The topic of “mature” games and their place has been one that has been stewing in my brain for a while now. As gamers have grown up over the years, there has been a push to make games grow up right along with them. There is often a desire to not appear childish or wanting to put in adult themes to attract adult players. This isn’t contained to any one type of game either. Video games, role playing games and board games have all had instances where they have tried to show how grown up they actually are and to varying degrees of success or failure. I’d like to take a look at the benefits and pitfalls that come with this idea and how it fits into a group dynamic for adult players.
It would be hard to not notice the amount of “dark and gritty” reboots and reinterpretations of old properties that have been popular since the late 80’s/early 90’s. At some point, it stopped being enough to just have a hero or loved one in danger and we started getting things like Dr. Light raping Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis. As we grew up, we stopped accepting the fantasy worlds of the games and stories we loved as kids and started to think about how things would be like if they “really” existed. Because things like abuse, murder, rape and so on exist in our world, so too should they be represented in a fictional world in order to make it seem more realistic (though I’m not sure why an invulnerable alien that shoots lasers from his eyes needs to be more realistic).
This movement of “mature” content in gaming had a lot of problems. Often it was used as a crutch to deliver something shocking and boost sales in what would otherwise be seen as a completely mediocre game. Something like Manhunt or BMX XXX can be seen as what happens when someone just wants to make something titillating without there being any sort of reason for the violence or nudity beyond including it for its own sake. You also find things like the Infernals books for the Exalted RPG which featured, worst among a list of other problems, the sexual assault of an underage girl as a sport that the characters might partake in. The fact that something like that could make its way into a widely published and popular game is disgusting and infuriating.
The desire to see games tackle more mature topics hasn’t been all bad, though. Games like the BioShock series, for example, take a serious look at everything from politics to ethics in science to the racism in American history. While the Infernals book was awful, there were many books in the Exalted line that actually dealt with things like slavery and war in a way that was thoughtful and respectful of the context instead of crass and poorly realized. Board games are probably the single best example of the evolution of games to include more adult themes. Something like Agricola where you have to worry about starvation and making hard choices as a farmer or Freedom: The Underground Railroad letting the players be in the position of somehow trying to help slaves get north while staying funded and not getting caught.
So what does all that mean for you when you try to get together with some friends and play some games? Well, mature content can be quite polarizing for people. Some people are playing games simply as an escape and would rather just not have to deal with the heavier and more complicated themes that can arise. This isn’t something that anyone should feel bad about. Sometimes you just want to jump on a goomba without having to deal with the moral implications of murdering a sentient being and what that goomba’s family is going to do now that he’s dead. However, I think games with well done mature content can be especially useful since it can make you directly involved with what is happening. It’s one thing to read about something and another to actually simulate the experience. Mature games can make us think about the motives and problems behind certain issues that we otherwise might not have dwelled on.
The biggest problem is when those mature themes end up becoming randomly thrown in or even necessary what would otherwise be a regular game. If you are playing something like Grand Theft Auto, you already know going in that there is going to be a significant degree of sex, drugs, and/or murder happening in the game and you’ve already gotten on board with it. It would be a vastly different experience if it forced something like that upon you in an otherwise regular game. To go back to BioShock, the first game allowed you to progress in power by finding some genetically altered little girls. You could either get some power by saving them or a lot more by harvesting them. It provided a horrific option but didn’t force the player to become a child murderer. Just imagine how much different it would have been if the designers had instead forced you into killing little girls in order to progress in the game.
Mostly, you should just be aware of what level of realism and mature content your group wants to deal with. If you have a story or game that you think would be really fun to play but you know has some controversial things in it, you will definitely want to find out if that is going to be an issue for the other players or not before you spring it on them. Even those games that deal with the adult themes and ideas in the best possible way are still going to have topics that people in your group might just not be comfortable with. You should also never feel like you should be including anything just because of some historical context. You can have Vikings invade a town in your RPG without getting into exactly what atrocities they committed during the raid on the town.