Experience Points: Are Developers Censoring Their Games?
This past weekend I went to watch Django Unchained, it was a revenge movie like most of Quentin Tarantino’s work with uncensored raw violence and I was bombarded with gut wrenching scene after gut wrenching scene. I glanced away from the screen a couple of times in shock and then was taken back into the flow of the narrative with a slew of dialogue consisting of a few hundred ‘n-word’ mentions, more than any modern rap song for that matter. But I was glad that I saw the film and was happy that it remained uncensored even if the violence did shock me a couple of times, which at least disproves the theory that I’m somehow desenstised towards graphic violence because I’m a gamer. What I took from the film was the idea that all types of media should not fear self-censorship if it is in the pursuit of art. However, at the same time this is a very grey area, particularly in a medium such a video games where developers in some instances don’t go that extra mile to explore a theme or idea, and self-censor, or compromise their own creative vision. This can be due to an onslaught of negativity from fans, or the financial risks that are involved in such ventures.
I am not insinuating that there is no uncensored violence present in games. There of course is such violence. But there are other forms of censorship that games can embody. Such as exploring themes like religion and racism, which are hot topics in the modern context. There seems to be some taboo factor in game development when trying to explore such themes in a more direct manner. A game like Hitman Absolution may have skimpy nun assassins, but that does not mean the game is focussing squarely on the topic of religion. I’m talking about a developer making a concerted choice in the design of their game to tackle religion, racism and boundless other topics which are deemed inappropriate for games. This is perplexing when graphic violence is persistent in many games, and there is flack given to violent games regardless. But they are profitable and sell extremely well.
There is some innate fear that examining other topics would be inappropriate, and so a great deal of self-censoring may be taking place. This came across when I was reading up and watching interviews with Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite and how the game’s main villain, setting and story all involve thematic elements of religion and racism. You even had white supremacists billing BioShock Infinite as a “white man” killing simulator, which it is far from the truth. Ken Levine has just taken a concerted choice in the game’s design to examine thematic elements such as racism and religion. Game developers have become accustomed to the profitability of violence as the selling point for many games, over substance. That is not to say that some games are not making extreme thematic choices that reflect contemporary society, but they are far and few between. The most popular AAA games are made with a concern for profit margins and developers don’t want to take the risk of endeavouring to explore more divisive topics.
Just imagine if in Red Dead Redemption, the main character was Django from Django Unchained, and you were a bounty hunter on a revenge mission, as is in the movie itself. There of course would be huge shootouts and your “Dead-Eye” targeting system would still be there. The story would be slightly altered and you’d still be killing the same type of enemy. Yet if a developer followed this course of choice in development, with a similar protagonist in a similar type of game, their audience for the game would be limited. In many instances the plausible game would be deemed inappropriate by many people, although extremely violent games are condoned in society to a larger extent.
Violent games, particularly first person shooters, are very popular and Red Dead Redemption is still extremely popular and is a big seller for Rockstar Games. A change in protagonist would level the game with the same type of rhetoric that surrounds BioShock Infinite, perhaps more so because of the direct effect such a choice would have. It would be an interesting choice for a developer to take, but risky overall. In truth, we often forget that games are entertainment products that need to sell well in order for developers to break even, and continue making games. Financial risks for the sake of art, and the exploration of divisive themes, is indeed a hard line to tread.