At Toronto's Future Play 2007 conference, a panel titled "The Chilling Effect" centered on a key issue currently confronting the game industry -- with legislation and government interest in video game content heightening, are studios responding with self-censorship? After all, content that results in rejection or ratings challenges anywhere in the world can be disastrous for a game.
To consider the issue, conference chair Bill Kapralos of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Davis LLP attorney Tudor Karsten, Pseudo Interactive strategy director Cord Smith and ESA Canada director Danielle Parr convened.
The AO Effect
Parr opened the panel by sharing her first thoughts upon being asked to do the talk. “My first thoughts were, obviously, Hot Coffee, and then the Manhunt 2 saga: being rated AO and banned in the UK, and then re-rated -- but because of hackers," she recalled.
Parr continued: "To me, this was interesting, because in Canada, the average age of a gamer is actually 39 years old. You’re creating games for an audience very different from what people assume. We’re really become a hot rod for politicians in the United States – such as Hilary Rodham Clinton making anti-video game legislation, and it’s becoming a very different environment from even where we were 10-15 years ago.”
Explained Parr, "The ESRB was founded in 1994 by the ESA as a method of self-regulation. 'Adults Only' is the category at the top of the list, and what’s happened because of the political environment, particularly in the United States, is that AO has really become a non-desirable category. Console manufacturers won’t certify it – and companies such as Wal Mart won’t stock it... It’s come down to – what’s desirable, and what can we sell?”
Faced with this refusal to certify AO games by console makers, and the refusal of retailers to stock them, is it censorship? "I have to argue it’s not," Parr responded. "The place for edgy entertainment is on the PC – whether it’s distributed online or in stores, there is a place for it. I compare it to movies – you can’t walk into Blockbuster and buy every movie that was ever made. You can only buy what they have and what fits their brand image, and that’s fair. There is room for more controversial content - it just has to be delivered in a different way.”
Worse Than Cinema?
An audience member asked if the panel felt that this was reasonable – that violent challenging video games had to be “ghettoized” when something like the graphic horror film Hostel 2 can be seen in theaters or rented from Blockbuster.
Cord had one simple answer: "It's the world we live in." He later elaborated, "I think you have to be realistic and live within the accepted norms of current society. It’s not that you don’t have the right to create it – you absolutely do. But the console manufacturers all have their own intended audiences and their brand image to worry about. It’s a very pragmatic decision, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s fair. I think it reflects our status as a mainstream industry."
When asked if anything could happen to change this situation, Parr said, “Make a great game that sells a lot of copies – that has real appeal.”
Cord added, “Wal Mart didn’t even stock M-rated games until GTA became a phenomenon and they knew they could make coin,” he said, making a money-rubbing hand symbol.
The Vocal Minority Of M
Tudor Carsten got involved to give his opinion of the Manhunt 2 saga. "By having controversial content, you in effect get a lot of free publicity," he said. "And if you can manage at the end to take back some of the most objectionable content and not get an AO, it’ll have been worth it. How many people have heard of Manhunt 2?”
In response to the question, the entire room raised their hands. Pressed Carsten, "How much of that was from the controversy?" Again, every hand in the room went up.
Interjected Cord, "People are currently talking about the lesbian sex scene in Mass Effect, but no one’s discussing the fact that you’ve been able to have homosexual interaction in The Sims! Will Wright isn’t spinning that to sell it!”
Parr went on to establish, “It’s a massive part of the media coverage of video games, but only roughly 12 percent of games even get an M rating."
She continued, "I see them as the ‘new Elvis.’ The media’s current scare, and yet we know there is no conclusive evidence between simulated behavior and actual behavior. However, as the industry continues to mature I think video games will just become more acceptable.”
"The reason it’s probably becoming a bigger deal is that before, you were never asked to make a moral choice – you couldn’t beat up the princess, you could only press 'A' to rescue her – was that honestly better?”
More Categories For The ESRB?
The discussion moved onto the limitations of the ESRB’s current rating system, with an audience member asking if it wasn’t unfair that a fantasy violence game could now be in the same category as the edited Manhunt 2.
Said Parr, "There may be room for another category, the same way we saw that there was too much of a gap between the Everyone rating and the Teen rating and decided to create the new E 10+ rating. I agree there may be some issues, and this is the kind of thing we continue to look at.”
Parr went on to further discuss, however, why the current ESRB system was successful: “Raters really take into account context. They view the most extreme content of the game, and observe the context. So there are Teen-rated games with nudity in them, but it’s the context. Obviously a game with hardcore sex could never get that rating, however!”
She added, “It is, maybe, one of the things that people have trouble with the ratings system – it’s not clearly black and white.”
Cord went on to discuss his prior work with Sega, working on getting Sonic Adventure 2 certified: “Sonic is obviously an E-rated game. You’re running around as a hedgehog, it’s for kids! But when we got the game back from the raters, the descriptors included violence! I called them up and they said ‘No, you’ve got enemies shooting missiles, and they’re flying at people, blowing them up...’ and I realized, ‘Oh my God, it is a violent game!’”
He did state, however, “The ratings system is a conversation between the raters and the developers. It’s not easy, but if we can further establish context on a descriptor or rating we’re not happy with, things can be worked out.”
Cord began to describe some recent work that’s been happening at Pseudo Interactive. “We’re making a remake of an older franchise, that I can’t reveal, one that is incredibly violent," he said. "With current technology, the title would be absolutely Adults Only if we just re-made it. And that was a real concern between us and the publisher.”
He continued, “As we started work on this game and we did a prototype, we wanted to see how far we could push it. There was a real divide within the studio with some dudes like, 'Yeah! Loads of blood and gore and gibs!' And others were vocalizing that they would refuse to even work on the title, based on some of the concept art we’d produced. People were even vandalizing some of the most gory art! So we thought about just using zombies or robots or aliens, but we knew we wanted to keep human on human violence. To do that, we knew we had to learn a way through humor and character pathos to give a context to the violence.”
Ratings Up North
The discussion moved on to how the ratings system is used in Canada, where games are not protected by anything like the First Amendment rights they have in the USA.
Said Parr: “I have to give credit to Canadian legislatures. The rules that provinces have taken are a collaborative approach to working with the industry. We actually do have legislation here that makes it unlawful to sell an M or AO game to a minor here, but our job with the government is not to act as censors. It is to act as educators.”
The audience began a heated discussion among themselves if such legislation could work in the US if it was not deemed unconstitutional – with some noting that they felt it would make little difference if the governmental body rating games was as educated as the ESRB.
Danielle said, “Although I can’t speak for my American colleagues, as a Canadian I’ve found legislation works effectively. However, we would prefer to work as a self-regulating industry.”
Tudor also felt that he had no problem with legislation per se, but also noted “having said that, I have no problem with the current American system either." The rest of the panel also agreed that self-regulation did seem to work perfectly well.
“I’ve been carded [more times] trying to buy M-rated games in the US than I have buying alcohol,” said one audience member, and another (bearded) attendee added, “heck, I just got carded picking up Assassin’s Creed!”
Danielle stated, “Really, I feel the number one thing we have to do in the industry is to continue to educate consumers.”
Tudor agreed. “I think the market will eventually fix itself, as the consumers become more educated.”