The relationship between violence and video games is one that has almost always been up for debate, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Even here at Thumbsticks we feel the need to discuss it from various pathways. In a recent opinion piece over at Polygon, Chris Plante (one of the site’s editors) wrote that we ‘don’t have to be okay with the violence in video games’. Why is the issue now being brought up within the industry?
In the past criticism towards the amount of violence depicted in video games was almost always dictated by those outside the industry and often had very little experience or knowledge of the industry. It mostly came across as being the next stage in the everlasting media moral panic, having previously been applied to Rock ‘n Roll and comics. Whilst the industry did react in the best way it could by implementing its own self-regulated ratings system, largely in response to the criticism to the original Mortal Kombat, it was a pre-emptive move to prevent possible government regulation being applied to the industry.
This move by the industry and the creation of the ESRB has been successful in that it is more heavily enforced by retailers than the film industry’s equivalent, the MPAA. However as the industry has grown the static requirements for each age bracket has been seen as barrier to the creative possibilities that could be present in video games. It has also been argued that because of the stigma still associated with the industry that it is for children, video games are unable to explore the same themes as film. One need only look at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which was nominated for an Oscar, to realise the creative barriers that are in place for video games.
It could be argued that because video games are unable to explore certain mature topics, which can be expressed in other mediums, why the depiction of violence is so prevalent. As outlined by (fellow Thumbsticks writer) Nick Hampton recently, great importance is placed on realism in an attempt to appear more grown up and therefore respected. This resulted in the spate of “gritty” shooters that emphasised so called realism and assumed that because the violence taking place was being portrayed in this manner that it could be deemed mature, as well as matching its age rating title of ‘M for Mature’.
The problem with the US style of ratings is that by using such terms to identify its age brackets it creates in the minds of some individuals that anything less than Mature was for kids and therefore could not be taken seriously. This caused another problem in that unlike with some films which try to avoid either an NC-17 or an R rating; video games (particularly shooters) will sometimes strive to gain an M rating because of the perceived status that has become associated with the rating. This also highlights a difference between the rating system in the US against the UK/EU system. Bungie’s upcoming Sci-fi shooter Destiny is going to be rated T for Teen in the US, with some praising the move away from the M rating which many saw as unnecessary for the Halo series which Bungie previously created and developed. Yet in Europe the Halo games were always rated 16 and Destiny will be no different. Similar differences include the original Mass Effect which rating M in the US (as were the sequels), 18 under the European PEGI system, yet only a 12 in the UK (when rated under the BBFC) and a 15 for the sequels.
Why were there such discrepancies with the Mass Effect series? It was not because of the violence depicted, which was rather moderate (especially in the first title), but the relationship aspects of the game had a big impact on this inflated age rating. Even though the activities depicted are on par with what is shown in any James Bond film, but because video games are subjected to different standards this aspect (which continues throughout the series) contributed to the higher rating. Despite this keeping the game directly out of the hands of those under the age of 17, it still managed to create a moral panic in the US (and then Singapore) with Fox News making wildly inaccurate accusations about what was present in the game (one of the “experts” that spoke out later admitted that she had not even played the game).
Despite globalisation and talk of a “Global Village” thanks to the sharing of information over the Internet, cultural differences still exist and attitudes towards violence, sexual content and other taboo subjects vary substantially even in the West. This is particularly evident with American attitudes towards violence compared to the Europe, and European attitudes towards sex compared the US. With North America (and therefore the US) being the largest video game market, publishers pay more attention to the desires and sensitivities of this market over the others. This in part explains why violence plays such a prominent role in defining the industry. Whereas games that try to detract from this such as the French developed game Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the US) are given in a 15/16 in the UK/EU but are either censored or given the dreaded AO (Adults Only) rating in the US.
This is not to say that the US market completely dictates what is and is not made, and with the rise of digital distribution and the growing importance of other markets, the US dominance is likely to diminish. Combine this with the recent calls from within the industry to move beyond the dependence on violence in video games and the prospects for truly mature titles is starting to look more plausible. This recent internal shift has been growing for a couple of years, but gained momentum after this year’s E3 due to the amount of violence on display which displayed more severed heads than it did women.
One particular title that stood out was Mortal Kombat X, another sequel to the game which helped bring in video game ratings, may now be helping to bring about change within the industry to move away from its focus on violence. The reason for this was because the new iteration was continuing its brand of over the top fatalities that take place after defeating one’s opponent in a fight. These had always been very violent, but due to the past limitations when it came to video game graphics the extent of these scenes could always be excused as they were clearly not realistic and could not be interpreted as being so. However, video game graphics have come a long way, and whilst the industry has not quite left The Uncanny Valley, it is getting closer. Even though the overtly graphic violent acts present in Mortal Kombat X remain unrealistic, the difference is that they are now highly detailed; perhaps too detailed. The camera now zooms in and switches to an x-ray showing the extent of the damage being dealt to the victim. This is unnecessary and also succeeds in going far beyond the worst that film can depict.
This highlights the great irony of the rating systems for media. Film can show a range of different content and has a system of levels to appropriately apply to the content that is shown, it may not be a perfect system, but it does still offer an acceptable level of creative freedom. Video games on the other hand created a system in response to the amount of violence being depicted requiring a system to prevent sections of society from obtaining these titles. Yet violence has become intrinsic to the medium and the rating system is able to accommodate this, but when nudity is introduced, irrespective of whether it is tasteful or meaningful, the age rating shoots up and sometimes results in it being essentially banned.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs as video games do not have to be violent to explore mature themes. Although the restrictions placed on the means in which mature themes can be explored requires more effort from developers. One such example is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which is developed by Starbreeze Studios, a developer known for creating First Person Shooters. Brothers presented the first time the studio had gone outside of their comfort zone and created a game that follows two brothers as they travel across a fantasy land to obtain a cure for their dying father. Even though there is no understandable dialogue, the game manages to explore the relationship between the siblings and ultimately the complexities of life and death which they confront throughout their journey. Brothers does not outright depict violence, yet it manages to explore death in a more meaningful way than the so called mature titles that see the player kill on a constant basis. On the surface Brothers does not seem like a mature game, yet underneath it presents deeper themes than is usually present in video games and proves that gritty realism is not a prerequisite for maturity.
That being said it is still possible for realistic looking games that match the assumption of what a mature title is to actually tackle mature themes in a meaningful way; and without having to resort to violence. The main example of this being the Metal Gear Solid series, which on the whole allows the player to avoid killing a single person (either by effectively using stealth and/or using tranquiliser darts). Whilst the games follow an individual soldier and espouses the trials and tribulations of soldiers at the hand of nation states, by the later games they start to reward the player for playing the game peacefully. All the while the games explore the implications of nuclear weapons, the illusions of power, and the role of individuals; albeit in a manner that switches from exposition to broadly absurd comical events. The first Metal Gear Solid felt ahead of its time because it was trying to do something new with narrative even though the spy theme had been done hundreds of times before, and its plot (and gameplay) still holds up today. The same can also be said of MGS3: Snake Eater which despite being the most absurd in the series still manages to tackle the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and Deterrence in a capable manner.
With series’ like Metal Gear Solid able to confront issues relating to warfare ranging from the 1960’s to the present decade via a comparatively peaceful approach, and former developers of FPS’ able to switch to making meaningful games exploring the relationship of siblings, it should be possible for others in the industry to make truly mature titles despite the current creative limitations afforded by the US ratings system. This is not advocate that all violent games should be put aside, but in order for the industry to grow and mature it needs to diversify and not to be as reliant on violence as a means of providing gameplay. TV and film are not heavily reliant on one single means of narrative delivery and have continued to grow; the same can apply to video games.