In Search of an R.

by Steve Bowler on January 6, 2009 · 21 comments

in general

One of the things that I was thinking about but not writing about during my month under the bus was some further thoughts about Fallout 3 and the lack of nudity in it I wrote about earlier.  A friend of mine threw the pointedly “why are you always talking about slavery and nudity?” Pervert card at me, and in preparing my defense/rebuttal I realized something about our ratings system and the games we play.

There are no adult games.

And no, for crying out loud, I’m not talking about teh pr0ns.

I just want an adult game.  I feel that we don’t truly have them.  We have games with Adult Themes.  We have games with a tiny smattering of nudity.  We have games with gore.  Lifelike violence.  Language.  But what we don’t have, is a title that can encompass all of these things (if it wants to).  We don’t have an “R” rated game.  I know there’s been a lot of pieces written about this subject matter before, what with folks asking why we have a different ratings system from films, and even folks defending our current ESRB system.  Even Penny Arcade did an ad series for them.  Hell, I’ve defended the ESRB on numerous occasions, because as long as it’s in place and we enforce its standards, we keep Congress from breathing down our necks and regulating us.  They’re our friends.

But.

I think we deserve better.  I come back to Ebert’s original stance of “Videogames are not art” a lot.  I try and get in his head and understand why he’d say it.  I once took the stand that videogames are art, and I still stand by that, but sometimes, I can see where Ebert’s coming from.  I think.

My main problem is that our “M” rating is not an R.  I think we’ve lulled ourselves into the idea that it is analogous, that T = PG/PG-13-ish.  E = G.  M = R.  Most of those equations are pretty accurate.  The Mature = Restricted one, though, is a bit off.  And that bit can mean quite a lot.

I’ve gone on at length about how much I miss the nudity, sex, and promiscuity in Fallout3.  It just doesn’t feel like a desperate enough world without it.  Who are we kidding, really, that we live in a world that has human slavery and cannibalism, but only one female prostitute who merely lays down with you?  I know that the Lead Designer, Emil, said that there’s a line he won’t cross (killing kids, and I agree with him), but I don’t think that the lack of nudity was a free willed decision.  I have a feeling it was an enforced one…

The ESRB ratings systems, despite the recent attempts at transparency, are mysterious creatures.  You pretty much have to guess what rating you’re going to get based on the ratings of the titles that came before you while you’re making your game.  You then submit it, and they give your game a rating.  You can resubmit it if you feel that you’ve over (or under?) stepped a line, but it is extremely costly, because it means you’re still continuing development during Beta which probably means you’re spending over a million dollars a month on development at that point.  Changing the rating could literally cost your title anywhere between $200k to another million.  So people like to get it right.  Gah, I’m rambling, sorry, back on track.

Getting it right means attempting to guess how full your “ratings bucket” is.

Guessing the E ratings “spillover cap” into T territory is pretty easy:  Is there any kind of life-like violence?  You’re T.  Even a punch to the face is pretty much T territory if your main characters are human.

The Spillover from T to M is also pretty easy to gauge:  Did you show a hint of nudity?  Excessive language?  Sexual Themes?  Blood and gore?  Did you shoot a police officer?  Any one of these will immediately flag you into the M territory.  So, again, still pretty easy to gauge here.

But where is the M to AO threshold?  A lot of people think it’s just graphic sex, but it isn’t.  You don’t have to be straight up pronography to earn the AO rating.  Condemned has gotten it for excessive gore and violence, and I heard that the Punisher game got it for that reason as well.  Both titles had to re-tool their games in order to ship with an M rating, because (and I could be mistaken here) none of the console publishers will allow you to print a disk with an AO ESRB rating on their systems.  It’s a death knell for any game unless you’re a PC hentai game, and if that’s your bag, you’re probably not ESRB rated anyway.

There’s actually “weight” to each of the things that pile up in your ratings bucket, it seems.  You can force an AO spillover for the tiniest thing.  Hot Coffee is an easy example, but I think that Fallout3 is skating on the brim of their bucket because they included cannibalism and human slavery.  The more depraved the act, it would seem, the larger the displacement in the bucket.  And as I said, you can simply have too much of one thing in there, even if that one thing is simply language.  You’d likely get an AO rating if you had a game that did nothing but shout four letter expletives like a tourette’s sufferer for six hours.

What’s the big deal?  Why should any of this matter?

Because films are getting away with much more than we are in the videogame industry.  I’ve heard people say that the interactive experience of video-games means that we can’t depict what film can, because the interactiveness is somehow…more compelling?  And this is a bad thing?  TV depicts more than Radio did.  Film shows much more than TV does.  Why can’t we at least have the same level of Film but with interaction?  Don’t we deserve as much as the next frontier in entertainment?  Why are we allowing our creative growth and our enjoyment of an entertainment medium to be stunted because we’re somehow worried about a fucking rating?  Why is too much violence adult only?  If someone is 17 (the only restriction for an M title), what does that one extra year do for them that they could suddenly experience the AO content in a mature fashion?

I think we’re being cheated of some experiences.  We’re being denied art.  Our own self-policing system is protecting who here, exactly, when we reach the M level?  To illustrate what I mean, here is just a short list of R rated films which could most certainly never be made into a true video-game interactive experience (say like Heavy Rain or Indigo Prophesy):

  • Angel Heart
  • Se7en
  • 300
  • 8mm
  • The Accused

But!  You say 300 has been licensed into a videogame!  Yes, it has been licensed, but it doesn’t contain all of the content of the film, I’d wager.  I haven’t played it, but I can see by its rating description (Blood and Gore, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence) that it’s no doubt missing the following content from the film:

  • The Oracle’s erotic dance (nudity, sexual situations).
  • Queen Gorgo’s rape by Councilman Theron (uh, rape? Even by “consentual” definitions it is a depiction of sex, and is right out as far as M is concerned).
  • The orgy in Xerxes’ caravan (perverse sexual situations).
  • The homoeroticism of Xerxes’ offer to Leonidas (I suppose this one could be chalked up to “suggestive themes”).

While these things are superficial to gameplay, if we are going to attempt to defend our products as art we must also defend the narrative, which each of these items impacts greatly.  Pulling any one of these scenes changes the meaning of what unfolds within and around them.  Without the Oracle the priests are merely greedy and aren’t also utterly despicable cretins.  Without Gorgo’s rape, she sacrifices nothing to help her husband’s cause.  Without Xerxes’ perverse orgy, he is merely a potentially gay man with a piercing fetish and a power trip, and not the completely delusional wanker as depicted.  Without these scenes, the story is weaker, and the characters are weaker.

So what, perhaps?  It’s only an action movie, and a middlingly good one at that?  I chose the title 300 intentionally to prove my point, because it’s really nothing much more than an action movie (I’ll leave the relevance of the historical sacrifice and the impact it has on society today to the pundits to debate).  It’s certainly not Citizen Kane, nor is it even Casablanca.

But if we can’t even have a game with a narrative as simple and as overt as 300, what exactly are we playing now?

I think a great deal of the problem with the ratings is that the M rating is not in fact analogous to the R rating.  Ironically, while it supposedly “may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older,” it is really defined age-wise with NC-17, and yet M rated titles rarely live up to their R rated counterparts, which are sub NC-17 in the age restriction category.

The other problem with the ratings is that console manufacturers are afraid of the AO rating.  The fact that it has “adults” in it automatically creates an association with pornography, which isn’t why the rating was created (according to the website’s description of it, anyway).  While I would love to pretend that the console manufacturers would listen to an industry begging and petitioning them to allow the AO rating to be published, I don’t really hold any belief that they will.  Mainly because I think too many people still view video-games as children’s playthings, and that allowing “adult only” content to ship on their platform is akin to family-branded suicide.

So there’s really only two solutions that I can think of at hand.  One of them involves a change of the AO rating.  Ratings changes and adaptations aren’t unheard of.  The MPAA ratings have been evolving for decades now.  The ESRB could either create an inbetween rating, or simply re-name the AO rating.  Hell, rename all the ratings to reflect the Motion Picture Association’s rating system.  If it means that society at large adopts the console boxes as an acceptable all-around entertainment provider similar to their DVD player (which they put kids DVDs on during the day and R rated DVDs on at night), I’m all for it.

But unfortunately, I have a feeling that this is going to be a generation gap solution.  I suspect it will take one more generation growing up with games to solve this.  Gen X’ers will be in their 50s, and the Gen Ys will be in their 30s before this truly gets resolved, as it’s going to most likely take an eviction of an old mindset (that video-games are by and large for children) to open games up to a more unrestricted creative process that allows for content we’ve seen in movies for decades.

I’m curious what other people’s thoughts are on this.  Can we have an adult game?  Are we ready for some responsibly displayed sexual content in our games?  Do you think we’re already there?

Or do we still have some growing as an industry ahead of us?

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