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Psi-Ops: When Morality and Art Conflict, Adult-Only Ratings

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Psi-Ops is an opinion based editorial written by a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. As an avid lifetime gamer, these opinions seek to blend and identify psychological factors and traits within the gaming culture.

A recent article on Polygon left me thinking about the conflict of Adult-Only ratings, and the legacy they have left on the gaming community over the past few decades. There is a striking balance between the gaming world as a medium for art, and the conflict of morality we experience as human beings.

This begins with a musing on the concept of morality and video games. Existentialists identify morality as evolving from an individual’s concern over his or her own continued and developing existence. It’s the individual legacy and the awareness one comes to accept, by selecting existence over non-existence in their decision making process. The distinguishing factor is in balancing and identifying social expectation versus personal morality.

In short, morality is a delicate balance of subjective expectation. It’s the cultural norm of what is expected to be correct and proper. The challenge with this is that culture constantly shifts. Traditional ethnic cultures are only the tip of the iceberg, within that are sub-cultures which include the gaming community (culture), geek culture, age culture, etc. When these dynamic cultures begin to combine into the unique individual that each of us represent, morality then becomes a subjective and warped concept. For one, sexual fidelity may rank higher than death and retribution, for another financial distribution may be more important than sexual acceptability.

These constant changes and variables make the concept of morality impossible to identify, rank, and dispute.

This is where the gaming community has taken a bite out of the very ground it stands on. The Adult-Only rating is classified by the ESRB as the following:

ADULTS ONLY

Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.

MATURE

Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

Since the nature of Adult Only (AO) ratings are so subjective, prolonged scenes of intense violence or graphic sexual content present an even more subjective view of the content being presented. 

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So where do we draw the line between “intense violence” and “prolonged scenes of intense violence?” To prolong simply means to length out in time; extend the duration of; cause to continue longer (per dictionary definition). The question then becomes, at what point is a violent scene being “prolonged.” In an average multiplayer match of most first-person shooters there is intense violence for the duration of the match, be it 5 minutes or 15. In a single player game like Bioshock infinite there are vicious and bloody gun and melee fights with an unfolding story between battles.

So the concept of a prolonged scene is nothing more than a political and subjective view of “how much is too much.” The balance seems to have translated poorly from it’s movie brethren in the rating system. The mere mention of a sexual reference or criminally violent scene instantly sparks the debate of whether the developer “went too far.” Mass Effect made waves with the inclusion of a sex scene, Fahrenheit before that forced a rating change due to visibly exposed nipples, and then Age of Conan sold itself on being a “sexy and brutal” game with exposed breasts.

As cultural norms of sexuality continue to evolve, so have the rating system. At the same time, as Ben Kuchera from Polygon states, “It should be possible for a developer or publisher to decide that scenes of realistic sex and violence, or even stylized sex and violence, are needed to tell their story.”

It is often seen in the field of psychology that in order for change to occur we need 3 things: The belief that we can change, the decision to enact the change, and repeated efforts to make change happen. The foundation for change has been laid out, in that the rating system is available for use. The belief that we can change will be a decision within the gaming community to bring about that change, the decision to change will involve the retailers deciding to sell or publish (AO) rated titles, or developers seeking independent methods of distribution (ie: Kickstarter) to self-publish titles that would traditionally receive an (AO) rating, and lastly, the repeated effort to bring about that change.

The last piece is essential in that it will involve the developers to produce, and place themselves in a vulnerable position, and the gaming community becoming more accepting of potential adult-related content becoming more mainstream.

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Does this mean we need more violence in video games, or more explicit sexual content? Will either of these “enhance” game play?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. If it contributes to the development and presentation of a story then yes, but from a psychological point of view, gamers are already seeking out opportunities for a more “raw” or “brutal” experience. Just take note of how long it takes for a title to release and subsequently receive mod support for a “nude mod” or “enhanced blood” textures. Often, as was the case with Skyrim, it took a mere hours for gamers to start making changes to their game.

Whether this indicates that gamers are seeking to enhance their experience, or make adjustments to turn a game which borders on the Mature and Adult-Only rating is again, entirely subjective. Some may do it out of perversion, others out of immersion, some may do it out of curiosity or for storytelling purposes.

In the end the only thing that matters is that gamers seek to enhance their experience and often the first place they turn to is violence and sexuality, indicating the desire for change is there. The question is whether morality, the ESRB, or existentialism will take precedent in moving us closer towards an acceptance of Adult Only ratings.

Photo Credit: Mad-jill on Deviantart

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