Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

A recent conversation has reiterated one of the components of recent internet discussions of games – particularly those containing overt misogyny – that bothers me more than most of the others. It’s the conflation amongst many online of “criticism” with “censorship.” A few weeks ago, I made this post on the Australian censorship of Hotline Miami 2, which contains a passage I feel bears repeating (even though I feel a little odd about quoting myself):

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Criticism is – or should be – the thoughtful consideration of and discussion about why our cultural artifacts (including videogames) contain things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and the other -isms of society. Criticism is not censorship.

Let me just repeat that one: Criticism is not censorship.

Yes, there are people on the internet who claim that certain games – probably including Hotline Miami 2 – should not have been made and certainly should not be sold. I am not among them. I will never buy it, never play it, and am, quite honestly, disgusted by it, but I will not say that it should not exist. I will say that it is harmful to women because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and sexual violence that daily endangers real women in the real world, but I do not dispute its right to exist.

Let me also be very clear that I do not think that someone can become a misogynist by playing Hotline Miami 2. I do not think that any single piece of culture can change a person’s nature or predispositions. I do think that, en masse, popular culture devoted predominantly to particular ideological paradigms does inculcate its audience into those paradigms. In non-academic-ese, what we see all day, every day, does impact how we think about the world. It might not cause us to take action on those thoughts, not directly, but it does cause us to become accepting or permissive of certain behaviors we might not otherwise choose to permit.

It can also cause us to reject certain behaviors. Publish enough tracts and novels about the abolition of slavery – like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was progressive for its time – and society might just decide that slavery isn’t acceptable. Publish enough tracts and hold enough speeches on how women should vote, and you get women’s suffrage. Make enough television, movies, and videogames about how African Americans are all violent gangsters, and you get unarmed black teenagers being shot because white people feel genuine (albeit unjustified) fear of them.

That is the power of media, videogames included, and that is precisely why criticism (not censorship) is vitally important. Because if we kowtow to the sanctity of creators and the entertainment media, we stop questioning why we believe the things we believe. Censorship is just another form of refusing criticism, and it is through criticism – genuine, respectful dialogue – that culture moves forward.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”

How Homogeneity Happens

So today a friend drew my attention to this little game of Polygons. It’s cute. There are happy squares and triangles. And apathetic squares and triangles. And sad squares and triangles.

And the point is to teach us about how our “natural” inclination to hang out with people like us produces segregation. Because a triangle surrounded by squares isn’t happy, nor is a square surrounded by triangles happy. And the “easiest” way to make everybody happy appears to be to make all the squares and triangles sit next to each other.

But history – and Jim Crow – should have taught us that isn’t really a good solution. Because segregation by race, gender, creed, or sexuality never actually accomplishes the fallacy of separate-but-equal.

The game doesn’t tell us whether the triangles or the squares will end up being institutionally oppressed or whether they live in a happy geometric land where they can be separate but equal, but it does show us how we tend to congregate like with like – and how easily and simply that produces factionalism, in-groups and out-groups. Even just in terms of where we choose to live without ever really thinking about it.

And that’s worth thinking about.

Fan Effect

So I was one of many people disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. I was not, however, one of the people for whom the ending “ruined” the entire series. Nor was I one of the people calling for the death, destruction, or public flogging of any of the members of the BioWare staff. I did appreciate some of what they did with the new ending, even though I still think it fell far short of what people wanted from the series.

At PaxEast 2013, BioWare ran a panel at which they offered to answer fan questions about the series – and at which they presented a host of interesting demographic information about what players prefer – manShep vs. femShep, romance choices, etc. The ending of course came up.

All this serves to preface not another rant about Mass Effect 3, but as background for BioWare’s choice to ask fans for their input via survey on Mass Effect 4, which doesn’t yet have a release date (but will not include a Shep of any gender).

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, this seems like a way for the developer to get in touch with what their fanbase actually wants. On another, I know that the most vocal fans are often the hardcore fans, and do not accurately represent the desires of the majority of fans of any game. (Visiting fora for games, for instance, will give one a skewed perspective on what people like about that game.) On a third (this is an alien with more than two arms, go with it), as a cultural critic I don’t want to see developers giving up their creative freedom to the fickle and contradictory wishes of the unwashed (or even washed) masses. On a fourth, what I really don’t want to see is the inevitable internet backlash from those masses who believe that they were “ignored” by a highly experienced and decorated developer who really does probably know better than they do what makes a good game. Finally (yup, five-handed alien), I don’t want to see a game produced by crowdsourcing that is either schizophrenic or contains a lot of gestures toward things fans think they want.

What I want out of Mass Effect 4 is whatever BioWare wants the game to be. Despite the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending, I trust BioWare’s writers, designers, and artists to produce a high-quality game. Sure, it will have bugs. It will have things that I personally don’t like or contain narrative elements that I would not have chosen. But you know what? So does every other form of entertainment on the planet. That’s part of why BioWare games are good – they are crafted, designed, and produced by people who care deeply about the worlds and characters they contain.

This is not to say that the fans don’t care deeply, too. They do (some of us maybe too much…). But they are ultimately fans, not developers. They’re welcome, of course, to create fanart, fanfic, and whatever other fan-content they wish. They can rewrite the ending to Mass Effect 3 in their heads or on their blogs as many times and ways as they wish.But they are not the developer and they therefore don’t have – and, I would say, shouldn’t have – extensive creative input.

Of course the desires of fans are ultimately important – if a fan hates something, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, the company might never make another game or will change their focus. And fans have every right to whine, complain, praise, or buy/not buy anything they wish. But what I don’t want to see is a sudden turn, especially in a company like BioWare, to a democratic system of production. Democracy is great for politics, but isn’t (usually) great in art.

Edit: xposted to TLF

Binders and Gills and Inches, Oh MY!

(Note: Please read the last two words of the title as though you are George Takei, if only for your own personal amusement.)

In what seems to be a followup to yesterday’s post about gender-customization and Ubisoft, today I get to talk about Ubisoft’s extremely questionable decision to announce that Far Cry 4 (which has already taken some heat for the blatant racism on its cover art) is, and I quote, “packed to the gills with women.” “Packed to the gills.”

First of all, I’m not terribly sure what that even means, except to correlate it with the equally bizarre and ambiguous Romney “Binders full of women” debacle from the 2012 election campaign. Really, “binders” presumably can hold more than “gills,” unless we’re talking about something like a whale shark, I suppose, which must have really large gills. (I’m not the only one making this connection, either.)

For once, the above forum thread is full of more mockery for Ubisoft than it is derision for those who find Ubisoft’s statement questionable, although I suspect largely for the ludicrous nature of the statement rather than the implied content. Continuing, “Hutchinson says the developer ‘tried very hard to make sure of the four main antagonists, half of them are women, which is cool. On your side, one of the main leaders of the rebel faction is a woman, half the rebels that fight with you are women. It’s packed to the gills with women. They’re everywhere, just like life.’”

The follow-up that this is “just like life” is almost face-smackingly stupid, given that feminist gamers have been asking for years for the demographics of games to emulate “life,” the fact that Ubisoft has actually listened for once does not merit giving them a virtual cookie, especially because in spite of the claim that Far Cry 4 is “teeming with women,” that it is “just like life,” they aren’t going to create any female protagonists. Because women can be antagonists, but not, apparently, protagonists, because that’s too much work. Also, I guess, not “just like life.” Because women aren’t heroes. (They’re not even people on the same level as corporations – but that’s another debate I’m not having here.)

But here’s the best part. As Polygon notes, “Far Cary 4 devs were ‘inches away’ from women as playable characters.” Inches. (5-8 inches, might we say?) So now we’re supposed to give Ubisoft some credit because it almost did what we wanted it to do? They almost had gender-customization for their protagonist? And the reason they didn’t?

Well, per yesterday’s post, it wasn’t because having a female protagonist would in some way derail the story. Nope. Because “When asked if he thought a woman protagonist would work in Ubisoft’s brazen and oftentimes violent open-world shooter series, Hutchinson said that yes, it could work – and it should already be working.” What happened, then?

They didn’t have a “female reading for the character.” That’s right, they just didn’t hire a female voice actor. Sure, that’s time and expense, but really? Even that soon (the article is from June 11) after what happened with the Unity announcement at E3, Ubisoft still decided to play the “animating women is hard and we’d need a female voice actor” card? (Yup, they did.)

So here’s what I don’t get. If you see how upset a significant portion of the fanbase gets when you don’t offer gender-customization for Unity and you were originally intending to provide it as an option inFar Cry 4, why on earth would you not delay release long enough to put it back in? This is not a case of “the story needs the protagonist to be a man,” as the developer states explicitly that the story not only can but should support gender-customization, but a case of corporate cost-cutting at the expense of inclusivity and creativity. This is a case where Ubisoft should look at the developer and say, “The fans want it, you want it, let’s make it happen” instead of forcing the developer to regurgitate a tired, weak, and half-assed argument that it’s “too hard” to include what he wanted to include from the beginning.

We’ve been calling for more diversity in games for a few years now – and now we’re seeing developers (yes, even white male developers) try to do it, so let’s get the publishers on board with the fact that games not only can but sometimes should include that diversity, even at a modest financial cost.

Games in the Classroom

So I’ve been percolating on something about teaching games that has been bothering me for a while, and it’s been difficult to articulate precisely why it bothers me. The issue is this: whenever people talk about games in the classroom, it is almost always assumed that the games must therefore be “educational” in the most cheesy, trite, or bland sort of ways. By implication, this means that the games that enter the classroom cannot be games first and educational tools second; “education” must come first, and thereby – usually speaking – render the game less fun.

I’ve recently purchased and implemented a prime example of such a game: Lucid, a card game designed to teach fallacies. Now it has its uses – I have used it in class to greater effect than I would have been able to use worksheets or quizzes or something more conventional. But it isn’t a game that anyone outside of a classroom would pick up just to play. It’s an educational game.

But it’s also a fluke in my classroom, whether I happen to be teaching my games course or one of my other classes. I teach with games, but I also teach games – games as texts, as works of art worth study in and of themselves. I teach Settlers of Catan, Werewolves, Clue, Pandemic, Portal, and Bioshock. I use them to talk about cooperation, trust, in- and out-group psychology, tragedy of the commons, systems theory, mechanics training, and sociopolitical theory.

I was first introduced to games as education – rather than educational games – with the first Civilization in seventh grade. One of the best teachers I ever had used it to teach us about how societies were founded, expanded, succeeded, and failed. It served as a foundation for a project in which we had to establish a city in the Brazilian rainforest for 5,000 people – plan its economy, entertainment, environment, and infrastructure (and for which we were allowed to use SimCity as a test).

When I talk to people about teaching with games, it is assumed that the games must be meant as teaching tools – not that they could act as teaching tools or even be the focus of critical inquiries. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see games come into their own as objects of value rather than being dismissed as something we do when we aren’t thinking – like movies or television. In fact, like pop culture in general. All elements of pop culture influence our society in both positive and negative ways, and all of them tell us about ourselves, whether or not we want to listen.

Digital Longevity

Since today I was handed an article entitled saving games and then saw this article from IGN’s Mitch Dyer arguing that games can’t last, it seems that the universe is pushing me to address the seeming “issue” of videogame impermanence. Dyer says that his kids “will never know what Gears of War: Judgment is. They will never wonder what Killzone: Shadow Fall was like, they will never play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and they will never ask me about Grand Theft Auto V.” And that may be true. It also may not.

As my students (in my Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies class) could tell him, some games do last the test of time. Pac-Man, for instance, has been re-released, ported, and updated on every available console, computer, and phone, despite being originally released for arcade-only play by Namco in 1979. That’s pretty good longevity. Pong (found on phones, calculators, and computers world-wide) was released by Atari in 1972.

Sure, that’s forty-some years which pale in comparison to Shakespeare’s 400-some, but we’ve also lost some of Shakespeare’s plays (Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio, at least), and who knows how much literature from Chaucer’s and the Pearl Poet’s respective eras. We’ve kept Agatha Christie, but there are dozens if not hundreds of murder mystery authors who have fallen by the proverbial wayside, unremembered, unpublished (any more), and unread. Musical instruments and genres move into and out of fashion, some lost, some preserved, some remaining popular despite the steady march of chronology.

My point is really that we aren’t yet in any historical position to make claims about the permanence or impermanence of games, particularly – as Dyer does – in comparison to a genre (literature) that has been around since humans learned to string together words to form a narrative. And we don’t have any of THOSE stories, either. The earliest examples of a genre don’t last – in that, Dyer may have a point. Few people watch the first-ever film (made by Edison, it’s horribly fuzzy but can in fact be found on YouTube), comparatively speaking, and fewer still watch many of the early examples not preserved in “collections.” There are hundreds of rolls of cellulite film that dissolve into nothingness every day, just as there are books that disintegrate into dust.

Videogames are still a young genre, one that was invented in the lifetimes of all adults over the age of forty-five. Forty-five years is not nearly long enough to make an assertion like the one Dyer makes. It’s also fundamentally flawed in its comparison. Literature has been an established genre for centuries, and its one that has shaped our culture into its present form. Film is growing into a similarly powerful presence. As will – I would suggest – videogames. Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders will one day be introduced as the forerunners of the Tale of Two Cities of videogames (which, I would think, hasn’t yet been made). World of Warcraft and Call of Duty will appear on syllabi as games that reshaped digital culture and birthed massive online communities, breaking down national and cultural barriers by integrating people from around the world into guilds and teams all focused on a common goal.

We aren’t yet at the place in videogaming creation where we have the capacity to create a game-Hamlet (although there are some games out there about Hamlet) that will endure into future generations. We’re still learning about our technological capacity, learning about how to integrate narrative and ludology, still experimenting with form and function in a society that is adapting to the pervasiveness of digital media into what was, not so long ago, an analog world.

Yes, the technology become obsolete, the graphics “crude” in two or five or ten years. Yes, our technological capacity increases almost exponentially from year to year, console generation to console generation. But that doesn’t mean that games can’t hold our attention or critical capacity far into the future. Dyer’s point – that even Vice City has become “after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing.” But compare the most recent film version of Hamlet to the set-less, hastily memorized disaster area that Shakespeare’s first production of it must have been.

Videogames are no more transient than plays, than films, than television series, than poetry, than music. They are simply different, with different challenges, different media, different limitations. Yes, some of them will disappear, brought to uselessness by the deterioration of technology, storage media, or disuse. The same is true of all genres of art and culture. But some of them will endure, not because of their graphics, but because they speak to us about our culture, our society, our hopes and our dreams, our fantasies and fears.

Our children may not play GTAV (personally, I hope they don’t), but they might play Journey or Mass Effect or Gone Home. They might play World of Warcraft or Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption or Bioshock. They might not. Maybe our games – our early twenty-first century games – are not the games that will last, but I would bet that some of them are. They will persist, just as Hamlet or The Tale of Two Cities persist. Just as Casablanca or Psycho persist. They will persists because they present us as a complex society capable of both great kindness and great cruelty, they ask the difficult questions, force us (as players) to make the difficult choices. They will last because they are an essential part of our new digital culture. In other words, art.