“Mobile gaming is growing up.” This is the congratulatory message the industry seems to repeat ad nauseum at conferences and expos. In many ways these pats on the back are right on the mark.
Many publishers are no longer reliant on investor dollars and are turning the corner towards profitability. Carriers are putting a much greater emphasis on quality instead of quantity. Big licensed titles and original IP are harmoniously sitting side-by-side on deck and in most publishers’ libraries.
Although the delineation might not be as clear as it was in the console videogame space, it seems that mobile games are going through a transition remarkably similar to what that industry experienced in the early 1990s – the transition from the 8-bit NES to the more powerful, 16-bit Sega Genesis and Super NES. That transition is most well known, probably rightfully so, for its technological leap. Games had simply never looked, sounded, or played better
But just as the games themselves matured, so too did the rest of the business. When the increasingly realistic (and gratuitous) levels of violence in console games caught the attention of Washington legislatures, the Interactive Digital Software Association (now known as the ESA) was formed, and in 1995 created the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB.
I bring up this history lesson that most of us probably already know, primarily to point out some parallels that do exist, and some that don’t. Technologically, mobile games are experiencing that same amount of maturation. It doesn’t come in leaps every 4-5 years like in the console world, but the games have slowly gotten themselves to a sophistication level on par with 16-bit titles nonetheless. Just a few years ago, “NES era” titles were the norm.
Yet one area that hasn’t kept pace is any kind of interest or desire to take greater responsibility for the content being created by this industry. By the time the Genesis was halfway through its lifespan developers and publishers recognized that the level of violence in some titles, cartoony as it is, simply isn’t intended for young gamers. In addition to being an act of genuine personal responsibility, the agreement to self-regulate and rate games via the ESRB served to prevent government regulation of the industry.
id Software’s Doom ignited a firestorm of controversy in 1993, but EA Mobile’s Doom RPG didn’t attract any negative attention towards its violence, despite essentially using the same sprite artwork and weaponry. Obviously this is partially because what was cutting-edge digital violence in 1993 is orders of magnitude less realistic and less extreme than what appears in high-end games today. But it’s still the same level of violence.
Is Doom’s violence simply less dangerous today than it was a decade ago? Is that why no one, including legislatures, seemed to mind that Doom RPG contained no rating of any kind, when in 1993 it was deemed inappropriate for anyone under the age of 17?
In the case of legislators, I believe it’s more likely that there hasn’t been any concern up to this point because no one has been looking. Most are probably unaware that games can be downloaded onto phones, and most almost certainly never considered that via this digital distribution kids could be playing violent mobile games without parents acting as a gatekeeper.
As for the mobile industry itself, ignorance obviously won’t work as an excuse.
There are a couple of potential ways to address the increasingly realistic level of mobile game violence. The first, and arguably the most painless, is to simple use the ESRB to rate your mobile games. According to the ESRB’s website the body has already given ratings to 61 mobile games, from publishers EA Mobile, Eidos, and others.
A more complex but ultimately stronger solution is for the mobile gaming industry to form its own rating body. Mobile gaming has unique opportunities and challenges from that of the console space, not the least of which is its 100% digital distribution. While its true that even the most violent mobile game is rudimentary compared to console or PC titles, its also true that they can be downloaded and played without a parent having any idea for a full month, until the bill comes. When WWII titles feature headshots, blood, grenades, and more (and they do), this is a problem. These are issues that need to be addressed by a governing body focused solely on the mobile space.
I’m not against violent mobile games. Quite the contrary – better than nearly anything else they represent the “growing up” of this business. Companies can create and support Cartoon Network or 4Kids licensed titles for youngsters, and shooters for adults. The fact that both exist and both thrive in this environment is a testament to that maturation.
But the industry needs to send a message that it is comprised of responsible content creators. By pre-emptively recognizing that not everything created is intended for all audiences, the negativity that consumed the videogame industry decade ago (negativity it is still recovering from) can be avoided.
[Justin Davis is Editor-in-Chief of handheld gaming website Modojo.com.]