It may have guts and gore, but at least there’s geniune context to it

20 11 2007

Published in The Gateway at the University of Alberta, 19/11/07.

Despite the growing mainstream acceptance of video games, the idea that they’re just for kids is still infuriatingly prevalent. Nevermind that surveys have found the average gamer to be is in his or her late 20s; public perception and media spin constantly push the assumption that all videogames are toys for children, rather than entertainment for a variety of different ages.

While I’d like to say that influential members of the gaming industry—like the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)—heartily battle that perception, they probably infantilize video games more than anyone else. The prime example of this is Manhunt 2, Rockstar Games’ ultra-violent, psychoses-induced survival horror romp released this week. Originally intended for release last summer, the game was given an Adult Only (ages 18 and up) rating by the ESRB—gaming’s answer to the MPAA—due to its extremely violent nature. Since most retailers have strict policies against selling any AO-rated games, this rating effectively banned the game in North America, forcing the creators to marginally trim down the game’s gore before the ESRB dropped the rating to M, for players 17 and up. That’s a marginally better outcome than with the British Board of Film Classification, which outright banned the game.

Now, some of you are probably thinking, “So removing a scene where a guy gets his nuts ripped off is infantilizing?” Frankly, yes because while that action on its own has no context, it does in the game. You’re not just killing someone in cold blood; there’s a reason for it all, and that’s something any regular adult can understand. The murder stops as soon as they put down the controller. But the ESRB rating system’s inability to adapt to this growing maturity of gamers—continuously adding “content descriptors” doesn’t cut it—as well as the gaping chasm that exists between the Teen and Mature ratings hinders the industry’s development as its audience gets older.

For one thing, the distinction between a Teen and a Mature can sometimes be made by simply looking at the colour of the blood that spews from your enemies: green means Teen. Also, the age group that the word encompasses is far bigger than the ESRB seems to give it credit for: their rating deems it to be ages 13–17. I don’t really put much stock in a 13-year-old’s ability to fully understand the mature themes in a game like Grim Fandango or the sardonic humor and $100 words in the new Sam & Max games as well as a 17-year-old would.

This becomes important when the T rating encompasses vague situations like “violence, suggestive themes, and/or strong language.” For that matter, I doubt that a 17-year-old would get a drastically different message from Manhunt 2 than someone just a year older.
It’s a parent’s responsibility to determine what their kids should be playing. The problem comes when they can only rely on the ESRB’s content descriptors, which describe potentially offensive content in the game, except without that essential ingredient we call context—you know, that thing that tells you why you’d be committing any of these acts.

I’m of the firm belief that a game can be used to convey a well-written story and an adult, sometimes graphic, message. But the infantilization of the industry needs to change from within before public perception can change. Only then will games at least approach the maturity of the average 20-year-old.





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