Column – Mass Effect 2 controversy

June 6, 2008 — Leave a comment

Originally published in The Daily Toreador.

The video game industry seems to come under attack from just about every side these days. Religious organizations, parent organizations, lawyers, and even many politicians (such as Hilary Clinton) have condemned video games for one reason or another. Probably the most famous example of this in recent memory was the “Hot Coffee” scandal that affected TakeTwo, Rockstar, and their game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”. The issue involved a user-created hack of the game that accessed a “hidden” sex scene that was, for obvious reasons, not intended for release in the final version of the game. Rockstar, the developer of the game, unfortunately neglected to notice or remove this content before the game shipped, and they paid dearly for it.

Now, uninformed masses are convinced that something similar is happening with the recent Microsoft published title “Mass Effect”. From Canadian developer Bioware, the Xbox 360 Sci-Fi RPG takes gamers on an epic adventure across several galaxies, where there’s lots of story, conversation, customization, and action. As is a sort of Bioware standard (they’re probably most famous for their “Neverwinter Nights” and “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” games), the game presents you with many choices along the way. You start off by customizing your character, choosing gender and many basic physical attributes (race, hair color, etc.), as well as naming them and giving them a history. Was this character a war hero? A survivor of a great tragedy? It’s up to you. Once you’re actually in the game, you get choices for what you’re going to say to characters, and how you treat several situations. This means that you can either be good and noble, a savior of the galaxy… Or you can be evil, and bring people to their knees in fear. The choice – and story – is entirely yours.

In one completely optional part of the game (it’s dependant on your actions), your character may participate in the now-infamous “sex scene”.

The scene involves you, a human (who’s either male or female), engaging in what is no doubt sexual intercourse with an alien (though human-like… and blue) female. Many things have been said of this scene. Some call it “porn”. Others, like columnist Kevin McCullough, have gone as far as to call it “virtual orgasmic rape”.

No, quite honestly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not something suitable for children, but it’s also not the worst thing to grace television screens by any stretch of the imagination. You’ll see far worse in R-rated movies, and even much of today’s TV.

Which brings me to the next point: Mass Effect is rated “M for Mature” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). This means that no one under the age of 17 should be able to purchase it. It’s most commonly compared to the “R” rating used by the MPAA for movies.

Yet it appears that most people in the media right now just don’t get that. News site Cybercast said, “”There are cultural implications for feeding porn to kids in this way,” and “when you do this, you’re teaching them a distorted lesson about human sexuality and human dignity.” Now, my question is who the heck said anything about feeding this game to kids?

The mass media, it seems, still doesn’t realize that video games aren’t just for kids anymore. They haven’t been for a long, long time. I know, it’s apparently quite shocking, but adults may actually find enjoyment in virtual worlds. Whether it’s joining Tom Clancy’s counter-terrorism unit in “Rainbow Six”, playing some football in “Madden”, or enjoying an epic like “Mass Effect”, a great many adults play games these days… And as such, there are a lot of games out there that simply aren’t made for kids.

This isn’t some new, mysterious phenomenon, though. Game ratings from the ESRB have been around for quite some time, and are clearly displayed on the front of every game box (something even DVDs can’t lay claim to). In fact, in a recent study done by the Federal Trade Commission, the video game industry has been making “significant progress” in limited the sale of M-rated games to minors. In fact, it seems that it would now be easier for a minor to walk out of a store with an R-rated (or even Unrated) DVD or a CD with explicit lyrics than it would be for them to walk out with an M-rated video game.

The job falls, as always, on parents to regulate what their children are watching, playing, or listening to. And not all parents are idiots. According to the same FTC study, of parents surveyed, 87 percent of parents knew about the ESRB ratings, 70 percent used them, and three-quarters of them understand and use the content descriptors on the back of game boxes.

So if a parent or someone on the media wants to complain about children playing games like “Mass Effect”, or even something like “Grand Theft Auto”, they shouldn’t blame the developers of the game, the game industry, or even the government for not regulating the industry (the industry is self-regulated, just like the movie industry). They should blame the parents for not keeping a closer eye on their kids, or the kids themselves for being clever enough to slip under their parents radar. And trust me, a lot of kids are, in fact, that clever. But it’s not the game industry’s fault.

Britton Peele

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Freelance video game critic for sites like GameSpot and GamesRadar. Amateur fantasy author.

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