A young boy peeks through a window at a girl taking a bubble bath. A man in an office leers at a female associate as she bends over to place a golf ball on a putting mat. Two scantily clad women kiss passionately as a man enters the bedroom. Finally, a guy and a girl hook up in a clothing store and enter one of the fitting rooms while another customer looks on in bewilderment.
These are more than examples of the lost art of innuendo in American society, they’re scenes featured in screenshots of EA’s upcoming Sims 2. They’re also instances of an emerging trend in games to include adult-oriented material in T (Teen)-rated titles. There’s nothing explicit in these scenes; rather, the developers seem to be edging as close as they can to the dividing line between T- and M (Mature)-rated titles without crossing over. The reasons are as old as the entertainment industry itself: Sex sells, but for mass consumer oriented products, an M rating would be a seal of death, so game makers are cramming as much adult content as the ESRB deems acceptable into T-rated products in order to guarantee themselves the largest possible consumer base.
Like other artistic choices, sex is a viable and important theme for makers of interactive entertainment to explore. It can give an M-rated game like Duke Nukem 3D a naughty edge or be used to enhance a product’s atmosphere, which the disturbing, sadomasochistic imagery in Buka Entertainment’s Midnight Nowhere does exceedingly well. Sexual behavior shouldn’t, however, have a place in products accessible to teens and marketed as family-oriented material.
In this manner, games seem to be following in the footsteps of Hollywood, which, through the completely unnecessary PG-13 rating, have found a way to make films that both appeal to the baser instincts of adults and pass the MPAA’s litmus test of suitability for young people. I imagine more than a few parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats during viewings of Bring It On as a male cheerleader hoisted his female partner into the air with one hand and (how do I say this delicately?) took advantage of the situation in a categorically R-rated manner. The difference between films and games, though, is that the interactive entertainment industry has a generally effective ratings system in place – with the exception of a weak dividing line between T- and M-rated titles when it comes to sexual content.
This issue needs to be addressed because it’s contributing to the radically mixed messages our youth are receiving about sex. Many parents tell their children sex is best put off until they’re more mature or even married, but every time these kids turn on a television, watch a movie, browse a magazine or listen to music, they’re bombarded with imagery and messages that stir up their already raging hormones. I wouldn’t want to be a teenager growing up in such a morally polarized society; on one hand, there are television shows in which young people regularly engage in sexual activity, and on the other hand, our nation goes into an outrage because of a brief glimpse of a breast on television. How is a minor supposed to find his or her way through this tangle of contradictory messages?
One way would be for the ESRB to tighten the screws on what’s deemed acceptable for T-rated titles. The industry appears to have found an acceptable dividing point for violence and visceral imagery that allows Teen titles to feature intense battle sequences and communicate vital messages about the brutality of war without splashing buckets of blood across the screen; why not take an equally sensible approach when it comes to sexual content? For the ESRB, which presents itself as a socially responsible organization, to be effective, it needs to draw clearer lines in the increasingly gray area of sexual content.
Another way would be for game makers to lead the way for other media to follow. I fully believe the developers and publishers of interactive amusement are in a position to forge new paths in the area of teen content and show other forms of entertainment how it should be done. Publishers would still have the freedom to explore mature themes through titles specifically targeted at adults, and companies wanting to draw the largest audience possible to its products could do so through the use of add-ons. EA, for instance, has done a remarkable job of exploiting the creative and commercial potential of its first Sims series through the use of expansion packs; why not release a base product that’s family-friendly and put the bawdy material into an M-rated add-on accessible only to adults?
Other than being concerned about our country’s youth being exposed to mixed messages and inappropriate material, what bothers me most about this situation is that game makers don’t have to stoop to appealing to a teenager’s budding sexuality in order to get his or her money; they have the ability to attract young dollars based solely on the gameplay of their products. As my 12-year-old daughter often reminds me, kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they know a good thing when they see it. So instead of packing as much adult content as possible into games accessible to anyone tall enough to push dollar bills across a counter to a cashier, why not create quality gameplay that stimulates their imagination and sense of curiosity about the world rather than their hormones? It might help them to become better people and make the world a little less confusing for them. To do otherwise is to disregard their developing values.