Ian Bogost: Console Makers are the REAL Censors + a Challenge to ECA, GP

Colbert Report veteran Ian Bogost (left) dishes on the Manhunt 2 re-rating controversy and judges console makers to be wearing the villain’s hat:

First-party licensing in videogames creates another layer of censorship that makes it impossible to release Manhunt 2 on consoles, since the manufacturers refuse to license (and therefore manufacture) games at the AO rating. [An NC-17 film] may suffer from reduced distribution… but the film will still physically play on projectors at any theater. Same with DVD, which they can release for direct and retail sale.

A number of commenters… are calling for… an AO version for PC sold outside the traditional videogame retail channels… I suspect such a move is financially unimaginable in contemporary videogames…

But game devs and publishers are going to have to start making moves like this if they also want to continue making calls for the protection of games as speech. Who will take this argument seriously if game creators are so willing to compromise their intentions?

Bogost also issues a challenge to the ECA and GamePolitics:

I admire Hal Halpin, Dennis McCauley, and the other folks at the Electronic Consumers Association and GamePolitics.com. But I think the ECA is sorely mistaken in seeing Washington as the main cause of their problems. The first front in the battle for unfettered speech in games is the one between developers and the first-party console manufacturers about what qualifies as a game, whether it be about a rating or its theme/topic/content. That’s where the issue becomes one for “consumers.” So I challenge them to take on Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo for their offenses.

Ian is making some assumptions here about ECA that are not well founded. I don’t want to put words in Hal Halpin’s mouth, but will say on his behalf that this issue is already on his radar. In fact he’s spoken of it recently on the EGM podcast, on the PWNED Radio podcast and in the GameDaily Biz piece mentioned elsewhere in today’s GamePolitics.

In my view, the topic is a complex one, largely driven by gaming’s origins in the toy business. While games as an art form have grown exponentially since the days of Intellivision and the Atari 2600, many people still view video games as child’s play. In fact it is largely a youth culture medium, notwithstanding the industry’s claim that the average gamer is 33. (is it sacrilege to say I have a hard time buying that one?).

Myself and others (most notably, Sony’s Phil Harrison) have argued from time to time that even the term “video game” needs to be discarded, since it is associated with toys, and thus with children.

So the game industry finds itself under a microscope. The issue of sales to children is a big one for critics like Leland Yee and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. And for the Federal Trade Commission, which studies the industry’s marketing practices in relation to kids.

For their part, the console makers don’t want to be accused of licensing porn on a machine that’s sold at Toys’R’Us. The major game publishers are largely public corporations that don’t want to be seen as being in the porn creation business, either. Developers have largely adapted to these parameters, although some are clearly frustrated.

And it’s not just the Big Three console makers. Even if Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft were willing to license the AO version of Manhunt 2 to run on their systems, major retailers would not stock an adults only game.

Aside from the games-as-toys bit, there is an unfortunate issue of terminology: Adults Only.

What a poor choice of name for a video game rating. Tell me, outside of the ESRB’s system what does “Adults Only” conjure up? The common interpretation is porn, or at least some sort of adult fare based around sexuality.

So there’s a lot of work to be done. The dilemma is steeped in culture, politics, finance and technology. It’s not one that will be fixed quickly. But here’s where I do agree with Ian Bogost:

It’s time to start the dialogue.

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