Highbrow High Score

The Art of Gaming Intellectually

Of Explosions and Exploitations

with 10 comments

I was little late with this post, but a few weeks ago, we celebrated Banned Book Week and I know a lot of people were reading books that were once deemed “unacceptable” in America. This made me wonder about banned or hotly contested video games and if they would ever be celebrated in the same light. It’s interesting to note that a game has never been “banned” in the United States, but the ESRB can grant an “Adults Only” rating as an equivalent since major retailers will not stock AO rated games. One of the games that got the most media attention for a controversy of this kind is probably Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the infamous “Hot Coffee” glitch that had Hillary Clinton and Jack Thompson up in arms about the video game industry. The scene was publicized after finding the exploits in the game’s code and shows the main character having sex with his girlfriend.

Surprisingly, not the reason for the AO rating

Your Typical Shootout

Rockstar Games came under fire quite a bit for the Grand Theft Auto series in general and several other games published in the 2000’s like Manhunt and Bully albeit for extremely different reasons. But neither of these games were pulled from shelves en masse and only a handful of games intended for release had production halt completely because of the threat of an “AO” rating. After the “Hot Coffee” incident, the ESRB gave the game an “AO” rating and forced Rockstar to re-release it without the scene. Many game developers will try to soften the adult themes in their games in order to get an “M for Mature” rating.

I “acquired” one AO game that was leaked to the internet. Originally intended for the PSOne, publisher EA thought the fighting game Thrill Kill  was too violent to release. Although the graphical limitations of the original Playstation seem laughable now, the game does attempt to fetishize violence – the goal of each round is to cause enough bodily harm to the three other characters to fill your “kill meter.” Unlike traditional fighting games which have you monitor your character’s health meter, the “kill meter” determined whether or not you performed a “thrill kill” – an extremely violent fatality move.

While these are just two examples of games that have come under fire for “adult” content, it is interesting why they came under scrutiny in the first place. Although video game opponents have rallied against the GTA franchise for quite some time, it took a blatantly sexual scene to gain the unprecedented media attention and backlash San Andreas received. And if you’ve ever seen or read about Thrill Kill you know that one female character’s overt sexuality is also her main source of violence.

This is far too blocky to still be offensive

This aversion to sexuality more than violence plays a role not just in the ESRB, but also the MPAA and many other regulatory bodies in the US. In the highly publicized Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, several Supreme Court judges noted that violence was a lesser demon than sexuality. The distinction warrants a raise of the eyebrow, in my mind.

But what I am more interested in is why the “Adults Only” rating is a “kiss of death” for developers and retailers. Since adults make up a large part of the gaming community, why can’t those games containing sexual content or extreme violence be sold in regulation like the adult film industry or even R rated films? Is it because video games are still seen as a children’s activity? Or is the idea of performing certain actions, albeit vicariously,  somehow worse than watching it occur in film or reading it in a book? I would argue there have been a lot games published and sold with little more appeal than shock value, but have still received an “M” rating. Where is the line drawn? Should some games about certain subject matter never see the light of day or should game retailers enforce strict age limits?


Written by highbrowhighscore

October 21, 2011 at 4:50 am

Posted in Video games

Tagged with , , ,

10 Responses

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  1. I believe that an AO rating kills a game the same way a NC-17 kills a movie. There a heavy restrictions on how and when an NC-17 movie can be advertised. Only between the 1am-4am block assuming the parent channel even accepts the advertisment; Girls Gone Wild doesn’t get ad spots on Disney Channel regardless of the time. Walmart, Target, and Kmart will not stock the DVD/Bluray and will not advertise for it. You can’t put ads into magazines. Some theatres may even decide not to show the film. Because of these reasons it’s tough to even fund the production of the movie as major studios like WB will only agree to G-R rated projects. Somewhere like Lionsgate might pick it up, but their budget isn’t Warner Brothers. Overall you work with a smaller budget, and expect smaller returns.
    Apply all of that to the AO rating in games. Then complicate it because while a theatre may show a NC-17 title, videogames don’t work that way. You have to buy it, take it home, and play it. That’s where Walmart comes in. Right now, Walmart owns the videogame industry. If you want your game to have a profit, you have to get it on the shelves. Sure, you could go the Steam route and digitally distribute your game, but how many people are going to actually pay you for the game online? My guess is not many and going by your blog history I’m also assuming you wouldn’t be one of that small group. So where is the incentive to making a game with an AO rating? You’d be all but volunteering your time and effort to do it.

    Is it a bit ridiculous for sex to be considered worse than violence? Well, obviously, but welcome to American media and social standards.
    Is it fair to criticize Rockstarr for a game mod that enabled content Rockstarr specifically disabled? Not at all. If I play Tyler Durden; splicing porn into my personal copy of the game, that’s not Rockstarr’s fault. Even more ridiculous is the fact that picking up a prostitue, parking someplace dark, rocking the car, and then running her over to get your money back is considered fine, but sex with someone you’ve developed a relationship with isn’t. It’s not a model relationship, but the game wasn’t meant to create role models. I roll around San Andreas busting caps at Ballas with my gat, steal police cars, and brawl in the street with old ladies. Heaven forbid I make a little time to fuck my girlfriend. Though, I never had time for that. I was too busy doing drivebys and waging war across the city.


    October 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    • The comparison to adult films may be a bit uneven, but the films still exist and are distributed physically and digitally. I think the video game industry hasn’t quite “caught up” with the film or print industry in that regard. While that may or may not be a good thing, the fact that the ESRB exists to prevent adult content being sold to children and that there is no real way to enforce the guidelines is preventing games with more adult themes from being published – it’s cyclical logic that doesn’t do a lot of good for anyone.


      October 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm

      • No, I think the movie industry is an apt comparison. Not perfect, but apt. They all face the same blackballing in retail chains if they go to AO level games so the only way to sell a title with that type of rating is through the internet. If your main distribution center is the internet, you aren’t going to be paid for your product 9 out of 10 times.
        Yes NC-17 titles can still be made, but AO titles are made. You own one and Japan makes all sorts of sexually themed games. Are they good? I doubt it, but they are made. The reason you don’t think they exist is because they cannot be mass marketed the way Modern Warfare 3 can be. Again with the violence > sexuality theme.


        October 21, 2011 at 11:09 pm

  2. Also GTA:SA is on Steam weekend sale for $5.09 so if you need to pick it up and give it a nostalgic run through, now’s the time. For research obviously.


    October 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm

  3. While I shall try to avoid a flame war, let me just say that this “demonizing” of sexuality can be traced straight to one source, religion. Nowhere else in our culture is the human body made to seem “wrong”, or “shameful”, and as religion spreads throughout the country, we’ll only see more of this–and worse.

    The Retro-ish Gaming Critic

    October 21, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    • You flatter me by suggesting enough people read this to start a flame war XD But religion has quite an undercurrent (or stronghold, depending on how you look at it) in our country. The Puritanical demonization of our natural state (nekked) exists in other countries, too. This may not be entirely true, but the adult film industry in certain Asian countries has to censor genitalia. Do you think that stems from the same kind of religious bias?


      October 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm

      • Well, not in every case, but most. No one religion corners the market on trying to inflict shame upon its members, and many do hold that, as you put it, the “natural” state is anything but.

        And as an aside, I believe it’s not genitalia, but pubic hair, that is censored in certain Asian countries. I could be wrong, though. It’s depressing enough to study societal mores in my country, much less another, heh.

      • Let’s not forget Australia having laws against A cups in pornography because it “simulates child pornography” and the Asian rules on porn are really absurd, but I don’t think they stem from religious institutions by themselves. I can assure you that there was a time those rules didn’t exist. Was there a religious uprising in Asia since my youth? Either way I am in partial agreement with David; the religious activism in the US keeps more mature titles off the market. However, I would disagree that it’s a spreading problem. If anything I see it as a segment of the population who feels their voice starting to shrink and as a result are yelling even louder than before.


        October 21, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      • I want to agree that it’s shrinking, but as yet it’s still the majority. It might be a shrinking majority, but. What doesn’t help is the way some religious groups count memberships; even if someone, say, becomes an atheist later in life, if they were baptised into the church, they’re counted for life unless officially excommunicated.

        That said, I would agree that, in the case of some certain Asian countries’ regulations on pornography, it isn’t necessarily based in religion–but how much of it started from something else, and how much is the impact felt by “Westernization”? After all, there’s been a notable influence (for arguable reasons) since the Nineteenth Century.

  4. Churches bearing false testimony? Surely, sir, you jest.
    But seriously, it’s all about the money. If there is no money to be made in AO titles, companies won’t make too many AO titles.


    October 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

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