When I was younger, I was absolutely horrible at video games. That’s my terrible secret. Could’ve been my underdeveloped motor skills. Maybe I had bad eyes. Whatever the exact reason, I had no gaming skills whatsoever. In fact, I’ve never actually beat Super Mario Bros. Yes, you read that right. We got the NES in our house when I was eight or so. For a while, the pack-in Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge was the only game we had. I logged countless hours with the controller. Never completed the game. Never.
It’s not uncommon for people to have sordid pasts they work tirelessly to escape. For some it’s crime, for others it’s drugs. For me it’s bad video game skills.
Growing up, I got my video game-related kicks by watching my brothers and friends play, rather than playing the games myself. My brothers and I had nearly all the games systems. IntelliVision, Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Atari Jaguar, 3DO, Nintendo 64, PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, Xbox, PlayStation 3, Xbox360, plus a number of different gaming PCs. I logged more hours playing or watching video games than at any other single activity in my life (okay, this might be an exaggeration).
And not once has it driven me to violence.
Even after all those thousands of Koopas killed me by simply touching me (seriously? Just by touching?), I never felt the need to jump on a turtle’s back. I also never felt the need to smash floating stone blocks with my head. It just seems silly to even suggest that those old video games would’ve caused anything other than mass amounts of enjoyment and satisfaction, but I guess things have changed, and we should probably address that.
As a gamer, I’ve certainly noticed the trend, and I’m definitely not alone. The writer of this article from Gamasutra points out the “obsession with violence and vulgarity” apparent in the games showcased at the 2012 Electronics and Entertainment Expo. Personally, I wasn’t surprised at the increased amount of violence in those games being showed off at E3. It’s what sells, right?
But I’m not suggesting that developers tone down the violence in video games. That is absolutely not my answer. So any industry pros who may be reading this (unlikely) can calm down. I do have some suggestions, and I’ll get to those in a bit. But why bother writing about this anyway? Why add my voice to an already complicated and congested argument?
Because I love video games, and video games get unfairly blamed for too much. Like any media, they contain their share of sex and violence and vulgarity, but video games are still seen by many as activities typically undertaken only by children and teenagers. Not only that, the industry itself is still young, and doesn’t seem to have the political protections of other typically controversial industries, like the firearms manufacturers (the first amendment notwithstanding). So if video games are easy targets for people looking to point fingers after tragedies, it may be because everyone else is simply untouchable.
Of course, when it comes to video games, it’s not just the violence that gets people worked up. Remember the ‘Hot Coffee’ scandal from ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas?’ In a game where the player can run over pedestrians, shoot cops, and participate in drug deals, it was a sex-based mini-game that finally got Rockstar in trouble with the feds. Dan Houser explains in this interview just how “draining and upsetting” the whole thing was for Rockstar. “If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie,” he says, “people wouldn’t have blinked an eye.” And I absolutely agree. The game was already rated ‘M for Mature.’ Not only that, the mini-game in question had been cut from the final product, though it hadn’t been completely deleted from the source code. There simply was no way, in my opinion, for the average gamer to stumble across this thing anyway.
I remember seeing an ad when I was a teenager for a game called “Snow Job,” and it reminded me of something I might see on Cinemax late at night, back during the infrequent periods when my parents sprung for the premium channels in our cable lineup. The game itself apparently didn’t amount to much erotically, but I personally never saw it in stores. I wondered if, with the advent of full-motion video on home consoles, games with erotic content would start popping up on shelves. Didn’t happen. Things are different in other countries, but that’s a subject for another blog post. After all, it’s the violence in video games that made me want to write this particular post.
So I have some ideas, and they all have to do with keeping the more mature games out of the hands of kids. I really can’t say if video game violence makes adults more prone to violent behavior, or if it desensitizes us to it. There’s some studies that say one thing, and then there’s my own personal experience that says another. Who knows for sure? The violence is there, just like it’s there in movies and music and books and cave paintings. Does it need to be there? Well, that’s a bit deep for me. I’m focusing on one aspect of the argument, and that’s kids. After all, I was a kid when I started playing video games. We didn’t have Call of Duty back then. As I’ve said: things have changed.
The first idea has to do with the ESRB, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. These are the folks that put that ‘M for Mature’ label on games here in America. For the most part, these guys do a good job of informing consumers about the content of games. But the system isn’t perfect. Much like their film counterpart, the MPAA, the ESRB relies on people to come up with these ratings. These “specially trained raters” follow some specific criteria, and must come to a consensus between them before slapping the rating on the box. The ratings themselves are augmented with some keywords pertaining to the game’s specific content (violence, sexual content, etc.). Plus, you can search for titles on the their website for even more detailed information. And here’s where I think they can do better.
Take this entry for ‘Saints Row the Third’: “…The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “c*ck” can be heard in dialogue.” That’s actually how it’s written, with asterisks replacing key letters. Granted, most people would know what those words really are, but why not use the actual words? They’ve come this far with it.
And they can go farther, actually. The developers, according to the ESRB website, don’t actually submit the game itself for rating purposes. They fill out a questionnaire and submit a DVD showing the most extreme stuff in the game. As I see it, the developers could also submit a shorter, spoiler-free video showing some of the same extreme stuff, and the ESRB can put this on their website in addition to the ratings information. That way, parents can make an even more informed decision about what to buy their kids (because why else does the ESRB even exist?). If the ratings process itself is subjective anyway, get the parents involved, and give them better tools, and plenty of them. It’s really their call as to what their kids are seeing and doing.
And what about enforcement? Retailers aren’t legally bound to enforce these age-restrictions, certainly not like with alcohol or tobacco. Here’s where the publishers can get involved, and really show their commitment to the cause. They can modify their sales agreements with retailers to include penalties for failing to verify the ages of the people buying their games (if such a thing isn’t already in the sales agreement). Publishers can then hire secret-shoppers to spot-check retailers. These shoppers can be teenagers (with the help of their parents) who can be paid with discounts or free games from the publishers. I’m sure they’d have no trouble finding kids willing to help out. As long as retailers are compliant, kids should not be getting their hands on mature-rated video games unless their parents know about it (as far the retailer is concerned). Of course, there’s always going to be people who will circumvent the rules, just like with alcohol and tobacco. But if problems arise from an underage kid possessing a mature-rated game, it won’t be the fault of the retailer, the publisher, the developer, or the ESRB.
What do I think all this will accomplish? Not only will these measures help to reduce the liability of the games industry by shifting the responsibility to the parents, they may also help to remove the industry from the equation when tragedies like Columbine or the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut happen. And with one less thing to blame, we might get closer to figuring out what the real problem is. It may end up being that our society is simply violent by nature. Or perhaps it’s the nature of our species. After all, we were killing each other just fine before games and movies, and before guns themselves, and even before anything resembling what we know as a civilization formed.
As I said, this is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important one. We may one day find out that every adult who’s ever played ‘Grand Theft Auto 4’ is actually a ticking time bomb, although I highly doubt it. But a precocious, impressionable eight-year-old who picks up a controller in today’s world may not find themselves bouncing from Koopa to Koopa in a mad dash to save the princess in a world made of mushrooms. What they may find instead, if we’re not careful, could potentially screw them up. And whatever the consequences of that might be, I really don’t want to find out.