“Gaming makes you violent” is a phrase that we’ve probably heard a million times; from our elders, the media, various government officials, and probably from our non-gamer peers too. Video games have been a major subject of controversy and censorship around the globe, with various media houses and government bodies claiming it to be a form of “violence inciter”. While these claims have been proved to be baseless in most cases, a significant portion of the civilized world’s population still believe them to be true. It is mostly because the majority of society, in any time period, relies on information provided by news channels and the mass media rather than published research works or statistics.
However, in order to educate the masses, game researchers and psychologists have conducted several surveys as to how gaming is actually a productive form of entertainment and how it can also be used as a form of therapy for people with disabilities. This goes without saying that the advantages of video games hugely outnumber and outweigh it’s disadvantages. But since the society is more than keen to point out it’s drawbacks, you will also hear them say that video games should be heavily censored and any form of violent content should be purged.
Contrary to their belief, video games are indeed subject to various censor board inspections before they finally hit the market. Some games do not make it to the market at all, although this happens in rare instances. While decisions taken by video game censorship boards are accepted by many countries, it is not uncommon for certain countries to ban a game completely or only allow a censored/modified version of a game.
Video games are rated and are sometimes subject to censorship based on certain criteria, also referred to as “content descriptors”. While different censor boards may have different names for their content descriptors, they can be primarily categorized into the following –
Violence in video games can be depicted in various forms and are rated based on those. Whether a game can be played by kids, or are only meant for teenagers or adults depends on the form of violence that is displayed. For starters, it can refer to mild aggressive behavior such as hitting people but without any depiction of blood, serious injury, or death. In games with more serious and mature tone, violence can be depicted in a way more realistic manner such as death of characters, intense blood and gore by means of dismemberment, and use of weapons to inflict damage on people, even going as far as deliberately hurting or killing unarmed civilians with firearms or melee weapons.
Games with references or depiction of sexual content are usually meant for teenagers and/or adults. In initial cases, it might be in the form of revealing clothes and postures that are suggestive of sexual acts. In other cases, it might portray acts of sexual intercourse and show graphically realistic nudity. Some games even depict sexual violence such as forced and non-consensual sex. While mild content or references are usually rated for teenagers, realistic and intense sexual content are always rated for adults.
Reference to or Use of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco
Many games feature content that may refer to addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or other fictional substances that may function in a similar way. Some games may feature mere dialogue references to such habits while some feature direct depiction of their use. Based on severity of reference or use, games are rated for teenagers or adult audience.
This content descriptor is used to refer to games that feature dialogues containing profanities, insults, or other derogatory terms which may be inappropriate for small children. While games with mild use of harsh language may be rated for early teenagers, games containing frequent or regular use of profanities or dark humor are usually meant for adults.
Gambling in video games may be simulated or real. The former refers to activities in a game that depicts gambling with the use of in-game currencies. The latter, however, involves gambling with real money, something which is illegal in various countries across the world. Micro-transactions and loot boxes in a game often fall under this content descriptor. Games that feature gambling, especially with real money, are usually rated for teenagers and adults since children may end up spending a significant amount of money by mistake.
Rating Systems for Video Games
Just like movies are rated based on their content, video games too are subject to rating and censorship. While there are quite a few independent organizations which take care of these things, most games are rated by the following two bodies –
PEGI stands for Pan European Game Information. As the name suggests, it is a content rating system for video games which is followed primarily by European countries; however, this rating system is also accepted by various other countries across the globe. In the early days, different countries had their own national age rating systems. However, with the formation of PEGI in 2003, these systems were replaced by one unified system which would then be accepted by all of them.
PEGI rates games by assigning them with one of the following age ratings –
3 – These games can be played by people of all ages. These games may contain references to fantasy or cartoonish violence in the mildest possible form. There is no such content which might incite fear within players.
7 – These games are suitable for those who are aged 7 years or older. They contain elements of violence that might frighten younger children, but does not contain excessive details such as bleeding or dismemberment.
12 – Games with this rating are meant for audiences who are aged 12 years or older. Apart from mild violence, games with this rating contain sexually suggestive content, gambling, and bad language in mild form.
16 – These games are meant for people who are aged 16 years or above. Games that are rated 16 contain violence in a much more realistic form. They also contain dialogues with profanities and depict criminal activities such as drug use.
18 – These games are meant for meant for adult audiences. They contain depiction of extreme violence with display of blood and gore, sexual content in a much more realistic manner, regular use of profanity, and use of drugs and alcohol.
ESRB stands for Entertainment Software Rating Board. Similar to PEGI, this organization too rates video games based on their content. ESRB was formed in 1994 and it’s ratings are implemented and accepted by USA, Canada, and Mexico. Even though ESRB assigns age ratings to video games, unlike PEGI, these categories are represented by words instead of numerical figures. They are as follows –
RP (Rating Pending) – The RP icon is mostly used in box art or trailers of games that have not been rated by ESRB yet.
EC (Early Childhood) – Games with EC rating are primarily targeted towards younger audiences, i.e, young children. They do not contain any sort of violence, language, or otherwise objectionable content.
Everyone (E) – These games can be played by people of all ages. Similar to PEGI’s “3” rating, they contain mild violence in cartoonish or fantasy form.
Everyone 10+ (E10+) – ESRB gives an E10+ rating to those games which are suitable for those aged 10 years or above. They contain increased amount of violence, and bad language in mild form, things which are not suitable for younger children.
Teen (T) – Games with T rating are meant for those who are aged 13 years or above. These games contain violence with little depiction of blood, sexual content, increased amount of bad language, and moderately dark humor.
Mature (M) – A game with M rating is meant for audiences who are aged 17 years or above. Just like PEGI’s “18” rating, they contain extreme violence with realistic display of blood and gore, strong depiction of illegal drug use, increased amount of sexual content, and frequent use of profanity.
Adults Only (AO) – Games with AO rating are only for those who are aged 18 years or above. These games are mostly pornographic titles that portray very frequent graphic nudity and strong sexual content. AO rated video games are often subject to heavy censorship and most platforms or stores refuse to sell such titles.
You probably have realized by now that video games are actually more subjective to censorship than movies or T.V shows. Since they are an “interactive form of entertainment” players have direct control over their actions. Every violent or otherwise objectionable action in video games is regarded as something “which the game is making us perform”. Therefore, it is really difficult for game developers to come up with mature themed games, as extreme depiction of violence or sexual content may result in the games getting banned in certain regions, or in rare cases, worldwide.