Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.

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8 comments on “Rated M, for Different Reasons

  1. You know, as I was reading that very same set of posts on that forum, I was thinking much the same thing about the deeper levels that one has to be a (mental) adult to get. That age may come at 16 (or younger) for some, or maybe never for others.

    One of the big things from Origins, I think, is to see why Loghain did what he did. Now, I don’t agree with what he did, but I see why he did it. I also see why he made a lot of the decisions he made, and I can see my way clear to sparing him after the Landsmeet.

    Alistair…can’t. And that is because he’s 1) too close to the issue, but 2) he’s not yet mature enough to see the bigger picture there. That is in no way a rip on Alistair. He’s young, he’s led a sheltered upbringing. In some ways he’s very, very mature, but in others, not so much. Now, he may not have been able to accept it regardless, but his youth and naivete don’t help.

    I completely agree that it isn’t all about blood, gore, and sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with those. *ahem* Anyway, very thoughtful piece, as usual.

    • Very true. It’s really about the bigger picture in some of these games. Even in Gears of War, which is incredibly gory and all about shooting and carving up as many locusts as you can, there’s a bigger picture. Why are they fighting for a doomed planet? How can they even begin to THINK about rebuilding after all that’s happened, and moreover, how do they go on after what they’ve seen and experienced?

      There’s so much below the surface of some of these games (some, not all) that the M-rating seems to cover theme more than the actual reality of the game. And what happened in the forum just solidified that idea for me. Of course, had we been a different crew–dare I say less mature?–it could have turned into a major flame war. But the bulk of us are mature enough to respect one another and just walk away from a pointless argument.

  2. This topic is a huge one. Kids get their hands on games that are under their maturity level all the time, and sometimes it gets annoying. I was having a converstation with one of my friend’s younger brothers about Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Origins and he said his favorite parts were killing darkspwan. Of course thats a very big aspect of the game, but I started asking him about different characters and their choices and he looked like a deer in headlights.

    I think of M-rated video game themes as that movie you used to watch as a kid all the time, and when you watch it as an adult you finally get all the innuendos and adult jokes hidden under the surface.

    Video games have taken the next step and now offer depth within the characters and story line. Great post as always! They always get my mind stirring with new ideas and questions 😀

    • Thanks! Considering these sorts of things is always interesting, because it shows that games provide a different type of storytelling. Movies are rated R because the story they tell and the content and manner in which they’re told warrants it; books are challenged because of content, but also because of themes. The more games focus on telling story in addition to gameplay, the more we’ll have to deal with themes as well as content.

  3. To be honest with you Jay, from what I’ve seen, most of the kids out there wouldn’t get it anyway. You’re a teacher and you see more of them than I do and I hope I’m wrong. I am the way I am because I was raised right (in a dysfunctional house no less!) As far as the kid in your forum, there’s hope. We were all young, stubborn and stupid at that age. The fact that he/she is engaging in conversations with adults at all is remarkable these days.

    If the internet is any indicator, I gotta tell you, we’re in f—ing trouble. Have you seen the comments on YouTube? Do these parents out there ever monitor what their kids do? Or are the kids learning this utter disrespect for others from their parents. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

    I mean, how do you teach the brat that writes the following anything; “that guy who posted that super large bull—- post is so badass! YAY! GO WRITE MORE BADASS S–T!!! PLS INCLUDE BLINKING UR EYES AND BREATHING MANUALLY INTO MP SHOOTER!!!” ??? (That’s an actual quote from a BF3 forum, edited for a semblance of re-postng politeness.) I don’t envy your job.

    It’s pearls before swine. Story is wasted on a majority of younger gamers. They just want to blow crap up. Maybe one day they’ll grow up with a little guidance, that’s where you come in Jay, because God knows their parents aren’t doing it.

    I think most story driven games, like the ones you brought up, started off with an R rating and then marketing had the story and development team tone it down to increase “potential” sales. Games with good story aren’t being made for the younger crowd, they just being marketed towards the younger crowd (always remember what Bill Hicks said about marketing people!)

    • I think you’re right; a lot of them wouldn’t get it, and still more probably wouldn’t WANT to get it, which is almost worse. With gaming we’re at a point where we can tell a good story AND give good gameplay; you don’t necessarily need one to have the other (I think of Left 4 Dead), but when both come together it’s a great gaming experience.

      I’m hoping that I can bring some measure of guidance about being well-read, writing well, and speaking well to this generation… and I think you’re right, there is hope for that individual. If my forum was any other group, we’d likely descend into a crazy flame war. But because the bulk of us are mature adults and young adults we can shake our heads and move on when we see that we need to. It just struck me that mature content and mature themes aren’t always equivalent.

  4. I agree (not surprisingly) with everything you said above. I love Dragon Age and Bioshock (still haven’t played Gears for myself, just watched others here and there, but what I’ve seen is great too!), not because they’re rated M for violence and sex, but because they’re rated M for “you must be mature to get it”

    Dragon Age especially (and DA2 especially especially!) I think takes a certain kind of person (intellectual to the point of insanity, probably!) to unpack. Because I’ll tell you what – the crazy thing is, I didn’t start off loving Anders. In fact I had the same exact reaction that every other person had: “Dude, what the hell was that?!!” The maturity part comes in where instead of just stopping there, I actually felt this driving need to answer the question, to the detriment of my actual real life for a while there. But I’m so glad I did it, I’m so glad DA2 gave me a flawed game with a damned good hook.

    And maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, but I’m not even bothered by the immature kids I see on the forums, because I used to be 13 too, we’ve all been there. Not TOO long ago I would have gotten irritated, but now… now I try to lead by example, to guide and scaffold and just make people think. To plant something. Because it took me a WHILE to really get DA2, and not everybody’s at that level, nor should they be expected to be. It takes a special type of crazy to care enough to try, I think (my brother, for example, a perfectly intelligent and mature young man, played the game, had some fun with it, and then moved right on ahead with his life).

    The kids will get there, especially if you can aim something hard-hitting at their level. What gives me hope is what I see going on in the middle school – The Hunger Games is a really good example of what can be done with scaffolded guidance – there’s all kinds of “mature” in that series, and teachers are showing kids the way to really understand it and respond, and it’s AMAZING the depths of responses that you get. (And to prove that I’m not just plugging my secondary obsession again, it’s not just The Hunger Games at all… kids are thinking deep about Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and The Giver and Warriors Don’t Cry right now too) People don’t expect to see that in video games, I highly doubt anyone went into Dragon Age looking for it, and there are plenty of people who still don’t want to think deeper about Bioshock.

    I think this more than anything is what bothers me about HOW people rate stuff – adults freak out about kids being exposed to “mature content” but what I see is “look, if we expose them the right way, then kids BECOME mature”

  5. Still thinking about the topic of “M for Mature” and how I keep talking about The Wire, and this is exactly why!

    I found David Simon’s final letter to the fans in my Bookmarks, and it’s everything I’ve been trying to say:

    … It demanded from viewers a delicate, patient consideration and a ridiculous degree of attention to detail. It wasn’t for everyone. We proved that rather quickly. But episode to episode, you began to understand that we were committed to creating something careful and ornate, something that might resonate. You took Lester Freamon at his word: “We’re building something here, Detective, and all the pieces matter.”

    We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory, or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. WE tried to provoke, to critique and debate and rant a bit. We wanted an argument. Nothing happens unless the shit is stirred. That, for us, was job one.

    And if you followed us for sixty hours, and you find yourself caring about these issues more than you thought you would, then perhaps the next step is to engage and to demand.

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