Rated M For Mild
The gaming industry has a thorn in its side, ladies and gentlemen. No, I don’t mean Jack Thompson, and I’m not talking about bad Wii ports being shoveled onto the console – problematic as that may be. No, I’m talking about a lack of graphic violence, sexual content, and language.
“Hold on a minute!” you may cry, waving copies of various mature games in the air and making rude gestures with your free hand. “That’s rubbish!” Boo, hiss, etc etc. Granted, there are loads of so-called mature games – games that receive an M rating or the 18 label, depending on where you live. But how hardcore are these games, in all honesty? Look at any PG-13 slasher movie and you will find bucketloads of more detailed gore. Any teen romantic comedy is bound to have raunchier love scenes than most any video game in existence.
The problem here is that we’ve hit a wall. Video games and their rating system now have standards to rate the audience by, and the bar is far lower than the film and television industry’s threshold for mature content. Compare the level of violence in Grand Theft Auto alongside classic mobster flick The Godfather. Sure, they deal with similar themes in the same dark context, but Grand Theft Auto is hardly a grisly affair. Death is handled with the same fleeting “poof” of red that popcorn flicks like Lord of the Rings get away with. Part of this has to do with technology constraints; it’s hard to have a realistic portrayal of death in every single conceivable situation. Still, while GTA earns its stripes with mature themes and content, it’s hardly the horrific gorefest the media would generally convey.
Likewise with sex. Romance is a topic rarely touched upon honestly in gaming; understandable, given the focus on action and instant gratification games are generally made to provide. In games where it does pop up, though, it seems to cause an industry-wide panic. Mass Effect made headlines outside of the gamer’s circle when it was revealed that players could romance and eventually sleep with a character. One bumbling journalist even referred to it as an “orgasmic sex simulator,” but the end result was merely a ten-second cutscene of two characters in embrace. I remember catching a glimpse of an ass cheek, but it was nothing I hadn’t seen in James Bond movies from four decades ago. This is what sent the newsgroups into a frenzy? Meanwhile, generations of children have their minds destroyed and warped by butts on The Simpsons every day.
Games are the new kid on the block still, so it’s understandable to some degree why we’re all under such scrutiny. Other times, however, it feels like games are just asking to be controversial – or just weren’t looked at properly. The recently released The Bourne Conspiracy features brutal sound effects, bone breaking, and blood effects with every kick and punch. Horrifying? No. Detailed? Certainly, and it’s surprising that the level of violence went unchecked – the game received a T rating stateside. It’s not that the game should be removed from shelves; in fact, it’s the level of violence I’d personally expect from a game based on a PG-13 movie.
I could prattle on about content vs context and whether or not we should even have a ratings system, but as it stands now, it’s clear as day that the industry can’t make heads or tails of what should constitute a “mature” game. Select few games, like God of War, Grand Theft Auto, and Bioshock deserve their strict labels thanks to genuinely disturbing content and context – however, these games are also intellectually above most other titles on the market today. Dumb-but-fun shooting games like Halo, on the other hand, earn their ratings with… what, exactly? Is the blue ichor in Halo 3 any more damning than similar displays of blood in movies like Titan A.E., a children’s science fiction film? We’re confused, even though no game has ever hit the level of mature content in as much detail as say, Saving Private Ryan or Goodfellas. One day, we’ll break free of this, but for now, our ratings are about as helpful as Titan A.E. was as a summer blockbuster.