Saturday, April 19, 2008

Out on a limb about nudity in games?

After my essay "A game of double standards" ran on the commentary section front of last Sunday's newspaper, I expected some controversy. I was going to really get flamed in the letters to the editor, I figured. But what happened?


The only reaction I got was a smattering of compliments this week. My wife liked the essay. She was the one who encouraged me to submit my blog post "Severed heads, naked breasts and video games" to the newspaper in the first place. She said the staff at the restaurant where she works generally agreed with it. My mother-in-law said she liked it and agreed, and my dad liked it, too.

Thinking that the newspaper's video-game-oriented readers might have missed the essay (which ran with no pictures) in the commentary section of the web site, I reposted it on Techcetera, the newspaper's video gaming blog, with some photos, hoping to tap some more readers and maybe stir up some reactions. Still nothing.

Later in the week, MTV Multiplayer game journalist Patrick Klepek, who has been diligently tracking the issue of censorship in video games, posted an update on an ESRB edict about the ratings of downloadable content. Mandatory game downloads such as patches must keep the same rating as the original game, he reported, but optional downloadable content could carry a different rating than the core game. I couldn't resist the urge to respond, posting this comment:

"Does that mean that “Adults Only”-rated optional, downloadable content might become available on Xbox Live? Microsoft bans AO-rated games, but since the core game’s rating remains the same, the ban would still be upheld. After all, R-rated movies (and unrated director’s cuts) are already available on the Xbox Live Marketplace. And what’s to stop game makers from likewise offering “unrated” optional, downloadable content?"

Then, as you can see, a guy responded to my comment, basically dismissing my notion as pie in the sky. That torqued me up for another soapbox speech, hoping that MTV Multiplayer would reach a wider audience than my humble Sythbane Squadron blog, or even the newspaper's gaming blog. I posted my second comment:

“Dr. Proctor” might be correct in predicting how this ESRB edict will be applied. However, as an adult consumer of video games, I’m angry at being patronized by the ESRB, by Microsoft and by game makers.

The status quo will remain until sensible consumers stand up to say the emperor has no clothes: Microsoft’s AO-game ban is hypocritical in light of the R-rated and unrated movie content available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The video game industry must assert itself and offer grown-up “R-rated” content if it ever wants to be taken seriously as a grown-up entertainment medium and not merely a kiddie venue. We game consumers would support more choices with our wallets, if ever given the chance. And as a parent, I don’t need the ESRB to tell me what I can and can’t allow my kid to see or play. Just describe the content, and I’ll
make that decision myself, thank you.

The key to understanding media coverage is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Media coverage of adult content in video games has developed the way it has because sensible people too often have allowed themselves to be shouted down in public discourse. In the Mass Effect controversy, voices of truth and common sense rose up against the outright lies that were being tossed around by hysterical people, and the media coverage (led by the gaming press) dutifully shifted to hear those voices. It is possible for common sense to prevail, but the industry continues to pander the hysterical people who know nothing about games, on the assumption that they are more politically powerful. I believe the truth is that the hysterical people are simply louder, not more powerful.

Why are there are no checks on the ESRB’s apparent iron-fisted authority in controlling our entertainment choices? And why is there still no video game content rating analogous to an R? The ESRB is not a government agency with police powers, yet no one challenges its decisions. I understand the subtle role it plays in allowing the industry to regulate itself, by deflecting calls for government regulation of games, but it oversteps its role when it keeps the entire industry from growing up. Surely some way can be devised to allow adult video game consumers more choices, while maintaining suitable content labels and warnings for parents. This new ESRB stance on downloadable content could allow a way for that to happen.

This comment has yet to generate any more comments, and likely won't since the original post has descended on the blog.

All of which leaves me to wonder: What's going on here? If what I'm saying is met with widespread agreement, why are things the way they are? Why is violence accepted and nudity rejected in video games? How can the natural and beautiful image of a woman's breast -- that which nourishes us in our infancy and provides inspiration for much of the greatest art in the world -- is banned as pornographic, while the revolting sight of a butchered human being, a severed head, is socially acceptable for even children to see?

My dad suggested, "Maybe they just haven't thought it through."

So despite my efforts to help people think it through, the lack of response suggests that maybe it's just that nobody cares. Gamers must be perfectly happy with the ESRB's puritanical tyranny over game content, and the elephant-in-the-room hypocrisy of retailers, console makers and game makers about AO games.

Is everyone really content with the authenticity and realism of the Playtex-style bras and panties on the women of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Was no one else frustrated by the black screen that popped up when you finally managed to bed your mate in Fable, instead of a real love scene?

Nobody else was disappointed by the absurdly tame love scene in Mass Effect, after all the hype about its inclusion in the so-called "mature" game? What you see at left is the extent of the nudity in the scene -- a side view of Liara's bare blue hip, revealing not much more than a bikini at the beach would reveal. The scene caused much ado about nothing.

Nobody else finds it outrageous that this censorship is practiced with such draconian zeal in the video game industry, yet you can download R-rated and unrated torture-porn flicks such as "Saw IV" on the very same Xbox that bans you from seeing a harmless breast or butt in a game? (The perverse illogic of this must be what drives me nearly to obsession on this issue, I think.)

Does anyone but me look forward to the day when a role-playing game is really realistic? When you can strip your character down to the flesh in the equipping screen, just as you do with the real-life "equipping screen" of the bathroom mirror? Wouldn't it be fun to tattoo your whole body like a Celtic berserker and go into battle naked in a game like Fable or Oblivion? Maybe your ancestor did that for real 1,000 years ago. Where else could you do something like that without getting arrested, except in a video game?

Does anybody else hope we'll someday see an honest-to-goodness love scene like you'd see on HBO or "Skinamax" when a love scene occurs in a video game? Not crass pornography, just something like the love scene between King Leonida and Queen Gorgo in "300."

Doesn't anybody else hope for the day when a fantasy video game will really look like a sexy, beautiful painting by Frank Frazetta, or a description in Robert E. Howard's "Conan" novels? At right is a thumbnail of "The Moon's Rapture" by Frazetta. I'd love to have a framed print of this painting. But art like this is considered way too "dirty" for video games, even the ones that only adults are allowed to buy.

Maybe other gamers really are content with the way things are. Perhaps nobody else yearns for video games that respect us as adults.

It sure is lonely out on this limb.

1 comment:

jRy6 said...

I would love to climb out on that limb with you ... if I could think of anything constructive to say that you haven't already covered.

The only thing I can think of that may gain this issue some real attention is - and you may not like the idea - getting Howard Stern in on it. You know he likes nudity, hates censorship, and doesn't care what people think about his opinion. Plus, he has a huge audience. You may not like everything he has to say, but publicity is publicity.

Think about shooting him an email on the subject, with links to your articles. He might just be able to put your message in a set of ears that could actually get something positive done about it.