Rated Teen, For Everyone

Rated Teen

The videogame industry and I are about the same age. In the 1970s, we played with blocks. We blooped and bleated, the big people gathered around us with kindly smiles of incomprehension. By the mid-'80s, we hurtled toward puberty together. We bounced to synthesized beats, decked in neon and steeped in a culture the old folks labeled a passing fad.

The millennium came and went. We experimented. We argued. We put on airs of edginess. We prioritized style. Our girlfriend locked us out of our apartment because we made $5.25 an hour folding bath towels at K-Mart and we’d rather guzzle six-packs of Rainier tallboys on the futon or run out to see whichever aggressively apathetic Nirvana-bes were playing the local dive bars than stay home and help with the dishes and laundry.

But as 30-somethings, mainstream gaming and I went in different directions. Today, one of us knuckles-down at his white-collar gig to pay for the mortgage and the Rogaine, while the other still believes he'll be President of the United States of Firefighting Astronauts when he grows up.

Admittedly, storytelling in gaming has increased in scope and complexity since the 8-bit days of yore. Where once Shigeru Miyamoto could shrug and say, "Just have him rescue the princess again," the DLC for Mass Effect 3 required a team of eight writers to flesh out the finer plot points. Even the core plots of story-driven franchises like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls don't go much deeper than the adolescent male power fantasies I doodled inside my Trapper Keeper as a Snoqualmie Middle School Eagle. On the Xbox 360, I’m now just manipulating a prettier, polygonal version of the spritely avatar I inhabited on my NES, that of the fateful world-saving beefcake, slayer of unending hordes of unabashedly bad dudes, saver of the day, getter of the girl, whom I then must rescue from the higher-res clutches of girl-napping evil in the sequel, of course. Miyamoto would be proud.

In ‘94, the industry adopted the now-standard ESRB rating system. The official description for mature M-rated games is, "Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language." As if to confirm their graduation to manhood, developers grabbed these descriptors and sprinted with them. Every major game release appears to be produced by Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. Thought-provoking ideas and genuinely intelligent, adult-oriented themes and concepts aren't the stuff of an M rating. “Maturity” in gaming really just means the blood spatters juicier and the language spouts more colorfully. And there may be tits — because nothing says “mature” like a fixation for digitized D-cups.

This dearth of substance is an odd phenomenon in an industry ostensibly brimming with a progressive, highly educated workforce. But for whatever reason, as the Atari 2600 approaches its 40th birthday, the gaming industry's major players rarely think to do much more than lock and load. As discussed by the gang in Episode 341 of the GWJ Conference Call, this can’t be simply explained away as the result of young developers creating content for like-minded audiences. The men at the top (and it’s worth noting they are almost exclusively men) aren’t fresh-from-the-dorms university graduates. The designers and decision-makers are the guys who’ve worked their way up the ladder, most now in their 40s and 50s. And though some correlation can be drawn between the summer action movie and the AAA game studio title, the gaming industry has no analog for the film industry’s mass-appeal comedy or rom-com. Game studios are constantly gunning for the video game version of the Star Wars franchise, but where are the gaming equivalents of The Hangover and Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Oddly enough, in the current climate, it’s the younger designers who do have some autonomy, those working in the independent gaming sector, who are more likely to tackle adult-oriented themes. Meanwhile, the most mature of approaches to modern blockbuster game design appears to be that you don't have to kill everybody … but you still can if you want.

So it seems the maturity in M-Rated titles is really more of a twisted 13-year old's idea of what maturity is: violence and sex. But it ain’t all bad, and hey, our fixations are not entirely unwarranted, right? The versatility of boobs and explosions is both undeniable and awesome; the former run the gamut from cleavage-creating sex objects to the means by which the vast majority of the babies of our fine human race consume nutrition, the latter provide both the creation of the universe and a great reason to have a few beers and barbecue on Independence Day. Who doesn’t like milk and Roman Candles?

I'm not advocating that we all take an alien-killing hiatus and picket Microsoft and Sony for more games involving grocery shopping and child-custody battles. Make no mistake, when the polygonal Martians invade, I'll heft the nearest plasma cannon and rain righteous death down on those green sons o’ bitches by the shipload, just as I've done for the past 25 years. After all, video games are supposed to be fun. But for the most part, it's only in the indie gaming space that we see a premise that doesn't involve blowing the hell out of everybeing. I understand it’s unrealistic to jump out of the gate tackling big social and political issues like religion or sexual orientation or social inequality, but I’d like to see some baby steps, at least. Let me see a middle-aged female protagonist without Barbie dimensions. Give me a plot twist where the girl actually dumps my character for being an ultraviolent meathead. Can I just try to save my neighborhood instead of the entirety of the known universe? Give me a shot at playing the semi-vulnerable sidekick instead of the immortal superhero bulletsponge.

Rocket jumps and +2 Broadswords of Flaming Undead Death will always stand as the meat and potatoes of video gaming, and that's fine by me. But hopefully, as the demographics of industry insiders diversify, the content they create will diversify as well. I need to see more complexity and maturity in storytelling, more situations and decisions that are legitimately adult. I want “mature” to mean something beyond the figments of an arrested teenage wet dream. I need video games to occasionally wash the dishes and hit the laundromat, otherwise I may decide to kick them out of the house.

Comments

A hearty welcome to the front page for the first of our two Call for Writers additions.

Yay!

Congratulations, kcander! This definitely was a great piece, one that really resonated with me. I haven't been gaming as long, but I find myself yearning for similar things. Sometimes smaller, much more personal games (like To the Moon) can be much more powerful and emotionally stirring than epic universe-saving tales . Like you, I don't want to see the latter disappear, I just wish for a bit more diversity. There is hope though, and the Tomb Raider reboot is only one example (you need only look to its predecessor, Tomb Raider: Underworld; they didn't even bother to put her face on the box, for goodness' sake!).
Looking forward to reading more from you!

Nice piece, kcander. I enjoyed reading it. Also being an older gamer (early 40s) who's been playing video games for a long time, I'm in a similar mindset where, these days, things coming from the indie games scene are usually more interesting than the mass-appeal stuff that the AAA industry is cranking out.

kcander wrote:

whom I then must rescue from the higher-res clutches of girl-napping evil in the sequel

Being a damsel in distress is a tiresome job, so naturally the villains will want them to be well rested.

Now I see where I went wrong with my Call for Writers entry. I advocated for more explosions, gratuitous groin shots, and boobies.

No seriously, great piece kcander and congrats on the new gig. The only thing I'd like to add is I'd love to see the GWJ team tackle the economics of why blockbuster games need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Is it a case where investors don't want to take chances on games that cost tens of millions of dollars, sometimes several hundred million?

jdzappa wrote:

The only thing I'd like to add is I'd love to see the GWJ team tackle the economics of why blockbuster games need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Is it a case where investors don't want to take chances on games that cost tens of millions of dollars, sometimes several hundred million?

I'm no economist, nor do I work in the financial industry, but yeah, that's my guess. Because of how high the cost of making (some) AAA games has become, publishers want to maximize their ROI by making developers create games that appeal to the widest possible audience, thus taking little or no "risks" regarding gameplay.

MeatMan wrote:
jdzappa wrote:

The only thing I'd like to add is I'd love to see the GWJ team tackle the economics of why blockbuster games need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Is it a case where investors don't want to take chances on games that cost tens of millions of dollars, sometimes several hundred million?

I'm no economist, nor do I work in the financial industry, but yeah, that's my guess. Because of how high the cost of making (some) AAA games has become, publishers want to maximize their ROI by making developers create games that appeal to the widest possible audience, thus taking little or no "risks" regarding gameplay.

Everything big-budget appeals to the lowest-common denominator. There's a reason McDonald's serves bland food, radios play bland music, and TV features an endless series of clean, well-kept young people singing pop songs or acting in comforting and wacky sit-coms; the idea is to make sure you offend as few people as possible, in order to appeal to as many people as possible.

Big-budget games will always be directed towards the most people as possible, and that's the way it should be. Frankly, the last few years has seen a glorious explosion of creativity with indie stuff, and I think that alone has helped the gaming industry mature in all sorts of fun ways.

Well done! And I agree with your overall points. As a middle aged woman who does not like blood or shooters, I have long been outside the standard audience for AAA game releases, which is why I've sort of fallen in love with the Steam Indy developer channel.

And while I agree with your overall point that maturity should mean more than blood and boobs, the problem is that you can't get funding to do projects that don't have blood and boobs. Is there a market, for example, of a shared world MMORPG that is based in a victorian steampunk setting? Absolutely. Would some people be content to be all Jane Austen about it, an create political intrigue and whatnot? Sure. But the rest of them are gonna want vampires, and robot killer armies, and fights between zeppelins. (Actually, let's kickstart that idea, that sounds fun!)

Games are often designed to tickle the id and bypass the super-ego. (If I could be forgiven for bringing Freud into this.) Blood and boobs feed the id.

Hi all, I'm at my jobby-jobb but just had to pop on and say thanks for the welcome and all the positive comments! And the inevitable negative ones as well! The staff here has been really great helping get oriented, making suggestions, proofing/editing, and sending me out to pay for cookies and bourbon. Looking forward to seeing my fellow contest winner's article up soon, too! More later, but back to the grind...

Less gabbing, more bourbon!

Nice piece man.

I somewhat disagree that we should not tackle the big social issues of the day out of the gate. In a way, video games are the perfect medium to explore this as we can create races/species as proxies to put the protagonist in tough social situations. We've seen it in movies over the years, but only really touched on it in games.

As for why we receive cookie cutter AAA games, $$ is certainly a driver, but the primary factor is risk. The executives in charge of funding large titles have their projections and compensation plans to compensate them nicely for success. But failures will not only hurt their personal compensation, it will harm their reputation. This could mean permanently lower future compensation, could mean getting canned. Basically at the top right now, failures hurt more than critical successes help. Which is why we have Call of Duty 85 (or whatever one we are up to now). For them, why take the risk? What we need are more indie producers with less to lose...

Can I just try to save my neighborhood instead of the entirety of the known universe?

In one of the finest games ever made, you can!

IMAGE(http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51OyomwsXLL._SX385_.jpg)

Great article, totally agree, A++ would read again.

Welcome to the front page!

Congratulations to kcander for joining the front page!

One of the things that has struck me as of late, and occurred to me again reading this, is the central problem of the 18-35 male demographic (though in truth, you know it's really 13-35. Let's not kid ourselves and pretend the 17 and lower, or at least their parents, aren't important to a lot of these sales).

Think about the huge spread of that age range. I'm turning 28 next month, and the things I want now aren't the same that I wanted then. Hell, just 7 years ago I was all on board with what Microsoft was selling, and now I'm beyond skeptical.

I think it's more important that game design begin with "what sort of game do we want to make?" before concerning itself with demographics and marketing. Unfortunately, the desire to appeal to a wide audience influences design.

Welcome to the "big" time!

MeatMan wrote:
kcander wrote:

whom I then must rescue from the higher-res clutches of girl-napping evil in the sequel

Being a damsel in distress is a tiresome job, so naturally the villains will want them to be well rested. ;)

It's not a super-standard form of "to nap," but it is a real form in active use. You can see its sibling in "to kidnap."

jrxl wrote:

Nice piece man.

I somewhat disagree that we should not tackle the big social issues of the day out of the gate. In a way, video games are the perfect medium to explore this as we can create races/species as proxies to put the protagonist in tough social situations. We've seen it in movies over the years, but only really touched on it in games.

What I really like in games as a potential space for tackling contemporary issues is that games are built as systems and thus allow players to explore deep systems in ways that are difficult in more controlled media (The Wire comes to mind as a great "systems narrative" TV series, but it's an exceptional example). I was just talking with the Three Moves Ahead team the other day about how special games like Victoria 2 are, because they disabuse us of the easy assumptions of governmental control and groups active as cohesive wholes, and force us instead to stare down vast, interconnected systems of power and control. Dishonored stuck with me in part because I feel there's something similar going on with the chaos/ethics elements in the game.

And hopefully I'll get someone else to write more about that sometime, because I'm obviously not getting it done myself.

I think the real problem is epitomized by the triple A ranking. When a movie is popular, we call it a "blockbuster". When a song is popular, we call it a "hit". Why, then, in video games do we call an expensive production AAA simply because it's bound to sell a lot of copies? Triple A is supposed to designate a higher grade than A or even AA. It's so good, it's AAA! (Or if you play Japanese rhythm games, perhaps S, SS, and SSS.) When did the quality of a game become reduced to the amount of polygons on the screen and the amount of copies it can sell? That's the implication when we designate a AAA ranking to a title.

It's said that Tim Schafer nearly destroyed the genre he helped make popular. How? By releasing one of the most critically acclaimed adventure games of its time - Grim Fandango. It garnered many "Game of the Year" awards, yet was considered a commercial failure by some. Even though LucasArts claimed "Grim Fandango met domestic expectations and exceeded them worldwide", they went on to cancel most of their graphic adventure titles. (It's also worth mentioning that Tim Schafer won yet more "Game of the Year" accolades with Psychonauts, the game that would contribute to the folding of Majesco.)

It seems to me that the video game industry is not very good at assessing risks. While it's true that all entertainment industries minimize risk as much as possible, it seems the video game industry in particular doesn't understand that occasional failures are permissible as long as there's enough successes to make up for it. Movie studios take calculated risks all the time, because the ones that don't pan out can be made up by the lowest common denominator successes. Movies that resonate with critics are good for publicity, after all. Why is the media for video games so complacent?

I find the state of video games frustrating, to say the least. I'm happy that indie games have gained so much traction, but sad that most talented indie developers remain in obscurity compared to the so-called "AAA" titles. I've been watching indie films for decades, so I realize I shouldn't be entirely surprised, but darn it, video games don't even have the functional equivalent to Lincoln or Argo.

krux wrote:

I think the real problem is epitomized by the triple A ranking. When a movie is popular, we call it a "blockbuster". When a song is popular, we call it a "hit". Why, then, in video games do we call an expensive production AAA simply because it's bound to sell a lot of copies? Triple A is supposed to designate a higher grade than A or even AA. It's so good, it's AAA! (Or if you play Japanese rhythm games, perhaps S, SS, and SSS.) When did the quality of a game become reduced to the amount of polygons on the screen and the amount of copies it can sell? That's the implication when we designate a AAA ranking to a title.

"AAA" in my understanding of its popular use in games writing, is about how much it costs to make the game. I associate it as a reference to league, such as where AAA baseball is the highest of the minor leagues.

AAA baseball is supposed to designate the level of play, however. It so happens that quality and budget tend to go hand and hand in sports (though not always, as sabermetrics sometimes demonstrates), but I think we can agree that's not necessarily - or even typically - the case in video games.

wordsmythe wrote:
MeatMan wrote:
kcander wrote:

whom I then must rescue from the higher-res clutches of girl-napping evil in the sequel

Being a damsel in distress is a tiresome job, so naturally the villains will want them to be well rested. ;)

It's not a super-standard form of "to nap," but it is a real form in active use. You can see its sibling in "to kidnap."

Girl-knapping would involve Shale, from Dragon Age: Origins.

the gaming industry has no analog for the film industry’s mass-appeal comedy or rom-com.

Speaking of "the figments of an arrested teenage wet dream" I'm reminded of something I saw the other day:

IMAGE(http://i1094.photobucket.com/albums/i453/czpv/RC_zpsd7826ddc.jpg)

Maybe we should consider The Sims as the analog for the rom-com, and Diner Dash or Angry Birds as the mass-appeal comedies of gaming.

Maybe we should be afraid that we've reached Peak Superhero.

duckideva wrote:

Is there a market, for example, of a shared world MMORPG that is based in a victorian steampunk setting? Absolutely. Would some people be content to be all Jane Austen about it, an create political intrigue and whatnot? Sure. But the rest of them are gonna want vampires, and robot killer armies, and fights between zeppelins. (Actually, let's kickstart that idea, that sounds fun!)

I'm in.

IMAGE(http://i1094.photobucket.com/albums/i453/czpv/S1889_zps39aa68cd.gif)

jrxl wrote:

Nice piece man.

I somewhat disagree that we should not tackle the big social issues of the day out of the gate. In a way, video games are the perfect medium to explore this as we can create races/species as proxies to put the protagonist in tough social situations. We've seen it in movies over the years, but only really touched on it in games.

As for why we receive cookie cutter AAA games, $$ is certainly a driver, but the primary factor is risk. The executives in charge of funding large titles have their projections and compensation plans to compensate them nicely for success. But failures will not only hurt their personal compensation, it will harm their reputation. This could mean permanently lower future compensation, could mean getting canned. Basically at the top right now, failures hurt more than critical successes help. Which is why we have Call of Duty 85 (or whatever one we are up to now). For them, why take the risk? What we need are more indie producers with less to lose...

Well, whether you're talking money risk on the corporate level, or money risk for an individual executive or three, it's still dolla dolla bills y'all.

Duplicate post. Because my laptop sucks.

In an effort to not waste this space:

I'm watching The Wrath of Khan on Netflix right now, first time I've seen it since I was a kid, and I have a few observations as the movie winds down:

- Ricardo Montalban is a fine corinthian badass.

- Kirstie Alley was quite a looker back in the day. Although it's possible I have a pointy-ear fetish, because I also found Cate Blanchett very attractive as Galadriel. Then again, gremlins have pointy ears and they don't do anything for me, so maybe not. *shrug*

- The way Captain Kirk's (er...Admiral Kirk's?) son is wearing that sweater tied around his neck makes him look like he should play for the Duke lacrosse team. Thank god he dies in The Search for Spock.

Hmm. Actually, that was still a complete waste of this space. Sorry.

I also rewatched Wrath of Khan recently. What bothers me is Kirk's "KHAAAAAAAN!" - that massive piece of overacting. It's revealed later that Kirk had a plan all along, and he knew he wan't being abandoned on the planet. Thus, he wasn't really mad. Thus he was pretending to be mad. Thus, Kirk, the character, was overacting his reaction. Thus Shatner was purposefully overacting. Or was he? I'm going around and around with this.

Congrats on the front page!

Aristophan wrote:

I also rewatched Wrath of Khan recently. What bothers me is Kirk's "KHAAAAAAAN!" - that massive piece of overacting. It's revealed later that Kirk had a plan all along, and he knew he wan't being abandoned on the planet. Thus, he wasn't really mad. Thus he was pretending to be mad. Thus, Kirk, the character, was overacting his reaction. Thus Shatner was purposefully overacting. Or was he? I'm going around and around with this.

Congrats on the front page!

Jayzus. My mind is blown. Or is it? I'm going around and around trying to figure out if my mind is blown or not.

clever id wrote:

That was really funny, by the way.

Wonderful rookie piece!

Love the Khan discussion. I blackout for upcoming games and films so was glad to see him in Star Wars this past weekend, and I am now therefore indoctrinating my wife in select TOS episodes and films so she can further appreciate JJ's efforts. I suspect you're all re watching it for similar effect.

What was I going to post? Oh, right: game maturity.

I don't play a lot of AAA games, haven't in a decade, but nor do I watch, in theaters or otherwise, more than a handful of action explosion zoom zoom films every year or two, either--and no superheroes. Instead, I find myself most drawn these days to little more thoughtful / constructive games, things like Game Dev Tycoon, Uplink, Garage, Inc., etc. Apparently I should try Heavy Rain, but I'm PS3-less.

Garage, Inc.

The Metallica album?

Is that something people have heard of?

Only if you're in your mid-twenties and older I think.