Papers, Please is not a violent game, but is far more mature than many other games that might be. Image: Lucas Pope
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Violent games may be meant for "mature" audiences, but truly mature themes in gaming are rare

The ratings labels on the boxes may say a game is only suitable for older teenager or adults, but that's usually only about violence or gore - real maturity in games is often rarer, and harder to define.

The age ranges for games these days seem, in large part,  to be decided upon somewhat arbitrary values. Games designed for children are often sweet, cuddly, and unchallenging. Meanwhile the games aimed at mature audiences, as far as their PEGI ratings would have us think, are usually simply characterised by violence. I make no judgement of the violence but it’s the most common route for games to incur the apprehension of the moral custodians.

While many of the games that fit into the PEGI-16, and especially PEGI-18, categories are violent, very few of them are what we might consider to be "grown-up" or "mature" in terms of their themes. If we look at Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor for example, this is a game rated as a PEGI-18 by virtue of the fact you’re chopping off orc heads left and right, but the actual story is hardly mature at all. It's a heroic power fantasy drawn around a very simple revenge plot. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but there is a sense that the only thing really grown-up about the game is the bloodletting and the headlopping.

This kind of narrative is par for the course with video games - the details of the plot might vary from story to story and setting to setting, but, essentially, if the story comes down to simply killing or destroying everything that comes between you and a favourable resolution to the story, then it's likely that we’re not dealing with mature storytelling. Even the violence in such games isn’t portrayed in a particularly grown-up manner. Blood splatters and graphic torture do not bestow maturity upon a portrayal of violence, consequences do. There are few consequences for the heroes in such games, they can generally walk off a severe injury in a few moments and, should they die, they just go back and try again.

Strip the large majority of games of their gore, their swearing and the occasional bit of sex or nudity and there’s usually nothing much in them that would make them particularly grown-up, nothing past what you could reasonably expect to find in a children’s movie like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark anyway. But this begs the question: what does make a game mature? What does a grown-up game even look like?

To answer this question, perhaps it's best to look at the bigger question of what defines a mature human being, and what would we consider to be "childishness". It's arguable that maturity requires responsibility, an appreciation for the consequences of ones actions and selflessness. Childishness can, by contrast, err on the side of selfishness, of a refusal to accept consequences or responsibility.

Thus a list of games that could be said to fit this profile of maturity would include Papers, Please, which is largely concerned with carrying out an unpleasant job in order to support your family; or the Shelter games, in which you play an animal trying to raise a litter of cubs. These games have the player directing their efforts towards entities over which they have attachments but little control. While these other entities thrive or die based on your efforts, there is little direct reward for your own character. Another example would be This War of Mine, which is a game essentially built in and around the consequences of violence and which deals with surviving them.

There's also an element of responsibility in the medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings 2, given how you pass control through your family dynasty. A great deal of care has to be taken to leave your affairs in order before your current character dies and another takes over. The player has to actively plan for the death of a protagonist, and the continuation from that.

What these games tend to have in common is a mechanical mean streak in how they treat players. If you don’t do well in Papers, Please then your family are financially squeezed. Play too safe in Shelter, and your cubs could starve; take too many risks and they might get lost or eaten. Try to play This War of Mine as if your survivors are steely-eyed killers, and they’ll fall into a possibly-suicidal spiral of guilt and misery. Live too much for the moment in Crusader Kings 2 and you might wind up dead before your time, plunging an unready successor in at the deep end with nothing more than a hobby horse and wooden sword with which to rule the kingdom.

These kinds of consequences can pack more punch than merely forcing the player to return to the last save point and complete a given challenge properly. These are games that address real fears that adults have to deal with - not being able to pay the bills, not being able to be everywhere at once to watch the kids, not knowing what’s going to happen to your family when you die. These are the grown-up monsters under a grown-ups bed.

This is perhaps why games with a more mature sensibility are so rare. Being an adult means dealing with the big problems, mastering the big fears, and often these are the very things that we’re diving into a video game to escape.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis