Last week Manhunt 2, a game heavily promoted here on CHUD, was banned in the UK. In the US the game got an ‘Adults Only’ rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, meaning that Nintendo and PlayStation wouldn’t license the game for their respective consoles, essentially killing it dead. The game’s developers, Take Two Interactive, will have to edit out some of the gore and violence that earned the game the restrictive rating. It could be argued that Take Two courted the ‘Adults Only’ on purpose, knowing that controversy sells a game like this, especially after the original was poorly received. Since the ESRB is the game world’s version of the MPAA and there are film studios that definitely using rating battles as promotional tools, I wouldn’t be surprised.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is the fact that this game is what passes for mature content in the video game industry. Recently on our message board I engaged in a long back and forth with video game fans over whether or not games are, or could ever be, ‘art.’ What’s becoming more and more obvious is that they’ll never be for grown ups.
And I’m not talking about Nintendo and PlayStation balking at ‘Adults Only’ games. I’m talking about Strauss Zelnick, chairman of Take Two, telling the New York Times this morning that the average age of the gamer who plays Take Two product is 33.
“This is still animation,” Zelnick told the Times. “It’s not photo-realistic. It’s not live action. And compared to an R-rated movie, which is intended for 17 and above, like ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel,’ it’s actually pretty tame. But you make your own conclusions when you play the game.”
The Times reporter did just that, first playing Manhunt 2 and then renting Saw II (an R-rated cut) and comparing the levels of violence. Not surprisingly, he found Saw II more violent, but is that really the example the video game industry wants to make when arguing that they’re creating product for adults? As much as I love violent horror films (and despise the Saw films), let’s be honest – who is the base market for these films? Teenagers. Adults of age 33 – like me – may very well enjoy those films, but the real money comes from the dating teens. Further, any adult whose entire R-rated movie viewing schedule consisted of only extremely violent movies would, in my opinion, not be much of an adult at all.
But in the video game world a bunch of gore and violence is ‘mature.’ It reminds me of the comic book industry, where sex and violence also makes something mature. Both of these industries are approaching maturity from the same angle – what their emotionally arrested fanbase sees as ‘grown up’.
Comics and video games have something else in common: an adult fanbase desperate to have their hobby legitimized. Talk to a comic fan who mostly reads garbage superhero titles about his hobby and he’ll espouse the virtues of Watchmen endlessly. A video game fan will pick out whatever game is most ‘adult’ (on our boards the fans chose Shadow of the Colossus, some even going so frighteningly far as to describe how the game made them cry). They’re coming at it from different places, sort of – comics are a diminishing industry whose credibility has been shat upon by companies aiming only at the same group of compulsive collectors for the last twenty years, while video games are an ever burgeoning entertainment format that is muscling its way into the mainstream consciousness through sheer force of sales – but they both want their hobbies to be taken seriously.
Movie fans at the birth of the medium would have sympathized. Movies were seen as juvenile, possibly corrupting influences, and mostly as completely disposable. It took some very smart and very dedicated people (many of them from France) to change America’s mind about the movies and to turn them into a legitimate and respected art. I’d argue that neither comics or video games have those proper proponents yet, but in the case of video games, they’re missing something movies and, to an extent, comics* have had – creators looking to make something that speaks to real adults. That was done partially by pushing the envelope when it came to sex, violence and language, but it was really done by approaching a movie as an adult, not as a kid who wants to be excited and have time wasted for two hours. The movies became art because, at some point, they realized that being thrilling wasn’t enough and that there were other ways to be entertaining. If you charted it out, I’m sure John Cassavetes’ Faces is technically less entertaining on paper than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. There’s no question which would be a better way to spend a couple of hours, though, in terms not only of intellectual and emotional engagement but also entertainment. How do you make a video game that’s the console equivalent of Faces, a truly adult film in terms of its themes and concepts? Beats me, but then I’m not the guy sitting around designing games all day. I’ll tell you that the person who figures this out is going to be the Eisenstein meets Will Eisner of the video game industry.
But as long as the video game industry reaches out to 33 year olds through lowest common denominator violence only, they’re never going to make anything but disposable junk. Video games whose premises are eerily similar to angry, violent doodles I did while bored in Algebra are not a sign of maturity. They’re a sign that the target market isn’t acting its age.
* Your local comic shop’s indie section is filled with legitimately mature and smart comic writing. Stuff like Blankets, Palestine, Box Office Poison and Persepolis are actual literature. Don’t tell this to the guy who is sure that the latest Batman story is high art, though.