Free speech. Evolving markets. An ever-fluctuating demographic from hardcore to casual. All of these issues facing the current generation of game developers are important. But the biggest concern for content creators is the same one that, in some capacity, many other industries are currently grappling with: globalization.

The ability for game publishers to reach an international audience has certainly contributed to the rapid growth of the industry so far. But this explosive growth has a potentially off-putting conclusion in an industry that thrives on creativity, imagination and the ability to create anything you can dream up.

The Ratings Game
Most countries where a game will potentially be sold have a rating board, censorship committee or some other organization – government run or not – responsible for regulating videogame content in that specific market. The United States has the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), Germany has the USK (“Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle,” or “Voluntary Monitoring Organization of Entertainment Software”), Australia has the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification), etc. Having one of these organizations rate your game is usually expensive and may require more than one attempt at obtaining the desired rating across multiple markets if content is found to be too violent, culturally insensitive or obscene. Revising a game to “pass inspection” costs time, money and effort.

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The conscious decision by the publisher to make a game available in as many markets as possible affects the game’s content on a global scale. More markets mean more sales, the end goal of any profitable publisher. Which is where they often reach a conclusion that, in the aggregate, is potentially damaging to the industry at large: “Content neutral” games – ones where the developers have taken pains to remove all objectionable or otherwise controversial material – are a publisher’s safest bet.

This hesitance to publish games that don’t conform to nebulous standards of “public decency” has become endemic to the entire industry. In the United States, the ESRB’s AO (“Adults Only”) rating became functionally useless after the major console manufacturers stopped licensing AO games and major retailers like GameStop and Wal-Mart refused to stock AO titles. In Germany, unrated games are effectively banned, relegated to back rooms like those found in U.S. video stores for pornography. In other countries, unrated games are outlawed entirely. Advertising games is also heavily regulated in many countries. Germany, for instance, only allows games that are deemed appropriate for minors to be advertised before 11 P.M. with violations punishable by a fine up to 500,000 euros.

The intentions of these restrictions placed on publishers may be sound, but it’s not hard to see the negative consequences. It encourages publishers to adjust the resources they spend on the rating and classification of a title according to internal sales projections. The more creative risks a game takes, the less likely a publisher will be to spend the money needed to ensure that it will have an international presence. Likewise, smaller developers without much brand recognition or clout are effectively prohibited from undertaking projects that aren’t content neutral. Worse still, whole genres of games that allow players to create their own content within the game-world are at a huge disadvantage in countries with extremely strict speech laws. In some cases, it’s enough to kill off a game before the first line of code is written.

Blood and Gore
Mark Rein, Vice President of Epic Games, stated earlier this year that “Microsoft doesn’t show Gears of War 2 at Leipzig because they don’t sell the game in Germany.” The country’s censorship laws are among the strictest in the developed world. With the recent Xbox 360 price drop in Europe that resulted in an increase in sales of over 200 percent, one would assume Microsoft would take a franchise as popular as Gears of War and stitch up some of the content to take advantage of their new European presence.

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Microsoft has the money to make the necessary changes to its hit franchise, but they have nonetheless determined that such a venture wouldn’t be profitable. Smaller publishers and developers, however, don’t even have the option. That doesn’t mean indies are barred from the German marketplace, but when failing the test for acceptability has such heavy costs, few smaller developers can afford the risks.

For even the biggest publishers, ratings are an uncertain prospect. Dead Space, from EA’s Redwood Shores, was rumored to be banned in Germany, Japan and China for excessive gore and violence, but was cleared by Australia’s OFLC (which banned Grand Theft Auto III for its treatment of prostitutes) and Great Britain’s BBFC, responsible for the Manhunt 2 fiasco only a short time ago. It appears that the real issue facing developers and publishers who choose to illustrate violence in their works is neither the quantity nor the quality of the depictions, but rather the whims of the ratings boards to which they must submit.

Sex, Drugs and Post-Apocalyptic Washington, D.C.
Just as much as with violence, wildly divergent cultural views on sex and drug use in videogames can cause problems for games that don’t play it safe. Fallout 3 drew criticism from the Australian OFLC over realistic portrayals of drug use, prompting Bethesda to revise the content of Fallout 3 on a global scale. The content Bethesda had viewed as appropriate for a U.S. audience was enough to pose a roadblock to an Australian release.

Likewise, a whole breadth of themes important to humanity itself, not yet fully explored in the medium, are in danger of falling to the wayside because of public outcry over sexual themes in games. After the negative exposure Mass Effect received from its single, relatively tame 30-second sex scene, it’s understandable that developers would be wary of including any form of sexual content in their games. Countries like Great Britain, Germany, Japan and Australia have little problem with non-sexualized nudity – in this case, it’s the U.S. who has stricter guidelines on all types of nudity and sex in games. There are plenty of themes to explore relating to sex, relationships and more mature content without entering the realm of pornography, but the prospect of creating content that is appropriate for an international audience with unique cultural norms about sex discourages exploration of the subject entirely.

Massively Prohibitive
Now more than ever, massively multiplayer online games are popular around the world. World of Warcraft makes more money than a small nation, and the microtransaction model for many games in Korea has proved successful worldwide. But the law of the land in huge markets like China is surprisingly prohibitive to the MMO genre. Back in 2007, The9, the company responsible for World of Warcraft‘s Chinese presence, preemptively modified the game to appease the Chinese censors, fleshing over the Forsaken race’s boney arms. In 2004, Chinese censors banned a Swedish game called Hearts of Iron for referring to Manchuria, Tibet and Xinjiang as independent countries. China’s censorship committees ban any content that, according to the Chinese state press, “threatens national unity.”

The above are cases where the Chinese government has taken issue with developers’ design decisions. But what about conflicts with the player base itself? MMOGs allow an unprecedented amount of player input, from character, pet and guild naming to any communications sent through the game. What happens when a Hunter character decides to name his pet wolf “FreeTibet,” or a guild crops up with a name mocking the People’s Liberation Army? Who pays the price – publisher, developer or player?

Short of creating a restricted word list many miles long, there’s little that MMOG developers can do to safeguard themselves against this kind of government intervention. Only the safe, closed MMOG with little player input can succeed in places like China. Blizzard Entertainment had the money and international brand recognition to take their game to China. Smaller MMOG developers have only general guidelines to follow when sending their product off for classification in more stringent markets.

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The Price of Success
The videogame industry will never stop pushing boundaries. It can’t – gamers have an insatiable demand for more visceral experiences and will continue to flock to games that provide them. The problem, however, is the potentially heavy cost of taking risks on a global scale. The companies that have been most fearless about creating controversial games are the ones with the money to fight those battles, backed by publishers like EA who assume some of the risk. Smaller teams may find ways of breaking the boundaries in other content-neutral ways, like Jonathan Blow’s Braid, which approaches storytelling through creative game mechanics. But the uncertainty that shrouds the ratings processes all over the world is a giant red flag for all but the most courageous game companies.

Content-neutral games can also be tremendously boring. Violence and sex are sharp tools in the developer’s arsenal; without them, games would lose a great deal of their emotional impact. Would the culmination of your relationship in Mass Effect have as much of an impact as a block of text? Likewise, many in the industry see the Nintendo Wii’s MadWorld, featuring beautiful Frank Miller-inspired visuals and a protagonist with a chainsaw for an arm, as the next likely victim of game-altering censorship. The creative exploration of potentially touchy subjects should not exclude entire nations from participating.

Globalization may have a net positive effect on the industry – witness the free exchange of game design ideas between Japan and the West in the last two decades, or the fierce competition between Sony and Microsoft that has driven innovation in the current console generation. But the same conditions that have led to the industry’s current surplus of wealth may be creating a deficit of creativity. The next time a developer faces the decision of cutting content to facilitate a game’s smooth entry into foreign markets, they would be wise to consider what’s truly at stake.

Mathew Genzer McCurley is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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