Games May Be Toning Down Sexual Content, But Not Violence

Courtesy of NetherRealm Studios
'Mortal Kombat 11'

Franchises like 'Mortal Kombat' and 'Tomb Raider' may not feature the same skimpy costumes for characters as they once did, but the levels of blood and gore on display is still a major selling point.

As the video game industry attracts an ever wider user base, the content in established series has shifted to appeal to the new market. Best-selling franchises such as Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, Tomb Raider and others have toned down some of the sexualization of their female characters.

But while the industry may be pivoting away from overt sexualization, graphic violence is still a major selling point for many titles. "The issue of violence in games is really one of whether or not we’re empowering consumers to make informed consent," Jen MacLean, the former executive director of the International Game Developers Association, tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which issues game ratings like E for "Everyone" and M for "Mature 17+," has been assigning age and content ratings for 25 years. Content descriptors for games rated E may include "comic mischief" or "mild lyrics," while M-rated games often carry terms like "intense violence," "strong language" or "strong sexual content."

Developers have made it a point to show that they understand changing norms. Last month, Mortal Kombat 11 art director Steve Beran spoke with Polygon about how the new game in the long-running fighting series will be "more mature and respectful" than previous iterations. It was an interesting turn in a conversation that was primarily centered on the game's "over-the-top" graphic violence, such as beheading an enemy and impaling their skull with a sharpened projectile.

Beran's comments, however, were not about the game's violent content but rather the issue of what outfits its characters wore in-game, particularly the female fighters. "You’re not going to wear a bikini to a fight," Beran told Polygon. "We don’t have bathing suit fighters, and I think that’s fine. If people are disappointed, I don’t regret making that change by any means.”

Beran's statements raised questions on what content is deemed appropriate and inappropriate for audiences, a debate which has raged for decades (NetherRealm Studios, Beran and the Mortal Kombat 11 development team declined THR's requests for comment). "We are always available to developers and publishers during the development of a game to provide guidance about how specific content may impact a rating assignment," the ESRB says.

The organization adds, "Although many publishers do engage with us in that way, ESRB is not privy to why developers and publishers may choose to include, not include or modify content in a specific way, including whether ratings played into those choices."

While violence in video games is still a hot topic for many in, and outside of, the industry (last year the Trump administration condemned violent video games in the wake of the fatal shooting in Parkland, Florida), the issue of sexually explicit material in games seems to be an even more controversial subject.

In 2011, a landmark case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, about First Amendment rights for violent video games hit the Supreme Court. The court voted to strike down a 2005 California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors without parental supervision. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that video games were "protected speech" under the First Amendment. It was seen as a big win for the industry — at least by some.

"For better or worse, our society has long regarded many depictions of killing and maiming as suitable features of popular entertainment, including entertainment that is widely available to minors," Justice Samuel Alito said of the ruling, for which he voted in favor. "The court's tougher line on sex parallels the movie industry's voluntary ratings system, which is much quicker to give a rare NC-17 rating for sex than for violence, but the industry has not done much to explain its double standard, either."

Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer was blunter: "[W]hat sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured, and killed — is also topless?"

“Sex and aggression are fundamental parts of being a human being,” says Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford, faculty in the school of psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, and author of the book How Fantasy Becomes Reality, which examines how media like Grand Theft Auto and Mad Men address issues such as media violence and portrayals of social groups. “Some people, based on their ideology or philosophy, find sex to be something they’re trying to protect their kids against. Other people believe there are developmentally appropriate stages for different kinds of content. What I’ve noticed is that aggression in games is so common, and has been so common, that people don’t think of that as a big problem.”

When the first Mortal Kombat title was originally released in 1992, the game sparked a controversy that made it all the way to Washington. Hearings were held by the United States Senate Committees on Governmental Affairs and the Judiciary on Dec. 7, 1993, and March 5, 1994, to discuss the issue of violent imagery in video games. The end result of the hearings was the formation of the Entertainment Software Association in July 1994, which subsequently formed the ESRB to provide content ratings on games sold to the public, ranging from E to AO, "Adults Only."

Since its formation nearly 25 years ago, the ESRB has only given 29 games an AO rating. Of those titles, only two have earned the rating solely for violent content, while 26 games on the list sport content descriptors such as "strong sexual content," "mature sexual themes" or "nudity." (The only title on the list that has neither violent nor sexual content, 2003's Peak Entertainment Casinos, was given the rating because it's actual, real-money online gambling software.)

The ESRB says that it doesn't weigh one type of potentially offensive content against another. "ESRB ratings are based on the cultural norms of the region we serve. To help us determine what those norms are, we have regularly conducted research with parents," the organization tells THR. " When testing different types of game content with parents, we find high sensitivity to sexual and suggestive content, profanity, use of controlled substances and depictions of intense violence. We don’t compare one type of content against the other when rating."

Receiving an AO rating has been called the "kiss of death" by gaming critics and analysts, as it essentially makes the game unavailable for most players. The majority of retailers, including Best Buy and GameStop, refuse to stock AO games; console giants Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft refuse to publish AO games; and streaming platform Twitch has banned titles with AO ratings from being broadcast.

Of the 29 games that have received AO ratings, commercial hits are few and far between. The best-selling titles on the list, 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and 2007's Manhunt 2, were both published by Rockstar Games, and each game was edited down to an M rating after receiving the AO tag (in the case of San Andreas, the game only earned the AO rating temporarily, after the discovery of an unfinished minigame featuring a sexual encounter, titled "Hot Coffee," was found. It was later patched out and the game regained its M rating).

Meanwhile, M-rated games often appear on best-sellers lists. The two top-selling games of 2018 were Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 and Treyarch and Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Both games received M ratings from the ESRB for "blood and gore," "intense violence" and "strong language." Red Dead was the only title in the top five best-sellers last year to feature "sexual content" and "nudity" descriptions from the rating board.

"Opinions on sexual content versus violence are probably very different from [player to player]," says MacLean. "I think it depends on the society."

“Why is it so terrible for your kid to see somebody having sex versus everyone getting blown away constantly?” asks Dill-Shackleford.

In the U.S., at least, the official distinction between AO- and M-rated games, as described by the ESRB, is not drastic. M ratings restrict sale to anyone under the age of 17, while AO games are available to consumers 18 years of age and older. Meanwhile, their content descriptions share many similarities: "Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language," reads the M rating description, while the AO description reads, "Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency."

This year alone, a number of controversies have arisen around games with adult themes, nudity and graphic sexual content. In March, cries of "censorship" were raised over a scene in the U.S. PlayStation 4 version of the action game Devil May Cry 5 that blocked a shot of rear female nudity available in other versions of the game. Capcom, the game's developer, has since apologized and fixed the issue, claiming an "incorrect title update was applied to the PS4 version of DMC5 at launch for North and South America."

Fighting game franchise Dead or Alive — which is largely known for its female characters in provocative outfits — toned down the sexualization of its female characters with this year's sixth installment. The game's director, Yohei Shimbori, told Gematsu in January that they "wanted to create a cooler and more heroic look" for their characters, walking back earlier statements where he said they were "toning down" characters' "sexiness" (Koei Tecmo and the DoA 6 team declined THR's inquiries for further comment). The game still offers revealing outfits for its female characters, as well as its male fighters, and earned an M-rating noting "sexual themes" as well as "blood" and "violence."

"The player base for modern video games is all genders and really it's all ages," says MacLean. "If you rely on scantily-clad women as a primary hook you might attract a few players, but you’re also alienating a really important segment that has demonstrated that they make purchases and they play and they matter."

Both Dead or Alive 6 and Devil May Cry 5 were released in early March, and while the latter has far outsold the former (over 2 million units shipped compared to under 500,000). The two top-selling new releases of 2019, Kingdom Hearts 3 and Anthem, are rated E and T, for ages 13 and up, respectively. 

It's not just AAA console games that earn scrutiny for their content, however. With the advent of digital storefronts offering games directly to players, companies like Valve have consistently come under fire for content available on its Steam store. Last month, the company made the decision to not allow a game titled Rape Day to be published through its platform, stating, "We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that."

It was a polarizing moment in gaming, as many in the industry had publicly called for the game not to be allowed on Valve's platform while the company itself had stated last year in a lengthy blog post that "the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling."

"Valve shouldn't be the ones deciding this," the company said on its blog. "Those choices should be yours to make."

That specific language is also shared by the ESRB. "Using both parts of the rating system plus rating summaries, parents can make up their own mind about what’s right for their child based on their own level of tolerance for different types of content," the ESRB says.

Dill-Shackleford also stressed the human element of the conversation over sensitive content. "There’s not a hard line between truth and fiction. Real people write stories, real people write video games,” she says. “It’s so difficult to have this conversation. People shut down. Whatever we’re talking about — if it’s sex, aggression, whatever — we’re all human beings. We’re not monsters. You need to be able to listen to people and entertain other ideas."