"Is there a line [to cross]? If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" "How could we allow there to be a line, and who gets to decide what the line is? That's a very slippery slope -- there should not be a line."
Randy Pitchford, Gearbox Software CEO, 2011, April 25/2011
Remember this quote. I’m going back to it in a second.
I’ve been playing games for a long time and asked myself often what games bring to the art world. Out of 30+ games I’ve played, I can only think of a few that I would consider having an ESRB rating that is compatible with the actual content.
I would not consider for example God of War to be ‘mature’ due to the fact that in-between the massive levels of blood spilling, disemboweling, angry man ranting, god smacking; you also get to participate in bad QTE sex games. Surely, a high watermark.
On the other hand, I would consider ICO to actually be mature. It starts out simple enough, a boy and a girl condemned to traversing a labyrinthine castle, while evading shadowy menaces. There is a lonely haunted atmosphere to this place, as you swing from chains, and clamber up platforms. ICO’s subtleness is elegant and melancholy. ICO’s ESRB rating is T—the irony.
As a student of art, I am aware that art must be constructive. By this I mean, art must reflect something about us as humans. What does it mean to be part of the human race? It is believed the reason why modern humanity turned out the way it did was because we achieved imagination. The Neanderthals died because they didn’t—it was enough to survive and live in harsh conditions. They didn’t need imagination for them to live.
Post-modern man lived in drought ridden conditions. Death happened all too regularly, it took its toll on the mind and the body. They had to force themselves to think of other things, other places in order to survive. They started to paint animals, signs, and people on their cave walls. This was their world—this was their purpose—this is what was important to them.
Going forward in time, we have had a number of technological breakthroughs that radically changed how we interact with our world, and what we think is important. Books, film, and traditional visual art have been used for the transmission of ideas by artists and free thinkers for many years.
In the digital age, the Internet has democratized thought; a blog such as this one allows the capacity for me to express my views and invite others for discussion. I do not have extensive world travel experience, a Ph.D, or been peer reviewed—having high level qualifications would help, but similar to those cave paintings; the blog is a literary version of what I and many others think is important. It is enough to find a space on the Internet, and start writing—cooking every recipe in the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen), or posting up uncensored quotes from your father (Sh*t My Dad Says). In much the same way, some feel that video games are becoming the new medium for artistic and general expression.
Another example; I’ve been working on this personal project that I like to call ‘steampunk, but not quite’. Don’t get me wrong, I generally like that steampunk brings to the table a certain visual style; but I’m not particularly crazy about slapping gears on everything—that’s just silly.
Another reason why I chose steampunk is that I wanted a visual companion to what I wanted to analyze content-wise in this project. I wanted to study complex ideas such as altruism. Alongside a world that is visually strange; they would play off each other.
I imagined an incredibly advanced technological world; that was also backwards. People lived according to their societal role, income, their mental capacity. They would live in self-regulated sectors that would elect a sector leader in a democratic vote system. An ultimate ruler, an elected Speaker would listen to these sector leaders and decide on whether or not to grant their requests—relying on the ability to be impartial and fair. If one sector received their request; others may not. The rejected would then be placed on the top of the list for the next allowances—eventually everyone gets what they want. There is no ambition in this world; so I wanted to create a situation where there was one who did develop ambition and what effects it would have to this benevolent dictatorship.
I imagine I am in safe ground. I’m not going anywhere people don’t want to go; I won’t touch on touchy subjects. But what if I did?
Going back to Pitchford’s comment about there not being a line; what if I expanded my project to cover those touchy subjects?
What if I created a serial killer; a woman who is convinced that the patriarchal society has done nothing for her gender and decided to kill every man she has ever met.
You play a police officer who must question her; and she argues quite convincingly on why she did what she did. She lists everything from Freud to Mulvey; reminisces on ‘get back into the kitchen talk;’ gender socialization, domestic violence, the madonna/whore complex, the Original Sin, Pandora’s box, Playboy magazines, male gaze, the overuse of women being rape and murder victims in popular culture; woman’s liberation and suffrage; pay equity. You learn the entire length and breadth of women in society and history, and learn the anguish of this person; convinced men have kept her gender down out of fear, and emasculation.
Unfortunately one cannot talk about misogyny in any decent manner. That is true of most touchy subjects. Terrorism is another—how can one talk about it without bringing up Guantánamo Bay, detainee torture, military deaths, and the alienation of the Islamic people? During the G20 meetings in Toronto where I live; for the first time in my life, I saw people rioting, store windows being broken, and cars burn. How can we host the world when our own people oppose its functioning, and on top of that we have police brutality, tear gas, kettling, mass arrests, secret laws, and high political spending?
There is a level of anxiety in all of this. On one hand, we want to be able to freely talk about things, yet we don’t want to offend; so we accept a certain level of media censorship. This is why I watch The Borgias at 10:00pm because the network won’t show it any sooner due to the violence, nudity, sex, and Machiavellian politicking.
Video games are still considered elaborate toys, rather than outlets for political thought; or artistic/literary discourse. It is not just a generational gap; older people who sit in government; your father and mother attempting to balance the family budget; but also those who play; those who are comfortable with their games being fanciful distractions.
Why is it that in Mass Effect you can’t be gay? You can be lesbian with Liara, but you can’t hit on Kaidan if you are a man. Why? How come there are no men in Hyperdimension Neptunia—was is it some kind of feminazi anti-game industry project? Well you know; most people don’t care.
These two games are interesting since one game attempts to frame current society into space, and the other attempts to satirize the game console wars. By inundating them with clichés and tropes, there is a definite loss of value. Mass Effect is no more cerebral than a slapstick cartoon; Hyperdimension Neptunia loses its value by hanging onto silly jokes more than displaying a caustic wit.
There is a line, and it is a line that we draw for ourselves. In the name of decency we censor ourselves in order to contain the madness of our mad world. But in so doing, we become mad. We can no longer say what we want to say, do what we want to do. If I want to create the video game equivalent of putting live goldfish into a blender and inviting people to press the purée button—society will ensure that I be stopped.
There is a great risk in allowing someone to be truly artistic because great art is all about pushing those buttons. Art doesn’t care about fun; it is all about the message. It is all about us.
Books That Offend
I am currently reading Fahrenheit 451 in which Ray Bradbury describes a world where humanity burns books, and drowns itself in mass media. Even though I am still reading the first chapter, I understand why many consider the book’s message to be incredible important in an age where nations have often used censorship to condemn those they disagree with.
Book burning is not new; during the reign of Pope Leo X, Martin Luther—a German monk wrote 95 theses—criticisms of the Papacy and nailed them to the door of the church he attended. The Papacy tried to ignore him—Luther was from a small village out in some backwater ‘barbarian’ land. But, copies of the 95 theses were soon mass printed and everyone started to read them. The popularity of his writings meant that the Papacy could no longer ignore Martin Luther. They challenged him on the ground of heresy and burned his literature. Luther was greeted by well wishers where ever he went—he became rather like a folk-hero. Luther’s writings incited a number of peasant riots—events that he didn’t anticipate or agree with. Luther took his case to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and emphatically defended himself.
They eventually excommunicated him, but through it all Luther believed he was right and refused to be cowed like so many who had challenged the Vatican and failed (Galileo among them). In those days to be excommunicated was a sentence to eternal damnation—so it was not taken lightly. Luther didn’t care, because to him not defending himself against the Vatican and recanting was eternal damnation anyway.
Martin Luther was not all perfect though; he was a man of strong views—he was anti-Semitic and thought the common folk were dirty and worthless. He was influenced by teachings that the Jewish were responsible for Christ’s death. As the man responsible for the Reformation, it was not all roses.
Bradbury writes that it was the minorities who first started burning books; in a way I agree. I have strong views as both a woman and a visible minority. I’m not fond of my double whammy life—I will not be paid as much as a man, or paid as much as a Caucasian woman. I hate Kung-Fu; ninjas, anything that I see that are stereotypically Chinese. But at the same time, I also enjoy reading and studying a wide variety of topics: politics, philosophy, psychology, art history, feminism, video games. I studied the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in high school—I am an extremist.
What I am curious about are those works that occupy a strange space in the world; Mein Kampf for example. Are we to argue the artistic merit of Hitler? If there is no line, then why do we ban it? We have a term for this: hate speech. The burning of the Qu’ran by a supposed religious organization—hate speech. Outspoken views against gays, lesbians, the transgendered, bisexuals—hate speech. Outspoken views against women’s right to choose—hate speech. Racial slurs—hate speech. Dark thoughts are terrible things.
Is hate speech the same as freedom of speech? There is a line, and it is a line that we draw for ourselves.