Dealing With Sex And Violence In Video Games

In today's installment of Speak-Up on Kotaku, commenter Dracosummoner explores the controversial role of sex and violence in our video games.

Practically every single time I hear about some controversy related to the depiction of sex in a video game, and not just on Kotaku, I see a ton of comments that go along the lines of this:

"[People have such a problem with showing sex,] And yet people have no problems with killing people in games"

And given the wide variety of issues that this brings up, I feel like several different parties are missing several different points.

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1) (The portrayal of sex in games)

Let's start from the beginning. What is the typical complaint here, from the side of the (stereo?)typical parent or 'family group?' "Children shouldn't be seeing sex and nudity," or something along those lines, maybe?

Let us look at the current state of how video games are moderated in America. (I can't speak for how things are done in other regions.) Besides genitals, which cannot be shown for either sex, female breasts cannot be shown, ~at least not in full.~

This is as strange because of its inconsistency (why is it considered "less serious" to show part of a woman's breast if it's not okay to show all of it) as it is because of its arbitrary nature (why are female breasts and everyone's genitals considered inappropriate for viewing in the first place — what makes them "less okay" than a neck or an arm?).

Here's some food for thought: I'm curious as to where the opposition to depictions of nudity and sex comes from. (I've heard a few people say that "the church brainwashes people to hate sex," for example — rash generalization aside, this sort of thing honestly wouldn't solve any actual societal problems and would throw the baby .)

I believe that loophole abuse is what ultimately happens when Group A tries to "draw a line" without sufficiently establishing a case for its legitimacy. Just as someone might try to wiggle out of an inconvenient legal(istic) obligation, they might try to do a similar thing here. Because people don't understand why the line exists and aren't really helped to do so by the people who want to impose that line, they try to come as close to the line as they can without "going over" and ending up with, for lack of a better expression, a Jack Thompson-esque situation on their hands.

In this case, you have an unfathomable number of games where female characters wear halter tops, or you see the sides of the girls' breasts, or you get some other variant that basically shows you as much of the breast as possible without showing the nipple, which can push a T-rated game into M-rated territory pretty quickly, and I've not seen a ~whole~ lot of those in M-rated games as it is (Dante's Inferno, God of War, and Red Dead Redemption are exceptions).

So what is the issue here? (I'm posing this question to the ratings boards and family advocacy groups.) Should we be focusing on how much and what kinds of skin are shown? That sort of thing is easy to censor and easy to denote on the back of a box, but does it really matter in the big picture?

I've seen or heard of way too many relationships falling apart because they were based on lust or some other selfish misuse of sex that didn't incorporate a mutual (life-long) commitment. Even games like Mass Effect really fail to be believable in this area, because they basically involve relationships that resent sex options after a half a dozen conversations (also, the game treats you like a really bad person if you explicitly decline a sex offer or tell a person that you don't have feelings for them, because you really don't get a nice way to do so). This is the sort of thing that is a lot more emotionally detrimental than nudity, but you simply can't censor lust or discern it at a glance, so I feel like that sort of censorship approach really misses the point of why this sort of thing would matter in the first place.

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2) (The portrayal of violence in games)

As for how violence is moderated in America, the line is not quite as 'obvious' as it is in the case of sex and nudity. Intense and visceral games will receive Mature ratings, but from there, there's really not much of a "ceiling" they can hit — the only modern game I can think of that originally got an Adults Only rating from the ESRB (U.S. games ratings board, for any international readers) solely for the sake of violence is Manhunt 2. Games such as Left 4 Dead 2 do not get banned or censored here like they do in some other territories.

Again, I don't know how things work in other countries, but in the U.S., games don't seem to get higher or lower ratings because the nature of the killings they depict is "justified" or unjustified. It doesn't matter if a game lets you choose whether to kill the bandits or the townspeople if it already has a lot of blood (or, conversely, if it has none at all). And this is a question that I pose not to the ratings boards (because they don't seem to care) but to the people I mentioned at the very beginning of this post — what is the issue here?

To be honest, I don't have problems with killing a bunch of people or monsters or aliens in games, such as many of them are. Why are you killing in the first place, more often than not? It's usually a matter of defending yourself or defending someone else, with themes such as petty revenge or outright murder seemingly being nothing more than a minority, and in many cases there's no "you started it" explanation to muddy the ethical waters.

If the complaint is the ~intensity~ of the violence, that is a different issue altogether, because it's going to come down to presentation. Depictions that have been stylized to intentionally be emotional or brutal, would probably need to be discussed separately from depictions that are more "sterile" (something like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or maybe Final Fantasy VII's battle sequences). There's no way you could be practical and go this deep in terms of censorship, of course.

It's hardly a stretch to say that intense violence can be extremely upsetting even for people who aren't "told" to be offended by it (e.g., young children), but I don't know where to go from there. Sure, you're going to have kids who were playing Mortal Kombat since they were 9 [raises hand] and are fine, but the same won't be said of all kids, nor vice versa. For a more modern example, knowing what I know now, if I had a young teenage child, I would let them play the main Halo trilogy and ODST, but I am really not sure about Reach. The combat, despite having near-identical mechanics to every other Halo game on paper, felt much more brutal and intense this time around, easily on par with the nightmarish chaos of Bioshock.

So again, I don't know where to go from here, because I feel like there are several important issues here, both in terms of how combat is implemented, and the way it is being designed and shown.

If it's a matter of "glamorizing killing," that raises a few logical questions in itself. Consider the rapid rise of first- and third-person shooters that emphasize online multiplayer modes alongside or even over those games' single-player offerings. How do these play out in many cases? You kill someone — in real life, this would be an irreversible act with tons of consequences for their family, your family, your town, and so on — and they re-spawn a few seconds later. It's a more violent version of playing laser tag or maybe paintball. If this "trivializes" the seriousness of war violence, then I suppose it would raise the question of what kinds of pretend-fighting pastimes wouldn't 'trivialize' their more tragic equivalents.

My biggest problem with this is when it shows up in games that otherwise try to portray war and killing as, at best, morally gray entities that lack the general-consensus "honor" of fighting alongside the Allies in World War II. Are we supposed to feel that killing for dubious reasons is stupid and wrong, or are we supposed to go online and have a blast doing just that all evening, in an environment where innocents can't suffer (though it would kind of be interesting if you had to shoot around civilians in your deathmatches or incur penalties) and where people get back up after they die?

In terms of campaign modes, it goes back to a question of context — is the nature of the killing justified (and I'm guessing there's no way you'd ever incorporate this into game rating and censoring in a practical way) in light of what's happening in the story? Is there some bigger issue at stake, even if it's as simple and basic as self-defense or rescuing a princess, to excuse the shedding of blood? Should killing people, in games or in real life, be considered wrong in every circumstance?

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I apologize if I started to ramble, but I feel like there are so many complex issues here that are in desperate need of deconstruction and examination, both in games and in society. Out of what may be two of the biggest complaints aimed at games by non-gamers, I feel like both of them invoke different kinds of legalism and underhandedness. As always, I truly do appreciate your reads and comments. God bless.

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