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Games With The Power To Offend: Surviving And Stoking Controversy
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Games With The Power To Offend: Surviving And Stoking Controversy

August 24, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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."

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Andre Gagne
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I think the larger debate that includes this one is the games as art vs. commercial projects for enjoyment. Particularly with Six Days in Fallujah; if people still consider video games as entertainment outlets then serious games like this one will always be met with controversy.

I also fully agree with the quadrant concept of the market. For some reason video games are everyone's whipping boy, the same sort of controversy doesn't surround the WWF though I would consider it much more offensive.

Kyle Jansen
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I think a big part of the problem is that the news media doesn't yet consider games to be "art", which colors their perceptions, and their perceptions is what is passed on to the public. I'll make an analogy to heavy metal, which gets similar treatment from the media: if I were to briefly describe, say, Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", the only words the average reporter would hear is "thrash metal song about war", from which they would probably assume that it's some violence-glorifying, death-filled wall of noise. Which, as those of you who have heard it (or have read the Hemingway novel it's based on) know is completely wrong.

So, when Fox or CNN or whoever heard "video game based on Fallujah", they probably assumed the same level of dignity and depth as Doom. Any later statements were too late to change the opinion of the reporters enough to get a major retraction.

Keeping things like that from happening is not simple. Ideally, we would get everyone to recognize the artistic merit of games, but that's at least a decade out, if it ever happens. You could hope that the major news outlets find an actual gamer to do fact-checking, but that's also a bit unlikely. The only workable solution I can think of is to bring it directly to the media, so they repeat your story, not make up their own. Find a hospitable news outlet that will listen, and announce the game there. Even if it isn't a particularly popular one, as long as it has some respect and name recognition, you'll be able to direct the tone of the debate. NPR might be a good choice.

Of course, another option would be to just avoid making controversial games, but that's both impossible, and limiting for games as a medium.

Ben Hatfield
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I personally welcome video game story content that pushes existing boundaries. Although if Nick Marroni is right about Six Days in F, its content strictly favors the current republican ideal, ie. ignorant insanity. Probably not a good idea to tackle this project without fully understanding the true historical context. Probably not a good idea to make this game without being willing to go "all in" with respect to political ramifications of creating this title. Just making a game based on a recent unpopular war, probably not a good idea in the first place. Back to my original point, I welcome story content that pushes existing boundaries. Some part of me has always thought the point of making a video game is to attempt to make a quality enduring experience - no matter what the genre. What I am currently finding offensive in video games is pure commercialism that promotes terrible products. The crown of commercial offensiveness has to be EA's Madden 10, their yearly piece of recycled trash that barely does what it should, and includes unabashed advertisement in many of its menus. Madden 10 also includes "madden points" that can be purchased for real money in order to fuel a card game completely separate from the football simulation. This card game is a blatant money grab. Seems like a fun extra... but guess what? - to play this game you have to buy the cards for real!!! Buying games is one thing, asking the consumer to pay more once they have already bought the game is questionable. What EA is now pulling is crossing the line, and what I currently find offensive in video games. Instead of figuring out ways of chiseling away money with what amounts to complete BS, how about just making a quality product? I feel its worth mentioning that Madden 10 is about as far from artistic experience as a game can get... but EA's Madden is a member of the video game family none the less.

Bryson Whiteman
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I can't help but wonder what Six Days in Fallujah was actually going to be like. They've done a lot of talk in interviews about it was gonna show the true perspective of the war but the clips of the game released suggested it was nothing but another Call of Duty. For Atomic Games to not be able to release a trailer or video to show how this game was going to be "different", to combat the negative attention, is severely disappointing.

I'd still love to see someone attempt a game that's more of a historical, objective look at war. Even if it's just a proof of concept Source or Unreal mod. Nothing commercial, just an honest take on it. Probably best to stay away from such a touchy battle as well, haha.

Peter White
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If the Marines who are acting as consultants can help the game to convey the soldier's point of view of the battle-- no hindsight as to what should or shouldn't have happened and no glorifying, just the confusion, fear and brutality of battle-- then I would view the game the same as a book written about their experiences, just a more immersive medium. It would be one sided for sure, but as long as it was an honest telling, and marketed as the story as told by the Marines who were there, "6 Days" seems compelling to me.

N Cheever
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Without getting into anymore details than this, I'll say SDIF was about the person on the ground. It wasn't about who gave what order or the politics for why there was a conflict there.

Several interviews with Marines where taken and to be used to comment on the difficulties or tragedies for a particular event or day. SDIF was also going to feature both sides of the story from the person on the ground. So you'd hear how Marines dealt with a situation and how the other side dealt with the situation.

One thing to remember is that insurgents didn't encapsulate every enemy. Some people who fought were defending their home, others were terrorists who came in from other countries for the profit and opportunity to fight.

SDIF isn't endorsed by anyone. It can't be if it intends to show what really happened. Until the public actually experiences the product first hand, no one can say what it's truly about.

What's more informative? Watching a History channel show that's been heavily edited for time, reading a book about the experience, or being involved in the actual minute-to-minute moments?

How is an interactive experience any different than a TV show or book? With proper rules in place it wouldn't be abused to sensationalize the conflict.

Of course, this is based on what the project was a year ago. The direction of it could have changed while they work on Breach.

Josh Foreman
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It makes me a bit sad to see this article derailed by debate about a conflict none of us was involved with and none of us are in a position to make a definite stand on. To get back to the themes of the article: I have to say this was very informative and interesting. The perspective of a more mature medium's PR person is really great and I appreciate it. I agree with this:

"Though it sometimes makes people squirm, confrontation should be one of the most essential and cherished qualities of any creative medium. To honestly look at ourselves, in flattering and unflattering lights, is the most honorable task any creator can have. It's also the most combustible and, given the lingering stereotypes of insignificance against games, these works require the most unyielding defense."

It's sad to me that Capcom is going to have a bunch of PR peeps sifting through their stuff now.

One thing I think we should keep in mind as media creators is how different our medium is than that of books, movies, etc. Rather than saying "Watch this" we say "Go do" and that reality is the double edged sword that makes our medium so powerful, but also a larger lightning rod for criticism. And rightly so. The act of watching a rape happen in a film is different psychologically than actually pressing a button that makes "me" rape a virtual person. Honestly I can watch almost anything, but I don't think I could ever play that game because of this vital difference. The Agency of the player connects the actions of the game protagonist to the player in a way that liner media can never do.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Sometimes it is useful to state an extreme case of reverse to illuminate reality.

So we would again convene commission headed by Al Gore, who in 80s considered the prohibition of heavy metal, let them burn all the books / movies / broken clay tables with Gilgamesh story / destroy pyramids pictures where someone was killed, beaten, raped or verbal abused?

Dealle Duff
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Another day of facing controversy, personally, I’ve seen the game industries and some indie game companies had push the boundaries of whether in term of offensive contents or disturbing gameplays and what was surprising me is all the effort game designers put in still seems to be the work of the toy makers in media’s point of view. I mean when games such as RE5 or Mass Effect become the issue of racism or porn simulator but when the trailer had been released, Media pointed out the issue of the phenomenon of “othering” and they never gave other side of the coin information of how the story setting or why the game director chose this direction to convey the story. All the Media does is opposition with prejudice and even worse in the case of Six days in Fallujah is when the allegation from public raised Game publisher chose to left the game behind to the studio rather than encounter to this predictable issue.

On the other hand, I still agree that, alternatively, game studio should share more information to public and their fan base for better understanding advocating them to spread the rumour about the game and they will be the voice to protect the project instead of throwing tantrums based on the unknowing.

N3uromancer Fett
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Games like these are a necessary cold pail of water for all gamers. I find it annoying that most gamers revel in the death and mayhem of Call of Duty city environments devoid of civilians and then act surprised when they see Apache gunship camera footage released by Wikileaks showing some collateral damage. Civilian deaths will always be part of war no matter the righteousness of the conflict. "Had we lost the war we would have been prosecuted as war criminals" McNamara on the bombings of Germany and Japan. Sometimes ugly events need to be put into mediums of this type. With respect to first person accounts by insurgents, there were plenty,most proclaiming "the ghosts of martyrs walking the streets emitting wonderful scents." yeah put that in the game as well.