MMOWTF - Mature Ratings and "Da Bewbs"
In this week's MMOWTF column, Dan Fortier takes on the ESRB's "Mature" rating and suggests that there is very little mature about an M-rated game.
Now that you’ve turned away in disgust or given me your undivided attention I shall commence! It struck me as a beautiful contradiction that the things that most would consider to be for ‘mature’ audiences typically act like Pavlovian bells to the hoards of immature hounds looking for something to drool on. Things like blood, gore and exposed mammary glands are often effective ways of drawing in a crowd prior to sucker punching them and grabbing their lunch money. It’s not so much a bait-and-switch tactic as a cheese on a mousetrap or shiny light on a bug-zapper. This week I am going to play with the hand grenade that is adult content. Frag out!
As long as testosterone and libido have driven the sales of products to the male demographic, there has always been a medium ground that Devs were loath to cross. Games like Red Light District and BMX XXX remind us that we are not complete slaves to instinct and that a poorly made game with nudity is still a poorly made game. The trick is to dish out enough violence and sexual innuendo to keep the animal mind interested yet still provide enough fun and challenge for the rest of our brain. A game needs to deliver more than virtual pron to be a hit, but the forbidden fruit is often enough to get the interest of folks who would have otherwise ignored the game.
Why would kids be interested in a game that is designed to exclude them? You think the answer would be simple, but even factoring in human nature this is a tough nut to crack. For example, any of the above and more can easily be found in excess with a few clicks on the Internet. Why would someone want to spend all the time and effort getting into an MMO that has these things instead of just following the path of least resistance? Sure MMOs are great interactive playgrounds and the only thing better than getting your jollies by yourself is getting them with a ton of people you don’t know! If we follow this rationale then it might seem that Developers are trying to double-dip by grabbing the ‘target’ audience and the ‘wanna-be target’ audience as well.
By simply releasing all of the gory details about a future release, publishers hope to rope in both the folks old enough to buy the game with their own money and the kids whose parents are too busy to pay attention to what their credit card is used to pre-order. They know that there will be tons of underage players in the game despite the over-the-counter measures used to stop them, but can claim innocence since they simply produce the game and can’t be bothered to enforce the age limit after the game has been bought.
Games like Age of Conan really don’t have any mature elements, at least not by my definition. Sure, the combat looks fluid and fun, the anatomically pleasing avatars are interesting and they are keeping stealth, (unlike WAR Devs who branded us griefers) but there is little in the game that is really complex. A game doesn’t even have to be hard to be mature in my book. A game with great tension or disturbing storylines like Silent Hill fit into my version of adult material well, since their stories and themes are often lost on children. This lack of complexity wouldn’t prevent me from playing, but it simply can’t claim to be a real adult title until it washes the hairspray out its hair and wipes off all the unnecessary makeup.
To be frank, I’d be hard pressed to think of a MMO that could really be called Mature without suppressing a laugh. In fact, a storyline engrossing and deep enough to be worthy of the name is almost completely at odds with the current MMO mind-set. Horror and oppressive environments are nigh impossible in any kind of multiplayer scenario. If the devil is in the details then it might be a while before we see a game that breaks the information overload UI that is anathema to a truly immersive game experience. I’m hoping that World Of Darkness Online will really take a stab at this considering CCP has never been afraid to do something crazy.
So kids, the moral of the story is that while I enjoy ‘da bewbs’ as much (and much likely more) than the next guy, I have to really question the direction that ‘mature’ rated titles are heading if the only purpose is to keep it off the Wii or Wal-Mart shelves. It’s not often a game comes along that proves that two previously separate genres could be merged in style so here’s to playing gritty offline goodies till a group of MMO Devs can craft a game worthy of the rating.