Thursday, September 20, 2007

Will Mass Effect effect change?

By Bryan Crowson
Sept. 20, 2007

Mass Effect, the upcoming sci-fi role-playing game for Xbox 360, is causing some controversy in Britain over a sex scene with partial nudity that may involve a human or alien woman, "Attack of the Show" reports.

This is the best news I've heard all week! Mass Effect is one of the most anticipated games of the year, and the one I'm personally looking forward to the most. It's made by BioWare, the developer that gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That means it's sure to be a money-maker, a profitable powerhouse that might be strong enough to challenge the perversely prudish attitude that prevails about "mature" content in video games.

Here's the thing: With the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system that the game industry uses now, "prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity" can earn a game an Adults Only, AO, rating. However, the console makers and major retailers say they won't allow AO games to be played on their systems, nor will they sell them. Uh-oh, say the developers, that pretty much censors and bans all AO-rated games, because no money can be made from them.

The reality is, though, that conflict and violence are central to almost all video games. Rather than kill the goose that lays the golden egg, both console makers and retailers turn a blind eye to graphic violence, or they wouldn't have any games to sell. Games are granted a more palatable "mature" rating despite scenes of decapitations, chainsaw evisceration and flayed corpses hanging on meat hooks, but the sight of bare flesh like we all see when we get out of the shower is the BAD THING that tips the scale to the unacceptable zone. And heaven forbid any naked people are depicted as being very friendly to each other! Depictions of heavy petting or life-giving procreation would surely taint our impressionable youths, but if the characters are disemboweling each other with garden tools -- well, that's perfectly fine.

So, since violence is effectively dismissed as a reason to ratchet a rating up to AO, nudity and sexuality become the content scapegoats for the "AO" rating charade that prevails. If it weren't for sexuality or nudity, there would practically no risk of snagging the AO rating's scarlet letters. That means that when I, a 44-year-old adult, am playing a "mature" game for grown-ups and the storyline leads to a love scene, I'm treated like I'm an 8-year-old. Either the camera cuts away, or the scene is completely blacked out as it is in Fable when you get cozy with your "wife." Even audacious designer David Jaffe's God of War games -- which laudably stretch the boundaries of "mature" games with some limited nudity -- cuts the camera away when Kratos gets chummy with some Greek nymphs.

Game developers claim they want to be taken seriously as an entertainment medium. Yet they go along with the patronizing assumption that all video games are for children, and all video games that are rated for adults will nevertheless be played by children. Game content that would be analogous to an R-rated movie and not given a second thought on the movie aisle at Wal-Mart or on cable television is BANNED from video games that are ostensibly created for adults. Forget that kids can watch R-rated movies just as easily as they can play M-rated games. We want to excuse parents from any responsibility for monitoring what their children watch or play, don't we?

And here's the crux of the hypocrisy: The same retailers that condescend to tell me what I'm not allowed to see in video games will rake in the money by selling R-rated movies with sadistically horrific violence. Wal-Mart had a cardboard kiosk near the entrance where they were selling "Saw II," which is widely considered to be the epitome of the "torture porn" genre of horror films that is inexplicably popular nowadays. In the bizarro-world we live in, the torture, amputations and murder in "Saw II" and its like are embraced, while a glimpse of naked human beings in a loving embrace is reviled.

To echo my point, Electronic Gaming Monthly has quoted Gears of War developer "Cliffy B" Bleszinski as saying, "Funny thing is, I’ve heard more complaints about the language than about the violence. Some people are OK with the fact that you’re shooting and chain-sawing them, but they don’t want to hear the words “s***” or “g*****n.” It’s such a funny standard of where your average American gamer is. ... I find it incredibly amusing. You can cut people’s heads off all day long as long as you don’t show a breast or say a dirty word."

This brings me to why I'm so delighted to hear that Mass Effect, which already is billed as including "partial nudity," will have an envelope-pushing love scene. It will take a the financial muscle of hit games to force change in the landscape of game content, and to usurp the perverse, warped-priority sensibilities that preside over it.

Not until games can include the full spectrum of "mature" R-rated content like you might see in HBO's "Rome" or "Tombstone" will video games ever be taken seriously as a grown-up entertainment medium. If Mass Effect helps to throw off the yoke of the ridiculous ESRB rating system, while revealing the outright hypocrisy of game publishers and retailers regarding the forbidden "AO" rating, more power to it. That's the only way things will ever begin to change.

Is the solution to adopt the movie-rating system for video games? That makes sense to me, since the console-makers and retailers have drawn a line in the sand about AO-rated game content and will want to save face over that, but they ALREADY accommodate R-rated movies to be played on their machines and sold in their stores.

Or, the rating letters could be dispensed with entirely, since the letters reflect a judgment call. Simply list what type of content the game includes (which they already do, to some extent), and let the consumer decide if the content is objectionable. I don't take offense to "prolonged nudity" in some contexts, or to confrontational violence such as in Halo or historical war games, but I surely do object to scenes of torture and victimization. That's where I draw the line personally, but my line is not reflected in the ratings system. The system recognizes no difference between the violence of warfare and the violence of murder, no difference between the nudity of a love scene and the nudity in a rape scene.

Of course, the only force they'll listen to is money. That's the reality. Nobody in business really gives a rip about the so-called standards, because they're playing politics in order to make as much money as possible. That's where we come in. Our dollars must drown out the voices of the hysterical crowd that freaked out when Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction occurred.

All grown-up gamers should buy Mass Effect when it comes out, voting with our wallets to prove that there is money to be made with video games that don't talk down to an adult audience. And as parents, we should take an interest in what our children are watching or playing, because that's our responsibility.

It's not just about me being able to see a beautiful, blue-skinned alien woman nude in an RPG. It's the principle of the thing. Really.


HZG said...

I have just one thing to say:

Which AO game has the girl from that Medal of Honor: Airborne poster?

Brooks said...

Not that I will ever have the opportunity to play this, but I agree with your stance and think it is patronizing and presumptuous for the console makers to take such a self-righteous, parental role. Let consenting adults and/or androids do what they please dammit.