January 30, 2013

Rated "E" For Everyone

So, first of all, an apology to those of you who were expecting my essay on GMOs for this installment. I had spoken to some of you about it, and I had even managed to outline it, but as I've said a lot lately, reality beckons. A bit of current events drama has unfolded that I feel is a more fitting topic (don't worry, it's not nearly as tragic) and I don't want to miss my window of opportunity to weigh in on the matter. Leave a note in the comments section if you still want me to address GMOs in a future post and I'll do my best to make it happen.

So what is this event you ask? Well, good ol' Ralph Nader is back in the news and lending his voice to the everlasting debate about violence in the general media and video games in particular. More specifically, and more outrageously, he referred to the game makers themselves as "Electronic Child Molesters". No you didn't just misread that, and no, I'm not going to use this post to rehash my argument (made in my previous post History of Violence, if you need a refresher) about why blaming any kind of mass-media for violence doesn't really deserve much credibility. Instead, I'd like to use this as an opportunity to look at some of the ways we ended up here in the first place. No matter what your opinion on video games may be, haven't you asked yourself "Why do we make such a big deal out of violence in video games?" at some point? Well, I have, and I'd like to share that perspective with you. So, without further ado, let's dig into this.

For Love of the Game

From what I can gather, much of the outcry related to video game violence centers around a handful of misconceptions and misunderstandings related to the nature of video games themselves. Video games, after all, are a relatively young medium of entertainment compared to some of the more "practiced" kinds that virtually everyone alive today remembers growing up with. As such, it's understandable and even natural that some people might find them unusual enough to be "frightened" by them. No, I don't mean waking-in-the-middle-of-the-night frightened, just the kind of fright that comes from not really having a solid understanding on which to base your experience. Under such circumstances, it's not surprising then that a certain number of people for whom this is true would try to "vilify" or "demonize" games as a response to that fear and lack of understanding. It's gotten the game-community no shortage of enemies; Jack Thompson, Leland Yee, and Joseph Lieberman to name a few of the famous ones. Even President Obama called gamers "under-achievers" back in his early days in the White House, and has even more recently called for more research into the effect video games have on violent behavior. From where I stand, there's at least one common thread amongst all of these people and that would be that each of them has been concerned predominantly with the effect of video games on children. I'd like us to look at this particular belief, understanding, what-have-you a little closer because, on further inspection, the concern doesn't hold much water.

First some "gamer credentials" for you in the interest of full disclosure: I'm a big fan of video games (and games in general; more on that in a moment) and have been playing since I was about 5 years old. I owned on original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that my parents purchased for me at a very young age, and have had at least one (if not more) console for every generation of consoles since. I played games throughout my formative years and on through college and my first job. Now, in my current phase of adult life, I regularly play games (on each of the current generation of consoles, AND on PC) whenever I have the time, which is, sadly, not as often as I would like. I am one of many who consider video games to be a form of art and that they deserve all the protections and provisions that word implies. I am not a proponent of the insularity often preached by the so-called "Hardcore Gamer" demographic, and I am of the opinion that one day everyone will involve video games in their life to the point where "gamer", as a term, will fade into obscurity. I believe that there are games for everyone and that everyone should experiment with games to find ones they enjoy. In short: I love video games and hate to see them misused, misunderstood, and maligned in terms like those used by Ralph Nader and would, in fact, love to see them grow and expand to reach people of all stripes.

With that out of the way, let's get back to Mr. Nader's assertion. Let's ignore the rather firebrand-ish choice of language for a moment and get at the meat of what he’s talking about. His statement, to my understanding, is that video game makers are in the business of exploiting a capitalist environment to do harm to our children psychologically. The likening of game-makers to child-molesters is intended to invoke images of the kind of sexual taboos we often fear that our children may be victims of when left alone with “unsavory” people. Obviously, this is hyperbole on his part, but underneath that, we begin to see the source of his (and many other peoples’) misunderstanding of the nature of video games: the belief they are meant for children.

Hold on there; I am well-aware that children play video games. I just finished explaining to you all that I played them as a child, myself, and it’s well known that many are targeted towards and played by younger children. The trouble is, while it’s certainly true that many video games are meant to be played by children, it’s foolish and short-sighted to think that they were all meant for children. The title of my post may be familiar to some of you as the tag-line of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) category used to describe games with content suitable for all audiences. The ESRB functions for games in a similar manner to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is responsible for evaluating and rating films (i.e. G, PG13, R, NC17, etc.) and offers this kind of evaluation (on a voluntary basis) to games in order to guide purchasing decisions that might be sensitive to content. Given this, it should now be at least somewhat obvious that the general public, and especially the game designers themselves, would know that not all content in all games is suitable for children. If we can make R-rated movies that only adults are permitted to see, it stands to reason that it should be acceptable to make M-rated (the ESRB equivalent of “R” is M for Mature) games that only adults were intended to play. In today’s world, more and more games are being made to suit this demographic of “mature” gamers (trust me, I use that word hesitantly at times) that want more violent, “adult” content as part of the experience. In a perfect world, that would be the only argument needed to end this discussion, but alas, I still can’t fly and my iguana hasn't evolved into a dragon yet, so this is not a perfect world.

So given the more-or-less parallel existence films and games have, why are games still singled out as being “for children”? Well, I suspect it’s due to a combination of historical revisionism and a kind of lingual bias present in the culture that seeps into the discussion. Let’s start with the history. There is a prevailing belief that games were always designed for children in American culture. While I can’t say for sure how this idea took hold, I will say that it certainly doesn’t hold up on closer examination. The oldest game that I’ve ever encountered is an ancient Egyptian game called Senet. It’s a board-game about passage into the afterlife that has been found entombed with royalty dating to between 3500 and 3100 BC. Not too much is known about the gaming habits of ancient Egyptians, but from what I’ve read, the game was played by both children and adults, and it’s set-up and goal held religious significance to those who would have originally played it. So much so, in fact, that even Gods were portrayed as playing this game on wall paintings found in Egyptian palaces.

So obviously there is an ancient-historical precedent for games being more than just children’s things, but what about a more modern era? Well, did you know that Atari was making “porn” games as recently as the 70’s and 80’s? Yes, one of the most hallowed names in gaming history was making 8-bit distractions for both children and adults in their heyday. Why haven’t you heard of them before? Well, in all likelihood it was a combination of things. For starters, getting a console at the time Atari was reigning champion was not something easily done since the console craze didn’t really hit American audiences until after Nintendo created the NES in 1983 after the game-market had already collapsed. Compounding that was the fact that these “porn” games were very hard to buy since, in a demonstration of the very thing I’m trying to refute, most businesses didn’t want porn games sold along-side what they considered to be “children’s” toys. Unfortunately, that very phenomenon blossomed into the full-blown issue it seems to be today.

With “adults only” games being more and more marginalized due to a misinterpretation of the scope of the gaming industry, it was almost inevitable that by the time M-rated (or even Teen-rated) games became more and more common they would also be seen as more out of place or inappropriate. Today’s gaming market is actually dominated by men in their mid-to-late 30s, and not children, but the business of selling games is still thought of as “toy-making” by the people who publish them, and so we end up in this rather precarious situation where games clearly intended for an adult audience end up being marketed towards children in a misguided attempt to simply promote the game. I’m cynical enough to know that the publishers also believe that children will likely attempt to buy the game either without parental consent or in spite of it, but that’s only partly on the publisher’s shoulders. Stores need to ID people and parents need to educate their children and themselves about the content that’s out there. We don’t seem to get as outraged over children getting into see R-rated films, so I don’t see why the same logic shouldn’t apply here. No special legislation is needed to “keep R-rated movies away from kids”, we just need to adjust to the idea that some things just aren’t for children and make decisions accordingly.

Which brings me, at last, to the “linguistic” problem I hinted at earlier. I’m not talking about the use of so-called “bad language” (which is a whole other topic and another post) in games, but rather the language we use on a daily basis that makes it difficult for games to receive the “for everyone” treatment that movies or books do. Let me throw out a few expressions (or variations thereof) for you that I’m sure you’ve heard or even used: “That’s child’s play”; “Quit playing around”; “They’re just toying with you”; “This isn’t a game, you know”. Notice a pattern? Each of the phrases I just used carries the implicit understanding that games, toys, and play are all things not to be taken seriously, and by extension, not something that “mature adults” are to be involved with. Most of the lingual references to games or game terminology in American English (I’m afraid I can’t speak for those of you living outside the US) are used with the intent of belittling the idea of “play” so as to make the activities of an adult “superior” to that of a child.

Now, even if you choose to stand with those that declare “play” to be an activity that makes one child-like, I have to ask: Why? What’s wrong with “playing”? Why do we think so little of “games” and “toys” that we won’t acknowledge the possibility that adults might derive some benefit from them? Is it really that unthinkable that adults can derive something meaningful from an activity akin to “child’s play”? Is it somehow unseemly to learn from a game? While research has yet to demonstrate any kind of causal link between game-violence and real-violence, it has demonstrated that games are a great way to learn. People learn more when taught through some sort of game than from just reading about it or listening to a lecture. I believe children are often inclined towards games and play for exactly this reason. They are using the, for lack of a better word, mechanics of play to educate themselves about the world around them and its possibilities and limits. Ever play tag? Didn’t you learn pretty quickly if you were “fast” or “slow” compared to your friends? That’s learning through play at its best. It’s some of the most important work we can do in our brief lives on this planet.

So what happens when we become adults? Do we forget that our childhood play-time was valuable to us? Do we simply deny those lessons and pretend to ourselves that we learned everything from rigorous study? Is it somehow beneath us to learn about ourselves and our world from a game because we crossed some arbitrary line of years-spent-alive? While I accept fully that some things deserve a more “deferential” treatment than the average game (i.e. I prefer that my leaders don’t get Foreign Policy advice from, say, Call of Duty...ahem), I don’t accept that the kinds of things we learned from playing games don’t apply to most of our situations. I don’t mean things like “lasers are awesome!” or “slashing and hacking with swords is cool!”, but rather things like “making decisions on-the-fly” or “living with the choices we’ve made”. Yes, you can learn all of those things from video games. And thanks to the hard-working people in the industry, it’s never been more engaging or more exhilarating.

Part of the beauty I see in video games as an art is their capacity to teach us about ourselves in ways even more profound than a movie or a book. Unlike those non-interactive forms of entertainment, video games make you live out the consequences of your choices. Books, movies, and TV are all wonderful media, but in the end they are all limited as teaching tools in that even the best lessons are only ever observed; they are never practiced. We don’t have to live with the repercussions of even the most sympathetic protagonist of a book or movie, but we do when we play that character. Perhaps this is just the perspective of a “Generation NES Gamer”, but I’d like to think that this characteristic of “play” is something we all experience, even if we can’t identify it as such.

So are game-makers “child-molesters”? Definitely not. I’m pretty sure that even some of the most vehemently anti-game people would see that as exaggeration. Do they have the capacity to “damage children psychologically”? Sure. I remember being thrown off a swing when I was very little and it made me hesitant about going back on, so I’d say it’s possible. Are they a new kind of problem to be dealt with in such extreme and absolutist ways as censorship or banning? Not even close. This is just “their turn” in the spotlight. Everything from R-rated movies, to comic books, to plain-old-books, to Elvis’ hips has had a moment in history where people who didn’t really understand them tried to claim they were dangerous. Heck, people once claimed that women would all faint from amazement at the sight of the first functional trains! It’s a phase and it will pass. But it will pass even quicker if everyone just tries to remember how wonderful it was to experience play as something valuable to them. I know I treasure my time spent “playing” with friends and family as some of my most wonderful memories. So where do we go from here? Obviously there’s a lot to think about, so I’ll leave that to you, my readers.

Tag! You’re it!

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.