Fodder for Someone Else's Cannon
One of the most prevalent kinds of controversy starts when a game cuts across a political or social issue that someone has a predetermined position on. Such was the case with Shadow Complex, the Chair Entertainment-developed, Epic Games-financed Xbox Live Arcade game that inadvertently sparked a debate about Orson Scott Card's condemnations of homosexuality.
The controversy had little to do with the game or the people who made it. Shadow Complex was part of an original IP created by Chair Entertainment, with a game script written by comic book writer Peter David. Card licensed the larger IP from Chair and wrote a two-book series (Empire and Hidden Empire) based on it. Shadow Complex served as a bridge between Card's two books, but the IP and core creative ideas originated at Chair and had little if any reference to homosexuality.
In the midst of launching Shadow Complex to unprecedented sales (it was the fastest-selling XBLA game of all time at release) and enthusiastic reviews (it has a Metacritic score of 88 and is one of the best-reviewed XBLA games of all-time), a debate broke out over the morality of buying an entertainment from a company with a direct business link to an anti-gay activist.
As editorials were published and boycotts were conceived, Chair, Epic, and Microsoft declined to comment.
While the debate about sexuality had little to do with the game content, many used the association of a well-known and Mormon-aligned grudge as a catalyst to have a free-roaming conversation about the nature of boycotts, free speech, and the impact of political views on creative works.
This can be one of the most difficult forms of controversy to counter, because it has little to do with the actual game.
"You just have to assess what you're dealing with; you can't apply a formula to any one crisis," an industry PR veteran, who asked to remain anonymous, said. "You have to look at each one for what it is, and not downplay people's sensitivities. What you may not be sensitive to, someone else may be, and you can't just dismiss that."
The hardest part of finding yourself pulled into a controversy over an issue you might not have been aware of during development is discerning what you can and can't affect. It's not pleasant to wake up in the morning and find an expanding web of blogs, forum threads, emails, and article commenter's condemning you and your work. It's also impossible to rationally stop a web of criticism that is simultaneously expanding in a thousand different directions.
"The only one practice you can apply to every situation is that whatever you do just address it immediately," the PR veteran told me. "Whether that's to make a comment or not to make a comment, issue an apology, or to fix something -- whatever you do, you want to act quickly. Not always publicly, but always be on it, be aware that this is breaking and start working on it."
Resident Evil 5 generated a notable controversy, starting with an allegation of racism after a teaser trailer was shown at E3 in 2007. The Village Voice's Bonnie Ruberg was the first to see the phenomenon of "othering" in the trailer's ominous portrait of a lone white American in a village of zombified Africans.
Shortly after, Tracey John interviewed N'Gai Croal for MTV's Multiplayer blog, and Croal followed the thread by suggesting some black Americans might feel insulted by the setting and the potential evocation of Sambo-racist cartoons from the Ninteenth and early Twentieth centuries.
"Since the RE5 controversy, we have become much more aware of how important it is that we are part of the asset creation process early on so that we are able to have a say in the end product," Melody Pfeiffer, senior PR manager for Capcom, said.
"We are also designing a lot of our own assets from this side of the pond so that we are able to make strategic pieces of content that make sense for our market. We are working really closely with our producers in Japan to construct these materials for the West and they are open more then ever to hearing our thoughts and ideas for assets."
Resident Evil 5
While the zombies behaved more or less consistently in every other game in the series, the change in setting and ethnicity brought with it an extraordinarily sensitive history for many Americans. The resulting controversy became a kind of public focus testing for the perceived racial statements of the trailer.
"We're kind of on the frontier. No one really knows what's offensive until you test the trailer and someone says, 'Oh, that's offensive,'" the movie studio executive told me.
"Then we'll know that's something to be aware of moving forward, and then at the end of the process hopefully you'll know where to go to campaign and not turn off anybody."
The allegations of racism might have seemed confusing to the development team at the time. The game was designed to be played in co-op with an African partner, and the main villains were white American scientists. The development team took extra care to ensure subsequent footage of the game had a less homogenous mix of zombies. Central Asian merchants and white post-colonialists were mixed in a bit more noticeably among the black Africans to temper American assumptions that Resident Evil 5 was a race parable.
"No, we certainly didn't anticipate the reaction," Jun Takeuchi, Capcom's producer on the game, told MTV in 2008. "We think it was a bit of a misunderstanding when we published the first images of the game back in the day. And we think that as we move along and allow people to see more of the game and more of what's going on and more of the story, people will get a better idea of the game. I think you can see that that reaction has started to die down a little bit."
RE5, like Shadow Complex, might have experienced a less tumultuous public reception with more careful vetting in advance. Card's belief that homosexuality is socially destructive has been a story for over twenty years. Likewise, it shouldn't have been a total surprise to Capcom that America, a country which had massive race riots in the Nineties, might be especially sensitive to the portrayal of black people -- even fictional African ones.
"When we do a trailer we'll test it quantitatively so we'll get a sense of whether or not the materials are offensive before America sees them," the movie studio executive told me.
"In terms of publicity everyone identifies their talking points for a potential issue and there is a lot of outreach in advance that happens."