I read an IGN article today. Yeah, not the best of ideas. In it, the author argues that, no matter who it offends, games shouldn’t be restrained by the “thought police” that “the offended” make up, that things like Tomb Raider’s (supposed) exploitative use of sexual assault and Six Days in Fallujah’s setting in the then-still-ablaze Iraq War shouldn’t have been allowed to change the products because people were “offended”, because if games don’t “push the envelope” they’ll never be as well-accepted as other mediums.
Well, of course games should have the same standards of other mediums, as almost every games journalist has been so desperately pleading for practically since “game journalism” has been a term, but that is why the author’s argument is so poor. Yes, games should be able to push the envelope and explore issues that other mediums have, but they are not free from criticism in how they approach said issues. Just because someone takes offense at the treatment of an issue in the game, they are not invalidated as a critic of the game; they are not members of some “thought police” that want to keep the issue out of the medium entirely. There are methods of treating these issues intelligently. What is being defended here is the ability to exploit or belittle the issues for the sake of controversy.
Let’s take Tomb Raider, for example. The author argues that the “offense” over Tomb Raider was because one of the developers merely “alluded” to an instance of sexual assault in the narrative.
Have you ever seen an episode of Law & Order: SVU? How about the movie The Accused? Why are games held to an entirely different – and completely hypocritical and unfair – standard?
They’re actually not! Surprise, surprise. The thing about The Accused is that it doesn’t exploit the issue of rape. It’s treated extremely seriously, is shown to have horrific effects upon the victim, and so on. Law & Order: SVU, generally but not always, uses it in the same manner, and when it doesn’t, it is scrutinized just as much as it is with Tomb Raider. Law & Order has been treading that ground for decades, so the people who have argued against its issues have become less and less vocal as the years have gone on. It’s also quite strange for him to write that games are the only ones held to this with the controversy over Daniel Tosh’s “rape joke” still fresh in our minds. Criticism of how artists treat issues of this nature is not limited to games.
Tomb Raider’s problem is that its use of the concept is not, from everything the developer has said, treated seriously. The game’s narrative is supposed to show how Lara progresses from an average college student to the rough-and-tumble pseudo-archaeologist she is in the earlier entries of the franchise. With Crystal Dynamics’ statements on said story, on how they’re supposed to convince the player to want to “protect” Lara (instead of even treating her as a player character), the use of sexual assault in the narrative comes off as heavily exploitative and unrealistic. It is in there as a device to make Lara a stronger person, because, of course, rape victims end up stronger from the experience. Just ask them. There is no way to tell for sure since the game isn’t out and we don’t know the full narrative arc or the exact treatment of said issue, but it was controversial and people were offended because it is a poor use of the concept.
As a counter example, we have L.A. Noire, which treated the issue in much the same way Law & Order: SVU does, without being exploitative. It wasn't controversial because, guess what, it wasn't exploitative.
Games should be able to tackle the same issues as other mediums, I agree, but when they tackle them poorly, they are allowed to be criticized as such. That’s not being some member of a “thought police,” it’s free speech, just as much free speech that is granted to the people who are making games like Tomb Raider and Six Days in Fallujah.
The Benjamin Franklin and George Orwell quotes in the article apply to both the creators of the games (or any artistic medium) and their critics. They have the liberty to make stupid, offensive tripe, and we have the liberty to criticize them for it, as well as not support what they create.
I believe a comment on the article by user “Hatfieldnate” sums up the article quite well:
“George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” I’m certainly saying something that some people don’t want to hear; namely that you being offended doesn’t matter to me, and I resent being subjected to the whims of the vocal when I don’t, in turn, project the things that offend me onto you.”
Your inability to grasp the irony in using a quote about being able to say things people don’t want to hear, while complaining about people saying things you don’t want to hear, is both amusing and idiotic.
If there is anything that can be gleaned from this article, it is that, as bad games journalists have been both clamoring for and denying in their great self-victimizing ways, games are still as valid a medium as everything else. Tomb Raider is now on the same level as 70’s sexploitation films and a shitty comedian.
Will we someday have a game with mainstream success that will tackle these issues intelligently? Probably, yes. Once we get more intelligent writers working on mainstream developers and we stop being locked up by, not the “P.C. Thought Police,” but the people who merely desire more sex, more gore, and more controversy in some bid to make the medium appear more mature to a benevolent cultural lord who will finally give us the unneeded honor of being a part of a group of mediums under the meaningless label of “art".
There are risks that come with “pushing the envelope.” What comes out of doing this is often very good at its treatment of its content or it’s exploiting it poorly. When it does the latter, it deserves criticism.
Such is the world of free speech that we live in.