Is a Game Bad Because It Is Offensive?


At some point, the phrase politically correct became a negative term.  It was used to define people, phrases, or ideas that were scared of shaking things up so they played it safe.  People have started to wear their political incorrectness like a badge of honor.  Numerous times I have had someone say to me, “I hope you’re not easily offended,” as if their preface makes their ignorance defensible.  These modern day excuses reek of laziness, as if someone is saying, “I’m not going to be bothered to learn about the sensitivities to other races and cultures, because there’s too much TV to watch.”

The flipside of that argument is the right to freedom of speech.  We live in a world where we all have a right to be as knowledgeable or ignorant as we desire.  If we think the joke we heard is funny, we have a right to repeat it wherever we want.  Offensive material isn’t illegal, in fact it is the right to say and do what we want that separates us from a tyrannical world.  Further muddying the waters is the debate about what qualifies as offensive material. How much ground can be given before the only thing we’re allowed to discuss is the chance of rain in the forecast?

Both arguments have merit, and neither are ultimately correct.  In the end, the only place to live is amidst the massive grey area in the middle and that area can be a minefield.

The history of the arts is littered with material which is considered offensive by today’s societal standards, even some of its greatest work.  Take a film class and you will immediately run into the quagmire of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the world’s first full length feature film.  The narrative of Griffith’s work paints the pre-civil war American South as a utopia, ravaged by the union.  The film depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, saving the helpless protagonists from barbaric African Americans (white actors in blackface).  When you compare Birth of a Nation in both offensiveness and importance to anything recent, the comparison pales.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t still offensive material out there.  Gameranx has a nice list of material that will make your skin crawl, no matter what your political correctness meter is set to. Obviously there is an effort today to remain as inoffensive as possible to maintain a consumer-friendly product, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen, it’s just for different reasons.

Today, games aren’t created to be offensive material, they often simply lack the ability to create characters that are little more than stereotypes. That lack of ability used to be–and still is to a degree–technical.  Video games are still trying to find their ground as a medium, while being financially successful.  Anita Sarkeesian has made multiple videos regarding the damsel in distress story trope.  While it is responsible and important to push the medium to be inclusive and well-rounded, at some point there is a lot of dudes rescuing girls because it is an easy story trope has been identifiable since stories were invented.

However, the biggest reason that offensive mistakes are made is because the majority of video game developers are white, heterosexual males.  These findings in the International Game Developers Association might be slightly dated (as it was done in 2005), however a more recent study about people studying to be developers showed that while things has improved, it was not by much.  Thus, most game companies are simply naive when it comes to developing with respect to other cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientation.  It is not a matter of malicious intent, just innocent misunderstanding.  Why is there such a giant gap in developer diversity?   Interest plays a part, for sure.  There is also significant economic barriers  of entry in the video game industry.  As well as a culture that at times can be exclusive and unwelcoming.  When games are being built by one demographic, desperately pandering to one demographic, there is a cyclical method to what is being created.

However, most criticism regarding offensive material in games is narrative.  It is easy to forget that video games are not a narrative medium, the story is not–and should not be–the central focus.  When boiled down to gameplay, the conversation becomes strikingly different.  Often times, gameplay revolves around violence and murder.  Games like Grand Theft Auto or Hotline Miami churn out death and destruction as part of everyday life.  However, that commentary turns a lens back on society as well.  Grand Theft Auto does not encourage unnecessary murder and crime, outside of missions you can play as an everyday citizen and keep your criminal life strictly professional.  The player often chooses to hijack cars, pick up prostitutes, and murder civilians.  So the question should be, is the game offensive because it allows those things or are the people offensive because they want to participate in such acts. Video games are the one medium that allow true audience involvement to create a finished product.  Offensive material, especially in video games, is often a commentary on the people playing it as much as it is on the material being played.

People can find offensive material, well crafted and widely respected offensive material, in all genres.  Famous playwright and film director David Mamet’s work is notably misogynist, beloved studio head Walt Disney was racist and anti-semitic, yet no one disputes the greatness of either one.  Artistic history is littered with offensive minds and uncomfortable material which is still held in high regard.

The biggest problem with offensive material is it creates a caveat for an audience.  When talking about a game you can praise its gameplay, but must caution its horrendous violence.  You can love a video game which is well written, but must preface it portrays certain cultures in a negative light.  It is not so much that offensive material creates a bad game, but must be recognized by both creators and audience.  I don’t begrudge people their love of offensive material, no one should be denied or ridiculed for their appreciation of anything.  Offensive material is subjective and difficult to quantify.  What is necessary is a larger view of developers and audiences, which can understand how material can be viewed on a large scale.  Being able to admit the faults of the games we love, while being able to vocalize the appreciation of the finer qualities is something we should all do.  In the end, offensive material–especially in great work–should not create arguments, but open up dialogue.

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  1. Wow! Well written and insightful. Games are neither books nor movies but I will argue that they are quickly becoming mediums for complex, fully developed narrative. We are seeing games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain marginalize mechanics for the sake of story. So I do believe that a game could be offensive beyond stereotypical depiction or characterization. The story as of late is becoming central. I do agree that what is offensive and degrees of offense are subjective and relative and that no one thing will ever offend everyone.

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