I Performed an Abortion to Save the World, and All I Got Was This Lousy M Rating
South Park: The Stick of Truth reveals the strange and ambiguous quality of entertainment rating systems.
I performed an abortion to save the world. Actually, it was one of three abortions that I performed, two of which were performed on men. I also dodged my father's scrotum while battling an underpants gnome. He, of course, (the gnome) was crushed by one of my mother's big, swinging breasts. I climbed up a man's rectum, farted on a man's balls, and I also witnessed several anal probings by aliens.
What I am trying to say is that I recently have been playing the Mature rated game, South Park: The Stick of Truth.
There is a scene in Stick of Truth that takes place in an Unplanned Parenthood abortion clinic in which a discussion of women's vaginas and Dorito's Locos comes up. One of the characters listening to this conversation is holding some kind of scientific device and declares that “I'm picking up some hot readings on the ESRB,” as if the device he holds is some kind of ESRB monitor. As the conversation concerning abortion records and Taco Bell continues, he checks the monitor's readings again, and shouts, “The ESRB is going crazy!”
And, yet, the ESRB did not go crazy when it came to rating The Stick of Truth it would seem. It gave the game an M for Mature, not an AO for Adults Only. In 2004, the ESRB did go crazy when it was discovered that the M rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contained a mod buried in the game's code that was only accessible by hacking the PC version of the game. This mod called “Hot Coffee” was a mini-game that allowed the games protagonist, CJ Johnson, to participate in a sex mini-game in which a fully nude woman would grind on a fully clothed CJ (simulating sex acts).
When the mod, which again was not accessible unless the game was first hacked (in other words, most players of the game would never see it), was discovered, an outcry was heard over the existence of said mod, and the ESRB demanded that all versions of San Andreas be branded with the dreaded AO rating, a rating that would preclude sales at Wal-Mart and is generally (like the former X rating in movies and the current NC-17 rating) considered a death sentence for a video game property. No one, it is argued, will buy an AO rated game.
At the time, I found the whole thing rather baffling as it isn't as if sex, nudity, and the like had never appeared in video games before. There are at least five or six games in the Leisure Suit Larry series, a series that, of course, predates the ESRB rating system (the first of which was published in 1987). Playboy: The Mansion would also be released in early 2005 and featured bare breasted (though not fully nude, which is, perhaps, notable) women grinding on fully clothed men throughout the game. It also received merely an M rating for this content.
All of which is to say: baby, we have come a long way in ten years as far as video game rating goes. The content of “Hot Coffee” mode seems rather tame and banal, considering that I have killed aborted fetuses in 2010's less than critically acclaimed Dante's Inferno along with a 50-foot naked woman who spawned such monstrosities through her nipples. Oh, and also that I have dodged an enormous scrotum by mashing the “W” key in the nick of time in The Stick of Truth.
All of which is also to say that at this point, I have no idea what the hell an M rating is supposed to mean at all.
As I understand them, rating systems are, of course, a form of self monitoring on the part of the entertainment industry, which would prefer not to have the government dictate what can and cannot be in a piece of media. As such, there is no specifically legal consideration in regards to distributing games and movies, just an agreement between publishers and distributors to try to keep certain media from being sold to minors. Additionally, ratings serve as content warnings to potential buyers. The M is supposed to indicate the presence of violence and sexuality in a game. AO, one would imagine, is intended to indicate extreme presentations of sex and violence.
I understand why both San Andreas and The Stick of Truth would not receive a Teen rating. However, the label M as a content warning seems inexplicable and impossible to understand when comparing these two properties, which is a real problem if that rating is intended to provide clear content warnings to consumers.
Now, please understand that I do not in any way object to the existence of The Stick of Truth. Indeed, I actually would wholeheartedly endorse the game for fans of the show and also for gamers that are not easily offended. I think it is one of the most enjoyable and clever games of last year. It is absolutely obscene, though. It is its nature, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is that. I also read Chuck Palahniuk novels. So sue me.
What I do object to is the meaninglessness of its rating. There are many players who are not going to be able to stomach the places that The Stick of Truth goes (like up a man's rectum, for example), which is fine. What I would like, though, is some clarity at a glance. Yes, I know potential players can visit the ESRB's site for a fully detailed description of what The Stick of Truth's questionable content entails (though honestly the description on their web site doesn't do the game's level of obscenity justice in my opinion). However, what most consumers see when looking at a content warning is simply the letter rating that indicates how “heavy” the content will be.
In this regard, though, this is simply a problem across media. I have no objection to an X rating for movies like A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy, and, frankly, I wouldn't object to such a rating appearing for movies like Watchmen or Changeling. The way that violence or sexuality is presented in those films is considerably more excessive than the traditional type of content presentation in an R rated movie.
Some may be surprised by my reference to the Angelina Jolie vehicle Changeling, which to my recollection doesn't actually contain any overt sexuality or violence onscreen. However, this is a common example that I use when discussing content descriptors for media. I recall the previews for that film not indicating its darker undertones at all, and the movie is in fact quite disturbing (it's actually also pretty lousy, but that is another matter all together). The trailers are the sort of thing that would make my mother-in-law say something like, “Oh, an Angelina Jolie movie about a mother searching for her son. I should see that.”
Of course, the movie is about child murder and it's dark as hell. I want a simple content descriptor that clarifies for my mother-in-law that this isn't a movie that she would want to see. In some way, perhaps, that is measurement for my sense of the usefulness of a content rating. Would this be material that a mature adult like my mother-in-law is okay with seeing or not seeing? If you know what I mean (because you know someone like my mother-in-law or are like my mother-in-law and have a low tolerance for media that creates discomfort in a viewer), then you should get what I mean.
I don't know why The Stick of Truth received an M rating when it so clearly contains things that make it considerably more troubling and bothersome than a typical Mature rated game does. Is it because South Park and Matt Stone and Trey Parker's work in general is a known quantity and there is some assumption that they should get a pass or that the audience is already aware that South Park has always pushed the envelope of questionable content? What I do see, though, is a missed opportunity to perhaps legitimize the AO rating with a game that people would play and would buy despite that rating.
The stigma of AOs, Xs, and NC-17s needs to be eradicated in a world in which that level of content is accepted by some audiences and clarity is sought by others. A product of this sort, which has an audience that would buy it regardless of its rating (actually they might avoid a Teen rated South Park -- after all, what would be the point?) could actually be helpful in making developers less afraid to produce content that might be labeled AO and might make consumers less leery of the label.