A funny thing happened while searching for bargains at my local Toys R Us yesterday...
With a coupon for 20% off any game, I went there, short on cash but determined, to find the best deal. Digging through bargain bins finding a few nice finds, I then noticed something odd about the Electronic's departments layout. In a corner, behind the counter, and next to a couple of quirky electronic toys and gadgets for kids, were the M-rated games.
Now this struck me as a bit peculiar, as I know that for many game players out there, the segregating of M-rated games from every other games is a big no-no to them. I have heard many gamers consider this kind of separation a kind of censorship and indirectly associates M-rated games with porn. Of course, M-rated games as porn is an absolutely ridiculous since that is akin to saying that all R-rated movies are pornographic.
But here at Toys R Us, they had done just what all gamers had feared by putting the games in a separate section. Yet when I think back about it, and I know some people may disagree on this, it somewhat made sense that those games would be separated.
NOT because I think separating games that are M-rated away from the other games is a good practice. Far from it! I just think that this is, after all, Toys R Us.
Toys R Us does not cater to a family market like stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or Circuit City. Toys R Us is aimed at a market of kids from Zero to 17 or 18. Action figures, kid-friendly movies, dolls, Bikes, puzzles, board games, and even toys for infants and toddlers.
Before the 16-bit era of Mortal Kombat, having video games that were not suitable for children under 18 (unless a parent says they feel their child is mature enough to play them) in a store such as Toys R Us was beyond comprehension. Sure there were the old risque Atari games and the rare, unlicensed NES game, but those would definitly merit an AO on the modern rating scale, and were no where near what would now be an "M-Rating". Toys R Us would have made doubly sure not to carry any of those when they were out.
The M-rating is like the R-rating for movies, and video game content only reached this middle ground between "All Ages" and "Adults Only" recently when the technology became capable of handling such content.
So in the olden days of the 80's and early 90's, Toys R Us had little to worry about because they simply didn't carry the obviously "Adults Only" games. Not to mention many of those games were unlicensed and therefore not exactly legal. And so Toys R us was able to easily maintain its kid-friendly image and way of doing business.
Then in the mid-90's when Mortal Kombat and Doom hit the scene, it was obvious that games had no come to the point of sophistication where the content of video games could be extra violent or adult themed without being pornographic. Kids who played these games were growing up and becoming more sophisticated while a new generation of younger kids were just getting introduced to the video game medium.
The answer to this was the initial beginnings of the Ratings System which has fine tuned and refined itself since its conception and is overall, in my opinion, doing a great job in labelling their games.
However, using the ratings system as a form of censorship whether within the ratings board or by those that use the ratings board is something I am strongly against.
Which brings us back to Toys R Us using the ratings system to segregate M-rated games from the other games they carry. Is this a form of censorship, or is this just Toys R Us trying to protect its kid friendly image?
Frankly, I see it as the latter.
Toys R Us does not carry adult products of any kind, and by those I mean adults only movies or adults only toys, or anything like that. It is in place to stay consistant with the kid-friendly concept of what a "Toy" is. When this middle ground of games that are for more mature audiences comes about, Toys R Us still wants to appeal to the game players that have grown up with them without losing game sales to competing businesses such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
So this specific store's response was to section off a nook of their NORMAL game storage space behind the counter to the M-rated games. It did NOT involve putting them behind a curtain so no one can see the boxes or making it so you have to prove you're 18 to look at them. The space they were given looked no more or less different from the space given to the other games. The only real difference was that it was sectioned off to ensure that parents would be able to make smart choices for their kids.
In conclusion, I think segregating M-rated games in a store is best handled via a case-by-case basis. If a store sells pornography or adult themed media, such as FYI, and then groups M-rated games in with them, it would definitly not be okay and could be viewed as a form of censorship. Those M-rated games should be treated no differently than how they treat R-rated movies which they also carry. If a store like Toys R Us carries no adult media or products and is suddenly faced with a product they have normally carried having adult, but not obscene, content, then separating those seems like a logical response.
Maybe, some day in the future, the ESRB can provide a guide to stores to help them determine whether or not segregating M-rating games is okay or not. For Toys R Us, I can see that being an okay thing to do, but not for stores that normally carry material that would be considered R-rated.
In the meanwhile, let's watch and see what happens.
~Stephen "Game Scholar" Broida