Gaming has changed a lot since I was a child. It's often commented that back then games were for 'fun' whereas now it's all 'srs bsns' - to use an internet colloquialism. In a certain sense, I'm all for this (I will push for eSports to be a big thing if it damn well kills me), and it certainly has put our hobby and passion into a mainstream environment where we are no longer mocked for it, and are, in fact, part of one of the worlds largest demographics. Gaming is a big money business now, for better or for worse, and in the process, it has evolved into something very different from what we once knew.
Gone are the days when we were told that we would 'grow out' of our passion, when games were marketed at children and the biggest sellers were Mario and Sonic. Now, one needs only browse the shelves at your local stockist to see that an overwhelming majority of 'mainstream' games, especially the Triple A releases, come with an ESRB/PEGI rating of 18, occasionally 16. Gaming has matured.
Again, I'm all for this, to a point. Though I long for the days when gaming was more than just the latest in a long line of FIFA and Call of Duty clones and releases, I have nothing inherently against 'adult' games. Gaming is a brilliant way to tell a story, and good, gripping stories often require a decent amount of tension, threat, and yes, even violence, drug use and sex have their place.
What I object to is that gaming of late appears to be focussing less on pushing the boundaries on what games can do - with interesting mechanics, gameplay ideas, stories and immersion - and more on pushing the boundaries of what the rating committees will accept.
Let's travel back to 1997. It's October and a game has just been released, called Grand Theft Auto. It's a top-down game for PC, and is based around the player running missions for a crime syndicate. These were mainly assassinations, robberies, car thefts and similar, and the graphics were fairly bright and cartoony. All in all, compared to the ability to hire a prostitute, take her to a remote location for her services, then shooting her to avoid paying, it seems a little tame. Compared to a game where the player gets to torture characters, where the blood is right up front-center, and the graphics are aimed to be as realistic as possible, the original GTA seems almost family friendly and comic.
Oh the humanity!
Now, let's travel further back to 1993, where a fighting game called Mortal Kombat has just been named as "Most Controversial Game" by Electronic Gaming Monthly. It was a standard arcade fighter game, but included some pretty gory finishing moves called 'Fatalities', and although the graphics were very basic by today's standards, the combination of hyper violence and 'realistic' human characters (in that the game wasn't purposefully going for a cartoon style, but rather something resembling reality) made the game one of the founding reasons for the creation of the ESRB.
I'm a massive fan of fighting games, and I've been quite excited by another Mortal Kombat title (Mortal Kombat X), but even I've been left a little uneasy by the prerelease footage. I've always been able to deal with Mortal Kombat's hyper violence, but next-gen graphics and the sheer insane levels of violence and morbidity on display actually make my stomach turn a little, and I studied pathology, and assisted in several post mortem examinations. Yet, the content has actually got me, a fan of the series, doubting whether or not I actually want to own the game.
That might ache in the morning...
The videos I witnessed showed a character having a hole blown through his torso, revealing his still beating heart, before his face is sliced off and his brain slides out onto the floor. 'X-ray' cut-ins show bones fracturing and organs rupturing under heavy blows. Another fatality involved breaking the spine and using the two halves as handles to tear a character in half. Yet another had a character having his face melted away with acid, before thumbs were forced through his eyes into his skull, and the skull torn in half.
That's all in excruciating next-gen HD graphics.
Meanwhile, a japanese game called Criminal Girls is about to launch in the west. It's had to be censored in order to avoid the AO rating. AO stands for 'Adults Only' and is generally reserved for hardcore pornography and similar media. An AO rating means that mainstream retailers like GAME, Gamestop, Amazon, the PSN Store, XBox Live etc, will not sell it. It damns a game to obscurity. Why did the game require censoring to avoid the AO rating and be 'reduced' to an 18? Because of an optional mini-game where the player can 'punish' the anime girls. They're still clothed, covering their dignity, and they're animated girls, as in, japanese anime. Cartoons. Oh, and they moan suggestively.
OH GOD MY EYES!!! MY POOR IMPRESSIONABLE MIND CANNOT TAKE THE SHEER HORROR!!!
There's no actual penetrative sex, no nipples or genetalia on display, just suggestive ideas and moaning, but somehow this is utterly unacceptable, whereas in a few months time, store clerks will be advising parents that perhaps this hyper violent fighting game where characters are encouraged to mutilate their opponents in incredibly graphic ways, might not be suitable for their eight-year-old son, despite the fact that "all his friends are playing it". Believe me, it happens with GTA all the time. Parents purchase 18 rated games for their children, either oblivious or uncaring to the actual content. Curiously, those same parents would not be happy that their child was watching any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, or Dawn of the Dead, or even Alien. So why do they not care about games where, rather than just witnessing the violence and fear, they are actively participating?
Moreover, all of this considered, what actually is the point of a ratings system? Surely I cannot be alone in thinking that non-nude anime girls moaning suggestively is not as dangerous to children as high definition, hyper violence? So, what on earth is it that has allowed gore-porn and criminality to become accepted norms?
Don't get me wrong, I am all for such games existing. I'm a proponent of free speach, so even if I disagree with what you're saying, I'll fight to the death for your right to say it. I just don't believe that any form of freedom of expression should also be free of consequence. I believe that someone has the right to voice their opinion, but if that opinion is bigoted, racist or sexist, there should rightfully be consequences. I believe developers should be free to develop any style of game, but the rating system needs to actually reflect that properly. I'm not even suggesting that 'videogames create psychos' - scientifically proven a false statement - but it has been shown that 'inappropriate content' can damage childhood development and cause all sorts of issues.
Violence, drugs, prostitute abuse, murder and rape are all fine, kids... but mimes? That has GOT to stop...
Yes, I am aware that I must be sounding rather like I'm screeching "Won't somebody please think of the children!" at the top of my lungs, but genuinely, I do think that decisions need to be reached on this topic. It seems ridiculous that a pre-teen child can bring a copy of 'The Evil Within' to the counter of their local store, and despite the cautions of the staff, an ignorant parent can purchase the game regardless. Perhaps that's just me. Maybe that's the right of the parent, and their 'fault' if they later regret the decision. Maybe we do need a better rating system that focusses on the actual content rather than loose markers and age-gating. Maybe parents just need to be educated better?
Genuinely, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue. What could be done? Do you disagree with me and think that nothing needs to be done? Let me know in the comments below!