The ESRB's view of maturity is very simple: blood, guts, violence and sex. But is that really what 'mature' is?
If we pick up a dictionary, it tells us that Mature is:
- Intended for or restricted to adults, esp. by reason of explicit sexual content or the inclusion of violence or obscene language: mature movies.
- Fully developed in body or mind, as a person: a mature woman.
Society tells us that the term 'Mature Videogame' is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, for one automatically cancels out the other. Videogames are designed to transport the player to the days of their youth; a place where anything was possible and joy was to be found around every corner.
The term 'mature' implies a life led by adults, one filled with tough decisions, stress and hard work.
Can a videogame be tough, yet playful? Can it elicit joy, whilst simultaneously causing the player emotional turmoil? How on earth can a game be fun and mature?
First, we need to ask:
What constitutes a 'Mature Videogame'?
If I walk down the aisle in any Best Buy/Walmart/Gamestop, it's likely that I'll be walking past dozens of M-rated games. Manhunt 2, Fallout 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Resident Evil 5... Each has been given the same rating - and yet each game's content is vastly different.
How do the governing officials dictate what is a 'Mature' game? How do we, as videogame players, decide what we think is mature? Is it a game that provokes a mature emotional response within the player? Is it one that includes 'mature topics' (regardless of the way they're handled) -- i.e. sex, violence, swearing? Or is it a game that may include a childish subject matter, but deals with it in an appropriate, mature way?
The "Emotional Response" Argument
Some might say this is a bit of a non-starter -- after all, every game is designed to invoke an emotional response from the player. But can joy, elation and happiness be regarded in the same manner as lust, betrayal and fear?
The latter triad of emotions are incredibly complex and usually reserved for adults. Of course, a child may feel fear, but usually their fear is a fear of the unknown or of circumstances that they do not/cannot understand. In my opinion, fear laced with understanding is far more frightening -- something only a mature person could experience.
Then there's the idea of love. Can a videogame elicit the emotion of love? The tag-line of the recently released interactive-experience Heavy Rain asks "How far would you go to save someone you love?" But is it possible for a videogame to invoke that response? If it does, then surely Heavy Rain is one of the first true 'Mature' games.
After all, ask the parents of any 16 year-old who claims to be in love and they'll invariably tell you something along the lines of, "It's not love. They don't know what love is." Is love an emotion/process only reserved for a mature audience?
In my opinion Heavy Rain re-established what it means to be a videogame. By creating believable characters in a fictional world -- a world grounded in reality -- the emotional impact of each decision made by the player was greatly intensified, leaving me agonizing over each and every decision I made.
In creating characters with human flaws, Quantic Dream have realized a cast that the player can identify with and relate to.
Speaking to GamePro, Quantic Dream's lead designer, David Cage, had this to say:
"We are all shades of grey. All of us have skills, but we all have secrets. Things that are hidden that make us suffer. It's that complexity, and those shades of grey that make us more interesting, and in the case of these characters it meant that I could move things away from the standard archetypes."
Does this make Heavy Rain a mature videogame? Does the fact that the game handles 'true' adult themes such as love, relationships, life and death, in a convincing and adult manner solidify its status as a mature experience?
Perhaps the most interesting design choice in Heavy Rain is the complete absence of a 'Game Over' screen -- much like life, it forces you to accept your mistakes and move on, regardless of the consequences. The knowledge that your mistakes will impact the way the game plays out (including the death of some major characters) makes the experience far more tense, forcing the player to quickly weigh the available options in a short amount of time -- and act in the way they think best.
Having completed Heavy Rain, I felt a sense of pure agony at the game's finale. The knowledge that my actions and my decisions led to the game's eventual tragedy physically hurt. It may just be a videogame with tens of thousands of pixels on the screen, but to me, that didn't matter. I caused the death of someone I felt attached to, and in turn, I paid the emotional price.
Is this true videogame maturity?
The "Mature Topics" Argument
What about the oft-ridiculed Grand Theft Auto IV? The staple scapegoat for international media, GTA IV is often accused of encouraging gamers to murder, have sex with prostitutes and deal in drugs due to these options being present in-game. One might say that the themes are adult and therefore mature, thus making GTA IV a mature game.
But is it? I wouldn't be the first to argue that Rockstar's attempt at portraying "The American Dream" (and all the pitfalls that come with it) is fantastically done and well worthy of the awards it received, but that the Grand Theft Auto games are not mature in the least. The juxtaposition of the in-game cut-scenes against the player's gameplay are almost laughable -- one attempts to convey a deep, emotional story of "Rags to slightly better rags", while the other encourages players to go on killing sprees and sleep with hookers. Is it possible for a game to be both mature and immature in the same breadth?
With classic literature such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the writer is able to focus on the theory of 'The American Dream' throughout the text, delivering the message to the intended audience. Games like Grand Theft Auto do not have the luxury of being able to dictate to a particular audience -- no matter how hard they try. Whether a game has an M rating or not, there will always be a twelve-year-old kid walking home from the store with a copy in his bag simply because his mom was the one who went to the counter.
It's frustrating too, because Rockstar is aware the game won't be played solely by an adult audience. The developer is forced to introduce gameplay elements that cater to the immature adolescent, whilst still trying to pursue the eventual mature adult. A child isn't likely to read through the entire Great Gatsby, because it's a novel written for adults. Nor will they watch a showing of Death of a Salesman because, again, it's a play written for a mature audience -- There's little doubt however, that they'll be the first to teabag you after going on a ten-plus kill streak in Modern Warfare.
The "Childish Game - Maturely Developed" Argument
So far, we've looked at maturity within the player's response, as well as mature themes/topics within the videogame itself. But what happens if the maturity isn't immediately obvious? What if you have to search to find it? Is it still mature?
Let's take Super Mario Galaxy as an example. Widely regarded as one of the best platforming games ever made, the Nintendo Wii title would not (at first glance) appear to be a mature videogame. The vibrant worlds, the childish glee that decorates every detail, and the titular Mario himself all add up to create a (fantastic) family game. How could it possibly be considered mature?
Perhaps the maturity of a videogame should be based on its quality. Super Mario Galaxy is a fantastic, well-polished and extremely well-regarded game -- does that make it mature? After all, we base a wine's maturity on how much time and care has been devoted to it and the dictionary has already told us that being "fully developed" is a sign of maturity.
Maybe I'm being ridiculous. Maybe 'maturity' is purely down to the themes involved within a game, and the player's ability to react to those themes. Take, for example, the concept that precision and dedication will help you go far in life. Or the notion that it doesn't matter if you lose, you just try again, and keep trying until you win. Or the idea that one person really can make a difference in a giant world. I'd argue that these were mature themes, wouldn't you?
Of course, with themes as broad as that, any game can be labeled mature. Every game has an end-goal, and it is the job of the designers to ensure that you progress to a stage where it could be said that you've learned something from the experience. Whether that knowledge can then be applied to a real-life situation depends on the game, but the fact is that to have beaten the game you must have learned, understood and adapted your way of thinking to obey the rules of that particular world -- even if it is a game.
So how do designers create a mature videogame? As we've found, the term "mature videogame" is widely applicable and, in the right circumstances, could apply to any game. There must be some way of determining when a videogame truly becomes mature.
The "Mature Player" Argument
Some of you may recognize the above screenshot as Flight of the Amazon Queen, an old PC Point 'n' Click Adventure recently ported to the iPhone. This, along with many other adventure games, was designed specifically for a mature audience. Does this make it a mature videogame?
Unlike many videogames created today, Point 'n' Click Adventures were always implicit in their commands and trusted the player to figure out the solution by themselves. In many ways, it's comparable to a good detective novel -- say, Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. The clues are all there, you just need to figure it out.
The same is true of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars. Regarded by many as one of the greatest adventure games ever created, Broken Sword played out like a typical mystery novel. The player was actively encouraged to seek out clues and then logically deduce where to go next. The game gave very little in the way of hints, trusting the player explicitly to continue the narrative without any hand-holding.
Is this 'true' videogame maturity then? The game is not asking a mammoth task of the gamer, and appears to trust the gamer enough to progress through the game with little guidance. Herein lies the difference between a game aimed at a mature audience as opposed to one aimed at a family demographic -- the designers realize that mature gamers can figure it out for themselves. So if it's aimed at a mature audience does that make the game mature?
For help with this article, I asked a couple of friends within the industry what they believe makes a mature videogame. Here's what they had to say:
Taelur KimReviews Editor at Gamepro
"I don't think there is any one thing that defines a game as being "mature." I suppose the easiest and most obvious definition is that a mature game deals with mature themes and ideas. Violence is the thing most people think of but the term "adult situations," if taken literally, is probably the most fitting way to describe it: these games deal with ideas and concepts that aren’t necessarily appropriate for a younger audience. Of course, I think too often, the words "mature" and "adult" are seen as interchangeable, and that's not necessarily the case. Most mature games are intended for and directed at adults but that doesn't mean a game that's targeted at non-adults can't be mature or have mature themes. It's also usually equated to violence or sex, but that's sort of an outdated way to look at it. Games like Doom and Mortal Kombat are "mature" for their outright violence while Grand Theft Auto not only has that but things like crime and drugs.
But a lot of titles have proven that there are other things that encompass the idea of a mature game. I think Heavy Rain is a perfect example: there is violence and sex present in the game but it's all secondary to the things it’s really trying to address. Themes like love and death and the consequences of our actions, that sort of thing. A game like Shadow of the Colossus, which carries a T rating, falls into the same category: there is violence in the game, but what truly makes it notable is that it has really complex ideas that are operating at a higher emotional level.
I guess that’s just my long-winded way of saying that there is no real answer here. It’s a complex question with a complex answer for sure."
Tony WarrinerCo-Founder of 'Revolution Studios' - Programmer/Designer of 'Broken Sword' and 'Beneath a Steel Sky'
"My view is that 'videogames' not only can be mature, in the way you suggest, with adult themes, but we really need to see more of it to broaden the appeal of the medium. We really should be creating content on a par with, say, a Henning Mankell detective novel and which appeals to that audience.
I think there are several things holding us back; one is the general legacy of games and of their being delivered on 'games consoles' which traditionally are seen as a teen purchase. Adults who read, will often look at this whole area and conclude it is not for them. Given the advertising that we see in the mainstream media, this is perhaps not surprising. But on the other hand, they may well carry an iPhone or an equivalent, which is just as capable of delivering interactive entertainment. The other is the term 'videogame' or 'game'. As others have said, these labels are really holding us back as they really do fail to convey what the medium is, and can, deliver."
A Conclusion (of sorts)
So where does that leave mature videogames? I believe that a mature videogame should address me as the adult that I am. Speaking to me as an equal rather than belittling me as a juvenile delinquent, and should not shy away from the topics of sex, drugs or violence.
After all, if they occur in real life, to shelter me from them in-game would merely be patronizing and condescending. Heavy Rain was a great example of a 'mature' videogame, and whilst I hated the outcome I caused, the fact that I was able to cause that outcome was truly astounding.
If aimed at a mature gamer (one who is "Fully developed in body or mind, as a person") then the game should acknowledge the fact that the gamer has a wide variety of background knowledge that they can access in order to accomplish the game's goals. An adult is fully capable of making their own decisions by weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed decision based on this background knowledge (something a child may not have developed yet). This is what, in my mind, is a mature videogame:
One that respects me as a player, and asks for little but the same in return.
What do you think constitutes a mature game? What's your favorite example of mature gaming? Why?
Phillipe Bosher is a 17 year old college student in London, UK, studying English, Psychology and Mathematics. You can follow his juvenile ramblings on Twitter (@speedydesiato).