As someone who follows the videogame news cycle, I was shocked when a few weeks ago the Entertainment Software Rating Board,(ESRB)—the videogame industry’s equivalent to the MPAA rating board—gave Batman: Arkham Knight, an upcoming game based on the Batman comic property, a “Mature” rating which is the ESRB’s equivalent to the MPAA’s “R” rating for films.
I was shocked because Batman: Arkham Knight is slated to be the third and conclusive game in a trilogy of Batman titles that have a shared continuity and tone. And these previous games—Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City—were both rated “Teen” by the ESRB, which is equivalent to the MPAA’s “PG-13” rating.
Now, this series of Batman videogames certainly has its share of violence, but it is about on par with the violence you would see in the average PG-13 rated superhero movie—a man in tights punches a crook and that crook falls down.
In a similar fashion to PG-13 rated movies, “Teen” rated games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City depict a lot of violence without really showing the grotesque implications of that violence. Enemies in these kinds of games may be shot, stabbed, or otherwise harmed by the player but there are generally not spurts of blood or dismembered limbs following these actions.
“Mature” rated games, on the other hand, are replete with spurts of blood and dismembered limbs. Even if you have no interest in videogames, you are probably familiar with the kinds of games that receive “Mature” ratings. These are games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and God of War—the kinds of games cable news personalities charge with “corrupting the youth.” They are games that are often not simply violent, but excessively violent. In the game God of War 3, for example, there is a scene where the player-character brutally beats a man into submission, gouges his eyes out, and then knocks him off a cliff.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this—I enjoy the occasional burst of ultra-violence just as much as the next guy—but the problem is this level of violence is unsettlingly common among “mature” rated titles. And this is what worries me about Batman: Arkham Knight receiving this “mature” rating. I’m afraid that the game, paradoxically, will be anything but mature—a cavalcade of blood, guts, gore, and other viscera as opposed to anything thoughtful or substantive.
There is this stereotype of video gamers as either being children or childlike. And while this is certainly untrue, it is a difficult assertion to refute when so many of the videogames the industry labels as “Mature” are anything but. A perfect example of this mature-immaturity is a “Mature” rated game that came out a few years ago called Dante’s Inferno. Now, even if you have only a passing interest in classical literature, you will probably notice that this game takes its inspiration from The Inferno, the epic poem written by Dante that chronicles his descent through the nine circles of hell. Now, Dante’s opus is profound and thought provoking, attempting to explore the nature of human sin and humanity in general. Dante’s Inferno, in contrast, is an exploration of the depths of depravity some humans will go to in an attempt to make money. Sound like hyperbole? Well, I invite you to watch some of the marketing material produced to promote this game.
To elaborate on the travesty you just watched, Dante’s Inferno takes the venerable and sagacious poet and transforms him into a hulking templar knight. While the poet Dante’s journey through Hell is a largely passive one, where he really only observes the various circles of the damned, this version of Dante wields a massive scythe and uses it to violently hack apart every demon he encounters on his journey. And the demons that this bastardized Dante kills include, among others, “lust” demons—essentially just topless women—and unbaptized, demonic babies. Classy.
There are a lot of things about Dante’s Inferno that make me angry, but what angers me the most is the little letter in the corner of the box labeling it as “M” for mature.
It’s just misleading, and it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what “maturity” is. By the standards of the videogame industry, “maturity” simply seems to denote a combination of blood, guts, gore, and sex. But this is a child’s understanding of maturity. Mature subject matter may have these things, but they’re not supposed to exist for their own sake. “Blood and gore” can be used to explore the violence and cruelty inherent in our culture. “Sex” can be used to explore the nature of love and human relationships. These things are means to an end, not ends unto themselves.
I want to stress that there are games carrying the “Mature” rating that actually are mature. The game Bioshock, for example, uses violence and explicit imagery to both explore a ruined utopia and the political philosophy that ruined it. But games like this are the exception, not the rule. And you know what? That’s okay. Look at any 10 films carrying the “R” rating and I guarantee that 90 percent of them will be lacking in both profundity and maturity. Most books, movies, and music that feature lurid or unsettling material are not deeply edifying pieces of art. However, unlike videogames, other media are not trying to confuse anyone by labeling their more sordid material as “mature.”
I suppose my ultimate issue here boils down to a semantic one: I don’t think explicit videogames should be labeled as “mature.” It’s disingenuous. It insults the intelligence of the consumer and gives people a bad impression of videogame culture. And it should be mentioned that the ESRB rating system is not universal. Europe has the Pan European Game Information organization—PEGI–that simply uses the recommended age of a consumer in their rating labels. Their equivalent to the ESRB’s “Mature” rating is “PEGI 18.” This serves the exact same purpose while not misrepresenting the content in a given game. I would like the industry to produce more mature games, but failing that, I would simply appreciate a rating system that doesn’t insult my intelligence.