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"Maybe when you're a little older." It's a phrase that just about everyone who's ever been a kid has heard. In the same way that every good parent has always sought to filter what their children watch, game ratings have been the same for mass media in categorizing audience appropriate material. Akin to film and television, video-games are no different in having their own rating system. Does it always work?
Author's Note: This episode of the Inquisitive Blogger is rated for controversy, inquisitive elements, and divisive issues.
For the most part, game rating systems like that of the ESRB's and Europe's PEGI have been successful in organizing games according to their maturity. Such dicy components like violence, sex, drug/alcohol usage and reference, gambling, strong language, are all taken into consideration when a game's rated and their rating's usually done fairly. If the Saints Row IV's Australian ban has proven anything, it's that there still seems to be a strong amount of bias in many rating system's judgments.
Violence is typically the strongest source of alarm that a rating board can address and this year's game line-up certainly hasn't be a stranger to it. So far 2013's already had us crushing cyborg spines and impaling Lara Croft, even watching Joel and Ellie knock down the U.S. population down a number for good measure. Games like God of War and any NetherRealm game are givens for violence. Why does that generally fly under the radar without a buzz, or at least compared to a provocative Grand Theft Auto lap dance?
(Bioshock Infinite had you take a skyhook to people's faces. Critics complained about Elizabeth's (*ahem*) "assets." Fair?)
The answer to that question might be found in the general attitudes societies express towards defining and more "illicit" ones.
In its most basic forms, violence is a more condoned and arguably necessary act in games. It's more frequently associated with bravery or athletic competition when simply fighting enemies or opponents and viewed as a more accepted from of amusement. Bloodier, more extreme versions are inevitably more disturbing, especially if against weaker, helpless enemies that are more distinctly human. Still, it sticks to its righteous formula of good vs. evil, hero vs. villain, you or them. As an interactive medium, video-games need some inherent challenge to them and violence usually expresses that the easiest.
Throughout every media source, sex is always a different story. No matter if it's in film, television, or video-games, sex is undeniably the raunchiest, more uncomfortable topic you can exploit for entertaining viewers' fantasies. Why? In contrast to violence, sex is the only traditional act you can take to reproduce human life. It's that reason that people try and respect it as something private, whether for religious, moral, or just plain personal reasons. Whereas violence seeks to destroy, sex can create something, and thus it has a strange, mysterious power over us that makes it all the more precious, albeit more shocking.
(Drugs are scary. . . but isn't sending Joker's goons to the ICU too?)
Then there's everything else in the middle. Drugs, gambling, and strong language are cited nearly as often to a game's controversial nature in their societal impacts, but are they as mandatory to clamp down on? In less ways than either sex or violence, these three features often drive up a game's entire rating and sometime unfairly so. Gambling is usually a big waste of money and yet, it can be addictive. The same is true of drugs that do worse by kill the body. Strong language can simply communicate rude and offensive implications. Nevertheless, are they victimless offenses? I recognize all of their relevance to audiences' tastes, but are beer references, slot machines, and sailor mouths as serious as people take them compared to more immediately graphic, physical interaction in games?
At the same time, all of these afore mentioned factors play their role in portraying some duplicitous side of our human activities. Shouldn't we still treat them all equally? Nevertheless, violence is always ignored in seeming favor of censoring vices. Ninja Gaiden: Razor's Edge and 2011's Mortal Kombat still made it to Australian store shelves at an R18+ rating (equivalent to M) despite the gory messes you can make of your characters. Such decisions invoke a sense of favoritism that's hypocritical. It seems to say that at the end of the day it's less important that I mash your face in with my bare hands as long as I don't do it naked or swear while doing it.
It may be just as important to note what many game ratings don't rate. Unlike the MPAA rating and TV Parental Guidelines for film and television respectively, the ESRB still often fails to address more subtle issues in gaming that fall through the cracks of more conventional rating descriptors. Unlike its European counterpart of the PEGI system, whose descriptors include everything from fear-inducing sequences to racial/gender discrimination, crucial elements like scary images aren't covered by American games' ratings, leaving many games lacking a true description to uninformed parents. Rare games like Arkham City and Naughty Bear are two instances that raise questions about this. Even while containing pretty bloodless combat both resonate with a dark (if not bizarrely so for the latter) tone that counters its historically kid-friendly inspirations.
(Would a few pills end the innocence of that face?. . .)
As much as I've discussed this topic, perhaps its important to maintain that I in no way condemn the existence of mature games. I play them all the time myself and use blood-turn offs whenever I can. regularly play and love M games like Metal Gear Solid and Assassin's Creed, but as a choice of my own tastes, I don't eagerly seek out the most extreme ones on the market. I don't play Call of Duty or God of War and admittedly cringed my whole time playing Bioshock Infinite even if I did still appreciate it for its story and character of Elizabeth. I believe that, play them or not, games of all ratings deserve to be treated objectively on all their factors and not just one.
In Australia's case, they as a nation have every right to democratically decide to ban whatever. Yet it's the ban of games like Saints Row IV may very well follow a consequence that many nations like it face. It can be said that the more you try and eliminate something, the more you have of it.
Video-games are unquestionably art, and art reflects life. Intolerance against expressions of that isn't right nor is it practical. It can't be squashed forever and you don't have to condone it. All players ask is the power of consent, that people be allowed to choose it for themselves when they're of the age and ability to do so. I'll say this once and I'll probably say it again the next time another Grand Theft Auto or Last of Us hits either the Australian shores or ours, but I believe it to be true.
Well, I suppose there's nothing like starting off a 31/31 season with some ridiculous amount of opinionated controversy like this. Keep reading for more episodes from this blogger and as always, blogging suggestions are invited. Want something equally serious? Or something not? Stay tuned and it just might be headed your way. Until then!
Up Next on the Inquisitive Blogger: When's this Game Gonna End?