The black and white PARENTAL ADVISORY STICKER (as seen on the left) was a staple of my adolescence. It seemed that a great deal of the music my peers were interested in were Hester Prynne’d by that stark label. Very few (if any) parents gave the thing a second look. Very few (if any) music outlets would deny a sale based on the patron’s age. As a method of regulation, the label was a joke. As a signal of disobedient youth, it became a wild success. Lacking any serious enforcement or consequence, the warning instead became a kind of fashion statement, a signal that your latest purchase would have some profanity or lewd conduct layered somewhere between the chorus and backing vocals.
In contrast, my late teens were ruled by the Motion Picture Association of America’s film-rating system. By the time I was old enough to be interested in a flash of skin or an uncomfortably gross sequence, the MPAA had begun to actively enforce the age restrictions built in to their ratings. Nudity, excessive gore, particularly florid language? All required the accompaniment of an adult, 18 years or older. Without the kind adult companion, I was relegated to gems such as Space Jam or Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
While the highly-alluring “R” (Restricted) movie was certainly tempting, I never had the nerve to sneak in to movies which were out of my classification league. The possibility of public shaming -- or, worse, having my parents called in to hear how I juked the law -- became mortifying death sentences for my young ego. My own fear served to keep me in check.
Now that the issue of “appropriate age” faces gaming (again!), and that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, by proxy, is feeling a moment in the spotlight, I’m beginning to feel like I’m on a carousel ride.
Virtually every entertainment medium has, at one point or another, suffered the accusation of corrupting the minds and morals of our youth. Comics, through their seduction of the innocent, were purported to promote degenerate sexual values and homicidal urges. As a result, the industry adopted a self-regulating Comics Code Authority. In the intervening time between the adoption of the CCA and the present, the idea that a code should govern the content of our funnybooks became positively quaint. While advances in story, art and design have made the modern comic more graphic than anything that spawned the CCA, there’s an accepted value to the medium as an entertainment vehicle. Perhaps as important, the image of a comic fan has shifted from gangly eight year-old to pudgy Comic Book Guyish young adult.
Likewise, advances in resolution, design and imagery have made it possible for games to push convincingly graphic simulacra onto their audience. Night Trap and Mortal Kombat helped create this hysteria with their visual shock, despite the low-res nature of their age. Grand Theft Auto III brought the idea of unrestricted immorality to the table, shifting attention away from what children see. It has since become a question of whether these experiences color the way children may act. And while gaming has become a more mainstream pastime -- thanks in large part to casual upticks from the Wii and Farmville, and from the massive success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero -- the idea of gaming is still framed as an immature “kid” thing to do.
The arguments that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing today boil down to some rather heady items. Can the state of California express a reasonable interest in regulating the sale and purchase of video games? If answered in the affirmative, this places games on an analogous scale to alcohol, pornography and tobacco (in regulatory terms). Such an answer would also strip video games from any reasonable claim to artistic or literary merit.
To put that in context, something like the exceedingly controversial novel Fanny Hill could, under the terms outlined above, be considered devoid of any artistic merit. Ditto for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was briefly contested in the U.S. thanks to its anti-slavery views. And A Clockwork Orange, as a film, could be considered little more than an early predecessor to Saw or Hostel.
When applied to literature, the implications behind Schwarzenegger v. EMA are chilling. When applied to digital media (re: video games), a kind of fugue clouds over what would otherwise be a significant act of censorship. For all the effort that goes into defending games as High Art, few would say that the experiences are completely lacking any sort of artistic merit. Katamari Damacy may not read like Poe, but the combination of art direction, music and user experience blends to create a significant statement. Likewise, Metal Gear Solid may not be the most accessible work ever put to silicon disc, but scenes of torture and graphic brutality don’t invalidate Hideo Kojima’s musings on nuclear proliferation, genetic engineering, and life in a new millennium.
Keep in mind that the definition of art here hangs on the assumption that shocking or graphic scenes can not promote any worthwhile discussion. By that same token, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which features the rape of a young woman, loses any value as a commentary on vengeance, justice, and faith. We must wonder how far some are willing to go to categorize something as destructive to the young mind. Heavy Rain a game praised for its narrative, features drug use, nudity, scenes of torture and death. Would others dismiss the whole because of its constituent parts?
Never before has the concept of artistic value in games been so essential.