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Thursday, 4 August 2005 — 9:50pm | Video games

You’ll notice that updates here have been sparse. This is because rampant speculation about Horcruxes aside, there is nothing terribly newsworthy going on aside from free agent transactions in the resuscitated National Hockey League (about which I am much less qualified to discuss than I would have been twelve years ago) and censorship crusades against video games I admittedly don’t care about.

There’s no shortage of people crying foul about First Amendment rights in the midst of the recent three-pronged assault against Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the unfinished and unreleased Bully and inexplicably, The Sims 2. Okay, so Jack Thompson is a bit of a nutter, but ad hominem aside, it’s important to realize that he does have a point. Read on.

Guillaume Laroche writes:

If one needs power to invoke special measures for 18+ material, but one lacks said powers, then the highly limited use of the AO rating so far is simply a reflection of the ESRB itself – that it realizes it can’t impose anything and can only act as an interest group for responsible sales by merchants. What then would suddenly warrant an AO rating for San Andreas? None other than public pressure. Because it has no legal weight, and is therefore only tied to its own standards, the ESRB can follow where public opinion – which is in most cases, on any topic, highly general and filled with stereotypes and few personal experiences – tends to direct itself. This is most disappointing. While following public trends is good in democracy, if you are an organization sworn to the objective, criterion-based evaluation of a product, all exterior influences must be excluded for you to do your job correctly. Otherwise, not only are you unjustly according ratings for certain games, but you are also eroding the very foundation of your principles, all in the name of appearing positively in the public eye – your rating system becomes nothing more than a clever corporate marketing trick for the companies.

Never mind legal weight – public pressure is absolutely an acceptable foundation upon which these decisions should be made. Mr. Laroche bemoans that an inadequately informed but vocal public distorts the objectivity of a criteria-based rating system, but what he neglects is that public consensus is what determines those criteria in the first place. Matters of good taste are always subject to debate, and you can quote your Foucault left and right about how silly it is North American society just won’t shut up about how sexuality is such a discursive no-no, but like it or not, freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum. The standards of the public citizenry compose the ether that permits its operation.

Freedom of speech thrives in an environment where the boundaries of discretion and good taste are upheld by the community and abibed by on the part of the artist or speaker’s voluntary self-restraint. We can see this right now with the removal of Karla from the Montreal Film Festival lineup – not instigated by a single legal ruling or injunction but by the threats of concerned sponsors that they would revoke their support for the event. It is within the rights of the parties involved to pitch, make and distribute such a film, but it is also within the rights of exhibitors to refuse to screen it.

In the United States, the function of bodies like the MPAA and ESRB is to act as the counterweight in the system – which is not to say that they are any less fallible than government-imposed censorship, but on principle they justify the absence of state involvement. It’s a common misconception that because compliance with a ratings board works on an opt-in basis, the system is toothless. In numbers, the distinction between an M for Mature and an AO for Adults Only is the difference between 17 and 18; in reality, as with the MPAA’s distinction between R and NC-17, it’s a red flag to exhibitors and retailers that effectively reads, display at your own peril. The fact is, retailers and exhibitors do play ball.

Less compliant and less enforceable are the distinctions lower down the chain, like letting kids unaccompanied into R-rated films or selling M-rated games to their actual target market, teenagers. Decisions on what to do with a product once it has been stocked are made much further down the chain of command by people who don’t have as much to lose, and don’t have the same interest in self-preservation. Below the M, game ratings are there to inform the consumer and nothing more. If it so turns out that a violence warning drives a sale, so be it – the duty of informing has been fulfilled.

What threatens the system are schmucks like the boys at Rockstar, who in effect cheated the ESRB, and wholeheartedly deserve the consequences of being – pardon the pun – exposed.

The thing that separates video games from comic books, commercial music and films is that software is not readily subject to inspection. There is little direct, nonlinear access to all the content presented without rigours of reverse engineering that would be of a far bigger scale nowadays than poking around an 8-bit NES ROM for beta stages and unused sprites. Contrast this with a film, which you can sit down and watch, cut here and there, add this or that. In terms of content that is accessible in a standard consumer’s-eye-view playtest, you’re looking at a time investment ten or twenty times greater if you want to report on a whole game exhaustively. There is dialogue in Animal Crossing that doesn’t trigger until after a year of playing (and some that doesn’t appear until after a year of not playing).

With the Hot Coffee issue, we run into a bit of ambiguous territory because the content in question is not “accessible by design”, for all that is worth when PC gaming thrives on player communities that toy with the code and some console gaming circles make a sport out of breaking into secret areas on media that are not so tangible. There’s a world of difference, though, between Rockstar passively whimpering, “But… but… they weren’t supposed to unlock that even though we left it on the disc!” and, say, Eidos taking legal action to block distribution of the player-created “Nude Raider” patch that has been at large since 1996. Here’s a hint: one of these is more responsible than the other.

The other thing one should notice is that rampant piracy prevents any action akin to the San Andreas recall and relabeling from actually preventing kids from accessing game content they are not supposed to see. Indeed, the value of the illicitly traded good appreciates. This pitfall is not sufficient to negate the value of the tangible consequence: punishing the developer and publisher by precluding them from profiting further from the material.

But I’m not here to retread old ground, because that’s just not the sort of thing I do. San Andreas asked for a slapping, took it and liked it; let it be. I don’t think one could reasonably deny that freedom of expression is worth protecting. That is a different and more general question than whether or not sex and violence in video games is itself worth protecting. I say it’s not. The explicit glorification of social taboos and scenarios that demand sociopathic behaviour are never necessary causes to make a game fun, or even good.

If the short history of video games has a golden age, it is undoubtedly 1985-95, the decade that Nintendo ruled with an iron fist aside from a brief tussle with the Sega Genesis, which I’ll get to in a moment. Nintendo didn’t invent the modern electronic game, but it saved the business after Atari ran themselves into the ground. And it wasn’t because they came up with directional pads and A and B buttons, either.

No, Nintendo’s strategy was a little something called the Seal of Quality – a misnomer, since it was not a guarantor of quality by any means, though that was a large part of its appeal. It was their insurance against what happened to Atari: the flooding of the game market with the likes of Custer’s Revenge. If you wanted to develop for Nintendo’s hardware, you had to meet certain standards. While in theory this was a weapon against bad games, in practice, Nintendo’s grip on its licensees permitted its American division to act as a censorship body in the years before the ESRB was founded or had any reason to be.

Nintendo of America’s content regulations were not something to be taken lightly. In the localization of Final Fantasy VI (released as Final Fantasy III on the SNES), all the pubs were referred to as “cafés” and verbal references to death were removed entirely – bold, it seems, for a game that sunders continents and even stops to deal with teenage pregnancies and attempted suicide. But the fact is, in spite (or because?) of having to relegate its mature themes to innuendo, the game is no less a classic.

Contrast this with Mortal Kombat, the major catalyst for the mid-’90s resurgence of talk about federal game regulation, and the establishment of the ESRB to deflect that move. Sure, Nintendo removed the blood and put “sweat” in its place, and consequently lost a mountain of sales to Sega, which marketed itself entirely on being edgier than that merry band of mushroom-eating prudes (for whom it would be writing software a decade later, one observes). It wasn’t such a big deal once people realized that the series had nothing to go on aside from its infamous Fatalities and went back to playing Street Fighter II. In fact, the best MK game wasn’t an entry in the series at all, but the Macintosh shareware parody Pong Kombat 3. My point here is that the presence or absence of content not appropriate for children does not determine a game’s entertainment value. Controversy drives sales, no doubt, but sales don’t ensure that a game stays played. You don’t see the more realistic, more violent Mortal Kombat at salsa competitions, now do you?

Extreme as they may have been, what Nintendo’s policies ensured at the time was that publishers of titles for their systems could not promote a game by leveraging shock value. It forced them to innovate in other ways. Ultimately, the censorship programme was almost singularly responsible for Nintendo’s precipitous plummet in the North American market in the post-ESRB era, even after its discontinuation; but as bad as it was for the company, my, was it ever good for games. It proved they didn’t need to be explicit to be great.

It was good for games in the same way that Hollywood censorship in the first half of the century led to the production of some of film’s most beloved classics – pieces revered for their control over the narrative possibilities of suggestion. As I previously mentioned in my discussion of Sin City, the entire genre of film noir established itself by addressing a dark contemporaneous reality full of horrible people, yet invoking the power of concealment in doing so. What happened was that filmmakers developed a more sophisticated language of cinema flexible enough to accommodate the controversial. If you look at Elia Kazan’s staging of the rape in A Streetcar Named Desire, you might get an idea of what I mean. That language of the medium became the foundational influence of everything that was hence filmed.

To be perfectly clear, this is not an argument in favour of censorship any more than a rape that produces good children is a justification for rape, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak’s (arguably flawed) denunciation of colonialism. One could hardly suggest that the film industry revert to a censorship model now that the leading edge in filmmaking is to push the limits in a way that makes sense in terms of story. Requiem for a Dream requires its graphic depiction of drug use; The Passion of the Christ requires its copious and explicit Jesus-flogging. Neither film could do without what cannot accurately be called excesses.

But the film industry has earned its keep, whereas the realm of video games clearly has not. There are filmmakers that relish in excess, and some of them, like Tarantino or Rodriguez, have almost transformed it into a stylistic element of sorts – but film is very aware of its own history. Regular filmgoers are completely desensitized to the common sight of firearms nowadays, but if you take a master like Steven Spielberg – there is a scene in War of the Worlds where he makes one gun as frightening a sight as it would be if somebody pulled one out on the street one day. That’s how it used to be done, and he evidently understands that. And Hollywood producers won’t soon forget that when they got of control and peppered the summer of 2003 with over a dozen action sequels, each claiming to be more explosive than the last, a clownfish with a lucky fin outgrossed the lot.

Video games have hardly any history at all, and most developers are actively engaged in burying it. The preservation and availability of classic games is atrocious, particularly for the PC where everything is a horsepower race. Nintendo leverages nostalgia for sales, but their rivals have successful business models that rely on making the Kyoto giant look old-fashioned. New games sell by making old ones look obsolete, not just in aesthetic terms but by testing the limits that old games were afraid to test. The industry is so obsessed with newness that gloss is now an acceptable substitute for fun.

The video game business in North America is in serious need of a revolution, and by that I don’t mean a little black GameCube with a top-secret controller (although it could certainly help). The trend right now is one of consolidation and stagnation, because the major players are in it to making things bigger, flashier, more visceral, and just more. It should tell us something that “rag-doll physics” was the most exciting buzzword for a whole generation of graphics engines, when as brilliant as it is from a purely technical perspective, it amounts to little more than making enemy soldiers crumple properly in response to a tidy headshot. It’s uncanny that Thompson is picking on The Sims, given that Will Wright is the closest thing the industry has to an artisan.

Aside from the financial losses incurred, I see it as a positive thing for government and media attention to keep the video game industry on its toes. Ideally, developers should be self-censoring, significantly moreso than they already are. It reduces to the distinction between violence and gratuitous violence: gratuity. Right now, gratuity drives the industry. It shouldn’t have to.

I introduce all of the above in order to answer this question: can a Grand Theft Auto game be as fun without subjecting the entire industry to the vitriol of activists that demand the same kind of state involvement that crippled the comic book industry in the 1950s? Can such a game even exist? At the end of the day, need it be so controversial?

I’m speculating here, but I think that while it is certain that the GTA series has a lot of sales momentum thanks to its high profile as the reigning eight-hundred-pound scapegoat, it only became that popular on the strength of its design and not its content. If controversy had the power to move units by itself, Postal would be a viable franchise, and people might have actually bought BMX XXX so Acclaim would have gone bust in less of a hurry. But controversy can’t carry a game, and not all virtual lawbreaking is of the same appeal.

GTA is notable for its versatile, freeform nonlinearity; you can hop around doing whatever you want, driving any car you see on the street, and exploring at your own pace and leisure. If you wanted, you could spend all your time in Vice City delivering pizza on a motorbike or earning your keep as a paramedic, and it would amount to a quite pleasurable diversion; in fact, proponents of the series would argue that all the criminal activity is strictly voluntary.

On that I disagree; voluntary as it may be, it is coerced. Unlike the Knights of the Old Republic series where choices that lead to good or evil produce equally favourable circumstances, GTA is designed to encourage unlawful activity by providing it with a progression that offers equal or greater reward (part of which is the escapist reward of doing something you could never pull off in real life), but at little greater risk. The deterrent consequences of being arrested or killed are so light as to be negligible.

If the concern is that GTA glorifies and encourages sociopathy, then the solution is to attack the model of encouragement. I hypothesize that a game that permits you to just as easily rule a city by more lawful (if still mildly unethical) means and steps up the risk of doing otherwise would be a far superior experience and the logical extension to the GTA core design, because only then would it offer true flexibility and real choice. It wouldn’t quite fix the issue that the player’s mobility is premised on the ability to carjack anything in sight with impunity, but it would be an improvement. Gangland massacres would be playable, but would be less of a need. Uninformed parents buying it for their kids is something that remains unsolved, but that’s what high-profile public pressure is for – to inform where ESRB ratings fail to do so.

Lawful activity in an open-ended urban environment can still be fun, as demonstrated by GTA itself. At the same time, the possibility of breaking the law remains in a way fundamental to the GTA experience. For a game like this to be truly free-roaming, as soon as you get into a vehicle it has to take into account that you might run some red lights, collide with the odd fire hydrant, and maybe, just maybe, even hit somebody. So somewhere, there has to be a compromise – and that compromise boils down to a question of gratuity. A game that is built around an entertaining concept of interactivity only requires so much sex and violence to operate, and developers should keep in mind where that benchmark of reasonable requirement stands.

Take-Two and Rockstar have plenty of things to brag about when it comes to their games and their place in the history of interactive design, things other than how they let you enact a cop-shooting fantasy. They choose to sell them that way, though, marketing what trouble their games stir up instead of what their strengths are. I don’t think it’s the right choice, or even a necessary one. And as long as they lead the industry in that direction, the likes of Miami Jack have a very good leg to stand on.

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