Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beyond Blood - Maturing Mature Gaming

Recently, Saints Row 4 was denied classification (and thus could not be sold) in Australia. Reportedly, the offending content was a sexually themed melee weapon. After removing the item and some other drug related content, the game was awarded an MA15+ classification. Over the past few years Australia’s classification board has become infamous for its stringent standards and consistently refusing classification to games for sexual and drug based content. Below I consider the implications of these standards and move to a general discussion of ‘mature’ content in games.


Censorship is a prickly issues in immediate contention with free speech. The trope explanatory example is that you have the right to say mostly anything up to shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. The point presented here is that speech has the power to incite action and there must be some level of responsibility employed by the speaker to not incite panic or unrest (or more generally to not cause undue harm). I think most people agree that some censorship is necessary in order for society to function properly and that the right to free speech comes with some basic obligations. I also think, as I imagine most people do, that free speech is a pretty swell thing and that the basic obligations assumed when utilizing free speech are more than a fair trade. Where things become muddled, however, is when people begin to discuss exactly how far those obligations stretch. In Australia, it is believed that free speech is not a license to put anything in a video game and thus the classification board rejects content that they feel will have a detrimental effect on society (or in some cases what may be deemed as generally offensive material).

I think everyone is entitled to their opinion on this one, it is definitely a difficult philosophical question, but I find myself generally siding against the Australian stance. I believe that collectively, humans are pretty good at judging what sort of content will be offensive to them. Further, with games, consumers already have a pretty good way of both punishing producers of offensive content and avoiding it by simply not buying what they are selling. The counter-point to my stance is that games influence behaviour and that even though I may be able to protect myself from being exposed to content I cannot protect myself from someone else acting on it. The case example here is the school shooting being influenced by games. As such, it is the responsibility of the authorities to eliminate certain content for the general benefit of society. While I am no doubt preaching to the choir here, I do not believe that games influence people that strongly. In my opinion, school shootings and other such horrible acts are the result of the workings of the mentally disturbed who long needed help before playing a game.

Maturity in Games

I will move the discussion away from censorship here as I don’t feel I have much more to contribute on the issue that hasn’t already been said and I doubt that I will encounter much disagreement from gamers. That said, if you do feel that games are impactful enough to inspire horrific events and need to be censored, I am quite interested in how you justify this (I for one have yet to see a compelling study which links abhorrent behaviour that wasn’t already latent to gaming). Instead, an interesting, albeit less weighty, topic I can contribute to is on the general level of maturity in games.

The Saints Row series (certainly in its latest iteration) is crass and I think this is part of what makes it enjoyable. Saints Row hits some sort of primal nerve that makes base jokes about bowel movements and sex (and bowel movement sex?) funny in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It is intentionally over the top and routinely treads the line of good taste. I doubt future historians will look back at Saints Row in the same was we currently look back at the works of Michelangelo but this shouldn’t detract from enjoying it. Sometimes you just need something goofy to relax to without having to be pent up on whether it is high art. Games like Saints Row aren’t designed to make you wax philosophical but rather trigger those simple pleasure buttons of your brain.

I have wracked my brains to come up with an antithesis to Saints Row. The game that tackles serious themes and challenges the way you think about them; the heartfelt and poignant drama of gaming. Many games tackle mature themes including sex, violence, drugs, and love but almost all of them do so in ridiculous fashion. Call of Duty perennially introduces the horrors of war as a string of Geneva Convention violations and blood spurting headshots (not to mention crude racism if you play online). Grand Theft Auto tries to provide a serious tone but does so against a backdrop of firing rocket launchers at hordes of cops. This type of approach to mature content is nicely summed up early in Borderlands 2 when Claptrap comments after you kill a bunch of baddies “What have you done?!? Those people had lives, and families, and … ahh who am I kidding, screw those guys!”. As for love, this is probably most often tackled in RPGs (Finaly Fantasy 8 immediately comes to mind) but seems to handle the theme through static or unconvincing characters (the romance between Squall and Rinoa felt schoolboy crush at best and entirely contrived at worst to me). Much of the difficulty in conveying love through RPGs may be that the cases examples are mostly originally made for a Japanese audience which, undoubtedly, will create a bit of dissonance when ported for the English speaking world. It is also, perhaps, the medium of games that prohibits a genuine exploration of mature themes. Gamers tend to not want to have to deal with a wall of text or dialogue to explain things.

Some of the closest examples to bucking the trend of inadequately handling mature themes are the Metal Gear series, and recently, Spec Ops: The Line. The Metal Gear series frequently tackles the issues of war and violence with significance. In Metal Gear: Solid, the recurring themes of love and war drive the plot and are (usually) convincing. Snake is driven to stop Metal Gear to prevent nuclear war but the people he interacts with (especially the enemies he defeat) all present a unique perspective in how they justify their actions. I felt that as I progressed through that I was generally challenged to explore the grey area between good and evil. That said, much of the plot in Metal Gear: Solid unfolds through long dialogue scripts as opposed to actual gameplay. In this case, I feel that the explored themes are fleshed out more through a cinematic experience rather than gameplay. I will only briefly mention Spec Ops: The Line as I haven’t played it (it is in my queue), but have been made aware that it thoroughly and convincingly covers post-traumatic stress through gameplay elements. The folks at Extra Credits (http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/show/extra-credits) covered this fairly well in an episode and I highly recommend it.

Some final thoughts

Ultimately, the genuine exploration of mature content in gaming (ie more than just boobies and blood) is still in its infancy. While base appeals to mature content certainly have their place, I think that part of legitimizing gaming rests in finding ways to develop stories and gameplay in a convincing and serious way around mature content. All this told, I think it goes without saying (at least to gamers) that strict censorship is not the way to encourage developers to attempt such an exploration.