GDC Europe: Quantic Dream's de Fondaumiere's Call To Arms On Ratings
In a speech entitled Game Content Ratings Must Change!, the co-founder of the Heavy Rain developer raised the cry for pushing against what he calls unfair ratings systems which restrict creativity.
He opened by saying that the topic of game ratings comes up far too infrequently -- typically only "when a game is about to be banned, or when there's a shooting," he said.
"Not one year passes by without big discussions in the media and most of the time video games are portrayed as being one of the reasons why people do shoot other people."
He noted that, across the globe, "More than 50 games have been banned since the year 2000." That's not all: "I counted at least 40 that barely escaped it, and many more changed content to be able to release in certain countries," he said.
Censorship has existed "since the very beginning," he said, with books and films and music all going through it, inspired by attempts at "political, religious, and ideological control of populations."
"However, countries with democratic constitutions promote freedom of speech," he said. That leads to content age ratings -- which are different than but related to censorship.
In the 1930s, the U.S. film industry adopted the Hays Code, which was not legislation -- it was an attempt to avoid it. Much the same was repeated in the 1990s with the ESRB when senators caught wind of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat.
In 1966, the film Blowup was released in the U.S., flouting the Hays Code, and leading to its reversal.
"Most importantly, directors started to say, 'I want to create a movie that doesn't follow the Hays Code.' I want to be free to show any type of content and talk about those subjects that make humanity what it is."
Unfortunately, he said, the current global ratings situation for console games is "a mess and it's difficult," particularly at the far end, towards what would be considered an M by the ESRB.
"Each of these countries have a different meaning of what 17+ means... What it means to have an M rating in the U.S., what you can show, what you can't show," he said, is very different than in other regions.
Worse, he said, "most ratings are given by a factual questionnaire... it doesn't take context into account," he said. Publishers submit videos, not games. "The boards that are watching this content are only watching the most excessive footage that is in the game... You're stripping out content; you're not looking at the context of the scene."
"You can always appeal -- most of the time -- and then long discussions take place until it is finally decided," he said. It's a hassle.
In his view, Europe's PEGI is stricter than North America's ESRB, Australia's ACB, the UK's BBFC, and Germany's USK. "It appears that a PEGI 18 isn't necessarily an AO in the U.S.; a 16 is not necessarily an M," he said.
With some games, a BBFC 15 = USK 16 = ESRB M = PEGI 18.
"There is almost no developer involvement in these ratings systems, the big exception being USK," de Fondaumiere said. "No developers are involved even in the discussions." This is a big problem in his view.
And while "most online and mobile games today are not rated," he said, "for those of you who develop these games, be sure that one day there will be a rating system." There is a movement underway in Germany to begin rating online games, for example, with stricter standards than USK.
De Fondaumiere studied 100 games and 100 movies released in the last two to three years. "My general feeling is that game ratings are far stronger than TV and movie ratings... And in my mind, this shouldn't be."
He contrasted God of War III against the film 300 -- the latter having very low ratings in Europe in particular, but the former having high ratings in that territory.
He also pointed out that the standard rating for war movies versus war games is an M or 18 rating versus an R or 16, 15, or even 12 in France.
"I don't think our industry invented anything when it comes to violence," he said, showing scenes from Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line, and Full Metal Jacket. "Were these films video games they would be rated AO, or not even released."
"These are great movies, Academy Award movies featuring the most acclaimed actors of this generation," he said. "It shows again how differently film and games are rated."
Sex is a big issue -- but he said it was "embarrassing" to compare the game industry's portrayal to film. Still, The Wrestler and Black Swan have fairly explicit sex scenes and low ratings.
"Why are games treated differently?" he asked.
"Links to addiction and aggression" are often brought up. However, he said, "Scientific studies show that video games that do not contribute to these problems, at best they are a consequence.. There is no study to back up these claims." He's reviewed 50 to 60 studies himself.
"We are not sufficiently voicing up, and saying this is not true, and not sufficiently showing evidence that this is not the case."
Games are simply an "easy target," de Fondaumiere said.
"The most important problem to me is the marginalization of video games as a subversive medium. This constant marginalization of video games through ratings is a real problem," de Fondaumiere said.
"I want to see equal treatment for movies and games, and I don't see any difference between these two."
Many say that "this is the consequence of a certain generation gap" between politicians and gamers. "Wait a minute," they say, "in 10 years time, 20 years time, society evolves and this will come."
"The problem is, I'm producing games today," said de Fondaumiere. "The other problem is that consumers are playing games today. Neither I nor consumers should wait 20 years."
Publishers have "tried to save video games from being banned, but publishers are following their own agenda and we -- the development community of games -- must be involved. Whenever a video game is attacked, we as an industry must come forward and talk and act and show things that say we don't agree. We must also be present in ratings systems boards and make ourselves heard. And we must work together with publishers to actively promote changes to these ratings," he said.