My Little Brother Plays More M-Rated Games Than I Do

I was born in 1978 in a little town called Ironwood. With a population of about 6,000, it’s situated on the border of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan – which, while still considered Michigan, doesn’t actually touch the main landmass.

Ironwood is a rustic, quaint town white as the winter snow. Seriously, the closest thing they have to “foreigners” is Polish-Americans. It’s a good-ol’-boy place with lots of bars, pickup trucks, and deer hunters. I moved away quickly, and have been blessed to live in many large cities and meet many types of people.

“Downtown” Ironwood

Some 22 years later, another boy was born in Ironwood. We’ll call him “Jay.” Not only did we come from the same 6000-person city, but we came from the same man. Jay is my younger half-brother.

I texted with Jay today, the first time we’d communicated not in-person. He told me he was playing Xbox 360. I asked for his gamertag, since last time we talked it was a complicated sequence of 1s and Xs and I never did get it down right. His current one is much easier, and I sent him a friend request.

Then I looked at what he plays. Nine of the last 10 games he’s played were M-rated. The ESRB – the non-profit, self-regulatory body that assigns ratings for video games – defines those games as “Content [that] is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”

What Jay plays at 12

Jay is 12. He’s a smart kid, but still 12. I’m not so old that I don’t remember when I was 12. I bought NWA’s “Niggaz4Life” on cassette, and memorized every word before my mom would eventually steal it from me and keep it for six years. It was the year my friends and I strolled up to the box office and got tickets for Boyz N The Hood despite it being rated R.

Watching and hearing content is one thing; you’re an observer. Video games are different, because you are interacting and in some ways controlling the action. It is your finger that fires the gun, or kicks the downed bystander. And most adults and I’d even guess the majority of teens can handle it.

What I played at 12

At 12, I borrowed my mom’s friend’s copy of Super Mario 3. I saved up for Sonic The Hedgehog 1. About the most violent game I played was Road Rash, which entails punching opponents in cross-country motorcycle races. Mortal Kombat wouldn’t be ripping out spines on my Genesis bloody for another 3 years.

Not all M-rated games are created equal. Dark Souls, for example, is a dark and mythological action game. Sure, you dismember already-dead demons, but that’s about as objectionable as it gets. When I saw that on Jay’s Xbox activity, I smiled; it’s a great game. The fact that he conquered it shows his gaming prowess.

Then there’s Modern Warfare 2, Rainbow Six Vegas, Grand Theft Auto IV, and the newly released Grand Theft Auto V. Again, I’d consider all of those great games (though I’m less than 2 hours into GTAV), but the difference is I’m an adult. I can handle the very adult themes and the violence and the humanity. I think of “No Russian,” the famous mission in Modern Warfare 2 where you’re undercover with a group who shoots up an airport full of civilians. Could Jay handle that? Could he realize the context of it? The fact that I’m asking means maybe he shouldn’t be playing all those (and Battlefield, Black Ops 2, etc.). And this isn’t even accounting for the annoyance many gamers feel when they get capped by obnoxious, high-voiced preteens in multiplayer. I hope my brother isn’t one of those.

Meanwhile, a look at my recent Xbox activity – which, to be honest, has been overtaken by the less-loud PS3 – shows that 4 of the last 5 games I’ve played have been rated Teen or lower: Castle Crashers, Rock Band 3, Doritos Crash Course 2 and Robotron. Only Duke Nukem Forever is M-rated (and a $5 purchase at Gamefly long ago so don’t judge). I’m 35 and playing less mature stuff than this kid! Heck, overall I’ve played more Animal Crossing and an iPad Picross clone (iPACROSS) than anything else the last few months!

Jay’s parents are divorced. Our dad has the same cassette boom box since 1990 and never owned a DVD or CD player. He describes people as “colored” when he’s on his best behavior. That is to see, he’s not very worldly or tech-savvy. Jay’s mom has another child and a new husband who’s a couple years older than me at most, so I’m going to guess Jay’s gaming activity is not closely monitored.

The ESRB ratings are a good thing, and content descriptors tell you just what you may see/experience in each game. But you need employees that are educated; you need parents that care. As Ironwood only has a K-Mart and Walmart, I don’t have faith in them. Of course, his mom could have just bought Jay a game from Amazon and never seen the ratings. Or she could have been lectured by a studious employee at a brick-and-mortar and shrugged her shoulders.

Here’s something to ponder: The only time Jay has seen Middle Eastern people is while shooting them in the head in Call of Duty.

I think I’ll leave it at that.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

I have no job, so I play Papers Please

I find most jobs to be soul-crushing endeavors where you are enslaved by a soulless entity that uses menial tasks and a pittance to lull you into a semi-conscious state so it may further oppress you.

Being a struggling actor/writer, I don’t have a job where I can experience those things. Instead, I forked over about $8 – or one hour’s pay as a minimum-wage employee, pre-tax – to get Papers Please, an amazingly original and captivating indie game on Steam.

Soldiers detain one, but dozens more are waiting

You see, Papers Please finds you “winning” a lottery to work the newly-opened border checkpoint of Arstotzka. Every shift, your primary duty is to check the identification of would-be entrants and ensure only those meant to come in are admitted.

The work is easy at first, as any foreigner is to be turned away. But as days go by, new edicts need to be assimilated and new regulations are introduced seemingly to confound you. Kolechians may be barred. An X-ray machine will help you find contraband or determine gender (leaving you feeling like a TSA agent). You may even have to wield a weapon to defend the border against runners.

How my desk usually looks

The stress doesn’t end when your shift is over. If you’ve been less than perfect, penalties will dock your already-meager salary. And you’ve got 4 other mouths to feed, heat, and keep healthy. This means you may seriously consider bribes, especially when they’re combined with sympathetic causes. Or you may consider letting your dear old uncle move on to a better place.

After every person I let through, I’d wait with bated breath to see if I did the right thing. Your counter only has so much space, and it’s going to be full with regulation manuals, wanted posters, business cards, and maybe even decoders for a secret society who wants to change things (hopefully for the better). You can upgrade both your home and your workplace, but who has the disposable funds? It’s hard enough to keep everyone fed, much less spent 5 credits to shortcut inspection mode.

Everyone’s okay for now. Except dead uncle

It sounds like I’m complaining about Papers Please a lot, right? It doesn’t sound like much of a game, does it? It’s difficult to explain why I’ve been staying up late playing every night. I actually get into a zone where I’m sailing through the line – checking expiration dates, height/weight, cross-referencing with pictures of fugitives, verifying entry stamps, and everything else. I feel like I’m doing well, even if my in-game reward is merely keeping my head above water.

I don’t feel a real sense of loyalty to the nation of Arstotzka, or the guards, or the people I interact with, or the family in my slum-like dwelling. I feel a loyalty to my duty, to my job. And so, I keep doing it to the best of my ability, menial and harsh as it is.

You may pass. Don’t mess this up for us

So, what does Papers Please teach us? That we Americans actually have it pretty good? That big government is built on the backs of the little guy? That we sell our souls to save those of our loved ones? That anything can become an indifferent task through repetition – even crushing people’s dreams? Honestly, I could write several paragraphs on any of these. I suggest you play the game yourself. If you have any kind of semi-modern PC or Mac, you’ll be able to do so. Let me know what you think.

Papers Please is definitely not for everybody. Not only is there a bare minimum of shooting or violence; it’s often not even “fun” in the strictest sense of the word. That said, I can’t recommend it enough.

Not everyone wants to simply pass through

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)