A deep look into the sensitive topic of video game taboos and the consequences of daring to talk about them.
Since their inception in the late 1960s, video games have grown as a medium to become the biggest entertainment industry of our generation. Transitioning from a few barely distinguishable pixels floating around on a screen to fully realised 3D worlds has changed the way we play and interpret this increasingly popular pastime.
They’ve had their fair share of controversy, as well. Especially after growing in popularity during the late 1980s – when they began to be marketed more towards children – and confused parents started to become concerned that video games, not television, might be corrupting the minds of their young.
Games have grown up a lot since then, but the mentality that proposed censorship, restriction and outright banning still remains. As video games strive to tackle increasingly difficult subjects, questions arise about what is and isn’t acceptable as developers push the boundaries of what the medium is capable of – and, to some, skirt the lines of the offensive.
How would a game like Hatred have been received, say, ten years before its 2015 release? With the recent mass shootings that have shaken America, video games have been back in the spotlight again as the scapegoat of the masses. At the time, few reviewers stepped aside from the controversy involving a game in which the protagonist just wants to kill everyone and everything for the sake of it. Almost no one evaluated Hatred as a creative work or examined what it was trying to say. Hatred was a statement, not a game. It was push-back from perceived censorship sweeping its way into the industry. But was that justified?
Haters Gonna Hate
“We wanted to create something contrary to prevailing standards of forcing games to be more polite or nice than they really are or even should be,” were the words of Destructive Creations CEO, Jaroslaw Zielinski. But that’s simply not true, and it’s really a matter of history. Video games had violent beginnings, with the military scientists and hobbyists of the 1960s, inspired by the conflicts around them, created games like Space War. In fact, games such as Hatred could be said to have drawn inspiration from the violent games of the industry’s commercial beginnings, going all the way back to titles such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, games in which ultraviolence is glorified.
Hatred was judged by Gamespot as “essentially, a nothing of a game” and by Rock Paper Shotgun as “a drearily tasteless and cheap promotional campaign” that featured “a lone gunman slaughtering hundreds of innocent civilians” – and maybe they had a point. All of this backlash led to Valve removing Hatred from its Greenlight program, generating what many think the studio behind the game were aiming for: more publicity.
Let’s be clear – Hatred is a brutally tasteless production. It’s irresponsible in how it treats violence and the way in which it so flagrantly tries to create a fun experience out of what is a mass shooting simulator. And it’s not really enjoyable to play, even when you disregard the sheer brutality of the source material.
As with many other violent games, Hatred was thrust to the forefront of the public consciousness as an example of video games’ immaturity and inability to correctly handle sensitive themes; proof that further restriction was needed. Ironically, Destructive Creations argued that Hatred was a statement against censorship whilst, of course, being fully aware of the pot they were stirring. Both of these approaches represented the kind of extremist ideologies that make great news stories. The main question was: should Hatred be censored? After all, it depicts someone killing bystanders left and right for no better reason than ‘cleansing’ the world. But was this feeling stirred because Hatred is a video game, and therefore not allowed to stretch the boundaries of decency or be careless in its delivery, as people, most worryingly children, might be affected?
Fact: hatred is vulgar, offensive and irresponsible. But that doesn’t mean video games can’t approach sensitive topics. Wouldn’t films like I Spit On Your Grave, Irreversible or even The Interview be also categorized as offensive? Even so, nobody would dare say that film isn’t capable of delivering emotional, historical and artistic masterpieces, I won’t even mention examples, there’s no need.
Elephant, a movie released in 2003 and inspired by the events of the Columbine High School massacre, had an iconic way of showing violence. It stripped from it any kind of emotion and presented it as senseless and disembodied, like a video game. Why can a movie depicting such a horrible chain of events be prized with the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and so positively reviewed by critics, and a video game about a similar (if not exactly the same) topic end up causing public outcry and getting banned off the Steam marketplace? Can video games not push the boundaries of decency in the same way? Or are they simply the latest scapegoat for society holding up an uncomfortable mirror as literature, movies and msic have done in the past?
Let’s not forget though there was a time when books were regularly banned, although that doesn’t happen as much now that the medium isn’t quite as new and terrifying. The same can be said of film and music with genres such as Rap often blamed for inciting violence and corrupting children in the United States, or back in the day when rock music used to be pointed as the reason for drug use and promiscuity in the UK. It all sounds awfully familiar, and it seems clear that video games are experiencing their own growing pains as a medium struggling for artistic acceptance.
Party Like It’s 2005
Eek! Games’ absolutely ridiculous House Party reached 300,000 sales in its first year since release, and the developer of this highly controversial sexual assault simulator posted an article on the studio’s website to announce the news. In the post, they address the heavy criticism received by the game, mainly regarding its depiction of women through the use of offensive stereotypes and the fact that the goal of the game was for players to trick women into having sex with the main character.
There was a general consensus on House Party: “misogynistic pile of shit,” “a shitty game for shitty people,” and “a juvenile take on sexuality, liberal profanity, and objectification of women.” In a world where the treatment of women is finally being taken more seriously, as with the #MeToo campaign and many other movements rooting for equality around the world, are games like House Party reinforcing toxic behaviours and outdated stereotypes, further damaging the representation of women in the industry?
It’s hard to answer in an empirical way. But it certainly doesn’t help when video games clearly designed to be provocative as a marketing tactic cry censorship. Video games, indie games in particular can and do deal with sensitive themes, but it’s often that ones designed to shock and offend that want protection from censorship and undeservedly so. But video games can also portray graphic material if handled correctly. There’s a beauty in being challenged or presented with a position alien and possibly even offensive to you. Shock value has its place in cinema as does fetishisation in literature, but video games can’t seem to get away with such statements of intent. It’s as if we collectively put video games on this moral pedestal deeming them too great a vehicle of cultural significance to dare to represent the worst of the world.
What if House Party had been released during 2005, the same year as the movie Hitch, in which Will Smith, starring as an expert date doctor and counsellor, teaches men how to seduce women? Each generation has a unique approach to things, so Hitch today probably wouldn’t be as popular as it was 13 years ago. But even so, would the world’s biggest cinema chains refuse to show it? Because that’s the decision Steam made by censoring the game on their marketplace. Would Will Smith suffer this type of shunning if the film released today? Maybe.
“It blows my mind the double-standard we have where so many television shows, ripe with sex and in a lot of cases, much more adult-themed nature air on television unchecked,” said House Party developer Bobby Ricci, “but my game, just because it’s a video game, and involves cartoons having sex, received such controversy. We also have SO many games already with gratuitous violence and mass-murder, but I showed a penis, so clearly I’m out of my mind.”
Sensitive Or Salacious?
On the surface, maybe he has a point. The American Pie series released eight films including spin-offs, spanning between 1999 and 2012. Yet it seems there have been fewer arguments pointing to the fact that it’s a franchise that objectified women like almost no other, disguising its themes about “‘scoring”’ and doing anything to have sex behind a cheap-looking wall of script that pretended to be about love and companionship? House Party is no different, and yet has been crushed by critics.
From Fifty Shades Of Gray, to every Lars Von Trier movie, every Quentin Tarantino movie, every war movie for that matter, American History X, American Psycho, and so many more examples reflect how other narrative forms, while still evaluated and criticised, aren’t qualified as “pieces of garbage” or “a pile of shit.” Moreover, they aren’t made responsible for the violent and sexist behaviour in society.
But, crucially, films like American History X are fantastic works of art which, in this particular case, depict the horror of racism in an effective way. Can video games do exactly that and act as a medium for those kinds of narratives? It seems that although gaming has acquired the tools to be more realistic than ever, for a community that gets larger by the minute, it suffers from immaturity in comparison to other, more established media.
French film Irreversible shows a woman being raped in a tunnel for around five minutes that feel like an eternity, but no one can deny that this movie was an achievement in backwards narrative, aesthetics and a powerful, emotional story about revenge. Did director Gaspar Noé need to show so horribly how her female protagonist got brutally abused? There’s no answer for a question like that when talking about an artistic creation – but while it’s safe to say that no one enjoyed watching that scene and that it stirred controversy, few passed it off as ‘garbage’.
So many games come to mind that have been greatly successful in treating sensitive and delicate topics. Spec Ops: The Line was a traditional third-person shooter that hid the mind cracking contradictions of military operations, with the humanity of soldiers in the battlefield being transformed and put to the test, as well as how civilians suffer and see their lives shattered by confrontations that often times exceed them. This War of Mine placed even more focus on the tragedy of war and its effect on families and regular people. When we play those games we become immersed in those concepts and we forget that we’re playing an interactive story. It means something and it distils deep thoughts and questions.
Who could say that The Last of Us is just a zombie-killing game and not a tale about survival, love, and both the good and bad aspects of humanity?
Topics To STAY Away From
Still, it seems there are some themes that, regardless of how sensitively they are approached, are still a taboo in video games.13 Reasons Why, a Netflix original TV series that tells the story of a schoolgirl that commits suicide and leaves cassette tapes explaining her motives, was received in an undoubtedly positive way and already has released its second season. 13 Reasons Why shows main protagonist Hannah’s struggles in the face of violence and sexual abuse. And the sensation left for the viewers after reflecting all that Hannah goes through in her teens is that she was living in hell, with no way out and suffering from deep angst and depression. It’s overwhelming and it explains almost perfectly how she came to conclude that taking her own life was her only way out.
STAY, an indie game developed by Spanish studio Appnormals Team and published by PQube Limited for PC is, on the surface, a retro pixel art 2D dialogue-based adventure. But from the beginning of the game, we know that we’re going to experience something much more complicated. STAY places users as the only companions of Quinn, a lonely therapist suffering from depression and anxiety, who is abducted and trapped in a strange house filled with riddles, puzzles, and a question – who did this, and why? – while we see how Quinn reacts to our periods of absence from the game. Being away from him for too long will cause him to reproach on us, show himself to be depressed, and sometimes talk about suicide.
I had the chance of speaking with STAY’s developers while working on my review of the game earlier this year and was shocked to learn that Appnormals Team was suggested by mental health related authorities to avoid being too frontal and bold in STAY. As a result, the studio had to opt in on that advice, removing from their game many of its scenes and lines related to suicide. Actually, STAY originally featured a blunt reaction from Quinn after too many hours of absence from the users: he would kill himself, and game over.
“This wasn’t a case of active censorship from the editors,” Iñaki Díaz of Appnormals tells The Indie Game Website, “although it is true that we received warnings from several mental health-related institutions. But we also incurred in self-censorship upon our ignorance on how to treat suicide in a responsible way.”. Again, a video game is deemed not able to deal with as sensitive a subject as mental illness and suicide, but a Netflix show presenting similar themes is judged differently.
Appnormals wanted to tackle suicide and depression, loneliness and mental health as a whole. But they had to take a step back and adapt their game to be softer and less ‘dangerous’. They weren’t able to tell their story how they intended to; they were told to be careful.
Even so, they succeeded in their own way. “The majority of people than have contacted us regarding the game have shown themselves very emotional regarding their experience,” says Díaz. “Most of them admitted having gone through processes involving depression, anxiety and/or loss.”
So maybe, slowly but surely, attitudes are starting to change. Actual Sunlight, released in 2014, isn’t a game meant to be enjoyed or entertaining. It’s a game about depression, solitude and addiction. And it was greatly praised by critics and gamers alike for being an experience that allows players to relate with these situations, and with mental illness in general. In fact, it seems odd to use the word ‘game’ when talking about an experience such as Actual Sunlight. Maybe it’s the term itself that’s problematic.
Game For Change?
Should the video game industry, and the indie scene in particular, try to engage in marketing and communication campaigns stressing the artistic side of their creations instead of only the fun? Should the word ‘play’ be redefined as something else than a competitive or ludic experience? Maybe if video games weren’t tied to it, they would be considered as a valid medium to explore the darker aspects of life and humanity. But that wouldn’t be true, because the act of playing engulfs much more, and both gamers and developers should embrace the task of making that understood.
Video games, or whatever we decide to call them in the future, have already proven to be not only successful, but a unique and innovative medium to tell stories that range from ‘merely’ entertainment to deep and profound inquiries on humanity and its nature. Every form of art has suffered from backlash, shunning and banning in the past, but the fact that in 2018 we’re still witnessing this happen is a concern. Even more concerning is the fact that public opinion seems to double down on this tendency without hesitation.
Have video games already paid in full the price of entry to the hall of unquestioned artistic media? Will we see more Actual Sunlights – rightly lauded and praised? Or will the likes of Hatred and House Party reinforce negative impressions of video games’ ability to push beyond plumbers and hedgehogs? That’s a question we can’t answer. Not yet.