by Joel Smart (Sports Editor)
While you might think that the only thing the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) game ratings do is keep away the most extremely violent games, what they actually do is keep developers from even trying to make games that rival what is common place in film, music, and television. Censorship mainly comes from the big three console companies: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, as well as from the corporations that sell games, like Wal-Mart.
In-depth love scenes between characters, genuine explorations into drug culture, and critical or controversial discussion of religion are all perfectly acceptable and normal things to find in a film, but include them in a video game and you risk the dreaded “adults only,” or AO rating.
AO sounds like an acceptable label for a game with adult themes that could be potentially troubling for a child to play, but what isn’t explained is that no console company will even publish a game rated AO. That means that if you want to make a game for any console, you absolutely have to make sure that it does not violate any of the rules the ESRB has set up. Even for computer games, no major game retailers will carry an AO game.
These companies have enormous influence over how a game turns out. Not only can they literally demand a game change of something before they will sell it, but even the worry of such a threat can get game developers to censor their own games. If you want your game to sell at Wal-Mart, it has to fit with their “ethical,” family-friendly stance. However, to have a game release and not sell it at Wal-Mart means it is really going to struggle to be financially successful.
That is incredible power. When LittleBigPlanet for the PS3 originally launched, it had a song with lyrics from the Qur’an; the game was instantly recalled when these companies learned of it, and the game was forced to remove the song. When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was found to have accessible content of a feature that would allow the main character and his girlfriend to become intimate in their house, termed Hot Coffee, the game was forced to recall the game, and re-release an edited version which had that programming code removed. Countless games have been forced to “cover up” characters in the game who were supposedly too immorally dressed to be allowed in a game.
Admittedly, some games have included sexual content, but it has always been very restricted and usually incorporated poorly into the game as a result. Part of the onus has to fall on game developers to try harder not to let game ratings hamper their creative vision, but they also need to work harder to make their game with mature content actually appeal to mature audiences. Part of the responsibility is also on us, as game players and even non-game players.
While video games may have been primarily for children many years in the past, it is now the most modern, technologically advanced medium of interactive art. The vast majority of gamers are well over 18. We need to stop allowing the mindset to continue that games should be kid-friendly, and that censoring games for that reason is okay. Video games deserve the same protection from censorship as any other medium of art.