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Games With The Power To Offend: Surviving And Stoking Controversy
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Games With The Power To Offend: Surviving And Stoking Controversy

August 24, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

A controversy is something that happens when one group of people gather together to tell another group that they shouldn't have done something.

The recorded controversies in the video game world have, to now, been relatively mild. Mortal Kombat was drawn out before a congressional hearing in the mid-Nineties; Jack Thompson systematically dismantled his career in the effort to protect children from Grand Theft Auto; and, most recently, some have objected to games that use real-life tragedies as source material, such as Super Columbine Massacre and the unreleased Six Days in Fallujah.

In the cultural ghetto where games live, these controversies had a seismic effect, but the scenery was left unchanged afterward. Blood and executions became more detailed in the wake of Joseph Lieberman's Mortal Kombat inquiry.

The simulated sex that brought Jack Thompson back onto cable news returned in Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Heavy Rain. The protestations against Fallujah evaporated when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 invaded Afghanistan -- though Medal of Honor has recently drawn some fire.

Part of an explanation for all of these uprisings of propriety is found in the persistent obscurity in which game culture still churns.

Games are still considered trivialities in the larger scope of foreign wars, Tea Party debates, and the drug infractions of pseudo-celebrities. Game controversies tend to be a digestive to help the heavier portions of a daily news cycle rest a bit more comfortably in one's subconscious.

Ironically, games themselves have been so crude there's been a perceptible gap between the issue of a given controversy and the actual scene or mechanic that agitates that issue. The effects of sex in the media on teenagers can always generate debate, but when the specific cause of debate is the absurd marionette work of the Hot Coffee mod, it's understandable that most people would lose interest.

Yet, there's every reason to believe the biggest storms lie ahead. Speaking at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta earlier this year, Jason Rohrer suggested that video games haven't even gone through their classical period yet.

As they continue to develop, their ability to provoke, challenge, and subvert popular culture will become ever sharper. When games stop aiming to entertain and become comfortable delving into the moral murk, there will be more storms left to inherit. What follows are some thoughts, strategies, and experiences from around the industry about how to better understand and prepare for what happens when your game suddenly winds up in the cracking waves of public ire.

A Piece of Defensible Ground to Stand On

Six Days in Fallujah set out to transgress common expectations of games by recreating a specific battle from one of the most controversial military campaigns since the Vietnam War. Even saying the word "Iraq" tends to provoke discomfort; actually forwarding a specific opinion on the subject is guaranteed to be met with protestation.

Six Days in Fallujah

"Our goal has always been to recreate the stories of specific Marines who fought in Fallujah and let people experience bits of the war from these Marines' perspectives -- without editorializing about the politics," said Peter Tamte, president of Fallujah developer Atomic Games.

"We absolutely did not want to get in the middle of the argument about whether the U.S. should be in Iraq."

Still, the protestations came almost immediately after the game's announcement in March 2009. The family of a British Red Cap killed in the Battle of Fallujah spoke to the media. "Considering the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War, glorifying it in a video game demonstrates very poor judgment and bad taste," Red Keys told the Daily Mail.

Tansy E. Hoskins, of a protest group called Stop the War Coalition, also spoke out against Fallujah. "There will never be a time when it is appropriate for people to 'play' at committing atrocities," Hoskins told TechRadar. "The massacre in Fallujah should be remembered with shame and horror not glamorized and glossed over for entertainment."

Fallujah is a perfect example of game controversy both because of how predictable the reaction was, and because of how utterly the critics tend to ignore the sentiments of the creators. It was knowable far in advance that the subject would provoke strong feelings, and the particular bent of those feelings were, likewise, pretty easy to anticipate.

"The best thing you can do is get in front of an issue by going to whatever group it is that will be angry and do whatever you can in advance to get their blessing," said a marketing executive at a major Hollywood movie studio, who requested to remain anonymous.

"Do whatever you can to get them on your side, to prove that you're being sensitive to them. If you're doing that, the rest of the world will look at it and think, 'If they're okay with it, then there's no reason to be upset.'"

In the case of Fallujah, Atomic Games did a fair amount of this itself. The studio worked with several U.S. Marines who had fought in the Battle of Fallujah and Tamte and members of the staff were ready to address the issue of exploiting Iraq openly from the outset.

Mike Ergo was a Marine infantry soldier in Fallujah and one of several consultants on the game who spoke to the potential controversy with some elegance. "Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn't necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Even so, Konami chose to drop Six Days in Fallujah from its release calendar mere weeks after announcing it. Their critics were relatively obscure and the development team had done due diligence in advocating the non-exploitative goals of the game, but Konami seemed to lose its mettle after encountering what should have been totally predictable criticism.

This abandonment was a controversial choice for Konami, but it might have been avoided with more strenuous internal vetting and some outreach to veterans and organizations beyond the young in-house consultants. The publisher might have made a deal with a veterans' organization to share a part of the profits, or enlisted a more recognizable group of advocates to defend the game.

Alternately, the studio might have done a little more to make convincing publicity materials, including a short documentary of veterans talking about their experiences, or humanitarian workers, or even Iraqi's themselves about what had happened. Without more serious-seeming materials than some anecdotal interviews and three painfully opaque screenshots, there was not enough to rebuff the opening rhetorical salvos.

"Sometimes the best you can do is just having a piece of defensible ground to stand on, to say why your work was worth making," the movie studio executive told me. "I think in general what happens is people get surprised, and when you're surprised you're in a position of weakness."

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Andre Gagne
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I think the larger debate that includes this one is the games as art vs. commercial projects for enjoyment. Particularly with Six Days in Fallujah; if people still consider video games as entertainment outlets then serious games like this one will always be met with controversy.

I also fully agree with the quadrant concept of the market. For some reason video games are everyone's whipping boy, the same sort of controversy doesn't surround the WWF though I would consider it much more offensive.

Kyle Jansen
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I think a big part of the problem is that the news media doesn't yet consider games to be "art", which colors their perceptions, and their perceptions is what is passed on to the public. I'll make an analogy to heavy metal, which gets similar treatment from the media: if I were to briefly describe, say, Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", the only words the average reporter would hear is "thrash metal song about war", from which they would probably assume that it's some violence-glorifying, death-filled wall of noise. Which, as those of you who have heard it (or have read the Hemingway novel it's based on) know is completely wrong.

So, when Fox or CNN or whoever heard "video game based on Fallujah", they probably assumed the same level of dignity and depth as Doom. Any later statements were too late to change the opinion of the reporters enough to get a major retraction.

Keeping things like that from happening is not simple. Ideally, we would get everyone to recognize the artistic merit of games, but that's at least a decade out, if it ever happens. You could hope that the major news outlets find an actual gamer to do fact-checking, but that's also a bit unlikely. The only workable solution I can think of is to bring it directly to the media, so they repeat your story, not make up their own. Find a hospitable news outlet that will listen, and announce the game there. Even if it isn't a particularly popular one, as long as it has some respect and name recognition, you'll be able to direct the tone of the debate. NPR might be a good choice.

Of course, another option would be to just avoid making controversial games, but that's both impossible, and limiting for games as a medium.

Ben Hatfield
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I personally welcome video game story content that pushes existing boundaries. Although if Nick Marroni is right about Six Days in F, its content strictly favors the current republican ideal, ie. ignorant insanity. Probably not a good idea to tackle this project without fully understanding the true historical context. Probably not a good idea to make this game without being willing to go "all in" with respect to political ramifications of creating this title. Just making a game based on a recent unpopular war, probably not a good idea in the first place. Back to my original point, I welcome story content that pushes existing boundaries. Some part of me has always thought the point of making a video game is to attempt to make a quality enduring experience - no matter what the genre. What I am currently finding offensive in video games is pure commercialism that promotes terrible products. The crown of commercial offensiveness has to be EA's Madden 10, their yearly piece of recycled trash that barely does what it should, and includes unabashed advertisement in many of its menus. Madden 10 also includes "madden points" that can be purchased for real money in order to fuel a card game completely separate from the football simulation. This card game is a blatant money grab. Seems like a fun extra... but guess what? - to play this game you have to buy the cards for real!!! Buying games is one thing, asking the consumer to pay more once they have already bought the game is questionable. What EA is now pulling is crossing the line, and what I currently find offensive in video games. Instead of figuring out ways of chiseling away money with what amounts to complete BS, how about just making a quality product? I feel its worth mentioning that Madden 10 is about as far from artistic experience as a game can get... but EA's Madden is a member of the video game family none the less.

Bryson Whiteman
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I can't help but wonder what Six Days in Fallujah was actually going to be like. They've done a lot of talk in interviews about it was gonna show the true perspective of the war but the clips of the game released suggested it was nothing but another Call of Duty. For Atomic Games to not be able to release a trailer or video to show how this game was going to be "different", to combat the negative attention, is severely disappointing.

I'd still love to see someone attempt a game that's more of a historical, objective look at war. Even if it's just a proof of concept Source or Unreal mod. Nothing commercial, just an honest take on it. Probably best to stay away from such a touchy battle as well, haha.

Peter White
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If the Marines who are acting as consultants can help the game to convey the soldier's point of view of the battle-- no hindsight as to what should or shouldn't have happened and no glorifying, just the confusion, fear and brutality of battle-- then I would view the game the same as a book written about their experiences, just a more immersive medium. It would be one sided for sure, but as long as it was an honest telling, and marketed as the story as told by the Marines who were there, "6 Days" seems compelling to me.

N Cheever
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Without getting into anymore details than this, I'll say SDIF was about the person on the ground. It wasn't about who gave what order or the politics for why there was a conflict there.

Several interviews with Marines where taken and to be used to comment on the difficulties or tragedies for a particular event or day. SDIF was also going to feature both sides of the story from the person on the ground. So you'd hear how Marines dealt with a situation and how the other side dealt with the situation.

One thing to remember is that insurgents didn't encapsulate every enemy. Some people who fought were defending their home, others were terrorists who came in from other countries for the profit and opportunity to fight.

SDIF isn't endorsed by anyone. It can't be if it intends to show what really happened. Until the public actually experiences the product first hand, no one can say what it's truly about.

What's more informative? Watching a History channel show that's been heavily edited for time, reading a book about the experience, or being involved in the actual minute-to-minute moments?

How is an interactive experience any different than a TV show or book? With proper rules in place it wouldn't be abused to sensationalize the conflict.

Of course, this is based on what the project was a year ago. The direction of it could have changed while they work on Breach.

Josh Foreman
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It makes me a bit sad to see this article derailed by debate about a conflict none of us was involved with and none of us are in a position to make a definite stand on. To get back to the themes of the article: I have to say this was very informative and interesting. The perspective of a more mature medium's PR person is really great and I appreciate it. I agree with this:

"Though it sometimes makes people squirm, confrontation should be one of the most essential and cherished qualities of any creative medium. To honestly look at ourselves, in flattering and unflattering lights, is the most honorable task any creator can have. It's also the most combustible and, given the lingering stereotypes of insignificance against games, these works require the most unyielding defense."

It's sad to me that Capcom is going to have a bunch of PR peeps sifting through their stuff now.

One thing I think we should keep in mind as media creators is how different our medium is than that of books, movies, etc. Rather than saying "Watch this" we say "Go do" and that reality is the double edged sword that makes our medium so powerful, but also a larger lightning rod for criticism. And rightly so. The act of watching a rape happen in a film is different psychologically than actually pressing a button that makes "me" rape a virtual person. Honestly I can watch almost anything, but I don't think I could ever play that game because of this vital difference. The Agency of the player connects the actions of the game protagonist to the player in a way that liner media can never do.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Sometimes it is useful to state an extreme case of reverse to illuminate reality.

So we would again convene commission headed by Al Gore, who in 80s considered the prohibition of heavy metal, let them burn all the books / movies / broken clay tables with Gilgamesh story / destroy pyramids pictures where someone was killed, beaten, raped or verbal abused?

Dealle Duff
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Another day of facing controversy, personally, I’ve seen the game industries and some indie game companies had push the boundaries of whether in term of offensive contents or disturbing gameplays and what was surprising me is all the effort game designers put in still seems to be the work of the toy makers in media’s point of view. I mean when games such as RE5 or Mass Effect become the issue of racism or porn simulator but when the trailer had been released, Media pointed out the issue of the phenomenon of “othering” and they never gave other side of the coin information of how the story setting or why the game director chose this direction to convey the story. All the Media does is opposition with prejudice and even worse in the case of Six days in Fallujah is when the allegation from public raised Game publisher chose to left the game behind to the studio rather than encounter to this predictable issue.

On the other hand, I still agree that, alternatively, game studio should share more information to public and their fan base for better understanding advocating them to spread the rumour about the game and they will be the voice to protect the project instead of throwing tantrums based on the unknowing.

N3uromancer Fett
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Games like these are a necessary cold pail of water for all gamers. I find it annoying that most gamers revel in the death and mayhem of Call of Duty city environments devoid of civilians and then act surprised when they see Apache gunship camera footage released by Wikileaks showing some collateral damage. Civilian deaths will always be part of war no matter the righteousness of the conflict. "Had we lost the war we would have been prosecuted as war criminals" McNamara on the bombings of Germany and Japan. Sometimes ugly events need to be put into mediums of this type. With respect to first person accounts by insurgents, there were plenty,most proclaiming "the ghosts of martyrs walking the streets emitting wonderful scents." yeah put that in the game as well.