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Games With The Power To Offend: Surviving And Stoking Controversy

Developers, execs and PR talk some of gaming's top controversies -- from Six Days in Fallujah to Resident Evil 5 -- how they handled them, and how they might be avoided in the future.

Michael Thomsen, Blogger

August 24, 2010

19 Min Read

A controversy is something that happens when one group of people gather together to tell another group that they shouldn't have done something.

The recorded controversies in the video game world have, to now, been relatively mild. Mortal Kombat was drawn out before a congressional hearing in the mid-Nineties; Jack Thompson systematically dismantled his career in the effort to protect children from Grand Theft Auto; and, most recently, some have objected to games that use real-life tragedies as source material, such as Super Columbine Massacre and the unreleased Six Days in Fallujah.

In the cultural ghetto where games live, these controversies had a seismic effect, but the scenery was left unchanged afterward. Blood and executions became more detailed in the wake of Joseph Lieberman's Mortal Kombat inquiry.

The simulated sex that brought Jack Thompson back onto cable news returned in Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Heavy Rain. The protestations against Fallujah evaporated when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 invaded Afghanistan -- though Medal of Honor has recently drawn some fire.

Part of an explanation for all of these uprisings of propriety is found in the persistent obscurity in which game culture still churns.

Games are still considered trivialities in the larger scope of foreign wars, Tea Party debates, and the drug infractions of pseudo-celebrities. Game controversies tend to be a digestive to help the heavier portions of a daily news cycle rest a bit more comfortably in one's subconscious.

Ironically, games themselves have been so crude there's been a perceptible gap between the issue of a given controversy and the actual scene or mechanic that agitates that issue. The effects of sex in the media on teenagers can always generate debate, but when the specific cause of debate is the absurd marionette work of the Hot Coffee mod, it's understandable that most people would lose interest.

Yet, there's every reason to believe the biggest storms lie ahead. Speaking at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta earlier this year, Jason Rohrer suggested that video games haven't even gone through their classical period yet.

As they continue to develop, their ability to provoke, challenge, and subvert popular culture will become ever sharper. When games stop aiming to entertain and become comfortable delving into the moral murk, there will be more storms left to inherit. What follows are some thoughts, strategies, and experiences from around the industry about how to better understand and prepare for what happens when your game suddenly winds up in the cracking waves of public ire.

A Piece of Defensible Ground to Stand On

Six Days in Fallujah set out to transgress common expectations of games by recreating a specific battle from one of the most controversial military campaigns since the Vietnam War. Even saying the word "Iraq" tends to provoke discomfort; actually forwarding a specific opinion on the subject is guaranteed to be met with protestation.

Six Days in Fallujah

"Our goal has always been to recreate the stories of specific Marines who fought in Fallujah and let people experience bits of the war from these Marines' perspectives -- without editorializing about the politics," said Peter Tamte, president of Fallujah developer Atomic Games.

"We absolutely did not want to get in the middle of the argument about whether the U.S. should be in Iraq."

Still, the protestations came almost immediately after the game's announcement in March 2009. The family of a British Red Cap killed in the Battle of Fallujah spoke to the media. "Considering the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War, glorifying it in a video game demonstrates very poor judgment and bad taste," Red Keys told the Daily Mail.

Tansy E. Hoskins, of a protest group called Stop the War Coalition, also spoke out against Fallujah. "There will never be a time when it is appropriate for people to 'play' at committing atrocities," Hoskins told TechRadar. "The massacre in Fallujah should be remembered with shame and horror not glamorized and glossed over for entertainment."

Fallujah is a perfect example of game controversy both because of how predictable the reaction was, and because of how utterly the critics tend to ignore the sentiments of the creators. It was knowable far in advance that the subject would provoke strong feelings, and the particular bent of those feelings were, likewise, pretty easy to anticipate.

"The best thing you can do is get in front of an issue by going to whatever group it is that will be angry and do whatever you can in advance to get their blessing," said a marketing executive at a major Hollywood movie studio, who requested to remain anonymous.

"Do whatever you can to get them on your side, to prove that you're being sensitive to them. If you're doing that, the rest of the world will look at it and think, 'If they're okay with it, then there's no reason to be upset.'"

In the case of Fallujah, Atomic Games did a fair amount of this itself. The studio worked with several U.S. Marines who had fought in the Battle of Fallujah and Tamte and members of the staff were ready to address the issue of exploiting Iraq openly from the outset.

Mike Ergo was a Marine infantry soldier in Fallujah and one of several consultants on the game who spoke to the potential controversy with some elegance. "Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn't necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Even so, Konami chose to drop Six Days in Fallujah from its release calendar mere weeks after announcing it. Their critics were relatively obscure and the development team had done due diligence in advocating the non-exploitative goals of the game, but Konami seemed to lose its mettle after encountering what should have been totally predictable criticism.

This abandonment was a controversial choice for Konami, but it might have been avoided with more strenuous internal vetting and some outreach to veterans and organizations beyond the young in-house consultants. The publisher might have made a deal with a veterans' organization to share a part of the profits, or enlisted a more recognizable group of advocates to defend the game.

Alternately, the studio might have done a little more to make convincing publicity materials, including a short documentary of veterans talking about their experiences, or humanitarian workers, or even Iraqi's themselves about what had happened. Without more serious-seeming materials than some anecdotal interviews and three painfully opaque screenshots, there was not enough to rebuff the opening rhetorical salvos.

"Sometimes the best you can do is just having a piece of defensible ground to stand on, to say why your work was worth making," the movie studio executive told me. "I think in general what happens is people get surprised, and when you're surprised you're in a position of weakness."

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."

The Importance of Being Irreverent

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.

Last year, Paul Greasley made the short game Edmund for the TIGSource Adult/Educational Competition. The game had two levels: one where you play through a Vietnam War scenario, and another where your character has returned to America and traverses a night city to follow a woman whom you'll end up choosing to rape, or leave be.

"I had no expectations beyond challenging the end user," Greasley told me. "First and foremost I was creating a worthy competition entry that stretched the bounds of the adult-themed competition."

Rape in art has a long history, from Ovid to Yeats and Stravinsky to Gaspar Noé. In games, however, it is almost completely unprecedented, introducing irrational and emotional extremes that many players reacted to with violent distaste.

Released in the wake of the RapeLay banning at Amazon, Edmund attracted waves of ire for being tasteless, exploitive, reductionist, and for not offering any genuine alternatives to the brutal conclusion.

"Initially I was a little overwhelmed with the love/hate response, but it kind of comes with the territory given the subject matter," Greasley said. "Games like Edmund usually extract a rather passionate opinion out of people and rightly so; everyone is entitled to an opinion."

Edmund was never intended to be a full, commercial product. It was made for a competition sponsored by an art game community. "Games like Edmund are more like concept titles compared to your average summer blockbuster, alike to a sketch drawing -- it's drawn quick, the lines are loose, and there's lots of room for interpretation," Greasley said.

"You will always get people who take it for more than it is or miss the point."

In the case of Edmund, the controversy of a game taking on such the terrible subject of rape actually helped it reach a wider audience, which points toward a lingering unknown in any controversy. Being criticized is always uncomfortable, but does public outcry actually have a negative impact?

"I got a movie that got picketed for charges of racism for a single joke -- which was the only funny joke in the film," the movie studio executive told me.

"If you're a one-quadrant work that just appeals to young men then it doesn't really hurt you, but if you need a four-quadrant audience that includes women and older people controversy can definitely hurt you. They read reviews and are very sensitive to negative publicity, any perceived insensitivity to racism or any other issue can be very hurtful."

It's into this gray zone between mass-market and niche works where the benefits of creative irreverence can be most powerful. For several years the most violent and potentially offensive content has defined the industry with favorites like Gears of War and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

A shooter can survive -- or even benefit from -- controversy over something like Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level because, despite its blockbuster opening, it remains a single-quadrant work. If Nintendogs or Wii Sports Resort had courted controversy, their sales would have been significantly reduced.

As the industry continues to diversify, we will realize there should be places in the world for both hygienically cheerful Wii Sports-style games and rancorous descents into the ugliest corners of human experience. Not everyone needs to play every game. And not every game needs to be made with the widest possible consumer in mind. As we might have learned by now, it's the works that push furthest into controversial areas that we'll come to remember.

"I really enjoyed the whole process," Greasley told me. "I walked into it to grow my game development skills and tackle a theme at the time I wasn't too sure about, and walked out of it happy that people voted it to first place and raised a few opinions on the way. What more could I ask for?"

It's Not a Button You're Pushing, but a Person

Video game vernacular runs over with falseness. Conversations focus on modes, mechanical concepts, avatars, and the projected importance of abstract achievement. It's scarier to talk about the personal emotions that these widgets produce, and those most vulnerable emotions are often the ones at the heart of great controversy.

"Just burying your head in the sand is never going to help anything, because when you come up again everything is going to be worse," the industry PR veteran told me. "It's fine to come out and say you're not going to talk about it publicly, that it's a private matter. That's fine. But you have to say something or else the media's going to say it for you."

Agreement isn't always necessary, but an understanding of whom you've offended can be essential to surviving prolonged scrutiny and accusation. The most controversial games tend to touch vulnerable feelings -- doing so with some human respect for the player makes the difference between art and exploitation.

"I think the developer should play a big role in addressing the public as he/she is the best person to explain why they did what they did in a game or asset," Pfeiffer told me.

"One very effective tool we use is responding right to our end user via our own community site (capcom-unity.com), where we can speak directly to our fans to give them the latest and greatest on our games and straight answers when there is public outcry or rumors spreading."

Game development is ultimately about a group of creators making something for an audience, and when controversy arises the surest way to endure it is to put those two parties in as close contact as possible. Oftentimes the people in the audience are poorly represented when the media picks up a potentially controversial angle.

"The people that consume video games could not be farther from the people who make decisions about what's in the media and op-ed pages," the movie studio executive told me.

You don't have to be liked by everyone when you set out to make something with the potential to be controversial, but you should, by the end of it, have found out who your real allies in the audience are. These people become your lifeblood, and the material reason to take all the risks in the first place.

"The two biggest lessons we learned are that video games are caught in a huge generation gap and people will view whatever you're doing through the lens of their previous personal experiences," Tamte said. "However, we also saw how many people who play military shooters recognized that it was possible to make one that deals with tough subject matter in a mature and insightful way."

The worst of all possible outcomes in a controversy is when it limits the array of experiences, emotions, or ideas a developer can use for future work. "I'm sure it has made us more cautious, whether we recognize it or not," said Tamte.

"But, the biggest thing it has done is emphasize the need for us to be financially independent if we hope to make games that push the envelope -- whether we're pushing the envelope with controversial subject matter or simply trying to introduce innovative gameplay."

In this way, controversial subjects don't have to be PR liabilities but an opportunity to focus on what's at the creative heart of a project and the developer's need to share it with someone else. Like anything that comes from conflict, enduring public controversy over something you've made can be harrowing, but surviving it can be its own reward.

Like any good dialectic, a game controversy can leave both the critic and the criticized in a better place. It only requires the courage to make something that someone somewhere thinks you shouldn't, and in then trying to show them why they're wrong.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Thomsen


Michael is a freelance writer based in New York. He has covered video games for the ABC World News Webcast and the Q Show on CBC Radio. He has written for Nerve, the Brooklyn Paper, the New York Daily News, and IGN where he is a regular contributor and author of the Contrarian Corner series. You can follow Michael at his blog www.manoamondo.com.

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