Game Eaters

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


You won't believe this.

Okay, maybe you will.

Indigo Prophecy is censored. Turns out, some sex and nudity was removed from the U.S. version. So if you live in the U.S. and don't want to be patronized you'll have to shell out the extra cash to import Fahrenheit, the European version.

If you want proof, take this snippet from a developer interview:

"16+ was the rating we wanted. Otherwise it would be 18+ and people just told us our game would only be available in sex shops with that rating. There is nothing sexual in it that you wouldn’t see in a regular movie. But that is what we were told."

There you have it. The ESRB's M-Rating, the rating that is equivalent to an R rated film, is a joke. It allows for depictions of violence unheard of in an R rated movie, but flat out refuses depictions of sex above a PG level.

This is the moment when, I'm sure, some of you would point the finger at Rockstar and their Hot Coffee nonsense. But that's the easy way out. As much as Rockstar is messing things up by creating controversy, it is ultimately the responsibility of regulatory bodies like the ESRB to separate the smut from the art. The fact that they *choose* not to see a difference between GTA and Indigo Prophecy is both lazy and disgraceful.

But why is it the ESRB's fault, you ask? Aren't they just assessing content based on whatever values the broader culture advocates?
In a sense this is true. But, in my view, this is precisely *why* they should be putting their foot down. They have the ability to set and curtail trends as much as reflect them, and when the stakes are the artistic growth of videogames as a medium it is their duty to be more than limp reeds that bend any which way the winds of mass culture blow.

The debate over who's responsible for self-censorship isn't new. It's been going on in the film industry for decades. Remember the controversy over Eyes Wide Shut? That was an excellent example of the same double standard we're seeing evolve in the videogame world today. The X (later NC-17) rating, like the ESRB's AO rating, became associated with pornography. This was because the porn industry co-opted "X" into their advertising in the 70's, forever associating that rating with explicit sex. NC-17 was supposed to be a remedy to that, but the damage had already been done. Once people understood that NC-17 was just another term for X the change became meaningless... and filmmakers have been forced to "adjust" their films to R-rated standards ever since or else be refused normal distribution and advertising channels. One could argue this isn't the MPAA's fault, but the MPAA suspiciously doesn't do much to counter this notion, seemly very comfortable with the smutty connotations of NC-17. Nor does it seem, as the Eyes Wide Shut case proved, incredibly deft at recognizing the difference between sexual content that is intended to be pornographic and that which is not.

Sound familiar?

The relationship between culture, government, and industry-based regulatory bodies is obviously a messy one, and I don't claim to have all the answers. It is true that culture really is what needs to change in order for values to actually change. But it's also important to realize that culture doesn't change by itself, but as part of policy shifts that affect people. Organizations like the ESRB and MPAA are bottlenecks for these policies. They are where mature decision-making is needed the most. I read once that Brian DePalma was outraged that his 1980 film Dressed to Kill received an X rating by the MPAA. When he protested the response of then MPAA president Jack Valenti was:

"The political climate of this country is shifting from left to right, and that means more conservative attitudes toward sex and violence."

When so-called self-regulatory bodies openly admit their criteria is dictated by politics, you wonder what the point of such bodies is.

That's what I'm wondering about the ESRB right now.


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