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'The Myth of Mature Gaming'

by Ben Parfitt on April 4, 2004 @ 4:08 a.m. PDT

Most recently there has been a lot of commotion around violent games, lawsuits, ratings and letigation regarding "mature" titles. When we use the term "mature gaming," what is it that we actually mean? Are we simply referring to titles that have received a "mature" or "18+" rating certificate? In this week's editorial, we give our thoughts on the recent "phenomenon."

The most famous, or should I say infamous, game to receive that accolade is Grand Theft Auto 3, a game that has not only been associated with numerous high-school shootings and been the subject of numerous lawsuits, but is also one of the highest-selling games of all time. It’s certainly the most successful western title of the current gaming generation.

A more recent example of a supposedly mature game is another title from Rockstar, Manhunt. This is a game where you play the subject of a snuff movie. The game mechanics require you to systematically kill those who hunt you, and you are encouraged to do this in the most gruesome way possible, the most notorious method available being the smothering of one of your victims with a plastic bag.

The reason why these games are so notorious is that the tabloid press would have you believe that despite their 18+ ratings, these games are getting into the hands of minors, and subsequently, their delicate little minds are being damaged. Sales figures would seem to suggest otherwise, however. In 2003, only 12% of all video games sold were rated mature, yet 90% of people who buy video games are over 18. Do some of these titles get into the hands of minors? Undoubtedly, but it’s far from the pandemic that we’re lead to believe, but the ludicrous arguments reasoning that video games breed killers is for another time.

Whilst only allowing certain games to be played by over 18’s is necessary to a certain extent, is labelling these games as mature at all accurate? Look again at the dictionary definition that started this article. Mature – with fully developed powers of body and mind. Do either Vice City or Manhunt bare comparison to this definition? The main fun that is to be had in Vice City comes from stealing vehicles, driving like a lunatic, slaughtering pedestrians, firing rockets at policemen and jumping over ramps on a motorbike. The missions are very much a secondary concern. Now, does any of that behaviour sound mature? Fun, yes, but mature, no. (I heard someone saying recently that Vice City is nothing more than the modern day Pac Man – you’re Pac Man in your car, the pedestrians you slaughter are the pills and the bosses of the storyline are the ghosts). The same arguments apply to Manhunt. Trying to kill others in the most gratuitous manner possible is simply not a mature endeavour.

When Sony entered the gaming scene in 1994, the key to its success was the manner in which it targeted an older audience. Games like Tomb Raider and Wipeout attempted to distance Sony from what was seen as the more child-orientated gaming offered by market leader Nintendo. Playstations were placed in clubs across Europe, and the advertising Sony employed was far darker and grittier than anything used to sell video games before. This was marketing genius, of course. Not only did gaming now appeal to an older market that beforehand felt that gaming was for kids, but also kids themselves now saw the people playing Playstation and wanted to be like them, the same way that a kid picks up a cigarette because they’ve seen their dad smoking. The whole market was seduced.

Jjust because the people buying games were now older, doesn’t mean that the games were any more mature. After all, fundamentally Wipeout is no different to F Zero. They’re both racing games set in the future, and the only differences between them are cosmetic. Nintendo’s title is cute, cartoony and light-hearted. Sony’s title is darker, 3D and boasts a thumping dance soundtrack. The fact that F Zero is the better game was inconsequential because Wipeout was infinitely cooler. Which is the more mature title? Is it the title that relies on licensed music, superficial weapons and flashier graphics (i.e., Wipeout), or is it the title that is constructed around solid gameplay, precision control and genuine speed (i.e., F Zero)? Surely, the facts speak for themselves?

It’s ironic that the most genuine mature gaming that can be found in the industry today comes from the company that people think of as designing games for kids – Nintendo. The reason for this is simple. Nintendo doesn’t rely on licensing, gratuitous violence or modern cool to sell its games. Instead, it relies on something far more fundamental – gameplay. I’m not saying that they’re the only company to do this (a special mention going to French developer Ubisoft), but they’re probably the most consistent.

An excellent example is the superb Animal Crossing (which criminally, is still without a confirmed release in Europe, despite a PAL version being made available for the Australian market). There is not a single game on the market that looks more "kiddified." Yet, ironically, Animal Crossing is the very definition of mature gaming. In many ways, it can be considered an aimless game – there is no obvious goal, and no conclusion can be realistically achieved. Any goals the player chooses to pursue are entirely self-imposed. The act of playing is not constructed around the desire to complete a level, attain a score or beat a particular character in combat. You play only for the pleasure of playing. A willingness for the player to embrace the gaming world and take pleasure merely from the fact that they are operating within it are vital for any enjoyment to be achieved at all, and all of these demands are requirements you could only expect of a mature gamer. No element of the game could be considered gratuitous or instantly gratifying.

Many of Nintendo’s titles fare well under similar comparison. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a triumph of design, and along with the likes of Super Mario Sunshine, the emphasis throughout is mostly centred purely on the act of playing. The same can be said of many titles from other developers as well, of course (Beyond Good and Evil, Ico, REZ, Shenmue), but very few of last year's best selling titles could be considered mature when put under the same scrutiny. Need For Speed: Underground, Return of the King or Medal of Honor: Rising Sun are good examples. Of the games that have officially been labelled mature, none of them exhibit the characteristics of maturity that would appeal to a genuinely mature gamer.

Don’t forget that games are meant to be fun, and fun in itself isn’t always mature. There’s room for both mature and not-so-mature titles in the market, after all. It’s for that reason that both Animal Crossing and Vice City are games that should sit proudly alongside one another in any collection.

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