Thursday, March 6, 2008

Severed heads, naked breasts and video games

The other day when I went into Wal-Mart, I came upon one of the cardboard movie kiosks in the front near the cash registers. There, at kids'-eye-level, was a DVD with a picture of a man's pale, decapitated head in a dish. Wal-Mart is selling "Saw IV."

Then I came across "Saw IV" again, this time in the Xbox Live marketplace. Not only could I download the movie to my Xbox, but I could buy a theme and gamer pictures featuring "Saw IV" to decorate my Xbox 360 dashboard.

Here is the Internet Move Database's rating description of "Saw IV": "Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture throughout, and for language."

At Wal-Mart, the sky's the limit on bloody violence and torture. You can buy the Unrated Director's Cut of "Saw IV" from right here. No doubt the Unrated Director's Cut has even more gruesome stuff in it than the R version.

Wal-Mart and Microsoft have no problem with us viewing scenes of torture, mutilation and victimization on our Xboxes. The kids can enjoy looking at severed heads right there in the aisle while mommy waits to check out. Wal-Mart puts the movies out there, and people buy them. Then when you get home, you can pop that R-rated or unrated movie into your Xbox 360 and watch it with the kids, if you choose.

Torture, smorture. A little torture and victimization never hurt anyone, apparently, or Wal-Mart and Microsoft would take a strong stand against it, just like the stand they take against nudity in video games. Both are quick to let us know that they'll protect us from the horrors of seeing a woman's bare breast in a game. THAT would be too awful for decent folks to put up with, gosh-darn it.

Adults-Only rated video games are "not available at Wal-Mart or," the retailer tells us on its web site, because "Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity."

Equally pious and paternally protective is Microsoft. "Xbox Dad" on says: "It is company policy that there are no AO games for Xbox or Xbox 360."

Anyone who's played a Mature-rated video game knows that violence means nothing when it comes to distinguishing an M from an AO in the ESRB ratings, regardless of what the ratings guide says. Our tolerance for grotesque violence is limitless, and there's money to be made from our appetite. No violent-but-profitable game will get the AO scarlet letters that would ban it from retail shelves.

The recently released trailer for Gears of War 2, which shows the hero eviscerating an enemy with a chain saw, shows how hard it is to discern any threshold between acceptable and unacceptable violence. Violence is inevitable in a story about war, and although I prefer not to see torture and victimization in something like "Saw IV," I can handle the combat scenes in Gears of War. I completed the campaign in the first Gears of War, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

A video game can depict violence all day, but the alarms go off when flesh is bared. The "prolonged scenes of intense violence" that might give a video game an AO rating can't be the problem, or Wal-Mart and Microsoft wouldn't sell a film with such as "Saw IV," with its "grisly bloody violence and torture throughout," now would they? So the nudity is obviously the offensive part, in their eyes.

Gosh, and I had always thought of breasts as a happy, comforting sight. Severed heads, on the other hand, I find considerably more disturbing and apt to offend. But that just goes to show you how out of step I am with the wisdom of the corporate mainstream.

Witness the "hot coffee" sex scene controversy over Grand Theft Auto, and the tempest in a teapot over the sex scene in Mass Effect, which doesn't even reveal a breast. The people in those Mature-rated games were getting too affectionate! If they had been cutting each other's faces off like good, decent Americans instead of getting overly friendly, nobody would have said a word.

While glimpses of breasts are occasionally tolerated in a game such as God of War, a Mature-rated, PlayStation 2 adventure about Greek mythology that makes no effort to hide a little bit of nudity, game companies usually go to great lengths to keep us from seeing the deplorable sight of nakedness.

Bethesda was taken to task when some guy discovered that he could remove riduculous, anachronistic brassieres from medieval women with a simple mod in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Bethesda did cartwheels to disavow this glimpse of nudity in their Mature-rated fantasy game. Xbox 360 players were safe from the titty horror, though, because you can't mod the console version. And the "Nipplegate" controversy over the yet-to-be-released Age of Conan is still unfolding.

The corporate fathers are looking out for our best interests. Although we can glimpse breasts in a few bold Mature-rated video games, we aren't allowed to see any extended nakedness or sexuality. We can't handle it.

Only adults are allowed to buy Mature-rated or AO-rated video games, right? No kids allowed, just like with R-rated movies. So just think of the harm it might do to an adult who sees disgusting, extended nudity in a game -- something like "Dawn," an 1881 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Talk about your "extended" nudity! This woman has been naked for about 120 years. I could stand there all day admiring this painting, which is my favorite work of art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I guess I'm just sick.

And don't even think about seeing a naked bottom in a video game. Mass Effect showed a fleeting little side-butt glimpse of love-interest Liara's blue ass, but a straight-on blue moon? Never! You might tune in to network TV to see some cheeks, though. Remember Charlotte Ross' nude shower scene in "NYPD Blue"?

Or you could go to an art museum to see the likes of Aphrodite's gorgeous posterior, but the goddess of love's marble buns and Charlotte Ross' shapely bottom alike are off-limits in video games.

It's a good thing that I, a grown man in my 40s who enjoys video games, am not allowed to look at a breast or a butt in an AO-rated game on my Xbox. I can't be trusted to know what's good for me. Because if I could strip my avatar down to the skin in the equipping screen of an RPG like Oblivion or Mass Effect or Fable, I know I'd do it. (And then I'd put her armor back on because she wouldn't have enough hit points running around naked, but I'd check her out first, for sure.

... And, for the record, I'd NEVER want to see something in a game as indecent as a stark naked Celtic berserker woman who got magical armor protection from her woad blue body paint. That would be wrong. Besides, nobody's developing a game like that, anyway. ... Are they?)

Over on the DVD aisle, I can choose whether to see "Saw IV." I prefer not to because I dislike watching torture, but it's OK if somebody else wants to see it. It's a free country. I'd prefer to play a medieval fantasy or sci-fi video game that might let the characters get frisky between battles, but if I walk a few feet from the DVDs to the video game aisle, that option has been censored. I can't play a game like that even if I want to, not even if it's clearly not for kids, rated for adults and available only for adults to purchase.

They won't let me play a game like that, I suppose, because they're afraid I'll let my kid play it. But thanks to Wal-Mart and Microsoft, I don't have to decide whether it's appropriate to let my teenage son see a naked human body in a video game (unless it's dismembered). Sure, I have to exercise parental responsibility when I decide whether he can watch an R-rated or unrated movie like "Saw IV." Wal-Mart and Microsoft trust me with the movies. But heaven knows I'm completely incapable of good judgment when it comes to taking parental responsibility for what video games my son plays. Big brothers Wal-Mart and Microsoft make that decision for me. What a relief!

I wouldn't want my son seeing something indecent and upsetting such as a woman's naked breast for an extended amount of time, like, say, a nursing baby would see a breast. Who knows how it could warp his brain?

But, again thanks to the higher-ups at Wal-Mart and Microsoft, I know that an image of a severed head in a bowl will do my son no harm at all, unlike the disturbing sight of a medieval woman's naked bosom or an alien woman's bare behind.

I'm just glad they have their priorities straight.

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