The concept of maturity in society has been changing since the dawn of civilization.
When speaking of maturity as a legal and societal construct, as opposed to biological maturity, the rules are in constant flux. Things we consider either a sign or privilege of maturity today were often different in the past. Marriage and sexual relations for example were often allowed far earlier than today, conforming to biological maturity, while voting rights, or the right for a voice in the economy, was allotted later.
Our perception of maturity in media is mostly influenced by a long standing set of arbitrated ratings of what is considered proper by a self-regulatory industry body, be it the ESRB, the MPAA, PEGI or the USK. It doesn’t mean that these rating are necessarily accurate, but they shape the perception of society on the topic of maturity through their classification.
We have all read several articles about maturity in games by now, usually around the time some kind of new controversial “ultra violent” video game comes out and is decried as the end of society. This spawns a flood of articles about this hypothetical game, and then counter arguments, followed by counter counter arguments, and so on, the ride never ends.
The most common argument spawned by these conversations is how games aren’t really mature, but rather immature because they use mature elements.
To quote Charlie Barratt from Gamesradar,
Real world definition of “mature”: Showing the mental, emotional, or physical characteristics associated with a fully developed person; involving serious thought.
Videogame definition of “mature”: Shits, tits and gibs. [...]Ironically, the very things that are included to win over immature teenage boys. [Emphasis original.]
Discarding the troubling association of “immature” with teenage boys, I have to ask where Charlie got his definition of “mature” from, because search as I may I can not find this wording anywhere. Mature can mean a wide variety of things, ranging from “fully developed” to “not accessible to minors” – but we are not “Gather Your Thesaurus,” so lets move on.
It’s true, shits, tits and gibs will entice minors, just like condoms, cigarettes, and alcohol will. They are our tribal symbols of adulthood and every child wants to be “all grown up.” They will try to emulate adult behavior. That’s how children are, and nothing will stop this behavior. Not now, not ever. However these themes aren’t indicators of immaturity, correlation does not equal causation.
Of course a modicum of violence and sexual innuendo doesn’t necessarily a mature game make, an assortment of elements is not sufficient for an assessment. I object, categorically, to treating maturity as if we can pinpoint elements of content that will give us definitive answers. Charlie’s article is a typical example in this regard. He correctly identifies the problem of perception, but goes on to substitute his own perception for the one imprinted by the ESRB.
This is not me picking on this specific article or Charlie Barratt, it just happens that this is a typical example of the preferred argumentation for both sides of the proverbial coin. To accurately assess if a game is to be considered mature, one has to apply that concept which has been lost to games media for a long time:
Context is everything in the assessment of a piece, be it purely entertainment or art. It connects the elements together and provides the measure by which we can gauge the maturity of an item. While elements can sometimes by themselves be considered mature in the sense of being inaccessible to minors, they do not speak to the maturity of a work.
Sex, for example, will be by definition an element that is generally inaccessible to minors. They can not accurately gauge the meaning of this societal interaction, however it can be used entirely in a way that is not contingent on this understanding. The Japanese, for example, love to use what we would consider mature themes as humor – especially sexuality, sex, all sorts of bodily fluids and (graphic) violence (Excel Saga, Ah! My Goddess, School Rumble, Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan), but we do not need to look that far to the east when Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry are around.
The explicit nature of a work tells us nothing about its maturity, and vice-versa the non-explicit nature also tells us nothing about its immaturity. In his article Charlie states that Mass Effect is a truly mature game, presupposing the elements of racism and politics are somehow intrinsically much more mature than sex and violence, I wonder if Mel Brooks or Terry Gilliam would agree with him.
Ultimately the maturity of a work must be judged on a contextual level, no matter if certain elements are present or not. Sex and sexuality are hot topics and can be elements in a truly mature experience, as well as be part of immature pandering.
The Witcher certainly has as much “shits, tits and gibs” as God of War does, but their context is diametrically opposed. Not only that, but explicit gratuity in itself is not a solid indicator of immaturity, contrary to what some have implied about games like the Metro series. This incessant association between things that make us sad to be mature and things that titillate us to be immature is a typical error perpetrated by projecting ones own biases onto the material. The inherent judgmental nature of such argumentation is in itself a problem, illustrating a need for maturity of ones own punditry. Subtlety isn’t always mature.
When examining games that can be considered whimsical, the presentation of themes is not necessarily in any way related to the maturity of the game. Dissonance isn’t always a bad thing, it again depends on the context.
Take for example one of the most mature games of any generation, EarthBound (Mother 2). It is not the explicit themes themselves that make it mature, but how the game, in its entirety, presents the themes and involves the player to participate and interact with them. EarthBound can evoke different emotions and its tone differs significantly throughout the game. It can be funny, somber, adventurous or inspiring depending on the fragment you are playing.
The “how” is considerably the most important part in ascertaining the maturity of a game (or any other work). The coherence, including intentional dissonance, is what defines a mature game, a game that has reached its full potential in dealing with its themes, a game that cares about.
Opposite to that are games that do not care about their themes. Games like Bioshock Infinite do not care about racism, no matter how many times you throw the ball at the interracial couple. Games like Mass Effect have nothing to say about relationships, sexuality, or sex, except that you can “get some.” They treat their themes as disposable bullet-points on a list, they have content but no substance.
These games can be considered immature not because they flaunt their explicit graphical violence or because you can catch a glimpse of blue side-boob. They are immature because they present their themes without purpose, they pander. In these games the player isn’t supposed to consider the themes in the context of the work, he is just supposed to like them because they are there.
There are games on both sides of this discussion that either receive false praise or false controversy for their maturity/immaturity. One could drag out Dragon’s Crown as an example, and Bioshock Infinite as the counterpoint.
Unfortunately the public is not used to thinking about these things at length, because we have removed the responsibility from them by establishing the regulatory bodies. Whatever the ESRB says goes and the public recognizes their decisions as standards which in turn inform and fuel the media outrage. Having the responsibility of information removed and placed in the hands of the authorities creates a situation where the population has little to no perspective or understanding of the nuances. The ESRB isn’t a honor system, both publishers and distributors often refuse to carry unrated games.
One has to question the current market forces and regulatory bodies if the discussion around maturity is even warranted. A one-letter label on the box is scarcely descriptive enough if the content is suitable to minors, but that’s neither here nor there in the context of maturity in games.
At this point we had quite enough of the back and forth about what can, should, or shouldn’t be in a game for it to be “all grown up.” We have to accept that games are as diverse as any other form of media and that the medium’s maturity isn’t contingent on its content.
The medium is already mature, it’s time we started treating it as such.