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.