Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this, but the ESRB is kind of… ironic. I mean, I’m glad it exists, but I just find it kind of funny how much we insist violent games and disturbing media have no long-term effect on children, and yet, here we have a rating system specifically designed to keep violent, obscene, and inappropriate games out of the hands of young people. Now, obviously, that’s more for the sake of parents and retailers than fear of any prolonged psychological damage we might be inflicting, but still, it’s a little telling of our own insecurities. After all, a parent should be monitoring what their children play anyway: and since most children’s cash flow stems entirely from their parents, there shouldn’t really ever be a case where a parent couldn’t do a little digging about a game before they let their kids purchase it.
…and obviously the ESRB helps with that, but stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
I think as video games ebb closer and closer to a widely-accepted art form, we’re going to have to re-evaluate our ratings system. Perhaps in ways that make people uncomfortable, at first, and certainly in ways that won’t even be considered until long, long after this article is published. But consider “Proper” art as opposed to “media” art: books and paintings and sculptures, for whatever topic they may address, don’t have a rating system, and no serious moves have been made to add one. Sure, particular books like Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn have had individual controversies, but there’s never been a movement to mark the back of each book with the content people will have to confront while they flip through the pages.
Consider, then, contemporary “media” art: music and movies and video games, and you’ll see a stark contrast. Games and movies are practically defined by the audience they intend to appeal to, and CD’s with the “Parental Advisory” sticker on the front tend to be the most looked at. Things are very rigidly and inorganically shoved into ratings that dictate who can enjoy them, and who has to go to Wikipedia to gaze longingly at the poster. TV, which could only loosely be called an art form, even has a rating system, although it’s rare you find anything over 14.
The reasons for this are obviously varied, and I think more than anything It just has to do with the time of inception than anything innate about the medium each art form is presented in: not enough children could read when books grew prominent, and most of the time all anyone was reading was the bible anyway and no one wanted to admit that wasn’t exactly child-friendly. By the time overbearing parents became worried about troublesome media, books and paintings had such a powerful establishment within society, well, the idea of broadly labeling a book outside it’s genre just seemed like a pointlessly imposing task. There were simply too many books/paintings to start now. Plus, the idea of limiting the number of books a child could read seemed outlandish at best: reading was good for you. Unless they were picking up porn novelettes there was no reason a child shouldn’t read as much and as many books as possible, be it The Magic Tree-House or the Great Gatsby.
Video games may never get the opportunity books had to avoid a rating system, and what’s more, many would argue they don’t deserve to escape it anyway. Games aren’t books. Games are interactive and graphic in ways a book could only dream to be: you can read a description of a decapitation, sure, but its graphicness still relied entirely on the vividness of your imagination. Games lay it all out before you, and don’t rest within your imagination as much as they expand upon it. Don’t know what a severed spine column looks like? Let Dr. Kratos show you.
…and while that argument is true, I don’t think it’s fair, either. I’m not sure if you’ve seen children play, but they have pretty intense imaginations even without the aid of games. If anything a round of Manhunter would tame their exaggerated notions of violence… not that I’m encouraging that. My point is, they have some wild imaginations, and I think something they read in a book could be just as effective at rousing up some wild fantasies like we fear games will do. Or maybe I just know the wrong kids.
Now, this is all well and good, but you’re probably thinking it doesn’t explain why we’ll need to change the rating system. And you’re right, I got a little sidetracked there.
My point is, Rating Systems are innately an industry-sanctioned acknowledgement that our medium lacks enough artistic merit to truly be considered an art form on the same level as books or paintings. It’s saying, “Yeah, we’re NOT legit. We’re NOT good for you. And we NEED to limit our audience for both your sake and ours”. And good has come from it, I think, but at the same time we can’t really shy away from how cowardly it is for us to say we’re an art form, but we still need to close off large sections of our ‘museum’ from the eyes of the impressionable.
And if we want to make true steps to being the artistic form I know we deserve to be, we have to struggle against the idea of the ESRB and replace it with something else—something that will allow us to warn people what’s in a game without simultaneously limiting the audience or making people question the appropriateness of the game itself. We’ll need to embrace the idea that most all of our games have something to offer for someone of any age, and what’s more, we’ll need to be able to defend that notion with some really well-made games. Or, if we don’t replace the ESRB, we could at least set it aside for more pop-culture games and reserve the right to remain ratings-less for more pretentious artsy games.
…and ironically, we actually had a system sort of like that with our digitally distributed games, before the ESRB stepped in.
You know what, actually, let’s focus on that, because that might be a better example than I thought it was. Now, I can’t buy as many games as I’d like, cuz this job doesn’t pay well enough to fuel my gaming addiction, but I do have some experience with the indie “Unrateds” that will no longer exist with the ESRB stepping in. And I think a good example of how this works was Braid… remember Braid? I know it’s been a long time, but still, you should have a vague memory of the discussion that surrounded it soon after it was released.
I’ve played it a bit, thanks to the Humble Indie bundle, and it’s one of those curious yet all the same blissful cases where a game actually sort of defies a proper rating. It’s child-friendly atmosphere and puzzle-solving mechanic is really appropriate for any age, and I think a child could appreciate it on those grounds alone—but the game still has some crazy dark moments, particularly with that twist at the end. Darkness that I think would warrant the game a T rating by the ESRB, which would arbitrarily limit its audience even though, heck, anyone could get a kick out of it if they didn’t read too much into it (Pun intended). Kids would probably even benefit from all the puzzles—which is why I brought up that thing about the ESRB being ironic. If a parent actually played a game to see how appropriate it was for children rather than relying on the ESRB, and played closer attention themselves to what’s inside it, they’d be able to figure out on their own what sorts of things their kids could take away from it, how to make sure that message comes across, or even if it’s a message they want to teach their kids. For example, Deus Ex: Human Revolution could probably be used to help with critical thinking, or teaching about class differences… assuming parents kept a close watch over their kid while they played. And more family time is always better, right?
While the idea of pushing out the ESRB is a long ways away, I think it’ll be an eventual step we’ll need to take to really be considered art. If games should ever BECOME that artistic, however, or if they should just stay within the hybrid world of art and entertainment like movies are, well… that’s up to you to decide. Nothing wrong with it either way.
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