Controversy in games

Posted on January 3, 2012 | 5 minute read

Watch out, this train of thought is not fully formed. Jumping around, randomness ahead. Likely editing.

Sometimes I’m torn between viewing games as virtual worlds that don’t really mean anything at all and something a little more serious; something that can teach us about the world and make us think, even live out, new concepts and ideas. Or something that can completely mess with our heads by introducing really screwed up scenarios.

No, not torn. Torn is a bad word because I am fully aware that they can be both of those things. The same game can be a casual trip away from home on one playthrough and a mindbending clusterfrack the next.

This is why when I hear and read people’s opinions on what is proper or improper in a game scenario it’s tough to choose which perspective to adopt to look at a particular issue. Is a game just a game or should some stuff just not be allowed?

For example

There was the big Modern Warfare 2 debacle about playing a terrorist-slash-undercover-CIA-operative (or something) and killing civilians a while ago. I played through that scene and while I’m usually a soft hearted pansy, I didn’t really feel much of anything. And I would be leaning toward thinking that this is not a good thing if it wasn’t for the fact that I never really got immersed enough to properly connect. It was a case of seeing C playing it and somehow sitting down to quickly shoot a bunch of civilians, then walking off when the mission was done. That particular scene at that particular time was, for me, just a virtual world that doesn’t mean anything at all. If I went back and played the game “properly” I may feel differently (as in actually feel something).

Anyway, people got up in arms about this terrorist thing. I never thought this was inappropriate. It’s just a game, right? Right? But I did get into a few discussions about the general idea of things that are simply not right to put into a game. Sure, let’s play a terrorist, whatever. When does it go too far? What if you’re killing children? What about those Japanese games I keep hearing about where you do some really dodgy stuff, like taking photos of minors in their underwear or stalking women on the streets as a rapist or something? Is that too far? When do we throw our hands up and go “Ok hold up, this is really screwed, let’s just step back and think about this for a minute.”

And that makes me question why being a terrorist and killing civilians in a game is any better than taking photos of minors in their underwear or stalking women down alleys. I know, just saying it sounds screwed, but let’s look at this objectively. In the real world neither of these things would be in any way ok (of course). Even thinking about these things for “fun” (as in thinking for fun, not considering doing this for fun), or musing aloud, would potentially get you in trouble (try it at an airport). And even the idea that you would be thinking about these things for “fun” would likely make people think you’re screwed in the head.

But when you hear of someone playing a game where you take photos of minors in their underwear you can’t help but think “Why…why would you play this? What kind of person would want to play this?” While playing a terrorist is somehow ok for a lot of people (at least it was for me).

From a moral perspective

I haven’t really thought about this much in any sort of serious or congruent way yet, which is why this entire post is just a jumble of half formed thoughts as my brain ticks over like some sort of Rubik’s Cube trying to put itself together as I form a position. I don’t know of anyone who’s played those other games, so have no idea how I would really feel about it and can’t question them about their motives. I think to be able to really form a solid and fair opinion on this I need to find someone who has and talk to them. Which I will. Any takers?

In terms of whether these games should be banned, I am leaning towards no. However, I guess there could _theoretically _ be exceptions. Just like some movies are banned, why not games? But even the most gruesome movies are only banned in extreme cases (or what should be extreme cases, anyway). The minor scenario is potentially straying into the realm of child pornography, for example (I have not played the game, so have no idea what it’s actually like).

From a development perspective

Developers have a lot to consider with potentially controversial games. Responsibility and such. How far do you push it? I guess a good rule of thumb to me seems like it might be “Do not create controversy for the sake of controversy”. Yes, it might get people talking about you, but instead of getting people to talk about you because you decided to put in some gratuitous element how about focusing on making a solid game instead and getting people to talk about you that way? Difficult, I know, but seems like a worthy goal.

Controversy is not edgy or cool. Controversy does not equate to making people think or pushing boundaries. If making people think or pushing boundaries causes controversy it’s a different story, but stirring the pot and using the “we’re being deep and meaningful and making players think” excuse to justify it is not a good excuse. In my opinion.

Blowing things out of proportion

At the same time, however, it seems like games would be a lot better off if developers didn’t have to worry about stirring up trouble. Please stir. I think it’s important to note that this entire post refers specifically to the higher level of “really bad stuff” (although I know saying “really bad stuff” doesn’t exactly give us a concrete target). We all know anything can be blown out of proportion by someone somewhere in the world.

And to think this entire train of thought started when I saw that in SWTOR, the word “retard” is censored.




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