Censorship in Video Games
Carlos’ Cartridge Column
By Carlos Lee
Video game censorship has been a long and tireless battle for censors, changing in response to controversial titles. Video games in the past were simple and targeted at children with an ensemble of a bright, pixelated color palette. Contemporary games with excessive violence and nudity purchased by unsuspecting adults brought about years of debate and concern for youth who might be exposed.
It wasn’t until the 1992 release of “Mortal Kombat” that sparked the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB is a regulatory organization that assigns an age-based rating system. Two years later, the ESRB handed down its first “Mature” age rating. It was not the first M rating. That honor goes to the obscure “Custer’s Revenge” in 1982. But Mortal Kombat’s M rating brought attention to the potential games have as a medium.
As technology improved and video gaming rose in popularity, game creators sought to push the boundaries of the rating system. Controversial themes were abundant and often glorified: bullying, violence, gang activity, theft, sexism, and many more. The consistency of these themes prompted a question: Do games make teenagers more violent and if so, should they be censored?
An often-cited and tragic example comes from the Columbine High School massacre. Eric Harris, one of the shooters alongside Dylan Klebold, had been an avid fan of DOOM, another controversial game, which depicted excessive violence with satanic imagery. Examples like this would lead to the American Psychological Association (APA) setting up a task force to determine a link between video game violence and real-life violence. Eventually, after years of research papers, the APA would conclude that there is “insufficient research to link violent video game play to criminal violence.”
This APA conclusion, coupled with failed lawsuits against video game companies, echoes the American value of freedom of speech. Our normalization to violent games can sometimes be highlighted through international efforts. Games such as “Manhunt,” “Grand Theft Auto” and “Wolfenstein” have been banned for simple reasons such as a lack of “dignity” or the historical themes of a game. More recently, Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six Siege” attempted to remove themes like gambling and prostitution.
During the attempted changes, I saw the video gaming community lash out in ways on topics extending beyond the reach of just video games. It was a reasonable gesture by Ubisoft, developer of “Rainbow Six Siege,” to explore rising popularity of areas such as China, yet it falls short when seen through the American lens. For example, a common internet joke was the removal of skulls in-game. The cultural differences were especially obvious – beyond why a country wouldn’t want explicit themes – in a superstitious society. The amount of backlash was great but it was a very American response, reflecting our history of freedom of speech and expression.