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What makes a game mature?

posted on March 28th, 2007 by jay

In the March issue of PSM is a reader-written letter complaining that nearly all PS3 games are violent (meaning they had gun violence or graphic gore). He asked where the Psychonauts, Wario Wares and other games he could enjoy with his kids were. The editor’s reply was, “The truth is that the PS3 isn’t intended for kids this early in its life cycle. For now, it’s an expensive, hardcore machine targeted almost exclusively at the older gaming audience.” The game industry as a whole has a strange notion of what mature is and is not.

Kids understand violence just fine.

At the core of this issue lies a conflict on the definition of mature. In my world, mature doesn’t mean blood and nipples. Mature ideas, concepts and media are things children wouldn’t understand. Kids may not fully understand and may even be warped by sex and violence, but they aren’t clueless. Humans, like most animals, have a propensity for violence, even when very young, and children certainly have a sexuality, despite most people’s attempt to ignore it.

Schindler’s List and Best in Show are mature. Complex dramatic plots, profound sadness, and biting satire are generally beyond children. Sartre is mature and despite the lack of offensive lyrics, so is Mozart. It takes (as the dictionary defines “mature”) someone “fully developed in body or mind” to fully understand and appreciate these things. Resident Evil 4 is awesome and gruesome but it is hardly mature.

Similarly, pornography is not mature despite laws that make it illegal for minors to purchase. Children can easily get an issue of Play Boy and I’m willing to bet most of them understand what they’re looking at. Yet very few children read Russian literature. This isn’t only because it’s dense and every character has 36 different names, making it nearly impossible to follow. It’s also because children are not mature enough to understand complex literature.

To further compound the confusion over what is and is not mature, many journalists and gamers don’t realize that Psychonauts and games like it often aren’t for children. The industry, or at least its journalists, frequently label anything that CAN’T be for children as mature and say everything else is for kids. It’s a shame that a lot of otherwise smart gamers miss out on quality titles because they hear a game is kiddie. The plot in Psychonauts is better written, funnier and more compelling than the plot of most M rated games. The battle television shows like the Simpsons fought decades ago are now being waged against the Psychonauts of the world. The key difference is that adult cartoon fans can eloquently defend their chosen passion to art snobs. Games aren’t just being criticized by outsiders, we as gamers cannot seem to agree on what is worth defending. A cartoon does not have to be for children and games without blood can be very mature.

If violent games are made for adults then it’s ironic that so many of the people consuming these titles are 16 year olds. Teenagers are often frustrated, alienated and somewhat lost in life, even more so than adults. They seek outlets that allow them to vent their anger and confusion. And they also want to be grown ups. So they buy Gears of War and chainsaw people in half. I don’t particularly care that people under 18 can be a part of such violence, but the large number of kids playing violent games puts a hole in the argument that the PS3 and its mature games are for adults. Violent, bloody games sell well and appeal to teenagers and developers know this.

Is this mature or just gross? (yes, this is work safe)

Finally, there is the sad truth that the adults who buy games are often very immature. This is why so many of us primarily buy games that are extremely violent and this is why most of us don’t demand more Civilizations, Sims, and other thought inducing adult games. Not to say a game can’t be both bloody and thought provoking, it’s just that many developers seem to have forgotten games can be both thought provoking and bloodless.

So why are there mostly bloody games on the PS3? It’s not because kids don’t buy the PS3 yet (although I haven’t met many 6 year olds with that kind of money), it’s because violent games sell to teens and adults. “Kids don’t buy the PS3 yet” is a terrible excuse for the lack of interesting, non-violent games on the system. The deeper problem with this industry is that we don’t understand what mature means. And as long as most of us don’t understand what it means for a game to be mature we will not expect mature games.

Reviewers may be pleasantly surprised when they find a game with a well written story, but complex storylines are just another feature like excellent graphics or online play. Maturity is rarely put on a pedestal. A game focused entirely on non-violent human interactions is judged on the same scale as every generic FPS. If reviewers were food critics, a box of Nerds and a good steak would be seen as equal – they’re both delicious.

The PS3 has mostly violent games because gamers do not demand intelligent dramas, comedies, and tragedies. We demand blood and that’s what developers give us.

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