Tuesday, July 7, 2009

God is Dead. Or, How I Learned to Stop Fearing the ESRB and Instead Fear the Public

Sometimes even Scribblenauts breaks its own rules...and it's usually with hilarious results. Despite hearing we won't see any "proper nouns" we've seen plenty of them already, much to our pleasant surprise. We've seen creatures such as Cthulhu, religious figures such as God, and a good amount of "Easter egg" items such as Keyboard Cat. And though no one would mind if I sacrifice Keyboard Cat to the a horde of zombies (some might praise me)...they might care if I did that to God.

Another day at the office

Now I'm not one to fear monger, nor am I suggesting all Christians (or really, any person of any faith) would overreact to such a scenario. But some will. And it brings up an interesting challenge Scribblenauts might have to overcome. In a game where you use your imagination to solve problems...whose to blame if your imagination does horrible, unthinkable things? If you're with your child playing what you think is a childrens' game, and you see him kill God...well, where do you go from there?

This isn't a new or unique problem, and many games have had to deal with similar issues. There are generally two directions a game ends up going:

There's games like Grand Theft Auto where you can gleefully plow down a sidewalk of people in your car. That's going to be rated by the ESRB and it's "obvious" enough to make news headlines. You don't need to use your imagination here...there's clearly an old lady rolling off your hood, and it makes for a powerful argument against violent gaming.

Then there's games like The Sims, an innocent and family-esque game on the surface. However, I have the freedom to do whatever I want to my little Sim guy. I could decide, for example, to remove all the doors in my sim's house and watch as he slowly withers away to nothing. I can kill his entire family in front of him and force him to stand in a puddle of his own urine and eat spoiled food just to survive.

Now those parts are not rated by the ESRB (Sims is rated Teen) nor do stories like those make headlines...usually. Nothing in the Sims is done graphically or in a way that'd offend. Your sim starves but he doesn't fall over and die. Instead he has a talk with the grim reaper and becomes a friendly ghost. Everything is done in an almost comical way, so it's up to gamer and his imagination to "fill in the details". The implications of his actions, however, still remain.

"Not to be afraid, my love, this game is rated E! What's the worst that could hap-"

Scribblenauts takes a little bit of both approaches it would seem. Like the GTA series you're going to find yourself in some very obvious "bad" situations. Strap some TNT to a cop then glue him and a puppy to a nuke. Yeah, pretty obvious I'd say. However, the way it's actually executed is closer to The Sims in that it's in a comical and "innocent" way. No one really dies, they justdisappear. The largest amount of graphical violence we'll see is the little emote people make while fighting.

Thankfully we have nothing to worry about from the ESRB. All they care about is the lack of graphic violence, the fact no one is gushing blood, and the lack of vulgar items. But like the title suggests, I'm not worried about the ESRB. I'm worried about the general public.

Mommy, what's C4?

It's easy to imagine this sort of thing being picked up by a Fox News-type show and then spread like wildfire. Just think of some of the situations you could find yourself in when you're armed with tens of thousands of nouns to play around with. Imagine spawning "president", "terrorist", and then arming the terrorist with weapons to kill the president with. I mean yet again to the naked eye it'd be no problem. You'd see two figures walking into each other for a bit then disappearing in a poof of smoke.

But it's the imagination that takes that concept and makes it a lot more real and a lot more...dangerous. I wonder what, if any, backlash we're going to see. Everyone is excited that you can do literally anything you want in this game...I just wonder if they realize that some people might not want to do very good things.

Finally, it starts going down some rather dangerous paths...can we police the mind or the imagination? Can the ESRB rate a game based on what a person takes away from it, not what is literally going on the screen? Hmm.

I think this will be a subject I keep coming back to.


  1. Hmmm. about that "Mommy, whats C4"
    thats the idea, if a person don't know something, he won't conjure it into his dream (scribblenauts at the moment).

  2. I think that the game if far too open-ended to be accused of anything. It is just as offensive as pen and paper, minus the penis-drawings.

    You can never tell with American media, though. I've seen even crazier alarmist nonsense.

  3. Anon - Heh, that's a really good point.

    @Scribblenaut - Well, I think even using that example I can sort of prove my point. A pen and paper aren't offensive because they're just tools, like Scribblenauts. But if a child decides to take that pen and draw his teacher being shot at a school, then it's going to raise some eyebrows...to say the least.

    The difference between that and Scribblenauts is that we have a pretty big precendent of video games being blamed for being a bad "influence". So not only does the game allow a kid to "scribble" a scene like that (teacher being shot) into existence, but they'd be able to see it play out on their screen, and that could worry some people.

    I hope I'm wrong, realy I do. You and I both know how ignorant a parent would be to blame the game. But I think the possibiliy of that happening is there, and I wonder what type of challenges they're going to have to overcome.