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Analysis: Why Do Video Games Face Such Resistance?
Analysis: Why Do Video Games Face Such Resistance?
June 28, 2011 | By Chris Morris

June 28, 2011 | By Chris Morris
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    13 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



[Despite Monday's Supreme Court victory, we still have a long way to go until the general public understands our ratings system and acknowledges their children are safe. Gamasutra editor at large Chris Morris discusses why our jobs now are to help them understand.]

For the past year, I've pretty much lived and breathed Brown v. EMA.

I kept a close eye on the case as the Court considered whether to address it. I was in the room in November when oral arguments were presented. And I've stayed in touch with attorneys about ramifications in the long wait for a ruling.

With the decision now in, I found myself doing a series of round-robin interviews today on morning radio shows on news/talk stations around the country.

And as I fielded the questions from the hosts (most of whom were genuinely curious about the case and didn't feel the need to demonize games), I realized something: there are a ton of misconceptions among the general public about this industry, and that's a big part of the reason video game makers so regularly find themselves on the defensive.

The hosts, who were located in a dozen cities ranging from Charleston, SC to San Francisco, were almost exclusively casual-, lapsed- or non-gamers.

That might make their misconceptions easy to dismiss, but after spending nine years of my career in radio, I can tell you one thing authoritatively: people listen to news/talk stations they can identify with, meaning the audiences of these shows likely had many of the same mistaken beliefs.

Most surprising was the repeated confusion surrounding the games ratings process. With very few exceptions, the hosts believed that retailers were unable to enforce ratings and young kids were free to buy whatever game they wanted, regardless of rating.

If you're familiar with the industry, of course, you know that's not the case. Sure, it happens, just like a minor can sneak into an R-rated movie, but most retailers are pretty good about enforcing ratings. We know that, but it would appear that a large part of the outside world does not.

The ESA and ESRB are rightfully still running their victory lap, but when the hangovers clear up after the celebration, priority one for both organizations should be to ensure that it's clear to people that the "M" on a box isn't something retailers ignore.

Fortunately, they've got the spotlight shining on them right now, a perfect opportunity to say "while we disagreed vehemently with California's law, we understand the concerns behind it and here's what we're doing to ensure kids don't have access to these games without parental consent."

While they're at it, it might be time to do another educational campaign about what the ratings mean. "E," "T" and "M" baffled folks until I compared them to movie ratings. (In fairness, the ESRB has been banging this drum for a long time and the MPAA has a big head start in people's minds.)

A few hosts, especially those that were parents, wanted to talk about the escalation of violence in games over the last few years. This, as you might guess, ties directly to mass media attention of certain elements of select games (i.e. Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level or Six Days in Fallujah) along with a lingering memory of the heyday of the Grand Theft Auto brouhaha.

That's normal. People remember and gravitate towards controversy. But as I thought about it more, I realized when most people see ads for games on TV, it's usually a shooter that's on display.

From a business standpoint, it makes sense to heavily market those games, since that's where a big chunk of the money is. But from a public perception perspective, it just reinforces the impression that today's games are nothing but over-the-top orgies of violence.

This won't change, of course. Activision shareholders would draw and quarter management if they didn't actively promote each successive Call of Duty title, just as there would be a public stoning of John Riccitiello if EA didn't spend heavily on Battlefield 3 marketing this fall.

But as gamers, we know that the industry is capable of so much more, from gut-busting humor (like in Portal 2) to heart-wrenching sorrow (see Shadow of the Colossus). They're games that rarely justify a major marketing spend, but that only reinforces the perceptions.

It's wishful thinking, I realize, but if the industry wants to show the general public that it actually has matured and is capable of nuance and subtlety and any number of mannerisms beyond balls-to-the-wall blood and guts, it needs to take a close look at how it presents itself to the outside world.

Because it's not just opponents watching. If this morning's talks were any indication, there are a lot of fence sitters who fully support the industry getting First Amendment protections (and were happy the matter was clarified), but still feel like it too often abuses them.


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Comments


Steven Ulakovich
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Every medium goes through this, it is just gaming's turn. The previous generation does not know what to make of it, and is afraid of the newness of it.



The music industry had to deal with the hip gyrating of Elvis, and the rise of gangsta rap in the 90's. The industry had to stand in front of Congress to defend itself, just like the gaming industry did when Mortal Kombat was a hot button issue.



Television had to cope with Archie Bunker and the "wardrobe malfunction," the latter of which the effects can still be felt as the FCC threatens fines all the time.



Movies were wrought with censorship's in their early days, especially in the 40's and 50's. Howard Hughes fought against the censorship of his movie The Outlaw, distributing it on his own dime.



The numbers do not lie, the ESRB is pretty much the entertainment standard, as it is used by more parents then the MPAA ratings, and the music industry's "Parental Content" warning labels. Self regulation works, it is up to the parents to be parents.

Todd Boyd
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"Self regulation works, it is up to the parents to be parents." THIS. Additionally, I find it baffling that parents actually WANT the state to take away their civil rights. If my mother wanted me to watch a movie about the Khmer Rouge, in spite of its potential for violence, she should be well within her rights to make a scenario-based judgment that may very well go against the ESRB's recommendations. If you enforce this sort of thing by law, then that all flies out the window.

Scott Southurst
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"I find it baffling that parents actually WANT the state to take away their civil rights"



See this is the problem with the whole argument. You and your "Civil Rights". If parents are able to keep an eye on everything their child does (they are not) and they can be sure that their child will never go into a shop and buy something that is not suitable (they cannot) then why would they be worried about whether or not a shop was legally allowed to sell their child something that they wouldn't let their child purchase.



Is it legal in the US to sell pornography to a minor? Is it legal to sell Alcohol? Hand guns?



If the answer is yes to any of the above then the US is more screwed than Louis Theroux has us believe. If it's no to any of the above then do you feel oppressed? Do you plan to move to say, Afghanistan, where your child can own a hand gun? No doubt you've started to type your response, stating that those three items can't be compared to games - games are harmless. Despite the fact that the games they would be restricted from buying would contain pornographic and/or violent images. Children are impressionable - they learn from what they see and hear.



This is not about parents "wanting their civil rights taken away from them". It's about stopping F#@%ed up individuals providing unsuitable material to children in the times where the parent is not supervising them. Parents understand that this happens. It seems to me that the "anti-legislation" movement does not.

Tyler Martin
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"It's about stopping F#@%ed up individuals providing unsuitable material to children in the times where the parent is not supervising them."



I'm sorry, but the industry is already doing a good job with this. Probably every bit as good as any government regulation would, or maybe even better. This type of security you're talking about where a child would never get their hands on or play a violent game without their parents permission doesn't exist, and forcing games to submit to government regulation and rating will not create it.



The most it would do is open up the industry to the possibility of retailers no longer carrying M rated titles for fear of being fined should they make a mistake, or worse, leave the industry open to the sort of censorship which already exists in other countries such as Australia. All it would take is the wrong type of person heading a government ratings board and deciding that they won't give out M ratings to any games anymore, only Teen ratings or lower.



As for the children are impressionable argument, I've yet to see a credible study which found a causal link between playing violent games and an increase in violent behaviour. If you happen to know of one I'd be happy to read it, but without such a study, comparing any potential danger violent games may present to the very real dangers posed by alcohol use by children on their development, and the dangers of mishandling guns which were designed specifically with the intention of being used to kill something is a silly comparison. They really aren't comparable at all without video games being proven to be a lot more dangerous than they have been thus far.



So, if the industry is doing a fine job of self regulating, the government wouldn't be able to do any better, and the actual dangers of playing violent games are still in question, why should anyone give in to restrictions on free speech with regards to games? Keep in mind that this isn't just other people talking about protecting a perceived slight against their rights, if you are a game developer (and even if you're not) this sort of legislation poses a very direct and real threat to your right to free speech. I am extremely wary of ever giving the government the power to decide what is and is not acceptable content in any form of speech. Unless the exercise of that right to free speech poses a direct and imminent threat to the safety of others, I can't think of any reason to censor anyone.

Aaron Truehitt
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Are you kidding me Scott...What stops a child from typing in "porn" on the internet late at night and finding all the free porn sites out there? What stops the children from grabbing there parents rifle they use to hunt with when they don't secure it? If they want it, they will get it. It's up to parents to do their job and inform there kids about these things and the consequences of doing them.



And like Tyler said, there is no major link to violent games having a serious effect on children like the affects of alcohol, handling a gun, or drugs. If there was a serious issue like that, I would be more than happy to go along with that. But the fact is, it doesn't exist. You can't shield children from every insensible thing in the world as much as you might like. It's part of growing up.



Yes, there are sick people out there. But those same sick people would go buy the stuff for them anyway and let them play them. So I see no way how preventing them being sold would help that subject in anyway.



Sheesh..I can see a sign next to the electronics at Wal-Mart now. "ANY MINOR WITH THE INTENT OF PURCHASING AN M RATED GAME WILL BE PROSECTUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT ALLOWED BY LAW."



Seriously? This is not something that should be punishable by law. It's a private matter plain and simple.



In my opinion...I just think a child must be accompanied by an adult when purchasing a game like that.

Chris Crawford
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Games continue to fail to address the central problem that prevents their acceptance as a medium of artistic expression: the lack of interpersonal interaction. There's plenty of spatial reasoning stuff, interpersonal violence, puzzling solving, resource management, and so forth, but there's absolutely nothing in the way of interpersonal emotional or dramatic interaction. This cannot be blamed on any egregious failure on the part of the industry, because the problem is immensely difficult. I've been working on those problems for thirty years and have still not properly solved them. But the games industry would do better to acknowledge the problem and start working towards its solution rather than trying to convince people than games without a soul are worthy of artistic respect. You can't fix a problem you refuse to recognize.

Jakub Majewski
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Mr. Crawford, while your efforts to create more meaningful interpersonal interaction are laudable, it seems your point of view is heavily skewed by the very fact that you've been at it for thirty years.



Claiming that the lack of such interaction in games prevents their acceptance as a medium of artistic expression is nonsensical. By extension, every other medium also only constitutes artistic expression while being produced - a painting is only artistic expression as long as you're posing and interacting with the artist, but once done, there's no longer any interpersonal interaction. Same with music, books, films, everything. There is no interpersonal interaction in any of them - only pre-recorded (or pre-painted, pre-written) recreations of interpersonal interactions that have already taken place.



You may argue that games, by virtue of their interactive nature, have a special duty to emphasize interpersonal interaction - but that's not true at all. Take your own game, Balance of Power, for example. A great game, and wildly successful in the sense that you could easily remake it (heck, I wish you would) with today's graphics and the experience of playing it hasn't aged at all. As far as artistic expression goes, it was extraordinary - it hammered across the concepts of balance of power politics in a way that a thousand pages from Kissinger never could, simply by getting you directly involved in the system rather than merely describing it. Was this game hampered at all by the fact that all the people in it (the advisors) merely said the same things every single time, had no personality, and there was no room for any real interaction with them? Not in the least. Having more personal interaction would of course have allowed you to explore another subtopic - but it actually would have gotten in the way of the game's primary subject.

Eric Kwan
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It's too late to change it now, but I've always felt the ESRB ratings would have been more easily accepted if they simply copied the MPAA's movie ratings. G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 map almost 1:1 to E, E10+, T, M, and AO. There was never any need to reinvent the wheel and add extra confusion to an audience who doesn't like to learn and memorize new things.

Paul Fish
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I could be wrong about this but if i remember correctly they tried to do that and the MPAA refused to allow them to use the same ratings system.

Eric Kwan
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Then that explains everything. Thanks. =)

Paul Fish
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Hm, I did a little googling and it appears that neither party is interested in a crossover, the MPAA being unwilling to license their ratings system to anyone else and the ESRB believing that it isn't necessary.



I agree with you though, had they been able to do it, it probably would have been the smart thing to do.

Steven Ulakovich
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When the idea of a rating system was being tossed around during the Senate hearings a way back, Sega offered to let the industry to use their self imposed rating system.



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videogame_Rating_Council



Nintendo would not have it, so the ESRB came up with the current ratings, with some tweaks here and there in the last decade and some change.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"unwilling to license"



Oh good god, the MPAA "owns" the letters used to rate movies? The ESRB would have to pay them money just to be able to maintain a standard system of symbols that would help ease everyone into the transition, and even worse the MPAA can decide it's not for sale? Please tell me I'm misunderstanding. The IP laws in this country are abhorrent!



edit: (sigh) this was supposed to be a reply to Paul, not a new branch, oops


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