Factor 5 president Julian Eggebrecht has said that games' inability to include sexual content, satirical jokes and fantasy violence without degrees of censure are symptoms of a wider problem with ratings - and said that he didn't feel the US Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) took the medium seriously as an artform.
"I would be happy if in games we could talk about homosexuality, but we're not even at the point where we can admit that humans have heterosexual relationships, and that is a real problem - and it tends to show that games are not being seen, even by our own ratings boards, as an artform," he told attendees at the Games Convention Developer's Conference in Germany.
Eggebrecht devoted much of his keynote address on the first morning of GCDC to attacking the US Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) over ratings problems encountered developing PS3 title Lair, and drew attention to various examples.
One of these was a satirical video of a real-life coffee maker hidden behind a cheat code in Lair - a reference to the presence of unfinished sexual content in the original release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. "Everyone thought it was hilarious...but we couldn't call the cheat 'Hot Coffee', because that would imply we were mocking the authorities investigating Hot Coffee."
"If you cannot have satire about these things, that is approaching the realm of McCarthyism," he said.
In a speech that regularly drew comparisons between the use of violence and sex in film and videogames, Eggebrecht called on his fellow developers to include more sexual content in games. "I want to see a game with real sexual content in a store here in Germany - I don't think it will happen unless we really recognise games as an artform," he told the audience. He pointed to Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which "discusses relationship issues that you have in a marriage". "You don't have that in games - it is time to wake up and make it happen."
It was during this phase of his speech that Eggebrecht referred to Hot Coffee, defending embattled publisher Rockstar. "How a game can be drawn off the shelves based on a cheat in which you can barely see something that might be interpreted as a sexual act - as an Easter Egg no less - is absolutely beyond me, when at the same time movies have been pushing the envelope for a long time," he said.
Eggebrecht also called on the ESRB to introduce a new American rating between the Teen and Mature badges, arguing that neither was suitable for games like Lair whose innate appeal is to teenage gamers, but whose content is fantasy violence that can be viewed from custom angles - something of a sticking point for censors.
Factor 5 had been forced to excise various elements of Lair's violence because, while publisher Sony sought a Teen rating, the ESRB repeatedly objected to spurts of blood and organic aircraft being blown into visible "chunks", forcing the developer into a time consuming and "hugely problematic" cycle of submissions, Eggebrecht said.
"On the one hand they objected to this, but they let us through with a Teen even though you can use fire - you can set up to five, six thousand people on fire. They burn, they run around and they scream, but of course that wasn't a problem [due to the absence of blood]."
He called the submissions process "a charade". "It's a flat out bizarre system...It makes it even harder for games than movies because we don't have the intermediate ratings." Although there were obvious parallels between the way game content could be tweaked to fit ratings guidelines, and the way that film directors were able to remove frames or frame violence artistically so that disgusting or shocking acts were alluded to rather than literally seen, the gap between Teen and Mature ratings and the ESRB's awkwardness were a source of agitation, he explained.
"They don't really tell you what they will object to - they just say 'well, follow the standards that have been set before', which is a problem if you want to push the envelope," he added.
Despite this, Eggebrecht encouraged his fellow developers to continue pushing against the boundaries of what was acceptable in order to establish games as an artform. He concluded: "I hope that we actually can prove that this is an artform. Show me something that proves on all levels that games are indeed an artform - push the violence, but also push the sex, and push it in an artistic way where it's not really gratuitous, but where it gets my thinking brain going."