By Leigh Alexander
We may have an M-rating for "adult content" in games, but that doesn't necessarily make them mature. What will it take for games to grow up?
It's a trickier question than meets the eye. As players, it's easy to yearn for more adult content in games. Part of this is curiosity–sex is always titillating on a base level, after all, but more than that, the interactivity and apparent potential for narrative depth that video games offer prompt an interest in how human fundamentals might show up in games.
Another part of it, though, is that we're eager to see some of our video games reach a level in theme and narrative that we can consider sophisticated, that has a place in conversation among grown-ups. Sure, some games have taken a few brave steps– but while wide audiences applaud the sophistication in how sex and violence are presented in today's film and television dramas, when Mass Effect came out in May 2008, it was not permitted even a tasteful moment by most of the mainstream press, and even gamers treated it like a novelty they could distill from the rest of the game's context.
Although BioWare's Ray Muzyka hoped that Mass Effect's sex scene would help lead the way to validating games as an art form, the disconnect here is that we're equating sex with maturity. To be fair, that's not necessarily an unfit thought pairing. As long as sex remains a fundamental part of human adulthood, it will play a role in sophisticated human interaction in entertainment narratives whether in games or elsewhere.
From Lara Croft to Grand Theft Auto, though, it seems video games have tossed in a pair of boobs and called themselves mature–but that's what adolescents do, not adults. Writer and designer Erik J. Caponi of Bethesda Softworks agrees: "We think of the word 'mature' as a rating more than we think of it as a narrative goal or a certain set of subject matter," he says.
"The word really has two meanings when we apply it to media. One is 'not appropriate for children' and the other is 'exploring subject matter in a sophisticated fashion,'" Caponi explains. "Ironically, the word mature when applied to games tends to have a very childish connotation."
As he aptly puts it, "Maturity does not come from the number of f-bombs you can manage to drop, but rather from the subject matter that you choose and how you explore it."
Writers Guild of America award-nominated designer Keith Nemitz wanted to explore more sophisticated adult subject matter in his acclaimed indie Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, a story-driven puzzle RPG that features teenage girls winning out against bullies and sinister mysteries.
But last month Nemitz came up against one of the primary obstacles to maturity in games: a reactionary audience offended by its themes. DHSGiT was pulled from casual games portal Big Fish Games due to an outcry from uncomfortable players who felt the game promoted bullying. The bigger issue around the game's takedown, however, was a late-game scene that asks the player character to protect her friend from an attempted rape by shooting the perpetrator in the head.
Fans of DHSGiT took issue with the tonal shift in what was generally a black-humored, somewhat lighter narrative up to that point, but most of the game's complainants at Big Fish had enough at the very idea of a scene that involved rape, murder and teenagers, period.
But Nemitz defends the scene's inclusion, explaining its role in the story. "It's a critical plot element," he says. "It serves two purposes: The primary purpose is to challenge the player with the true evil of rape, and to assert it is a situation where survival may require killing. The assault's realistic appearance in an otherwise fantastical narrative is meant to shock."
"Reactionaries crying out against this part of our game couldn't deal with the shock and therefore wanted to be protected from the game," he says. "My opinion."
Misperception And Risk
Bethesda's Caponi says situations like Nemitz's occur because even as the audience for games continues to expand, too many people still view them as childish. "In the current environment, there will always be a number of people who react negatively to the inclusion of sexuality or sexual themes in a game," he says. "And so long as the notion that games are exclusively for children persists in those people's minds, we can just expect that."
Video game publishing is already a high-risk proposition as it is, and conservative approaches to sexual content in games is just good business sense for publishers in the current environment. "The industry is about making money," Nemitz admits. "I'm an indie developer, but one of my goals is to earn a living. That means my products need to appeal to an audience large enough to pay the bills every month." In the end, Nemitz slightly edited the controversial scene in his game to make it much clearer to avoid misinterpretation of his intent.
But Caponi notes how comic books eventually earned their license to explore more adult themes as the perception that they're only for children began to fall away. "The public at large understood that like any art, some comics are suitable for children, and some aren't," he says.
"I think that this is happening more and more every day with games. And the more it does, the less risky telling mature stories will be, and designers will be able to explore those subjects without risking financial failure."
Unfortunately, a high-risk business climate and stodgy consumers aren't the only obstacles to grown-up games. It's easy to blame widespread political furore over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' hidden Hot Coffee scene or a Fox News' infamous Mass Effect "SeXbox" campaign of ignorance for the limitations placed on adult content in games– but a hard look at where games are on their evolutionary path shows that in many ways, games just aren't there yet.
Nemitz is blunt: "I think the majority of game designers aren't mature enough to make games with mature themes well," he says. "It's the difference between Uwe Boll and David Lynch. Most computer games deserve Uwe Boll to make movies of them. How many games are worthy of David Lynch?"
To be fair, games are quite young relative to other media, and the idea that games could be used to tell stories and provide more complex experiences than just twitch-jumping over pixel pits is even newer. With so much still in development, it's hard to blame games for acting like adolescents about mature content– they are adolescent, only just now beginning to learn how to express themselves.
"When you look at film, there are certain things we know we can expect from scenes. We have a sense of how graphic violence will be, we know roughly how sex will be shown," says Caponi. "In games, we haven't really established that language yet, so it's difficult to judge when you might be pushing things a bit further for effect, or when you're backing off of things to allow them to be understated."
In effect, games are just hitting puberty compared to the elegant ladies of film and the established and ageless scions of literature, who've had much longer to establish their unspoken language. "We have very little of that to go on," says Caponi. "Right now, that language is being developed. That's one of the reasons why I believe that this is a silver age for gaming. We're starting to come into our own, and there is a lot of exploration and experimentation to be done as our storytelling matures."
Why It Matters
With all of this complexity and challenge around sex and maturity in games, it's tempting to toss the issue out entirely. Why do we even need grown-up games? Can't they just be fun?
Plenty can, of course. But there's an appetite for sophistication in games as the audience that grew up stomping goombas now reaches adulthood, and yearns for games to grow with them. Part of that growth means the ability to derive emotional and intellectual sophistication from games, and sexuality can play a role.
"Sexuality can inspire any emotion, from love, to violence, to despair, to bliss, and I think that a willingness to approach it from a mature angle absolutely will help us create better stories," says Caponi. "Relationships inspire emotion, and emotion motivates both story and the player as a participant in that story."
Every player creates his or her own experience in a game, but creating relationships within the narrative can help players become more immersed and invested in the gameworld, Caponi says. Not only can complex adult storytelling enrich games, but sophisticated games have the potential to enrich storytelling as part of culture.
"One thing I am personally interested in as a narrative designer are the ways in which games are the only medium where the player can be an active participant in the relationships and narratives of a story," he says.
Possibilities For The Future
Nemitz believes that finding tactful, tasteful ways to push the limits can be a starting point for further maturation in games. "Writers and designers can readily implement mature themes without being shocking, and perhaps that is the best way to bring intellectual respect to the art of games," says Nemitz.
For an example of how this worked in the past, one can look to Old Hollywood's Production Code. It held sway over content in the movie biz from 1930 to 1968, providing moral guidelines over what was and wasn't allowed to be portrayed in films. In effect, it was censorship — editing out nude scenes, childbirth scenes and any kind of content that made "perversions" appear sympathetic, for just a few examples. It limited films, but ultimately it challenged directors to find new ways to portray maturity, and Nemitz believes that game designers now face the same challenges — and will end up benefiting from it in the same way.
"In one aspect, the old movie code may have helped to mature the art of film," he says. "Directors didn't back down on the content. They creatively worked around the code's limitations."
Whether or not audiences are ready for games to start pushing the envelope is a different matter. "We've been pounding visually gimmicky stuff into gamers for decades. Few have become hungry for enlightenment," says Nemitz. "People, especially Americans, are not ready to deal with mature content, because the system protects them from it. It is time, however, to expose them to it."
Caponi is more optimistic that audiences are "without a doubt" prepared to receive more adult content in games. "I think the audience has been ready for a long time," he says. "I look forward to the sort of stories that we'll see as developers expand their ability to tell mature stories."
Truly adult stories will need to evolve beyond a single sex scene in a game, and developers will need both resourcefulness and genuine maturity to craft nuanced, complex adult content. The adolescent years are always awkward — let's hope a healthy adulthood follows for video games.
[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]