A small number of categories with optional modifiers seems to me like the best option. I suspect that if we let the system get too complicated, nobody will bother to use it.
The Australian Classification Board classifies works according to six categories: violence, nudity, sex, language, drug use, and “themes” (“social issues such as crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependency, death, serious illness, family breakdown and racism”). My initial reaction was that for a text-based medium, the distinction between nudity/sex might not be so relevant - but I’m a notable prude and I know you can make an excellent argument for distinguishing between them. “Themes” covers a wider variety of issues and possible triggers than “horror”, but it’s way too vague and would always need additional commentary to let people know what themes they/their children might be getting into.
V (comic or non explicit violence, no innocents harmed)
V+ (directed violence, violence as interaction, mild trauma, descriptive clinical violence, suicide depicted or offered as an interaction)
V++ (explicit description of wounds, blood, viscera, injury, trauma, violent death, violence to innocents by player and NPCs possible)
H (Generally scary atmosphere, monsters, skeletons, bugs/animal danger, bloodless found dead body/victims, implication of death, destruction, injury, madness, pain, and terror, interacting with insane NPCs) - (IE descriptions of torture machines is H if they are not shown in use but their machinations/results are implied. Seeing someone tortured is V)
H+ (Oppressive atmosphere intended, decay, intact/bloody corpses, bloodstains, body fluids (vomit), potential startling sounds or images produced by game to startle player, player may need to contact/interact with body fluids, extensive discussion, implication, or mention of offscreen death, killing, genocide, armageddon)
H++ (Disturbing oppressive atmosphere intended, decay, death, blood, viscera/organs described/interactable, body fluids, player might be covered in blood/body fluids, limbs/body parts separate from bodies, possibly interactive or used in puzzles and stash able)
S (Mild non vulgar sexual references, reference to individuals interacting sexually, clinical discussion/description of sexuality as in a doctor’s office, games involving the non vulgar and non explicit “breeding” of creatures, PC does not participate in sex. Anatomy or nudity described but in non-sexual fashion)
S+ (Sexual references, potentially described in vulgar or graphic language, descriptions of sexual anatomy, genitals that exist as implemented/examinable objects, player can choose to interact sexually with other humans, but results and description are summarized, (or “Faded to black”) and do not occur for more than one turn. NPCs might be discovered or observed interacting sexually, but activity ceases and does not continue (either by PC removing attention, leaving the area, or participants ending activity or leaving the area, games involving breeding of animals which is described in more than clinical fashion, game might include non-participatory scenes of fantasy creatures or animals engaging in sex with partners of their own kind or non-human partners similar to their own kind).
S++ (Explicit sexual descriptions, reference, and language, potentially vulgar. Consensual sexual activity between human and or fantasy NPCs or NPCs and PC may be implemented as gameplay, sexual activity is described and occurs continuously over successive multiple turns. Sex may occur between or with fantasy/non-human/non-animal creatures, the player may participate in consensual sex with fantasy creatures. If non interactive fantasy or flashback/metaphorical deviant sequences with minors or animals are described, they are implied to have not actually have occurred. (I.E. a character describing dreaming of her husband turning into a horse during lovemaking is okay, the character actually seeking out an actual horse as part of gameplay is not.))
SX (Game includes non-fantasy, non-flashback/recap scenes of potentially deviant or nonstandard sexual behavior with regard to participants: animals or descriptively underage NPCs. Game may include explicit nonconsensual sexual scenes that may or may not include the player as victim or perpetrator, and may or may not be interactive. (I.E. A character describing details of childhood sexual trauma to a therapist is a flashback/recap, and unless the scene is interactive, is S++, not SX)
L (Characters may curse on occasion, not using sexual, anatomic, or bodily function words (“damn, hell, crap, bitch, bastard…etc”)OR there is no more than one creatively-directed all-out instance of swearing in the game.)
L+ (Characters swear using the sexual/anatomical/bodily function cursewords (fuck, shit, piss, dick, dickhead, ass, asshole, pussy…etc)outside context of a sexual encounter.
L++ (Characters swear in explicit and creative detail, possibly using vulgar or sexual language outside the context of a sexual encounter.)
D (Characters and PC may correctly take legally prescribed medications, drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, and are not depicted as suffering ill-effects. Fantasy elixirs and edibles are non-addictive.)
D+ (Characters and PC may drink alcohol to intoxication, take pills that are not prescribed for them for benefit/healing or recreation, smoke tobacco or marijuana, become addicted to fantasy elixirs and edibles, and suffer all resulting ill-effects along with any benefit, possibly in a comedic context.)
D++ (Hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, meth, etc…and methods of consuming them may be depicted and detailed. Extreme effects of drug use, long and short term, may be explicitly depicted. Real-life intoxicating substances of any sort may be used in completely unrealistic, irresponsible fashion without any observable consequence in a manner that might mislead an uninformed reader as to the dangers of the substance.)
I’m just brainstorming alone here on Halloween night for ideas…I’m not implying my suggestions have to be used. I like figuring out these kinds of systems.
V - mild or comic violence, polite “murder mystery” violence (bloodless gunshots, poisoning, stair tumbles)
V+ - directed, possibly interactive violence, including minor blood and injury, battle systems, player limited to killing enemies
V++ - violence involving blood, wounds and gore, viscera, decapitations, body parts, violence to innocents by player possible
H - General scariness, ghosts, monsters, bloodless skeletons, threat from creatures or animals, bloodless corpses
H+ - Oppressive atmosphere, bloody intact dead bodies, bodily fluid squick, reference to pain, madness, interaction with insane people, reference to extensive offstage death, genocide, armageddon, startling screen or sound effects. Lovecraftian horror.
H++ - Disturbing atmosphere, decay, death, blood, viscera, aftermath of violence when actual violence is not witnessed. body parts and organs might be interacted with and put into inventory/used to solve puzzles, body horror. (Non-violent “aftermath” gore).
S - Sex discussed or indicated in game, nudity or body parts described. Non explicit breeding games.
S+ - Sex occurs in game and interaction, but is not ongoing for more than one turn, (action-result, or FADE OUT), interactive body parts. Fantasy creatures or animals may be described coupling with their own or similar of their kind (non humans).
S++ Consensual AIF, (no rape, no animals, no children), consensual sex with fantasy creatures, sex as gameplay, sex scenes and descriptions may continue for multiple turns.
SX AIF that includes sex with real-world animals, descriptively underage characters, possible nonconsensual sex depicted between NPCs or with PC as participant or victim. (non-interactive recollection or fantasy/metaphor (act did not actually “happen” in game world) is S++)
L - Swearing mildly, using non anatomic, non body function words OR one creatively well-placed incidence of all-out swearing (Finally defeating the persistent big bad shark with an exploding harpoon, the PC says “Smile, Motherfucker!” when there is no other swearing in the game.)
L+ - Swearing obscenely, using anatomic, body function words. (outside of a sexual encounter)
L++ - Extensive and creative variations of vulgar language. (outside of a sexual encounter)
D - Smoking of tobacco, drinking of alcohol, prescription drugs used responsibly.
D+ - Smoking of tobacco or marijuana, drinking of alcohol, taking prescription drugs not prescribed for recreation or healing, ill effects depicted along with any benefits. Fantasy food and drink has addictive effects.
D++ - Hardcore drugs and consumption methods depicted. Effects of hardcore drug use long and short term depicted graphically. Drugs and substances depicted in the game are described irresponsibly, potentially misinforming the reader as to any dangers.
I think you need more than 3 categories if you want to be a bit precise.
I like the ideas of HanonO, but I think that system is too precise. How about putting a general rating based on age, which would correspond to, for the most kid-friendly, mild references to those themes to, for the more adult-oriented, explicit representations ? (But it wouldn’t be necessary to precise which ones?) I think if we want more precise information, we could do it with tags (but are people really going to be like “oh yeah, sex is fine, I was just checking if there was any violence”?..).
E: everyone ; doesn’t contain anything from the other lists
10+: mild violence (one death or murder scene, detective stories, a slap fight, etc), “Halloween” scary atmosphere (cemetaries at night, ghosts, vampires, skeletons - think Phantom Manor in Disneyland), mild cursing (no more than a couple times?).
13+: repeated or somewhat explicit violence (gunning down multiple enemies, defeating your enemies in combat, maybe a bit of blood, bruises or swelling), horror (explicit threats and risk of death for characters, chases, blood-sucking or getting eaten by a zombie without gory details ; unsettling and dark atmospheres creating tension for a long period of time ; possession, madness), use of drugs/alcohol/tobacco, general and non-creative swearing, mild references to sex (scantily clad characters, making out, discussing body parts - think of an awkward teenager)
16+: explicit violence (bloody death, dismemberment, physical harm with bruises, wounds, swelling or blood, viscera; suicide ideations or non-graphic suicide (if you want to tackle the subject of teen suicide and self-harm?)), explicit horror and pain (rotting corpses, crazy serial killers, gore), abuse of drugs/alcohol/tobacco (including consequences of abuse), creative and graphic swearing (think “you mother sucks ***** in hell” or any combination of cursewords to create an effect that goes further than traditional cursewords), references to sex (two characters talk about sex, two characters go off-stage where it’s heavily implied they have sex, two characters kissing in bed; “on-screen” nudity, dry-humping in the back of a car).
18+: torture porn and the likes (explicit physical or psychological torture, very detailed/creative violent acts or killings), explicit depiction of drugs (needles trigger warning?), graphic and vivid or unapologetically offensive cursing, explicit sex.
(Basically the 18+ category would be a marker for stuff even adults aren’t always comfortable with. However maybe we should split it in two, to have a category that allows sex or needles, but not rape or torture ?)
These are just ideas, and it’s probably not perfect (those things tend to be very subjective anyway). I think we ought to be as precise as we can on what’s allowed and what isn’t. (Maybe start a wiki-style page to add or move around elements as the discussion unfolds?)
Honestly I think being precise about this sort of thing is a sucker’s game. I’d really just prefer plain old content warnings, and leave it up to the author’s discretion whether or not to add qualifiers. There’s still the potential pitfall of some of the milder stuff getting passed over, but simpler is better.
I concur. If there has to be a ratings system, what about the old movie ratings (as opposed to the new vamped ratings), such as G, PG, PG13, R, NC17, X?
edit: one thing I don’t get is that IF is a genre of literature and you don’t see ratings on books in bookstores do you? Parents just know not to let a 6 year old read Stephen King. Parents should just know what their kids are playing/reading/doing maybe?
I thought those were the “new” ratings? Or at least the ratings they are still using. Have they changed?
And anyway, I’m not so sure about using age-graded ratings. The thing I like about general content warnings is that it puts the onus of figuring out what’s okay for kids on the parent and not the author. Thus it sidesteps the issue of people having different standards about what content is appropriate for what age.
This is mostly historical accident. At the time that the novel arose, there was a very different cultural attitude towards childhood: you could legally have sex with a ten-year-old, or hire them to do hazardous manual labour, so worrying about what they might read would have been sort of ridiculous. Movies and videogames date from after the big Victorian shift in attitudes to childhood, and it’s a lot easier to impose controls on newer media. (Again, our ideas about freedom of speech and censorship developed mostly around printed materials, so we have much a stronger sense of injustice when text gets censored than when this happens to music or film.)
(There are also, though, the fuzzy ideas that movies and videogames are easier to passively consume, while any kid who’s smart enough to read a grown-up book is probably grown-up enough to handle whatever they encounter there; and that visual depictions are somehow worse or more disturbing than textual descriptions. By both of those standards, yeah, IF doesn’t really fit in the movie/videogame category. But many online fiction communities do have content systems in place, and I think they have pretty good reasons.)
I hope that we can all agree that any system we agree on would be entirely author-driven and voluntary. I’m happy with “I’m doing this because these concerns are legitimate and I don’t want to be a dick”; I’m not happy with “I’m doing this because if I don’t then someone else will do it for me.”
For what it’s worth, I don’t think “age ratings” are consistent enough to judge. (The original Doom famously got a “Mature” rating originally, but a “Teen” rating when ported to GBA… simply because that was eight years later and both content standards and realism standards had shifted radically.)
Warnings for sex, swearing, violence should work. There’s always going to be some judgement about what’s explicit sex or violence, but I think we can make that work.
Also: letter-and-symbol strings are pointlessly cryptic. Use words.
That would be the plan. But I’d at least like to see an NR equivalent for Not Rated, as the default. But also, if the main source of this information is a game’s listing at the IFDB, and we’re using tags for it, and anybody can add tags, it’s a pretty sure bet that somebody is going to take exception with a rating given to their game by somebody else – either because they wanted it unrated, or because they simply don’t agree with the rating. So that’s a problem. Making it a community taboo to rank somebody else’s game won’t prevent it, but even if it did, it would guarantee that a large number of pre-existing games never get rated.
To recap, and correct me if I’m wrong, here’s what we have so far:
Five distinct ratings: Horror, Sexual Content, Violence, Language, Drugs.
Modifiers: Perhaps + and - for “extreme” or “minimal” or something similar.
Age ratings: Too subjective and likely to change over time. Not applicable.
Logos: Words, not letters or symbols
Participation: Volunatary. (TBD: strictly on opt-in, or by some form of opt-out?)
That’s going to be the case whatever we do. (Unless someone goes through and exhaustively replays thousands of games - and then someone else promptly checks their work to ensure that they’re not flagging every game with queer characters as pornography, or whatever.)
I’d strongly prefer it if whatever system was adopted was primarily thought of as something to be used going forward, and encouraging authors to go back and rate their existing games as a valuable but secondary purpose.
First, a very practical point: ratings like “G, PG, PG13, R, NC17, X” are perhaps familiar to people from the U.S., but they mean absolutely nothing to me. The same is probably true for people from many other countries. So I don’t think this is a very good system to use.
Second, another practical point: if you want to do this on the IFDB, don’t use tags – as they cannot be removed – but have the admin add a new field to the game description. That can be edited by anyone, which would allow you to remove a wrong label and replace it by a correct one.
Third – if I understand the OP’s motivation correctly, he wants to know whether a given game is suitable for children or not. It seems to me that the only thing you’d need for that is the ability to mark a given piece as “appropriate for children”. This seems sensible to me. The ability to specify why something would be unsuitable for children doesn’t seem to further the OP’s goals in any way.
Fourth – please, let us copy the book industry and not the film/games industry. Books almost always clearly communicate if they’re meant for children or not – this is fine. They do not communicate whether they contain violence, sex, drugs, and so on, nor should they. First, because that is spoiler material. Second, because it suggests that the author cannot be trusted to handle his of her material in a sensitive way. Third, because it suggests that the reader is unable to deal with serious themes.
That the film and games industries do use them is an act of cowardice, in two ways. First, it allows them to censor content that some of their customers might disapprove of because, hey, it doesn’t fit the product’s rating! Thus rating systems legitimise censorship, and only giving an audience what it expects and wants – which is the opposite of what art should be doing. Second, it allows them to treat serious subjects, like violence and sex, in completely stupid ways because, hey, you can’t complain about senseless violence if you went to an “18+” film! Thus, rating systems actually legitimise the pornographic (in a broad sense of the word) exploitation of serious themes.
Fifth – seriously, a rating system about “Horror, Sexual Content, Violence, Language, Drugs”? It makes me mad to see sexuality grouped this way with something like violence. The ideology that sex is bad and should be hidden from view and that people should be warned about it is completely stupid and a terrible thing for humanity. Using the rating system proposed here would make me, and anyone else using it, complicit in perpetuating this ideology. I will never do that.
Rating systems are not innocent tools for allowing people to make informed choices. They are means of censorship, of perpetuating oppressive ideologies, and of destroying the openness to the unexpected that is the most fundamental characteristic of art.