Reader, a question for you: how old are you? Go on, that's an actual question I'm very interested to hear an answer for; leave your answer in the annotations for this paragraph.
I will happily stand corrected on this if my assumption turns out to be wrong, but I'm willing to bet -- judging from a combination of the content we've been putting out and the quality of comments we've been receiving on said content -- that the vast majority of you would describe yourselves as "adults." You're probably over the age of 18, and you've probably been playing games for quite some time now.
I certainly fall into that category; I'm 32, and I've been playing games since the days of the Atari 400. I didn't always understand what I was playing when I was very young, but I was ready, willing and able to explore games in all their forms from that early age -- a feeling that has stayed with me through school, university and beyond.
One thing I find both fascinating and frustrating is the gaming industry's unwillingness to treat its audience as grown-ups. Actually, let's be a little more accurate about that: the console sector's unwillingness to treat its audience as grown-ups.
The reason I'm thinking about this today is after being reminded that the wonderfully-named Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole is being renamed for its imminent PSN release. The new name? The rather generic-sounding Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark, though bonus points for referencing Alone in the Dark.
Now, Stealth Bastard's original name was deliberately provocative, but it was part of that game's identity. It set expectations for what the game would be about -- a cheeky, humorous and distinctly British take on the stealth genre that wasn't expecting anyone to take it too seriously. Stealth Inc, meanwhile, while still a decent enough name -- and one voted for by Stealth Bastard's community of players, no less -- just doesn't have that same ring to it; it sounds much more generic, much less interesting.
Why the name change, though? Ostensibly to reach a wider audience, but it's difficult not to imagine that Sony tutted disapprovingly at the name when developer Curve Studios went to pitch it. Browse through the PlayStation Store on PS3, PSP or Vita and you won't find any games with profanities or vulgarities in their titles, regardless of the actual content therein. The game's title has been (possibly self-) censored to avoid offending anyone's delicate sensibilities, despite the fact that the game itself isn't, in itself, offensive.
This isn't an isolated incident, by any means, and it marks a big distinguishing factor between the PC market and the console/handheld market as a whole. On PC, you can get away with almost anything when it comes to content and titles; on console, you're much more restricted.
There's a simple explanation for this: consoles are closed ecosystems that are controlled by the hardware manufacturers; PC is an open ecosystem, because Steam isn't the only place people can get their games from. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all decreed that certain types of content are not acceptable or welcome on their platforms; the PC, meanwhile, happily accepts all comers with open arms. Steam, which many PC gamers use as their primary source of acquiring new games, has its own standards of what it allows to be sold on its storefront, but even then it allowed Stealth Bastard to be released with its original title intact.
The divide between PC and console games is even more pronounced in Japan; sexually-explicit visual novels and role-playing games are often best-sellers on PC and find themselves with console ports, only to have the explicit content stripped out to comply with platform holders' policies. These "all-ages" console and handheld versions rarely make it out of Japan; the adults-only PC originals sometimes do, however, though they end up marketed to a niche audience through specialist publishers and aren't available on any of the big-name digital distribution sites for PC.
It's a strange situation, though. Why should Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo be the arbiters of good taste when it comes to "mature content" -- particularly given that extremely violent titles seem to get a free pass? All three of these platform manufacturers have systems in place to allow parents to control what content does and doesn't get into the hands of minors, and presumably this situation will continue into the next generation. Shouldn't we be trusted to make our own minds up by now?
Apparently not; we live in a world where Nintendo feels it inappropriate that we Westerners see Tharja's bikini-clad bottom in Fire Emblem -- and yet, ironically, made the artwork more suggestive in the process. Whoops.
Of course, part of the problem stems not from the industry itself, but from its consumers. Parents of younger children who are into video games are still not particularly well-educated about the content contained in popular titles, despite the best efforts of organizations such as the ESRB and sites like the now-defunct What They Play. The industry then gets blamed by scaremongering news outlets such as the US' own Fox News and the UK's Daily Mail for letting "inappropriate" content get into the hands of minors because there aren't any strictly-enforced rules in place. But the information is out there for parents to peruse; why aren't they using it? Because they're not using it, console manufacturers tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to what is and is not acceptable on their platforms, but end up sending seriously mixed messages in the process.
This is most frustrating thing about censorship and prudishness when it comes to video games: how utterly inconsistent it is. You've doubtless heard the same argument dozens of times by now, but it bears repeating: why can we hack, slash, shoot, bomb and burn our way through countless hordes of enemies -- often human enemies -- and splatter ourselves in virtual blood, yet anything remotely sexual is taboo? The industry as a whole has, at least, loosened up a bit with regard to swearing in recent years, so that's something, but this is still a world where, say, Morrigan from Dragon Age apparently actually puts some underwear on to have sex with the protagonist rather than risk showing a hint of boob.
Now I'm not saying we need sex in games. I'm not saying we need games with vulgarities in their titles. Nor am I saying we need swearing in our games' dialogue. But it would be nice to have the option to make our own minds up. It would be nice to be thought of as an adult. We've made progress in this regard in the last few years, but we still have a long way to go, particularly when compared to other forms of media.
Will the next generation of consoles be the first where we get to dictate what content we do and do not find acceptable according to our own personal tastes? Probably not; but until that day comes there's always the glorious freedom of the PC platform to enjoy, and I for one intend to take full advantage of that fact.
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