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I’m going to come right out and admit that I think our Entertainment Software Rating Board, the oft-cited ESRB, does a pretty damn good job. Sure, the lines between its individual ratings’ definitions are somewhat blurry and there’s the occasional "Hot Coffee" controversy that slips through to get cable news pundits all up in arms, but, particularly as a parent, I appreciate the service that the ESRB provides. Even as an avid gamer, it’s impossible to familiarize myself with every title on the market, and so as roughly delineated as the rating system may sometimes be it affords me a handy means by which to gauge the appropriateness of a game before I play it in front of (or with) my kids. This, however, brings us to an interesting point.
A recent article at 31Up, a site that provides a voice to the (generally marginalized) adult fans of Nintendo’s Wii and DS systems, laments the fact that the M rating – which stands, in case you’ve forgotten, for Mature – is seldom attached to games with any genuine level of inherent maturity. Chris, the site’s founder, reflects upon a list of M-rated titles for the Wii posted at GameDaily saying:
I’ll boil it down for you… the article is essentially a list of the bloodiest, most gruesome games available—the handful of stuff that gets an ESRB rating of ‘M’ for violence and language. In some cases GameDaily is almost apologetic about the picks (there were 15 I believe), acknowledging in some cases that, while satisfying your inner gorehound, the games themselves are laughably bad. While it’s clear this primer was assembled with a sense of irony, it still gets me thinking. Are an absence of gore, swearing and sex the only things distinguishing games for kids from adult fare? That’s just not very creative.
This is a valid line of inquiry that has certainly been followed before, and not just with regard to videogames. For example, while those late night erotic thrillers featured on Cinemax may lead you to believe that their content is geared toward "mature audiences," they are arguably tailored more to liking of the immature.
Still, something that both consumers and the game industry have known for a while is that M-rated titles sell. I’m certainly not trying to foster some Jack Thompson-esque conspiracy theory concerning how these games are marketed to impressionable youth and then provided to them illegally via some sinister retail cabal, so instead let us just agree that Mature titles, even the most mindless ones, have a certain charm that appeals to many of-age gamers. But what about those with a more refined palate? Are there truly any Mature-rated titles with substance? Are there any games that sport the M placard for reasons that are more relevant than, as Chris so succinctly put it, "swear words and nipples and rolling heads?"
Short answer: yes.
Games Radar has a compiled an excellent list of titles that explore complex themes and complicated character motivations, games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, in which the gunplay never manages to overshadow the intricate plot or relevant cultural subtext. But even this glowing minority of M-rated titles doesn’t represent the sum of satisfying opportunities for adult gamers.
Though gaming itself has become less stigmatized in recent years, there still exists a kind of stratification amongst gamers, particularly with regard to the way that the casual market is sometimes painted as "bad for gaming." Yet, much in the same way that a bold "M" on a game’s packaging doesn’t guarantee that the title is engrossing to all adults, a rating of E10+ doesn’t necessarily mean that a game’s play value diminishes exponentially for players past their tweens. Abstract titles like Flower or simple communication games like the Animal Crossing series prove that even the E rating can make for summarily satisfying play experiences for grown-up gamers.
While the ESRB does a fine job of self-regulating the industry with regard to labeling game content, it is important to remember that such ratings have very little bearing on the most important aspect of the games themselves: the fun factor. Whether you’re a hardcore gamer with a lifelong love of the d-pad/analog stick or a casual fan who has only now embraced the joy of browser games, a title’s value may only be properly gauged with regard to the enjoyment one gets from playing it. Thus, any game that scratches your itch – be it an all-ages puzzler, a T-rated action platformer, or even a less-than-Mature shooter – represents a valid gaming endeavor.