The Case for “Adults Only” Ratings

It was announced earlier today that the upcoming dungeon crawler Omega Labyrinth Z would be refused classification by the Video Standards Council in the UK, despite the game already having successfully attained a PEGI 18 rating.

The VSC’s comments on the matter note that the game’s “style is such that it will attract an audience below the age of 18” and that “there is a serious danger that impressionable people, i.e. children and young people viewing the game, would conclude that the sexual activity [in the game] represented normal sexual behaviour.” It concluded by noting that the game “has the potential to be significantly harmful in terms of social and moral development of younger people in particular”.

Okay. Omega Labyrinth Z is a game with a significant lewd component. And, as with many Japanese games, visual novels and anime — including those with lewd components — it is set in a school-like environment, which is where the majority of the VSC’s complaints come from. But, as ever, what essentially amounts to “ban this sick filth” represents an oversimplification of the issue.

Here’s the thing. The game was submitted to the VSC once it already had that PEGI 18 rating — in other words, it was rated as being for adults only. PEGI ratings are actually legally enforceable in the UK, much as BBFC certificates on movies are, and retail staff in particular have it drilled into them in the early hours of their training that they absolutely must ask for appropriate identification when selling any games outside the “green” (3-7) age range of PEGI ratings.

Over in the US, the ESRB most commonly uses its “Mature 17+” or “M” rating for games that tend to get a PEGI 18 rating in Europe. But the ESRB also has another rating above “M” that very rarely gets busted out: the “Adults Only” rating. PEGI has no such equivalent, but cases such as Omega Labyrinth Z highlight why it might be helpful for such a thing to be introduced — and, moreover, why the stigma over the use of the “Adults Only” rating in the US (and generally around the world) is a rather outdated concept.

First, let’s consider PEGI’s ratings capping out at 18. This is broadly similar to the BBFC’s rating categories. While the BBFC has “U” (universal, suitable for all), “PG” (parental guidance recommended, but nothing enforceable), “12A” (children under 12 may see the movie accompanied by an adult), and then enforceable age ratings for 12, 15 and 18 that restrict anyone under those ages buying or seeing the work, PEGI has age ratings for 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18. However, the BBFC also has an “R18” rating, originally intended for pornography sold in dedicated sex shops or shown in adult cinemas, which restricts the sale of a title but still grants it certification. This is roughly the same as the ESRB’s “AO” rating (though “AO” is applied for extreme violence almost as much as sexual content) but PEGI has no such equivalent.

Nekopara is a primarily 18+ series that has gone on to considerable mainstream(ish) appeal.

The argument against games being released with an “AO” rating has historically been the assumption that many retailers — meaning brick-and-mortar high-street stores — would simply refuse to stock such titles, even if they were restricted to “over the counter” sales or otherwise kept out of sight. Meanwhile, in most gaming retail stores today, anyone can pick up an “M” or “18” rated game from the shelf and take it to the counter, since they’re always prominently on display alongside all the other titles on sale.

Indeed, there have been very few “AO”-rated games released in America over the years, with the majority of them being sexually explicit visual novels for PC, though a noteworthy example of a console release with such a certificate was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This was temporarily hit with an “AO” rating after an incomplete sexual minigame was found in the game’s code, accessible via cheating devices or mods. The game returned to an “M” rating after this had been patched out by Rockstar, despite the rest of the game’s content featuring heavy and frequent depiction of strong language, drug use, violence, racial epithets and criminal activity.

Anyway, the point is that the “AO” rating has not been used often, largely because many of the titles that would warrant one are often released completely without ESRB or PEGI certification for one reason or another. This can be most readily seen in the cases of companies like JAST USA, MangaGamer and Denpasoft, Sekai Project’s adult imprint, all of whom release both physical and digital versions of sexually explicit games via online sales only, and typically put a voluntary rating of some description on their products’ packaging.

JAST has been in the business since visual novels looked like this.

However, the fact that all of these companies have been doing business for a good few years now suggests that they’ve not had any real pushback from anyone due to their content. In fact, if you take to social media and look at the responses to these companies when they announce they will localise and release adults-only versions of games, you will see almost universal praise and gratitude. And you’ll see disappointment when a formerly adults-only title is announced as being localised in an all-ages incarnation.

People want this kind of content. And they want it without compromise, without cuts. And the argument that “retailers won’t stock it” really doesn’t fly any more, since we live in an age where it’s arguably easier to order a physical edition online or download a digital version than it is to go down to your local shops and hope they have a copy of what you’re looking for. Which, in the case of Vita games, let’s face it, they probably won’t have — and even in the case of PS4 games, even the big chains are likely to only have copies of the latest big-budget releases rather than smaller-scale titles with more focused audiences.

Besides all this, there are a number of issues with the VSC’s reaction to Omega Labyrinth Z, not least of which is their assertion that it is “designed to attract an audience below the age of 18” and that it will be “significantly harmful in terms of social and moral development of younger people in particular”. Western publisher PQube has done everything it possibly can to avoid this, up to and including accepting the PEGI 18 rating and appropriate content descriptors. In other words, the game is already prominently marked as only being suitable for those over the age of 18, so the VSC is seemingly working entirely on the assumption that anime-style artwork is designed to appeal to children.

Space Live: Advent of the Net Idols got away with some bare breasts on Steam, but nothing explicit.

Anime — and, more broadly, animation in general — may indeed be appealing to young people, but in both the East and West people are already well familiar with the fact that sometimes “cartoons” aren’t for kids. Whether this is the politically incorrect humour of Family Guy and American Dad, the oddly compelling nihilism of Bojack Horseman or the relentless bleakness of Kaiji, there are plenty of examples of “cartoonish” visuals being aimed exclusively at an adult audience across a variety of media. And then, of course, there’s outright hentai (and Western equivalents), which is straight-up sexually explicit pornography, only presented through animation rather than live-action filming.

In circumstances like this, where a work’s presentation might make it seem somewhat ambiguous as to what a game’s target audience is, that’s what age ratings and content descriptors are for. (Ideally it would also be what the press is for, but I think we all know by now that they can’t really be trusted to look at this sort of thing with any sort of fairness or accuracy, given far too many previous examples of Doing It Wrong to list individually.)

This gives a number of different groups important responsibilities to follow through on: the developers, publishers and localisers have the responsibility to ensure their packaging and marketing material is clear about the content the work contains; the retailers have the responsibility to be informed about the products they are selling and who they are appropriate for; and, perhaps most importantly, parents, guardians and carers of those under the age of 18 should pay close attention to the media that their young charges are engaging with — especially if said media has a prominent “18” rating on its front cover.

Doki Doki Literature Club

Of course, the ambiguity of certain types of presentation can also be used to great effect by some artists to subvert expectations. A great example of this is Doki Doki Literature Club by Dan Salvato, which begins like a fairly typical Japanese-style slice-of-life visual novel, but later strays into some seriously dark territory through a variety of clever means, including metafiction. The game makes no attempt to hide the fact it contains “disturbing” material, mind you; and once a creation is in the public sphere, the end consumer is responsible for making use of the information available to determine whether or not something is suitable for themselves or those close to them. In other words, if you play through Doki Doki Literature Club and come away traumatised, you really only have yourself to blame, because all the information was there.

The VSC’s decision in the case of Omega Labyrinth Z doesn’t demonstrate that level of trust in end consumers, and that’s a problem. There is nothing else that PQube could have done to make it clear that the game is for adults — with the absence of a dedicated “adults only” rating higher than PEGI 18, there are no other steps the company could have taken to show that no, this is emphatically not for children. It’s not at all irresponsible for creators to make this kind of work or make it available for sale, because no-one is forcing anyone to engage with it. If you aren’t interested in something like Omega Labyrinth Z, you have no obligation to purchase it. Unfortunately you can’t really invert this; if an organisation such as the VSC says “you can’t sell this game”, you please the people who weren’t going to buy it anyway while upsetting the people who were interested in it. By preventing its sale, no-one has any options; if it is on sale, everyone has options.

Omega Labyrinth Z

And all this leaves aside an aspect of the discussion that is often cast aside in cases like this: the fact that the supposedly “harmful” content is often not the main point of the experience. Sure, Omega Labyrinth Z positions itself as a distinctly silly experience in which the growth in power of the heroines is reflected by the size of their breasts, items are identified by rubbing them in the heroines’ cleavage (in an optional sequence) and there are parts of the game where clothing gets damaged and dishevelled.

Taken out of context, all this sounds pretty gratuitous. And yet series such as Senran Kagura clearly demonstrate that even where a game has a strong focus on fanservice as a key element of its aesthetic and overall appeal, that by no means precludes it from having a meaningful story, relatable characters and something actually to say. In fact, there are plenty of arguments to be made for even the most seemingly gratuitous of content to have interesting symbolic meaning; this is certainly true for Senran Kagura (as it is for similarly controversial games like Dungeon Travelers 2, Criminal Girls and suchlike, too) and I have little doubt it’s also true for Omega Labyrinth Z.

And then, of course, there’s the seeming hypocrisy of it all — the fact that big-budget or popular Western-developed games like Grand Theft Auto, The Witcher and suchlike manage to get away with distinctly “adult” content — up to and including sex scenes — without falling foul of the censors. Japanese games, meanwhile, tend to come under much more heavy scrutiny — both for the mistaken assumptions the VSC comment on, and for the more general odious, ill-informed and sadly still frequently expressed assertion that anime-style artwork is somehow “for paedophiles” or “child pornography” despite not involving anyone real.

Omega Labyrinth Z

So how do we stop situations like this arising in the first place, without simply giving up on attempting to localise potentially provocative content in the first place? Well, an extremely helpful step in the right direction would be making more widespread use of appropriate “adults only” ratings worldwide, and ensuring that these are enforced; online retailers and digital storefronts should require age verification, while brick-and-mortar establishments should keep these titles out of sight (or perhaps in a locked case) and require identification to purchase.

Retailers aren’t necessarily the problem, though, particularly in the online space. You can buy porn and sex toys on Amazon, after all, so were there to be adults-only console games available in physical form, it’s a fair bet Amazon would happily sell them to those eligible — though the company would probably do well to enforce more stringent age verification procedures if that were to happen.

Probably the biggest challenge in all this would be overcoming the apparent resistance of all the big platform holders to adult content. Neither Microsoft, Sony nor Nintendo have made any noticeable steps towards broadening the range of content they allow on their platforms, despite it being widely acknowledged that the average “gamer” these days is a lot older than they used to be — most of the biggest franchises of today such as Call of Duty, Far Cry and the like are aimed at an 18+ audience anyway. Popular PC digital storefront Steam has made a few tentative steps into allowing adult content, but it applies its rules inconsistently — but the difference here is that the PC platform doesn’t tie users into a single storefront, instead allowing the choice to purchase unrated adult content directly from developers, publishers and localisers, or via specialist distributors such as Fakku! or Nutaku.

Something clearly needs to change though, because with every instance of something like this happening, the rumblings of discontent from concerned adults get louder. Said adults just want to be able to engage with the things they enjoy, don’t want to be shamed for it and most certainly do not want to be told what they are and are not “allowed” to spend their time doing when they are plenty old enough to make their own informed decisions. Choice is good. Taking choice away is bad. This is not hard to understand.

Omega Labyrinth Z

The VSC’s decision on Omega Labyrinth Z is deeply disappointing because, if nothing else, it simply reads like pearl-clutching “think of the children!” nonsense that we should have got past a long time ago when it became clear that no, games aren’t just for kids. Although with the current resurgence of the “video game violence” debate it’s perhaps not surprising we’re seeing similarly backwards decisions over sexually provocative content. Doesn’t make it any more palatable, of course, but, well, there you go.

In the meantime, it’s worth showing some gratitude to companies like PQube who are at least attempting to bring “risky” prospects such as Omega Labyrinth Z across to the West… as well as the aforementioned companies who have happily been bringing us adult content on PC for years now. And with the whole Omega Labyrinth Z situation in mind it’s also worth noting that importing games from locales other than your own has never been easier, particularly with how the current generations of systems are region-free…

In other words, despite this potential setback, you can almost certainly expect some coverage of Omega Labyrinth Z on MoeGamer at some point in the future!

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9 thoughts on “The Case for “Adults Only” Ratings”

  1. “designed to attract an audience below the age of 18”

    What does this even mean? When I was a horny teenager anything sexual would have attracted me to it, and I doubt I was unique. Wouldn’t this apply to anything with sexual content at all then?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Although I think some fanservice and sexual content could really use an update, I really don’t see how it can be more detremental to a young person’s character than the insane amount of gratuitous violence in gaming (which is also not particularly detrimental). Honestly, with how prudish we’ve become, it’s a wonder the species has survived.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This news makes me angry. Protect the children from an 18 rated game? Why bother with age ratings if even the classification boards believe they are pointless. Hopefully I can import a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure Play Asia or somewhere similar may be able to assist. You might even be able to find an overseas seller on Amazon or eBay that isn’t charging excessively. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

      Liked by 1 person

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