As the ratings system of the largest videogames market in the world, the ESRB wields power far beyond its boundaries. These days any publisher who wants to make money on a major title needs it to shift units in the US, and therefore they have to play by the ESRB's rules. ESRB categories are taken into consideration in every stage of a game's design creation, from basic mechanic design to cut-scene dialogue. Producers and designers alike decide that this game will forego headshots and have blue blood to fit into the T category, or that another will have some alcohol and drugs references put in to ensure it hits the desired M.
The argument about the nature of content in videogames is therefore made very difficult by the existence of that one word: mature. If only the ESRB could have called it "Rated R", or "17+", or anything that does not result in a world where MadWorld is mature, but Ico, by definition, is not.
The vast, vast majority of the games the ESRB calls Mature are anything but. For an amusing 5-minute tour of the games industry, have a read through the descriptions and content descriptors of games rated Mature by the ESRB. Some highlights include:
"Red blood frequently splashes around game environments; chunks of bone and flesh sometimes splatter on the camera." "Blood spray often explodes out of wounded enemies, while a slow motion effect allows players to see blood emission in a jelly-like, hanging form." "The player's character is depicted in a provocative outfit (e.g., bikini top and narrow thong), while cameras can be angled so as to zoom and pan across cleavage and posterior regions."
Sounds like fun? Absolutely. Mature? Not so much. We are constantly bombarded by statistics that say that the average gamer is no longer a child. The ESA suggests that the current average age of a gamer in the US is 35 years of age - something I personally find very difficult to believe - but what we consider "mature" remains as it did when the ESRB was first born and Mortal Kombat's digitized open-heart surgery was the height of "maturity" in this industry.
We have made some strides since then, even if most of the games listed as "mature" on the ESRB's list would have you believe otherwise. But it still seems like it's impossible to have a realistic discussion about it. When a game like Six Days in Fallujah attracts attention for its very existence, it feels very much like we're back in days of Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers - as if we're pushing up once again at the limits of what videogames are "allowed" to do.
By basing a game not just on a real-life battle, but a controversial one, and furthermore touting stories about interviewing insurgents as part of the game's development, Konami is courting controversy with Six Days, every bit as much as Mortal Kombat did. The game has made a name for itself before a controller has even been lifted in anger; some have already called for it to be banned.
But why should the existence of a game about Fallujah attract controversy, while the existence of books and films on the same subject not only escape criticism, but are actively welcomed?
It's a valid question, and Eurogamer's Rob Fahey does a decent job of fielding it in the Times. Much of the criticism coming from outside of the industry is, of course, a knee-jerk, uninformed response. But there have also been many within the industry to criticize the game also, so it is unfair to attribute the controversy as being merely "a consequence of [an] outdated viewpoint", as Fahey attempts to.
While I highly doubt that Six Days in Fallujah will be the game to answer this question, it does raise an interesting point: are videogames only ever meant to be "fun"?