Ebert was right. At first, I imagine my reaction was similar to yours. “What the hell does he know?” ran through my head. Ebert taking another crack at videogames set my teeth to grinding. Others and I have argued the artistic merits of videogames dozens of times before, and I can picture you already rolling your eyes at the thought of another discussion of the value of gaming in popular culture.
The problem is that, at least here in America, Ebert is right. As a result of social pressures, gaming is not an art form in the United States. It’s not art in Britain or Germany or Australia. Maybe it’s art in France; they’ve given Miyamoto medals, after all. But around the world, gaming is restricted, hemmed in and censored by organizations thinking of the children so we don’t have to.
How can this be art? Art, you see, is allowed to stretch the boundaries of mainstream culture. It’s allowed to shock and offend, to reach for something beyond the bounds of “good taste.” Whether it’s the image of Jesus made out of biological waste, sexually explicit imagery connected to car wrecks or a guy getting tortured by a drill, mainstream art is allowed to treat adults like adults. There are warnings about content not suitable for children, but adults are still allowed to partake at the risk of giving themselves psychological issues.
Games are completely different. AO, the ESRB’s rating for content that goes beyond M, isn’t anything like NC-17 (the MPAA’s highest rating for movies). You can purchase an NC-17 film, and readily. It won’t be next to Bambi at the local Target, but you can buy almost anything online. The MPAA aside, there’s a world of film and television content that is simply not rated. It goes directly to DVD without worrying about meeting a specific set of guidelines. Hundreds of these unrated DVDs are available on Amazon, and some of the more mainstream titles are available in big box stores with appropriate warnings.
The AO rating is nothing like this. AO is a black mark, removing a game from essentially every retailer. Worse, an AO rating on a console title is an effective blackball. Sony and Nintendo don’t allow AO-rated titles to ship on their systems. The only AO-rated games you’re going to see any time soon are PC games, and even then you’ll have to buy them online. Unrated games are out there, as well, but only on the PC. Most unrated games are puzzlers or indie titles too small to afford the ESRB’s fees.
And the ESRB isn’t doing anything to help the matter. When one of your ratings becomes tantamount to a “censored” tag, shouldn’t you try to ensure everyone, not just parents, uses your ratings correctly? Shouldn’t the ESRB have a vested interest in making sure the AO rating is given out where appropriate, without any sort of stigma attached?
Now, of course, Manhunt 2 is a stretch to be referred to as art. From what I’ve read about it, it sounds like a cynical cash-grab, eroticizing violence rather than making a statement with it. But as much as I might find the game’s content repugnant, what’s wrong with offering it up on the open market? What’s so terrible about being able to strangle someone with the Wii remote that it must be kept off of store shelves altogether?
The really chilling consequence of this kind of thing is developers censoring themselves to avoid the dreaded AO. Monolith, creators of Condemned 2, doesn’t want the kind of publicity an AO brings, and rightly so. They’re working with the ESRB to avoid that fate for Condemned 2. After all, once a parent has heard of an AO rating, even an M-tweaked game is going to have a stigma associated with it. I thought the ESRB was there to advise parents. When did they begin working to ensure games meet some sort of implied social standard?
Self-censorship, an appropriateness organization and tacit restrictions from the hardware vendors all add up to a medium with built-in limits. Art by its very nature pushes the boundaries of what has come before. But for videogames, boundary pushing is just unacceptable. Explicit sex, rampant violence; these are subjects American society is too fragile to handle in the format of a videogame. Ebert was right: American games aren’t art. American society is so afraid of little Jimmy playing a “murder simulator” it has to keep those same games out of his father’s hands. In such a society, a society that makes us all children, games are no more an artistic expression than a Barbie doll.