Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Line Between Controversy and Exploitation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2012

Brian Moriarty once inspired me in a Game Developer’s Conference (back when it was CGDC, I think) by talking about the wonderful potential of the medium, how it would be the dominant entertainment medium of the 21st century, and the power of the medium to educate and provoke thought. He said something about how you wouldn’t just read about Auschwitz and how that came to happen – we could have (virtually) our own hands on the lever of the gas chamber.

It sounded cool at the time, coming from a guy who had created some pretty deep interactive fiction for Infocom and who had just given a lecture about getting games beyond the dialog of violence.

But since then I’ve seen a few games that put you in that kind of role. It’s not always as thought-provoking as he suggested. Sometimes it feels like it’s simply reveling in shock value and exploitation.  In a couple of instances, I felt like I was being dragged along into someone else’s sick fantasy. At that point, I’m not sure if the fantasy was the intent, or inspiring revulsion was the intent. The line can be pretty fine across numerous axes.

For me, it really comes down to a level of trust of the developer. Yet another reason for my harping on the subject of authorship. If a game is going to take me into dark places, I want to know I can trust the author – the designer – to lead me back out again. I have no interest in the gratuitous, the exploitative, the shock for shock value’s sake.

(And on the flip side, I have very little patience for preachy, either).



Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I think the problem with video games in regards to books or movies is the pacing. It’s the same reason I love Indiana Jones but get bored during uncharted.

    Because the developers need to fill 10+ hours of playtime there is alot of “fluff”. After you spend an hour gunning down terrorists… them kicking a puppy (Or killing a hostage) doesn’t seem so out of place.

    Besides, the interactive parts of games are ups. You are successful, you are powerful, you are a hero. Watching a movie on Auschwitz is dark, depressing and constantly reminding you that it was horrible. You might feel bad about that lat scene, but you’ll forget about it once the bullets start flying.

    Finally, the media won’t let many games be created. If I created a game where you play a young Nazi who is trying to help restore his country to his former glory… I will be publicly massacred. Even if it was historically accurate, tastefully done, and full of life changing dialog that teaches us to love all people… all that would be advertised is “This game is a nazi simulator!”

    Hmmm… maybe people are right. I just might be cynical.

  • Albert1 said,

    The reason I play games is because they are (mostly were 🙁 ) fun AND let me evade, for a little time, the boring reality. I don’t want to immerse myself in the horrible reality of Auschwitz, not to mention to act as a SS. But you know, I’m that kind of player that keep playing, after all these years, as the brave, righteous hero. The bad guy role is not for me.

  • Darius said,

    Kind of reminds me of Spec Ops: The Line, which I recently finished playing. There was one scene, where upon reflection and looking at other people’s reactions to it, I sat down and thought to myself “I’m kind of scary.”

    A movie or book might be able to get you to think “Each of us has a monster inside”, but only a game can bring the monster out and make you realize “I have a monster inside.” It’s much more personal, it tells you something about yourself, not just humanity in general.

    But yeah, it’s a very thin line between raising controversy and exploiting. I like your thought about it being about trust in the developer, I skipped over the airport scene in MW2 for that very reason.

  • Kyle Haight said,

    I think there’s a kind of psychological distance that you get with books and movies that you don’t get with games. A book or a movie is explicitly about someone else. I’m not the protagonist, I’m just along for the ride. It may be a disturbing, educational or even life-changing ride, but it’s still me following someone else’s choices and actions.

    In a game, the protagonist is *me*. This is true even when it seems like the protagonist is, say, Nathan Drake, because Drake does what I tell him to. To the extent that I don’t have choice over what the protagonist does the game is more like a movie and less like a game — and when there’s a big gap between what the protagonist does when I make the choices vs. what he does when the developer makes them, it just breaks the suspension of disbelief and results in a bad game.

    To read a book about a Nazi I have to be willing to watch a Nazi. To play a game whose protagonist is a Nazi I have to be willing to *become* a Nazi, at least for a little while, and that’s a very different proposition. I’m not a Nazi, and while I might be interested in studying one I have zero interest in stepping into his shoes.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    Could you give us concrete examples? In the meantime, I have not played any games where my hand is on the gas control…

    I’ve played some games that allows for amoral actions, but have not find them gratuitous. For example, the game about rape Edmund (I don’t recommend this game for most audiences, can provoke sickness in the player).

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    More examples: I have no mouth but I must scream

    Gratuitous? Of course not!

  • Modran said,

    I’m playing Borderlands 2 currently. I’m having loads of fun, but recently I just thought “Wow. That’s… pretty sick. If the game wasn’t so over the top, I really wouldn’t have liked what just happened”. I mean, there’s a moment where you tie a midget with chains so that he can commit suicide getting roasted by a giant mechanical dragon mouth. And that’s not the worst.
    But, somehow, it works, and I haven’t been able to find a reason other than “it’s played for laugh and exaggerated”…

  • Albert1 said,

    Controversy is a big, double-edged sword: if a game make use of it and the overall quality is not that high, I get really pissed off… “before that 2 minutes exaggerated shit, they should have done their homeworks” sort of thing. A concrete example: Quake 4. Quake 4 was so bland the POV mutilation-and-stroggization part of the protagonist wasn’t just gratuitous, it was almost insulting: “why they spend their time on meaningless stuff like that, this game needs sooo much work pretty much everywhere!”.