MPAA rates movies, the ESRB review the games for certain types of content to arrive at its score.  Of course, this involves a lot of censorship issues and the availability of certain games (which is a whole blog article unto itself).

Most of the games you’ve probably played fall into the first three categories.  The last category is for “Adults Only” meaning it should only be played by those 18 years or older.  These games typically involve explicit nudity/sexual content, but also may include extreme violence or drug/alcohol abuse.

Effects and Impact

Given the social stigma associated with explicit violence, nudity, or drug abuse, AO-rated games are difficult to find or acquire.  This is no accident, and receiving such a rating typically ensures commercial non-viability for the product, and is thus avoided by publishers and developers.

Besides the lack of mainstream appeal, games rated AO are not allowed to be published on Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft platforms, at the behest of each company.  Even Twitch has stated that streaming of AO games will not be allowed.

Furthermore, most retailers will refuse to stock games rated AO.  Thus, if a game receives an AO rating, they are precluded from any console release, physical distribution at most retailers, and cannot be streamed.  Essentially, the AO rating will kill any ability to market or sell the game (although there are examples of using the rating to invert this process).

Steam Enter Birthdate

So given that AO = Death of Game, we have not really seen much in the way of AO games (for better or worse).  However, given the above restrictions, AO games have found their niche on PC, and Steam has allowed the sale of Hatred, a recent AO game, on its platform.  Therefore, most AO games are to be found on PC, or released in “Unrated/Uncut” versions elsewhere, to avoid the AO penalties.

Do We Need an AO rating?

Should games like RapeLay exist?  As mentioned earlier, the ratings system could have entire volumes written on whether it is a “need.”  However, the ratings system is not legally binding in any way, and really was born out of the de facto industry self-enforcement of content in its games.

ESRB Secret Shopper Success Rate


Part of the genesis of the controls we have in place now comes from the infamy of the 1982 Atari title Custer’s Revenge.  At the time, there was no rating system, and the Atari had no set customs or rules for what could be published.  Given the “newness” of games at the time, Mystique (now out of business) published several adult-themed games.

Custers Revenge Cover

Custer’s Revenge became reviled for its depiction of a rape of a Native American woman by General Custer.  The game was intentionally marketed as inflammatory, and caused considerable outrage at the time of its release.  Video games were “kids toys” in the eyes of the public, and so publishers began to monitor the content of its releases, to help maintain their brand (a la Nintendo).

Given that video games have moved a long way out of the shadow of “kid’s toys,” the AO rating and what is acceptable has changed.  Just like the X or NC17 rating for films, the video games as art movement has created games that have pushed boundaries of what may or may not be acceptable.  While an AO rating would’ve formally precluded any ability to get the game to a wide audience, the rise of PC gaming and Steam have allowed for adult themed games to find a crowd.

Whether the new means of distribution will allow adult themed games to survive despite the market’s restrictive measures is “enough” is a hotly contested point.  Parents want to be able to monitor their children’s purchases, and retailers want to maintain a “family friendly” environment.  The balance of these forces produces the AO rating, which does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Notable AO Games

In the future, I’d like to take more critical and analytical looks at some more controversial games, but for now, I’ll briefly highlight a couple of notable adult games that have caused a stir in the industry.

#1 “Hot Coffee” modded Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Never a series to shy away from adult themes, Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto series has seen a string of attacks from politicians and interest groups against its glorification of sex, drugs, and violence.  Most of the games have made it to shelves and sold terrifically well.

Grand Theft Auto San Andreas Cover

One exception has been GTA: San Andreas, where enterprising players managed to hack and enable a hidden minigame labeled Hot Coffee.  This displayed crudely animated polygon intercourse between the main character and his girlfriend.

The mod gained exposure and drew further criticism from GTA’s traditional critics.  Eventually, the enabled mod rerated San Andreas from M to AO and required its removal from retail shelves.  Eventually a new version of the game, without the controversial content, was released, and the series lived on.

#2 Manhunt 2

Rockstar found themselves in hot water again with the scheduled release of Manhunt 2, a sequel to Manhunt, which had carried its own notoriety as game which featured torture and murder.  It would be one of the first games to receive an AO rating for violence.


The aforementioned Jack Thompson led a crusade to prevent the distribution of Manhunt 2 by Take-Two, citing the motion controls on the Wii version where players would stab or cut with the Wiimote.  While the game had not been released, attention was drawn to the game, including commentary by Hillary Clinton.

Manhunt 2 Gameplay

Manhunt 2 eventually received an initial rating of AO, which was met with condemnation by Rockstar and Take-Two.  In order to get the game on shelves and on consoles, they made the following revisions to tone down the violence:

  • Removal of innocent victims from some levels
  • Removal of rating system based on severity and gruesomeness of executions
  • Removal of several decapitation scenes
  • Removal of explicit depiction of some executions, instead flashing colors across the screen
  • Removal of execution sequences involving pliers, that included use on the genitals, throat, and head

The game was then released under an M rating, but was later released on PC in an uncut, original AO rating form.  The game was interesting in that its violence was the fixture, compared to most AO games problems with explicit sexual content.

#3 Hatred

The most recent of notable AO games (released in July 2015), Hatred focuses on a sociopathic killer, whose only goal is to kill as many people as he can before dying.  The game received an AO rating for violence and is only available on Steam.

Hatred Trailer Pictue

The game generated controversy with its misanthropic marketing, and focus on mass murder.  Steam originally pulled the game from its platform, but returned the game with an apology letter from Gabe Newell.

The game was a landmark as the first AO game to release on Steam, and may set a precedent.  It actively used its AO rating and extreme nature as its main marketing angle.  This led to widespread belief that it would lack gameplay, and that it was simply a cashgrab.

Hatred Gameplay

The game released with less than positive reviews, garnering a 42/100 on Metacritic.  While some praised its isometric stick shooting core, many cited its dullness and lack of variety in truly engaging the player, or making use of its extreme themes.


The AO moniker has become synonymous with controversy, not unlike its counterparts in other media.  While a “true” AO game had not been developed from some time up until Hatred, the rating still garners a bit of interest due to its more political issues.

An Adults Only rating is the death knell for many commercial games, while also a pointed tool to use in marketing (like Hatred).  It’s effectiveness in preventing gratuitous violence and sexual content is consistently tested, and while likely need to be revisited in the future.

Do you have any experience with AO related games?  Any thoughts on the censorship issue?  Comment below!


12 thoughts on “AO Games and Controversy

  1. I remember when there were no ESRB ratings at all, and when they started appearing on SNES cartridges I thought it was weird! It’s good that these ratings are in place, though. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an AO game being sold anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Should games like RapeLay exist?” In my view, games that are this extreme become unethical and immoral, more likely to encourage violence and treat women like objects than not. Of course, everyone has the freedom to create games like this and tell stories like this, but their conscience should be balanced with the responsibility they have to humanity in creating something so extreme. Just my view. Censorship is wrong but of course retailers have the right to say “no” to selling these things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is certainly an interesting line. Retailers can refuse to sell. At what point should developers back away from completing a game? Who chooses what is over the line? Consumer behavior? RapeLay is a good example because it really lacks any substance other than its perversion, but more grey area games bring up more issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Those I think begin to bridge into ethical questions that our society has become incapable of answering. We used to be able to agree on what is ethical and what isn’t, but where did Jiminy Cricket go? Seems like consumer behavior is an unreliable control system because people would eat this stuff up if it wasn’t for the lack of these games and their unavailability. I think about my younger brother, 15 years younger than me, who’s got pre-teen friends playing Grand Theft Auto and crap like that, and bragging about it as if it was a sign of actual maturity rather than real immaturity. 20 years ago, kids that age were playing much more innocent games. They don’t have the conscience to know not to play that, and their parents are too ignorant to care about buying rated M games for their 12 year olds.
        There are a lot of grey areas with things like this, like do I want my own son to be exposed at age 11 to what is essentially pornography and Clockwork Orange level ultraviolence. I think we can agree that would be unethical and immoral of me as a parent to allow. I would need to be a part of that responsibility, along with retailers and my own son himself. Hopefully I can raise him right to be able to have discernment with these grey areas.


  3. Great post! Considering some of the movies that have come out over the years depicting various levels of violence, Manhunt almost seems tame in comparison yet because it is a “game” the knives are out for it (pun intended) instead of the more established medium.


  4. It’s silly that console makers don’t want adult games on their store. Their systems have age safeguards in place so why not?


  5. I found this article interesting. I did not release there were so many ratings for games (I like the way the industry has a rating for those 17 years and older and another rating for those 18 years and older). I have also noticed that computer games seem to have transformed from kids toys into separate art forms (like films). I have also associated PC games with adult games and have wondered why more violent games were released in this form. I noticed many of the controversial games seem to be deliberately designed to gain controversy (I have played the PlayStation 2 version of the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with no hot chocolate minigame).
    The only game I have played which may have an AO rating is Soldier of Fortune: Platinum Edition. This game was released in 2000 (I do not know if the rating existed at this time) and is very gory. The game also has a warning that it is intended for mature audiences and has a violence lock to limit the amount of violence in the game.


  6. Really great piece, dude.

    What I find interesting is that the video games content controversy doesn’t ever really show any signs of abating. Nearly all forms of media seem to go through a ‘moral panic/won’t somebody please think of the children…’ stage at some point, but then everybody gets over it relatively quickly. Back when I was a young-un, it was video cassettes that were going to turn every kid into a serial killer, but when DVDs and Blu-rays followed later, exactly no funks were given, by anybody. The ability to play Games at home has been a thing for roughly about the same period as watching films at home has been, yet – with a few exceptions – the fact that you can get R rated blu-rays isn’t still used as a stick with which to beat all blu-rays (for example). Likewise, people don’t go batshit crazy because some films have sex or violence in them, but if it’s in a Video Game (even if it’s in a Mature rated video game), we’ve suddenly got a responsibility to protect the kids and that.

    Like you say, I think a lot of that’s because there’s still this ‘video games are for kids’ mentality that persists, and actually, even the idea that all games will be played by all kids – like it’s mandatory that each kid will definitely play every game, ever. I also think – certainly more recently – that games have made a rod for their own back, in that all the advances in graphics and tech and such have made them targets, because “realism” + interactivity = bona fide psychopath training school according to a lot of the media. If Space Invaders had a massive zero gravity space orgy in it, I don’t expect anybody would’ve noticed, let alone cared, yet now games have cracked the whole reasonably realistic thing, they’re suddenly corrupting impressionable young minds because, like, there’s some dudes with a human-ey looking face in them.

    Finally – the whole ‘no AO’ games stance by Microsoft and Sony is patently absurd, in my opinion. Yes, I get that what I’ve just mentioned is part of their decision, but nobody thinks any less of, say, LG or Samsung because they sell Blu-ray players, and because some Blu-rays have an R (or X rating) and they can be played on these Blu-ray players, right!? I mean, both Microsoft and Sony know I’m a 30+ year old guy, so why not let me make my own decisions about what it’s appropriate for me to play or not? Chances are most AO games won’t be stuff I’m interested in anyway, but still, that’s my decision to make, not theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the detailed response! I agree with most all the points you’ve raised. Video games are slowly shedding the perception as “kids toys” and of course there are growing pains associated with it. Availability and censorship are big issues and id like to dedicate an entire post to those subjects, so I’ll probably do just that. However, the Ao rating has essentially become a ban on the product, a function that it perhaps should not have.

      Liked by 1 person

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