It’s hard to find a videogame deprived of violence or harsh content, even if it’s justifiable with its content. There’s always been the confusion and debate over the fact that people don’t consider videogames like a form of art, in that case it would be liable for it to provoke the players and the Medias with its theme. But the problem is that it’s out of the developers’ or studio’s hands to choose who will play that game. Enters the ESRB, in charge of selecting the appropriate rating for the game, making sure of its customer demographic. But there are always some slippery slopes.
The ESRB, Entertainment Software Rating Board, is an organization where ratings are designed to provide brief and impartial description and content of the game, delivering the rating symbols and the content descriptors. A Teen rated game is for 13 and up and “contains violence, suggestive themes, crude humour, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language”. Where a Mature rated game “contains intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language” and is suitable for 17 and up. So, the line is very thin between the two and can see how it could be difficult make a distinct difference on some cases, but not when the thematic is obviously be its biggest liability.
The most anticipated and criticized franchise in today’s gaming industry is evidently the Call of Duty series. From the beginning of their run, the games have always been welcomed with high scepticism in regards of its thematic and the behavioural influence linked to it. Back in the day, on the original Xbox and PS2, Call of Duty 1, 2 and 3 were all rated Teen, instead of today’s Mature. Of course, the barrier has been pushed since then, graphically and morally, making us less sensitive to what we consider tolerable in terms of violence or moral judgement.
Of course, the franchise wasn’t as edgy in terms of realism without glorifying what patriotism seems to be today. Hence that, with today’s perception of war and ethical patterns, is it still ok to rate a war game such as Call of Duty with a Teen score just because it has a lower graphic resolution and is on a handheld console? Modern Warfare 2: Mobilized on the DS isn’t considered Mature just because it hasn’t the same exact gameplay as MW2 on the bigger platforms. We’re also talking about CoD: MW3: Defiance (what a mouthful, right?) and CoD: Black Ops for the DS. All of those have all received a Teen rating, with “downgrading” the violence. In a war game.
Let’s take Mass Effect for a minute, which at first received a Teen rating, until the ESRB judged that due one scene with sexual content, it had to be bumped to a Mature. But we’re still talking about a game where its universe and its characters are fictitious and therefore, its parallel with our life is a bit more tangible. Being the main character, you have choices to make and a moral compass to guide your decisions. Even if you’re taking the evil path, you still have that little red gauge (Renegade points) always reminding you so and having a less rewarding experience out of the game. Plus, having futuristic weapons, imaginary surroundings and challenging situations where your logic input is important makes the gameplay richer and the player’s involvement imperative. Same goes here for the Halo franchise and few others out there.
Modern Warfare 2: Mobilized on DS has an evident graphical disproportions between the rest of the franchise on other consoles, but I don’t think it should be excused for such reason. The whole concept of modern war games is still a bit disconcerting to a lot of people. But we all know the younger generation always find a way to get to those games (friends, bad parenting) and that’s where this cultural relapse starts. Not having any problem with a violent game, but making so many accessible and realistically-violent games for teenagers is where the gaming industry loses its credibility. Many years after the first CoD games, we have been desensitized from the whole subject, and graphics should not have anything to do with it.
Kids playing MW2 on the DS is more precarious than kids playing Halo (not that it’s advised). Those types of modern combat games have predetermined and inevitable rails to follow, no moral compass and reward the player when he/she gets more kills. The realistic view on the genre is what tips the ship. A kid is easily stimulated and influenced with strong violent lifelike scenarios in videogames and will only reinforce or develop anger issues and social inabilities, if exploited at a younger age.
I’m not saying no one should play those games, but kids nowadays have been, unfortunately, desensitized to the subject matter just because they are growing accustom to it. If those games exonerated of the Mature rating just because it doesn’t have enough gore, or because of its lower graphic engine, then it would be a step forward to taking the videogame industry a bit more seriously. The thematic is the biggest part of a videogame and no matter how bad the game looks, and the rating system should consider that a bit more often.