Rated M: Maturity in Games, Part 1
While many games wear the ESRB's "Mature" rating with pride, this maturity isn't real maturity if it's not used in a mature way. Sadly this happens far too often in games today.
Rated M for Mature.
Every gamer who knows even the slightest thing about the ESRB knows the basic gist of this statement: this game is meant for adult gamers only. Children shouldn't play it. But I'm not writing this post about the content of games in terms of whether or not children should be playing them. I'm talking about maturity in a different sense: whether games that are meant for adults are really reflecting a mature, adult mindset. What does it mean to be “mature” in games today? How are the elements that give the game the M rating used in the context of many games, and is this use something that can really be considered mature?
First, I'll define the context by which I will look at “maturity” in gaming.
Obviously, I'll be considering games that deal with content not suitable for children, as defined by the ESRB. What I will be mainly looking at, though, is how those things are used within games: whether or not they are presented in a way that really gives them meaning, provokes thought, and/or makes them actually matter in the game's context, which to me would signal actual “maturity”, or if they are there primarily for shock value and/or basic gratuitousness. Over-the-top gratuity signals to me that this mature content is not actually being used in a mature way. Reading this, you can probably already tell where I am going, but before you flood the comment section with some single game or another that may go against my point (because one thing that goes one way in a sea of things going the other way TOTALLY changes things, yes?), please read on.
The thing is, games today can be pretty hit-or-miss when it comes to dealing with mature content. A particular game may do one thing really well, like a well thought out exploration of war and its effects on soldiers and civilians' lives through violence, but then may completely blow it on other things, by perhaps throwing in a needless gratuitous sex scene with some hot chick your character picks up at a local bar that serves no other purpose than to sell more disks through the magical power of boobs.
This is understandable. Media like movies and books have long had their own issues with these kinds of things. You want your game, book or movie to be seen as both seriously mature and entertaining, or else it comes across as too heavy-handed or too serious, and people won't bother with it. But there are aspects of this idea where gaming doesn't really have as much of an excuse as other media do, and in those areas are where the faults of games' idea of maturity lie.
For starters, games tend to go gratuitous more often than movies or books tend to do, and when they do, they often tend to take it to new levels of ridiculousness. You probably have a dozen different examples already piled up in your head, but I'll start with blood. At first, games had to fight for the right to include blood at all. Mortal Kombat, anyone? Of course, once gaming won the right to depict blood, they ran with it, and the idea that Mortal Kombat was once controversial could be laughable today. I mean, today, games like No More Heroes, which makes a good number of Travis Touchdown's favorite anime look tame, are barely a blip on the radar.
And that's the thing: there's more blood in many mainstream games today than in movies like The Shining and Kill Bill Vol. 1, which were famous partly for their oceans of the red stuff.
How about gratuitous sexual content? Gaming is the world of jiggle physics, the chain mail bikini, characters like Soul Calibur's Ivy Valentine and games like DoA Extreme Beach Volleyball, and that's before we get into the really explicit stuff. Of course there's stuff like porn movies and Playboy in other media. Let's face it, sex sells.
But here is a situation in which video games don't really do worse than other media, but certainly don't do any better either. Most video game characters crafted with sex appeal in mind aren't realistic to even porn star standards when it comes to their body measurements, no matter what the instruction manual tells you. The episode of Game Theory dealing with boobs makes this quite clear. It is true that mainstream games generally don't have as much explicit sex depicted as in many other media, but their roster of believable, strong women that don't have the whole “sex sells” thing foisted onto them isn't very long either. Even oft-mentioned counter-examples like Samus Aran and Alyx Vance are pretty easy on the eyes.
And then, of course, you have the Lara Croft, Bayonetta-types who are supposed to be both strong AND sexy, which isn't inherently a bad thing. It's good that they can kick ass while being able to show off their own. But you do have to ask yourself, “Why are they both strong and sexy?” Yup. Sex sells.
For my next point, violence, I have to credit The Game Overthinker, Bob Chipman, for already saying in his videos much of what I'm going to lay out here. In fact, he's probably said it better than I will. So kudos to you, Bob.
Anyway, the idea with violence in video games and maturity is similar to the arguments with blood and sex. It's often gratuitous and taken so over-the-top it becomes unbelievable sometimes far past anything in a blockbuster movie or book. In both movies and games, huge explosions, gore, decapitations and so on have become commonplace. The difference, though, is in how films treat violence vs how games treat it. When Bob discussed video game violence in relation to guns and war, he mentioned how film has had both its Rambos and its Apocalypse Nows: films that have glorified guns and violence and those that have examined the true horrors of what can happen in war. Games, however, haven't really done much with the whole Full Metal Jacket concept and have largely stuck to the Rambo scenario. Sure, there are individual moments such as the A-bomb in Call of Duty MW1, but they are few, far-between, and drops in the ocean of blood and body parts spilt for glory in countless other games.
The inherent nature of game mechanics doesn't make the creation of introspective examinations of war and violence easy. Players do things in games primarily for some in-game reward, such as reaching the end of the story, getting achievements, or other things. Players will feel most rewarded when it was something they actively did that triggered the rewards. Further, players are far more likely to want to keep playing when they feel that what they're doing is something that is considered “good” in the world of the game. Violence is an easy action to program for rewards: kill the enemy, loot body for reward, reload, repeat. If the choice to do what they have to in order to progress is too difficult for the player, they're not going to want to keep playing. This makes it far easier for a programmer to reward violent acts in a game, rather than punish violence or reward restraint. Just think of it this way: if developers were to try to discourage violence in a war game, expect a lot more escort missions. While this leads to more entertaining games, it also doesn't leave much room for really broad overviews of the effects of violence on the character itself or the world around it. Even when many games try, they don't often succeed.
My last point looks just outside game content itself, to the way games are marketed. Earlier I mentioned how games will sometimes do something in a really mature way but then do something else in a quite gratuitous or immature way. And how will such a game be advertised? You guessed it: showing off the gratuitous thing they did. For example, Catherine comes to mind. Many critics and reviewers praised it for its unique and downright mature handling of sex and relationship issues as Vincent had to deal with the pulls of both love and lust. How was it sold? Plaster the ladies front and center on the box, emphasize their “assets” and throw in a bunch of innuendo.
Dante's Inferno is widely regarded as only extremely tenuously related to the classic book to begin with, but rather than even make an attempt at some sort of respectful connection to its supposed source material, EA decided to anger Christian churches and alienate Christian gamers through its “Sin to Win” marketing campaign. The point is, instead of presenting what the game is actually about, publishers will almost always shoot for the lowest common denominator in their marketing, selling Mature-rated games on what I would consider a 13-year-old's level of maturity. However, that can be at least partially understood when I have hopefully shown that much of the “mature” content of games today is geared towards that same level of maturity by the way it's used. I would bet that both developers and publishers actually shoot for a 13-17 year old target market on many M-rated games today. Shameful, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was true.
If games really want to come into their own as an artistic medium, they need to step up and get over their obsession with over-the-top gratuity. But that may be difficult, as I will attempt to show next time (if this post is popular enough) in Part 2, when I look at maturity in the overall gaming subculture.
Thanks for reading this all the way to the end! This is continued in Part 2!