Censorship in Games (Part 3)

Read Part 2 First!

But what about video games and the ESRB? Well, there’s a lot of subtle elements that make it an entirely different situation. Like the movie board, the ESRB came out of a moral panic, that of violent video games like Mortal Kombat. Like the MPAA, this led to the eventual creation of a self-regulating licensing board that put ratings on games which determines their appropriateness for children of various ages. And, like the MPAA, the ESRB uses its highest rating (the Adult Only, or AO rating) to blacklist games that present sexually explicit imagery. Heck, in fact, I can’t even name a single AO rated game off the top of my head. They turn those games so far off the beaten path that their commercial viability turns caput.

On the other hand, most of greater culture would say that any “games” with said mature content often use them in ways we wouldn’t necessarily consider “artistic”. I think that claim has a lot of merit, especially if you start talking about the majority of erotic visual novels and the like (not too far from pornography). Most of those don’t even get a rating, though, or a release in physical form that children could easily buy (being either PC exclusive or import-exclusive). On the other hand, video game violence of the most visceral degree continues to exist, and nobody seems to monitor what their own children are playing. Maybe it is the classification of “game”, but I’ve rarely seen anyway deny a kid such games based on content (the ESRB’s ratings are technically not law, same as the MPAA).

An example: I frequent GameStop often looking for deals on used games. I have a policy of buying a GameStop rewards card on what I like to call “end of system life” years. Basically, if a system goes out of mainstream production or the game system on which those games originally existed suddenly is replaced by an upgrade, that’s the best time to wander into GameStop for some incredibly great deals. I ended up buying more Wii games than I could count, and all of them present experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise get at full price. I digress!

At the same time, of course, people were coming into the store to buy the latest Grand Theft Auto. GameStop has a carding policy, and they won’t sell Mature-rated games to minors unless the parent buys it for them. Even so, the employees try their hardest to convince the mother that it isn’t a good idea to buy this for their kid due to all of the content inside. As people who played this game already, they should know, right? But every time I ever overhear this conversation, the parent simply does not care. The cynical person says that they’re bad parents, but that’s a hasty judgment. The fairer judgment is that the parent knows what their kid actually can handle, and thus buys it on this basis. If this situation arises out of pure apathy, and maybe it does, then that’s a different problem, but the rating system rarely seems to affect whether Mature games get into the hands of children under the age of 17. Same goes with torrenting on the Internet and pornography; it’s prolific and out there, with or without your consent unless you intentionally restrict said content.

Grand Theft Auto V

Definitely kid approrpriate!

Furthermore, have you ever read the descriptions on the box? What exactly is “Mature Sexual Themes”, anyway? I could never quite figure this out; nudity counts, I guess, but some games contain innuendo that leads to the exact same content descriptor with nothing I would consider “mature” (maybe for middle school). How vague a system do we have here? Blood and gore are obvious, but what about smoking, drinking, drugs? What even counts as a drug in certain fantasy worlds? Again, all of this complicates the whole process of determining appropriateness. It’s vague enough to convince people they bought something “safe”, but not enough to present actionable information. The same goes for the MPAA, as all content judgment in this regard seems relative from where I stand. I couldn’t find much information as to how they arrive at their decisions or what internal criteria gets what ratings. In a surprise to no one, things remain totally, and completely, up in the air.

So, I ask, how does a general guideline with no clear boundaries but a clear moral sensibility towards one side or another actually help anyone? It’s an honest question, and one that provides no great answers. Clearly, the only reason it really exists comes about from one specific goal: to provide legitimacy to one product and restrict the release of other products. The Mature rating in games, from my view, never really equated to an “R” rating until relatively recently. On the other hand, to slap a big “Mature” label on something means instant sales in the world of video games. Remember Mortal Kombat? Exactly! Controversy among parents raised the game’s stock among the relatively young video game audience, and Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 remain two of the highest grossing arcade games of all time. Don’t think this stuff isn’t intentional; marketers know how people will react. Corporations benefit; people do not.

But the bigger problem, and the one I note here, is that of control. The existence of the ESRB lets us, unconsciously, let go of the reigns when it comes to what’s appropriate and what’s not by limiting who is allowed in the marketplace and who isn’t. The Entertainment Software Review Board, as the Motion Picture Association of America, remains beholden to companies which support and encourage their livelihood; that symbiotic relationship means certain games must obtain palatable ratings (i.e., the ones that will make money), and anything else must bite the dust. The same goes for games like Hatred, which I assume would instantly meet the wrath of retail if it ever made it to a brick-and-mortar retailer. Heck, if Australian Targets can ban products, then Hatred would exist as a perfect target to a censorship bullseye.

And yet, there’s an element I have not mentioned to all this…

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Nathan Joseph Sitton Marchand

    Are you advocating the abolition of the MPAA and ESRB?

    • Zachery Oliver

      Neither, really. I’m just pointing out that their primary function, as I see it, is not really to let consumers make informed decisions due to being both subjective and vague. Rather, they are ultimately political in nature.