South Park: The Stick of Truth

I Performed an Abortion to Save the World, and All I Got Was This Lousy M Rating

I performed an abortion to save the world. 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 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 holds a scientific device and declares, “I’m picking up some hot readings on the ESRB,” as if the device he holds is an ESRB [Entertainment Software Rating Board] 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, it would seem that the ESRB did not go crazy when it came to rating The Stick of Truth. It gave the game an “M” for Mature, not an “AO” for Adults Only. In 2004, the ESRB went 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 game’s PC version. This mod called “Hot Coffee” was a mini-game that allowed the game’s 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 was discovered—which was not accessible unless the game was first hacked—an outcry was heard over its existence. 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 considered a death sentence for a video game property (like the former X rating in movies and the current NC-17 rating). No one, it is argued, will buy an AO-rated game.

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 regarding video game rating. 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.

This is also to say that, at this point, I have no idea what the hell an M rating is supposed to mean.

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 appear in a piece of media. As such, there is no specific legal consideration in regard 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 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.

I don’t object to the existence of The Stick of Truth. I would wholeheartedly endorse the game for fans of the show and gamers who are not easily offended. It is one of the most enjoyable and clever games of its peers. It is absolutely obscene, though. That is its nature, like Chuck Palahniuk novels.

What object to is the meaninglessness of its rating. Many players 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 the game’s website description doesn’t do its level of obscenity justice). 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 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 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 contain any overt sexuality or violence onscreen. However, this is a common example I use when discussing content descriptors for media. I recall the previews for that film not indicating its darker undertones at all, and Changeling is quite disturbing (it’s also pretty lousy, but that is another matter). Changeling‘s trailers 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.”

It’s not. It’s 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 she wants to see. That is my measurement of the usefulness of a content rating. Would this be material for a mature adult like my mother-in-law to be okay with seeing or not seeing? You know what I mean if 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.

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. 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? This rating is a missed opportunity to legitimize the AO rating with a game people would play and buy despite that rating.

The stigma of AO, X, and NC-17 ratings should be eradicated for a world where some audiences accept that level of content and others seek clarity. A product of this sort, which has an audience that would buy it regardless of its rating (they might avoid a Teen-rated South Park – what would be the point?) could be helpful in making developers less afraid to produce content that might be labeled AO and might make consumers less leery of the label.