I have been thinking a lot about naked people lately. Before you ask, no, that is not a habit of mine. What brought me to the subject in the first place was one naked man in particular, and the reaction his flaccid penis elicited from critics, gamers, and media watchdogs. I am, of course, talking about Congressman Thomas Stubbs' manhood in Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned. This piece of downloadable content is rated M for Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) for "Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol." It was the brief scene of male genitalia that received the most attention.
The reaction to this scene is not surprising. Long have the guardians of modesty campaigned against depictions of sexuality and violence they deemed threatening to the moral fiber of society. The arguments, both for and against the game's nudity, were interesting. The topic of discussion tended to be whether or not the scene was tasteful or not, and whether it was necessary for the story. As I see, these points are moot. In fact, gratuitous and tasteless nudity might be exactly what we need to advance mature storytelling in the videogame industry.
Allow me to reassure you I am not some videogame pervert with an insatiable desire for digitized pornography (though such reassurance may be exactly the type of moral paranoia we should try to avoid). I am an adult who believes certain stories discussing mature themes warrant mature content, this can include nudity as well as violence and adult language. I, of course, prefer a tasteful presentation of such depictions.
People seem to be particularly sensitive about nudity and sexuality, as both rarely find a place in videogames. The puritanical nature of American culture is partly to blame, but the ESRB rating system also deserves some attention. Each game is rated by three anonymous individuals living in the New York area, more raters convene if the initial three cannot reach a consensus. It is hard to believe such a small group of people could be representative of the average adult game consumer. The vast majority "adult" games rated by the ESRB are given an M rating, though there is also an Adults Only rating available.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the film equivalent of the ESRB, suffers the same design flaws. A product with an AO rating or its equivalent MPAA rating, NC17, means the same thing: commercial suicide. Most stores will not carry, and console makers will not license, an AO rated game. To a much greater extent than films, unrated games suffer the same fate as AO titles. What is strange to me is the amount of sexuality and nudity that makes it way onto R, and even PG13, rated movies that would never make it to videogames.
The sex scene in Mass Effect received a lot of attention despite the fact it was more suggestive than explicit and was only available after building a meaningful relationship. Indigo Prophecy initially received an AO rating, forcing developers to alter a poorly rendered sex scene lest it reach the eyes of impressionable children with parental access to M rated games. Despite this, I believe a self-regulatory body is a better option than forced governmental regulation, which is much harder to change.
To draw a parallel to the film industry again, well into the 1960s movies were heavily regulated by the industry's production code which prohibited nudity and other moral concerns. This "Hays code" was eventually abandoned, not because of a concerted effort by critics rallying around tasteful depictions of nudity, but because movies containing nudity were released and they sold incredibly well. Not all of these were "tasteful" in the classical sense, many were foreign films, but such works as Some Like it Hot and Psycho also broke moral ground.
So perhaps gratuitous depictions of nudity are actually a good thing. It shouldn't matter if GTA IV's penis is necessary to the story or not, the fact that it exists may push open the door for more tasteful representations of sexuality and nudity. In which case, the success of The Lost and Damned may be another sign of a more progressive videogame industry, the same can be said of the orgy in God of War and thong-clad ninjas in Afro Samurai. It might be hard to swallow, but a gratuitous penis now and again might allow less risky depictions of adult themes to become acceptable and accessible (That's right, I went there). More than saying unecessary nudity has a place on consoles, it may be that gratuitous nudity has a place in legitimizing mature content for all videogames.