I’m one of the least political people out there – hence why I’ve never written about politics here, until now. Due to my other interests – movies, TV shows, video games and other trivial pursuits – I have limited attention space for anything else.
Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden hosted a discussion among various representatives to discuss gun control issues. Among these meetings was a discussion of the influence violent media, particularly video games, has on children which included representatives from both family groups and the video game industry. The tragedy in Newtown, CT has brought this discussion to the forefront because among his mental conditions and prevalence of unlocked guns in his house he also played video games some of which were first-person shooters.
Politicians have a not so long but very sordid history with the video game industry and the way it experiments with violence. Some of this relationship has positive results like the ESRB ratings system but recent discussions could mark changes for the industry and hinder its growth to maturity as games incorporate mature content without making it the whole point of the game. However it took a long way to get there and older games with mature content but less maturity are burned in many minds.
In 1994, the video game industry formed the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) as a response to political investigations on violence in video games after games like Mortal Kombat rose in popularity and controversy. Without a self-regulating system like this or the more commonly known Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) ratings system, the government would likely be censoring games setting a dangerous precedent for their control over media. It should be noted that many other countries’ government have the ability to ban video games. This often results in game publishers releasing censored versions at a later date.
With both the ESRB and MPAA being self-regulating organizations, the inclination to compare the two is natural. Both were created to prevent government intervention and both have categories for all-ages (“G,” “E”), older kids (“PG,: “E10+”), teenagers (“T,” PG-13″), younger adults (“M,” “R”), and adults (“AO,” “NC-17″). However there is a difference in how their used. The MPAA ratings system has evolved into a marketing tool in that a movies rating greatly affects its financial performance. When the organization in charge of the ratings stands to make more money from a PG-13 rating instead of an R rating filmmakers are either forced to make cuts in order to meet that rating or a PG-13 movie will have vampires and wolves slicing off each others heads when a smaller film with similar violence will get an “R” rating.
Game ratings however have no affect on sales or perhaps the reverse affect. According to website VG Chartz, four of the 10 best-selling games (with consolidated multi-platform titles) of 2012 rated for consumers 17 and older. While there might have been pressure to make 2011’s Batman: Arkham City a “Teen” rated game – despite an overtly liberal use of the word “bitch” – the yearly, “M” rated “Call of Duty” entry has outsold the competition year and year out with the latest entry, Black Ops II grossing $1 billion in 15 days.
When I think about my favorite games of all-time, more than half of them are classified “M,” and yet a growing number of them have mature elements more compelling than the violence. Most of these have have to do with choice and consequence a prevailing trend to the point that the aforementioned Black Ops II has branching story lines that hinge on the players’ choices. This, and other elements have intrigued those willing to listen. When I described my excitement for Mass Effect 3 to my mom, explaining that my decisions in the previous two entries affected the story in the third game, she compared it to my childhood obsession with choose your own adventure books.
The two rebudles to this are that the sci-fi epic Mass Effect series can be described as a “ligher ‘M'” similar to the first Matrix film being referred to as a “light ‘R.'” Also, half of the series still revolves around gun fights – albeit light on blood. No one will contend that Rockstar’s L.A. Noire isn’t a “Mature” game. As a detective in 1940’s Los Angeles, the player investigates the grizzly Black Dahlia murders, uncovers a pedophile movie director and discovers a real estate conspiracy. While the latter might not serve as proper ammunition in the crusade against violent games, the player solves all of these cases by finding clues, interviewing suspects and witnesses and referring back to all the collected information. My mom also experienced this game, in fact I was working on the pedophile case, one of the games more disturbing cases. Yet as I played it with my mom in the room, there wasn’t the same awkward tension that would have been there if I was shooting cops in Grand Theft Auto or zombies with a chainsaw in Dead Rising. It was closer to the experience of watching an ‘R’-rated detective movie. She even commented on how this was different from her perception of other games where I would shoot my way to solve the case (L.A. Noire has gun fights but the shooting mechanics are poorly executed and secondary to the actual detective work ).
Not all ‘M’ rated games are as progressive in their dedication to story and even those that have merits beyond the violence will resort to stereotype in other areas. Just as there is a market for excessively violent films there will be consumers willing to pay for games that focus on the violence. These games don’t warrant blanket laws that keep publishers from exploring the medium’s potential. That medium is finally reaching it’s maturity and to hinder it would be a mistake.
I wasn’t allowed to own an “M” rated game before I was 17. Even when I bought Grand Theft Auto III at 18 to see what all the fuss was about, I could tell my Dad was tempted to throw it out. In all likelihood kids shouldn’t be playing these games but just as they’ll find pornography in their friend’s dad’s closet (or on their laptop) or watch an R rated movie at a sleepover, they’ll find a way to play them. However that’s not the industry’s fault and it certainly isn’t the government’s role to block that content.
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