Sunday, November 28, 2010

PEGI's Paradox

PEGI (see is Pan-European Game Information, actually a more detailed rating system than that used by ESRB, (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) which basically only rates for sex and violence. The PEGI system also includes flags for drug abuse, racism, and gambling. Rumor has it PEGI may currently be studying the feasibility of a flag for "sexist attitudes and/or exploitation of women".

To quote from the PEGI website, "The PEGI system was developed and based on existing systems in Europe. In the drafting of the PEGI assessment form and the shaping of the system organisation, society representatives such as consumers, parents and religious groups have been largely involved."

Oh great, religious groups, isn't that a delightful kettle of fish? You can bet that no pagans were invited to sit on that panel, and I severely doubt that much input from Islamic clergy went into the final mix. Can you imagine the nightmare of trying to reconcile computer games with the sharia? (Sharia is traditional Islamic law, essentially unchanged since the time of the Prophet Mohammed, 1400 years ago). With all due respect for Islam, Islamic Women, and the Prophet of God (PBUH), can we pause for a moment to snicker at the thought of World of Warcraft, (or any other popular MMOG), with all the female characters in burqa?

As an aside, how are they going to handle this when Turkey becomes a full member of the EU?

But I digress from the main topic here. PEGI and ESRB are essentially censorship organs. No, they do not nominally have the power to openly prohibit a game from being sold, but they do have that power in fact. They have that power because, while the model is slowly changing, game publishers depend on retail sales to make a profit. And most retailers will not touch an unrated game, or one that has a rating they consider unacceptable. And the few retailers that will handle such games will not display them prominently enough to generate impulse sales.

This means that failing to get an acceptable rating from the relevant rating agency is the kiss of death to a game in most cases. There do exist exceptions. The Grand Theft Auto series became such a phenomenon that the later games in the series generated their own demand, a demand so extreme that retailers could not (or would not) refuse to carry them, in spite of grief and controversy over ratings, so-called "hidden content", etc.

So the bottom line, when we get past all the circumlocutions and look at the final net effect, is censorship. Censorship based in part on religious sensibilities, specifically Judeo-Christian religious sensibilities. Most writers would at this point tell you how you should feel about that. Being a pagan, (and a lazy bastard), I'll let you figure it out for yourselves.

The differences between the two rating agencies, European and US, are not profound, but they are notable. The ESRB, betraying the puritanical origins of our American society, is mostly concerned with sex and nudity. Never mind the fact that most of us get every meal there for the first 6 months of our lives, apparently once we have been weaned the mere sight of a woman's breasts is enough to cause grave and irreparable psychological damage, twisting the All-American Boy from the path of Eagle Scout to that of axe-murder chainsaw rapist. The scary part is that there are people who actually believe this crap, and know in their hearts that all of us who don't agree will burn in hell forever.

PEGI, in accordance with European attitudes, is quite a bit more laissez-faire about nudity or partial nudity, but more concerned with violence than ESRB. And, if the additional ratings offered by PEGI are an indicator, by other issues of political correctness which are not even rated for by ESRB.

Nor is this phenomenon anything new. An amusing example is offered by "Giants", an RTS game from over a decade ago. One race in the game were mermaids. Topless mermaids, oh my, no seashells! Now, ESRB was thoroughly scandalised by this, and threatened a "kiss-of-death" rating unless it was amended, but had no problem with the level of "violence" portrayed in the game. PEGI was upset with the amount of blood and gore, but had absolutely no problem with the topless mermaids. So the game developer patched the mermaids with a bandeau, and made the blood green instead of red. PEGI and ESRB declared young gamers saved from trauma and a life of psych counseling by their vigilance once again. And a few weeks after the game was published, most video game magazines published the tip that if you went into the game directory and renamed or deleted a certain small file, the bandeau disappeared and your cartoon mermaids had boobs again.

Which brings us neatly to the real point here, the true paradox.

Gamers want the boobs. (Male gamers, anyhow. What female gamers want, I am in no way qualified to say.) Yes, that's right. I came right out and said it. Gamers want to see flesh, and lots of it. Artfully concealed and occasionally revealed is my personal preference, but Your Mileage May Vary. Hellaciously politically incorrect to say, but there you have it. And it's true.

Which means that ESRB and PEGI are, for the most part, in the business of preventing the consumers from obtaining what they want.

Having crossed the Rubicon of political correctness with trumpets blaring, I may as well go the rest of the way with this topic. Do I want to see the average video game looking like something from HELL NO! The vast majority of current porn is vulgar and tasteless. Not because it's porn, but because it's porn with no artistry. Such things are hellishly difficult to describe precisely, but try digging up some old 70's porn, something classic like Seka. Difficult to find anymore, but not impossible. Watch this carefully for a few minutes, looking not at the T&A but at the filmmaking. Some of the old 70's porn was just as trashy as anything today, but most did display an artistry, a sense that the people behind the cameras had some background in art.

This is a much better idea, I think, of what the results would look like if the reins were loosened a bit on artistic design in video games. Look at video games in Japan, and what they get away with. And Japanese society doesn't seem to be teetering on the brink of collapse. Then again, Japan has a whole different slant on sex and human interaction in general, (not to mention life, death, and everything else) and comparisons with western society are always tricky.

Am I suggesting that we would or should see characters making the beast with two backs in the next MMORPG? No, absolutely not, or at least not in public, PLEASE. Topless characters, as an option which can be toggled on or off in game options, and occasional full frontal nudity? Yes, why not? And while I personally have no interest in man-sausage, if you think such things cannot be or are not being depicted in graphic art, go to and search on the word yaoi. Talk about something to really freak out the bible-thumpers...

Trying to predict the results of lifting or relaxing a long-standing prohibition on human behavior is never easy. Even the so-called experts do not exactly have a good track record. And the current situation is by no means intolerable. The average horndog gamer gets enough titillation (gotta love that word) to keep his interest up, so to speak.

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