Who's Afraid Of Sex?

HBO recently provided a link to Lance Ulanoff's column at PC Magazine entitled Who's Afraid of Mature Games. It's a look at the ESRB rating system vis-a-vis his experience deciding whether or not his 10-year-old son should be allowed to play the M-rated Halo 2.

ESRB president Patricia Vance defends the system that rates both Halo 2, featuring blood and gore in a science fiction fantasy universe, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the game that famously features car stealing, whore-humping and gang violence in thinly veiled American urban settings, the same rating. She alleges that equating ESRB and MPAA ratings-- probably the most logical and obvious thing for consumers to do-- is a mistake, in a sense urging all concerned parents out there to RTFM. In this case, to read the "descriptors" on the back of the game that explain the reasons for the letter rating. Halo 2 has three descriptors: Blood and Gore, Language, and Violence. GTA has five, earning an extra "Intense" for its violence, adding "Strong" on its Language and picking up Strong Sexual Content and Use of Drugs descriptors.

Ulanoff points out that this is such a yawning gap that it justifies a difference in letter ranking, and I find that hard to disagree with. In fact, he doesn't go far enough. Vance may be right in her cleverly disguised assertion that parents are too lazy to turn over the game box and read the detailed description; and at the same time, rather than create varying levels of primary rating that would be on the front of the box, they've kept the system overly simple (E for Everyone, T for Teen and M for Mature) that readers logically equate to the G, PG/PG-13 and R ratings in the MPAA system. Perhaps the system needs a simple fix; a PG-13 equivalent to put games into that aren't safe for an E but don't quite warrant an M, Halo 2 being a case in point.

However, that isn't the end of it. Both Ulanoff and Vance buy into a conceit that is central to American culture, which is that sexual content is always worse than violence.

Ulanoff originally tells his son he can't play Halo 2 because of the M rating. After playing it himself, he wonders why:

I had trouble finding the reasons for what I considered a harsh ESRB rating. I kept waiting for the scantily clad women to jump out of a spaceship closet, or for some naughty sexual banter to be exchanged between Master Chief and one of his female counterparts.

Basically, once he realizes that shooting and killing aliens, and the occasional "bad word" by Marines, is the only thing justifying the rating, he comes to the conclusion that GTA and Halo 2 shouldn't have the same rating because of Halo 2's lack of sexual content.

Why is sexual content worse than violence? Why is violence against aliens somehow better than violence against humans? In fact, quite oddly, Ulanoff has no problem at all with the Master Chief slaughtering thousands of Covenant aliens, but wants the game companies to prevent you from shooting your compatriots:

I do, however, wish the game developers would use a little more sense when creating these games. If you're going to have a hero like Master Chief, let him remain heroic, and do not let him have the free will to kill his fellow soldiers. I've noticed this in a lot of games. Maybe the ESRB should add a game descriptor: "Lacks Respect for Fellow Man."

Sense? Where's the sense in this? Forget about realism or verisimilitude, both of which are broken horribly if the same bullets that bring down Elites don't scratch your support troops-- hence some players' complaints about the invincibility of Sarge and the Spec Ops commander-- just think about the effects on gameplay. If you don't ever need to worry about accidentally hitting your own troops, then there are a lot of gameplay situations that become much less challenging, where you can use grenades and rockets and other weapons indiscriminately, knowing that you can't make a mistake. That's not only unrealistic, but not fun, unless you're trying to make the game's skill requirement even lower. The whole experience becomes wonderfully inconsistent and arbitrary. If your grenades don't harm fellow soldiers, why do they harm you? If the Covenant's weapons kill Marines, why don't yours? If you fire a Scarab gun into a tight firefight and your Marines emerge unscathed while the Covenant crumple and die, where's the fun in that?

Furthermore, if we're worried about the lessons that games teach, where's the value in teaching kids that guns only work on the enemy?

Ulanoff wants to protect the Master Chief's heroic character. Oddly enough, he doesn't mention the Arbiter-- perhaps he didn't play that deeply into the game. What he's missing is that the real hero of the game is the player, and he's only as heroic as you are; it does no good to mandate that the player behave with honor by preventing him from doing otherwise.

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Comments

[quote]Furthermore, if we're worried about the lessons that games teach, where's the value in teaching kids that guns only work on the enemy?[/quote]
There's a biggie... and a huge inconsistancy if those advocating the "nerfing" of game-weapons in that way also advocate "Doom turns kids into school-shooters."

I will come to a weak defense on the "sexual content" tag having more priority over "violence"... it's fairly simple to explain to a child why violence is not acceptable (assuming the parent/guardian/thing is actually doing his/her/its job) but explaining what sexual conduct is acceptable and what isn't to a small child is quite a plateful. So I can understand having a different (if not necessarily higher) priority.

It all comes down to what parents/etc. are teaching their kids, and what they feel their kids can handle. I have no qualms with a parent deciding that they'd rather shield kids from S&M or sexual duress content than against violence... so long as it's THEMSELVES and not some generic "others" they expect to do the shielding.

-- Steve's not ready to unravel the tangles of modern mores... he's not really sure he understands his own right now.

[quote=Anton P Nym]I will come to a weak defense on the "sexual content" tag having more priority over "violence"... it's fairly simple to explain to a child why violence is not acceptable (assuming the parent/guardian/thing is actually doing his/her/its job) but explaining what sexual conduct is acceptable and what isn't to a small child is quite a plateful. So I can understand having a different (if not necessarily higher) priority.

It all comes down to what parents/etc. are teaching their kids, and what they feel their kids can handle. I have no qualms with a parent deciding that they'd rather shield kids from S&M or sexual duress content than against violence... so long as it's THEMSELVES and not some generic "others" they expect to do the shielding.[/quote]

I get the sense that we're not talking about extreme content, though. Ulanoff was talking about nudity or merely sexual banter.

Obviously he didn't finish the game; if he had, I'm sure he could have found a double entendre in Cortana saying "don't make a girl promises you can't keep."

What I don't know if anyone is actually willing to admit to is that I think there is intentional sexual tension-- albeit quite subtle-- in the MC-Cortana relationship. There's supposed to be. It's a Mulder-Scully thing; something that won't ever happen, but is always there, just the same.