Need…we need the Felicium…

Well, it’s been several days since I sent off my old PS3 hard drive and HDD Tray to a friend with an electric drill, and I’ve yet to get my tray back, so my PS3 has been sitting there giving me sad eyes for the past four days. Not hearing the unnecessarily loud external cooling fans at this hour is…almost unnerving. The room is too quiet. I filled the void for the past few days with amusing YouTube videos and the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I just got to the ‘After School Special’ episode (0122 “Symbiosis“), where one race (henceforth the ‘Addictons’) has the Space Plague, and another race (henceforth the ‘Dealerons’) produces Space Cocaine (which has the added benefit of being the only known vaccine against Space Plague). The Addictons, thus, became addicted to Space Cocaine (I mean, the whole planet is addicted; they presumably inoculated their children at birth with Space-Plague-Vaccine-which-is-actually-Space-Cocaine, too), and was dependent on trade with the Dealerons, whose only industry was making Space Cocaine–every other material need they required was extracted from the Addictons through trade for their Space Cocaine. The fun part was the fact that the Addictons and the Dealerons were the same species who had grown apart, like the Vulcans and the Romulans. The other fun part is that they all had electricity powers–it was like Infamous gone horribly awry.

In the words of my roommate, 'Why is it that every single alien race on Star Trek is just humans with a Latex forehead?'

The episode got me thinking about the portrayal of drugs in media, specifically how movies and TV shows portray them vs. video games. Growing up, I remember seeing cigarette vending machines and Joe Camel billboards, just as much as I remember those ‘Tap the Rockieeeees, Coors Liiiiiight’ commercials. Then it seems like all of those ads disappeared right before the new millennium, thanks to really uptight special interest groups. Now, I completely understand and agree with the idea that advertising cigarettes and alcohol to children is a bad idea, and putting things like cigarette vending machines in places where any 13-year-old Rebel Without a Cause wannabes could buy them is also a pretty bad idea. To be honest, I’m surprised America never got in on the beer vending machine market–the anti-alcohol groups surely wanted a crack at the action the anti-tobacco groups got on that front.

Beer vending machine, Japan. I can't think of a product that you can't get out of a Japanese vending machine.

Nowadays, it seems that characters can’t smoke on TV or in movies unless they’re a villain, or unless the product placement money from Big Tobacco outweighs the cost of listening to a dozen anti-tobacco groups scream about the corruption of our youth. Strangely enough, heroes are still allowed to drink alcohol on TV, and no one raises much of a fuss.

With the exception of this Looney Toons segment, of course.

In movies, any drug use immediately warrants a PG-13 rating, but even so, some want to bump any movie depicting people smoking and NOT immediately dying from lung cancer an R rating. Yes, they want any movie depicting someone smoking (unless it’s a historical character who was known to smoke, like Sigmund Freud or, I don’t know, Bill Clinton) to show, during the course of the movie, “people suffering hideous consequences as a result of their folly”. Websites like SceneSmoking.org track the number of times tobacco is used on screen in every movie ever, assigning them ‘lung ratings’ based on the number of uses and the movie’s perceived stance on smoking, and makes wanna-be clever tag lines incorporating the movie’s titles and level of tobacco use, i.e. ‘Black Swan, Black Lungs’. Films like Pirates of the Caribbean portray characters such as Jack Sparrow as insatiable alcoholics, but SceneSmoking.org only takes umbridge with tobacco. The use of alcohol by Jack Sparrow falls into the PG-13 rating…

…but the presence of Jack Sparrow (and FFX’s Auron) did not bring Kingdom Hearts 2 from Rated ‘E’ to ‘T’. In fact, the games’ rise from ‘E’ to ‘E10+’ is only because the ‘E10+’ rating did not exist when Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories were originally released. And although ‘Use of Alcohol’ is explicitly stated on the back of the box for Kingdom Hearts 2, substance use is not considered enough to bring the game from E/E10+ to T. In fact, among all the games on my shelf, none have ‘Use of Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco’ as the lone content descriptor on a game–all games featuring such usage or references always come with more pressing descriptors, such as Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption (both featuring identical lists of Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs; Rated M), White Knight Chronicles (Mild Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence; Rated T), and even Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (Mild Language, Use of Tobacco, Violence; Rated T) and Okami (Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco; Rated T). Violence and Language are the factors in video games that raise rating levels, which can be deduced from the fact that no video games are rated ‘E’ with ‘Violence’ and ‘Language’, only to have almost identical games get moved up to ‘T’ for ‘Use of Alcohol/Tobacco’. This can be seen between Kingdom Hearts games released before March 2, 2005 (the implementation of the E10+ rating) and after that date. In fact, Re:Chain of Memories (released 2008 in USA), the PS2 remake of the GBA version of the game, bears an E10+ rating, while the original (released 2004 in USA) has the regular E rating, despite featuring the exact same content description: ‘Fantasy Violence’. Likewise, both Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep feature E10+ ratings, though Birth By Sleep features no substance use.

I’m a big supporter of content rating systems, especially when an adequate explanation of content is given along with the rating, but given the number of busybodies who fuss over video games, I’m both surprised that substance use hasn’t been made a big hairy deal by such busybodies, and pleased that ESRB apparently doesn’t view it as a big hairy deal. It makes me proud of this industry that they have not allowed themselves to be pressured into thinking ‘Oh no! Auron makes a cameo appearance in Kingdom Hearts 2, and he drank alcohol in his original game! And–holy crap, how did we not notice this the first time around–Cid from FFVII is in these games. That’s the chain-smoking Cid, right? Editing the pack of cigarettes out of his character design isn’t enough. We’ve gotta add ‘Incidental Character Used Alcohol/Tobacco in a Related Title’ to the content description and bump these games up to Rated T, pronto.’

And yet I wonder–why does the ESRB not consider substance use in games to be as big a deal as the MPAA considers it to be in movies? Is it simply because movies reach a much wider audience, and media seen by more eyes supposedly needs tighter regulations? Is it because the ESRB considers depictions of the use of common, legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco to be fit for public consumption because they are legal substances? (I would imagine a video game based on Bad Boys 2, for instance, to garner a higher rating for being about distinctly illegal drugs.) Is it because the anti-tobacco busybodies have just focused so much on movies and TV, they haven’t had the time to come along and browbeat the video game industry yet? Is it because the anti-violence busybodies are already beating every brow available? The world may never know.

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    • bboessen
    • February 14th, 2011

    First, they do have alcohol/drugs as a content flag as a part of the ESRB (esrb.org). So it’s not that they’re not looking for it.

    One possibility could be that they haven’t seen much of it. A problem that the ESRB has to address is how to actually *see* all the content the game includes — they have to either play every single option, level, and zone, or they have to rely on the company to tell them about anything that might be an issue. So it could be that the game companies don’t think drug/alcohol use is that big an issue, and therefore aren’t giving it to the ESRB to rate in the first place.

    • Yes, they absolutely have the content descriptor for alcohol, tobacco and the general ‘drugs’, but the presence of that flag doesn’t automatically move a game up from ‘E’ to ‘T’, as the presence of tobacco, drugs and alcohol moves movies immediately up to PG-13. If it did, then Kingdom Hearts 2 would have been rated higher; it’s the only game on my shelf that has both alcohol and violence, but isn’t rated T. My thought is that the combination of ‘Language’ and ‘Violence’ takes precedence in earning a T rating. The ‘Drugs/Alcohol’ flag doesn’t seem to require a higher rating in games like it does in movies.

        • bboessen
        • February 14th, 2011

        Ahh, this is becoming more clear. And that is a curious development. Perhaps something looking into more: could this be true for all games with drug refs but no “violence”? Or is this something particular to this game? And if the former, why should that be? Interesting.

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