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Gaming Sensitive

Movies and literature have been the source of global discussion, riots and wars. Games have yet to broach topics of race, sex and politics. When will games finally make the step? What should be considered topical? What should be considered insensitive?

Isaiah Taylor, Blogger

September 19, 2010

8 Min Read

Games as a means of exploiting the sensitive topics of pop culture and current events has never been the medium’s strongest suit. If Thrill Kill and RapeLay are the best we can do, then we are a far cry away from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Six Days In Fallujah could have been one of few first-person shooters that ignited a discussion on the war in Iraq between gamers and the general public. This growing schism of what gamers want versus what gamers actually play seems to go hand in hand with how the culture has matured. Do we want our games to comment on our environment? Is the quality of a game a factor when the plot is meant to be the focal point? Where is the line between addressing matters in our culture that are topical and when do we cross that line into insensitivity?

“Birth Of A Nation” may not be as visually jarring now as it initially was upon during the era of the movie’s release. Though it lacks the polish of the many films made as the technology improved,  the discussion such a film forced the general public to address makes me envious. Why don’t we demand this from games? I have to smell the salt and realize that when gaming does endeavor to comment on, say, child abduction from a family in Heavy Rain -- we [as gamers] see more flaws than the honest, overall attempt.


Braid, a game I wasn’t particularly fond of, illustrates my point and debate succinctly. Here is a game that is essentially Super Mario Brothers with a cool time reversal mechanic, but wedged within the ones and zeroes is a message of how one deals with the loss of a lover. The debate here is, would I rather delve into my consciousness to relate to this heartfelt story or will I choose to playfully bop on the heads of the Goomba-like characters and disregard ‘all that thinky stuff’? I gather I’m not alone in thinking this way. Its the execution of games of this nature that need to change. [Edit: I will say that it is nice to have a choice to disregard the story, which is something unique to this generation.]

“Keep your politics and emotional leanings out of my video games.” This stance of games needing to just be games is something I tussle with. Great minds have created source engines that stream off of core processors and process gigaflops of information. Why not try for more? When I see a game like Bad Company 2 and Modern Warfare 2, I see two missed opportunities. Two games that separately, at every turn, are communicating how hellish war is. The missed opportunity to vocalize to the gamer, that not only is war hell but it is occasionally mundane and more importantly, not fun -- is usually overlooked for the sake of a fist bump and a ‘Hoorah’ moment.

Much like how the Sims, fantasy MMOs and [begrudgingly]  Second Life, illustrate the joy that can be found in dry tasks and poetic monotonous interactivity, subtlety is an art that should be further cultivated in our culture. I realize that gassing up a Sherman tank or thoroughly cleaning a rifle in the next Call of Duty game may be an idea left on the cutting room floor, but its representative how small steps could effect the larger. I think of the scene in the Hurt Locker where the main character has to clean off the blood off of his bullets in order to defend against a sniper. I immediately thought, “Why can’t games do something like that?”

There isn’t a way I can convince you [the reader] that games designed to be intentionally infused with sex, race and political debate is a good thing, because secretly I don’t know if I want it either. I just want to see it attempted. Well, I want to see it attempted with some form of tact and subtle hand. Unfortunately, the topic of taste and satire become an issue, this is where our insensitivity portion of the discussion comes into play.

When I heard that the Resident Evil 5 lead developer [Jiro Taoka] had himself and his team travel to several African cities as a means of understanding the culture and environment, I found it intriguing given the outcome. This information was taken and transformed into what gamers saw in Resident Evil 5*. On topics of sensitivity, Japanese game designers seem to get the biggest pass. Since gaming is a male dominated industry ran by white and Asian men, if characters are deformed or depicted culturally insensitive we consider the source. “Those crazy Japanese.” Well, that’s what I say when I play a Cho Aniki or Onechenbara.

So how do we keep our whimsy and still demand a healthy balance of thought provoking games amidst the fun fluff? One thing is for sure, its probably going to take more than this little article to get the ball rolling. I see companies like Rockstar Games and think that they could possibly be in the best position to release any kind of topical game they put an open world around. Its just unfortunate I’m not that big a fan of open world games. From my experience storytelling in open world games usually conflict more than they compliment. Anyone who has made it to Mexico in Red Dead Redemption knows exactly when a games loses its narrative edge and becomes a playful cartoon.

One of the events that spurred this article was the news that the new first-person shooter, Medal of Honor would grant players the ability to play as the Taliban in the online multiplayer mode. Maybe its because I’ve lived through decades of headlines of ‘games being the downfall of our generation’, but I really didn’t think much of the news. The gaming community lives in a playful struggle with the media. Where all throughout a year, first-person shooters and bloody action games can be released, but if the year is pivotal to Senate seats and gubernatorial candidacy expect these M-rated titles to be examined and put on display.

Weeks earlier from the typing of this article, Karen Meredith -- mother of a soldier killed in action in Iraq, protested the new Medal of Honor game on Fox & Friends as being “disrespectful” and noting that “war is not a game, period.”

Upon doing further research on the Medal of Honor game and how it came to be,  I found out that the single-player campaign would be based off of an actual operation who was instructed to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden. These attentions to detail and personal accounts lend themselves well to film documentaries and literary biographies, but the games industry has seldom benefited from such an endeavor. I’m struggling to think if there has ever been a game based off of a real person’s experience. In this regard, I have to applaud how far games have come.

I’ve recently questioned my taste in games and how far said taste extends. Anyone reading this has played a game or two [I’m assuming] and its an icky feeling when reading an article or seeing an advertisement that rubs you the wrong way -- this is in regards to how a game is being pushed for your dollar. There is one thing worse than being pandered to by a corporation and its when you realize that neither you nor the corporation are explicitly at fault. “Its somewhere in between”, I think to myself. Publishers are selling a product that has been tested and marketed to a group of people that typically buy them. As an example, the fact that little-to-no-games star a female protagonist is an unfortunate logical leap to make, because gamers do not support female-lead games and developers haven’t had the financial success with games like Mirrors Edge or to a lesser extent, WET.

So what do you lovely readers see out there for our gaming culture? Are daring endeavors of realism in the first-person shooter genre a fruitless quest? Role-playing exists in many genres of games past the traditional RPG, but is it worth simulating real-life events in order to educate a group of people untested in supporting such a niche topic?

The first person shooter has left its thumbprint deep in the minds of gamers and designers. With every space marine adventure there is a realistic war simulator produced. I struggle to think of how a balance could be struck when the lesser known titles [ex. Metro 2033] are lesser experiences as games when looking at their parts and not the whole. Books can cause revolutions. Movies can insight riots. Why is it, in terms of intellectual debate, that games are only useful around an election year?

*I have heard recently that Capcom has undergone changes as recently as last month in regards to the troubling backlash to how Africans were depicted in Resident Evil 5.



via Le Brog

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