Rated Teen, For Everyone
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.