The Problem with Game Regulation and Complete Playthrough

Game Politics reports that another video game sales restriction law has been overturned in court. This time, it was the long-awaited decision on California’s 2005 law, upon which some other (since stalled or overturned) bills and laws were built. Game Politics is also hosting a PDF of the judge’s ruling, which looks a lot like the other rulings from what I’ve seen so far (as described here; my explanation of strict scrutiny was a bit muddled then, but you get the basic idea).

With laws to restrict the sale of games to minors being struck down repeatedly, it may stand to reason that we’ll be seeing more concerted efforts to regulate the ESRB ratings process instead. This has been proposed through the “Truth in Video Game Rating Act,” proposed in 2006 and again in 2007, which would require complete playthrough of games before assigning ratings, in addition to initiating inquiries into whether the ESRB system should be abandoned entirely. (See another GP report for more information.)

There are some major problems with this proposed approach, but perhaps the most notable right now is that complete playthrough is technically impossible. I have discussed this with some fellow academics recently, including some who believe that this claim is an exaggeration. I thought it might be useful, then, to illustrate exactly what I mean.

There are two major ways to interpret the concept of playing a game in its entirety:

  1. Play until the primary goal defined by the developers has been achieved once as efficiently as possible, a.k.a. “beat the game.”
  2. Play every conceivable scenario built into the game by the developers, including completion of primary goal(s) in multiple modes of difficulty and playing through all hidden and optional content.

The Truth in Video Game Rating Act doesn’t specify what it means by insisting that games be played through, but each of these possibilities presents major obstacles. In the first case, not all games can reasonably be “beaten”: Some games have no predetermined ending, like The Sims; others may be especially difficult, such as Pac-man, whose 256th level remains out of reach for the vast majority of hardcore gamers.

The second case is where the “technically impossible” claim comes in. Quite literally, there is no way to play a game “completely” or “in its entirety” when an infinite number of possibilities are open to the player. People find out about easter eggs and cheat codes through insider information or actively hacking a game’s code, not by searching every nook and cranny of the in-game world. No amount of random guessing would reveal to players of Nintendo’s 1987 Contra that a series of button-presses executed during the title screen would yield extra lives. And, to consider a more recent example from an M-rated game, no amount of random wandering would guarantee that you would unlock the easter egg that spells “NOW I AM BECOME DEATH — THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS” across the sky. (Search for “now I am become death” at this walkthrough to see the process that yields this message.)

In other words, I am definitely not resorting to hyperbole when I say that it’s literally impossible to expect anyone—the ESRB, a private rating corporation, the government, an expert player, or anyone else—to play a game in its entirety. This has everything to do with the way video games function as a medium, which simply cannot be equated to the way that other visual media function. Moreover, I haven’t even touched upon other facts that make content rating and regulation particularly problematic for games, such as that players sometimes design modifications for games and that some games feature procedurally generated content.

We will probably see more attempts to regulate the sale of games to minors before voters respond poorly to seeing their money spent in expensive and unsuccessful appeals processes. If legislators give more consideration to ways of affecting the ratings process directly, however, the results could be even more complex and problematic, as such bills do not have the same sort of legal precedents acting against them that the sales restriction bills have.

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