New England Gamer
Rated E for Everyone
There exists a particular school of thought, most prominent amongst politicians and
frightened mothers, that video games are just for children. Being a man in my mid-twenties with a job, a car, a beautiful wife and healthy love of video games, this
naturally offends me.
It's easy to see where the idea comes from. Many video games are targeted at
children, and for a good portion of their existence their primary audience was kids.
The original Nintendo Entertainment System even came packaged with a robot that
could (to a degree) play the games with you, in an attempt to make the system
seem more like a toy. Dedicated gaming historians will tell you that this was
largely a marketing ploy designed to distract people from the fact that the NES was
a game console (the gaming crash of the mid-80s left many people sour on video
games), but it was also an undeniable attempt to appeal to youngsters enamored
with the perpetual coolness of robots.
This remained true for much of the 1990s, especially for console gaming. While
PC catered from the get-go to an older more tech-savvy crowd, the pop-in and play
games of Nintendo and Sega were consistently marketed to minors. Exempting the
love that many adults (often driven by childhood nostalgia) have for Super Mario
or Sonic the Hedgehog, is there any question as to who their target audience is?
Does anyone really think that Mario was designed with adults in mind? That in
mind, I can understand some of the moral outrage surrounding games like Mortal
Kombat in the 90s.
Now mind you, I said "some." I don't like the idea of kids playing inappropriate
games, but it's also not something that horrifies me. Take it from a guy who grew
up steeped in all the best media violence the 80s and 90s had to offer; imaginary
violence is not going to turn little-Johnny into a blood-crazed monster. It's
certainly not the best thing for young-uns to partake in, but as long as you've done
your job as a parent, they should be fine. If you raise your child to know what's
right and wrong, to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, a movie
will just be a movie, a song just a song, and a game just a game.
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The biggest problem of the developing industry in the 90s was the lack of a
universal rating system. There were games out there more suitable for more mature
audiences, but in many cases parents had no easy way to tell in the store what a
game contained. Many gamers might roll their eyes at the ratings of the ESRB
(Entertainment Software Ratings Board), but it does provide a valuable service.
Though the reaction of politicians and family groups in the mid-90s was largely
overblown (imagine that), it wasn't without some legitimate grounding.
This has been less the case in recent years, and with every new tick of controversy
the complaints grow more ridiculous. The Hot Coffee incident, in which hackers
found a way to unlock a graphic sex mini-game that had been earlier removed from
the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, stands as the paramount example of
overreaction on the part of American society. Forget for a moment that this was not
a part of the game that people were meant to see, something that the developers
removed because they themselves found it to be in bad taste. Even without the
added sexual content, this wasn't a game that children should have been playing to
begin with. The Grand Theft Auto games are some of the most horrifically violent
games on the market. San Andreas, like every other game in the series, carried an
"M for Mature" rating that was visible on the front and back of its box. All one
would have to do is read a few words to know what it contained, to know that it
was a game for grown-ups.
Even so, the family groups ranted against it. Hillary Clinton accused its developers
of selling sex simulators to kids. Their time might have been better spent exploring
the apparent illiteracy/apathy of the American parent. Most retailers will not even
sell an "M" rated game to a child without a parent present. If kids were playing
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it's because someone bought it for them.
Similar controversies have cropped up over the years. In 2008, Fox News
infamously ran a segment criticizing the game Mass Effect for sexual content. The
game was again rated "M for Mature," and the scene in question was a sequence
that served as the culmination of an optional romance. It was all of thirty seconds
long in a game that could take anywhere from fifteen to fifty hours to finish. The
basic foundation of their criticism was, again, that the developers were selling sex
to children. This, despite the game's clearly labeled adult content and reams of
studies already saying that the gaming demographic was well past age eighteen.
On one level, I can accept the faulty assumptions about video games as simple
growing pains. Societies in general tend to be slow in accepting new forms of
media. Film, now a mainstay in the entertainment industry, was viewed similarly,
as were books before it and I'm sure cave drawings before that. Even so, it is
frustrating to witness people's faulty assumptions and the poor judgment that often
results from it.
Recently, California, led by the Senator Leland Yee tried to pass a law outright
banning the sale of mature rated video games to minors based largely on the
insistence that parents don't have enough tools to keep violent games out of the
hands of their children. The ESRB ratings detailing the content of the game and the
warning of store clerks were apparently not enough. The law on its surface would
just make standard the practice that the majority of retailers had taken to
voluntarily. Additionally, however, it would have placed video games in a category
outside of normal protected speech. While the government has no say in who a
store can sell books, movies, and music to, video games would be set apart. A
precedent would have been set saying that games are different.
At the beginning of July the Supreme Court struck this law down, citing it as a
possible threat to free speech. It was a major victory for the gaming industry,
confirming not just morally, but legally, that games have the same rights as any
other form of speech, that they are in fact a form of speech and not just simple
I will never forget the day I was browsing through GameStop and overheard a
mother buying her young son the latest Call of Duty. The clerk told her that the
game was rated "M for Mature", explained its content and asked her if she was
comfortable with buying it for her child. "The things they'll sell to kids these
days." she said, pushing out a heavy sigh. She then handed the clerk her credit card
and bought it anyway. Her actions to me were emblematic of the greater problem.
It's not that all games are for children, it's that many parents don't want to deal
with the responsibility of being an adult.
Read more by Stewart Shearer