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The 5 most significant video game controversies in 2012
The 5 most significant video game controversies in 2012
December 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

December 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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Here at Gamasutra, I've been rounding up the annual biggest firestorms for some years now, yet this is the first time I've felt truly challenged.

Last year, I highlighted the "line in the sand" passionate gamers had drawn in a period of cultural growth -- by which I meant it's become clear more gamers than ever now have a zero-tolerance policy for prejudice, insensitivity and exclusionary attitudes witin our community.

This year bore that out in spades. This year we experienced equal parts righteousness and anxiety over the role and the portrayal of women in our industry, from arguments over "fake geek girls" to the truly humiliating wave of abuse and negativity that followed Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter to research stereotypes surrounding female characters in games.

That our most heated conversations this year took place surrounding allegations and analysis of sexism is simultaneously heartening and troubling. On one hand, that so many voices have swelled to fight old prejudices and boys' club attitudes in an industry that is by all metrics for everyone now is nothing short of amazing.

On the other hand, it prompts us to carefully consider our responsibility to educate, connect and empathize on these issues so that they become battles that rational people can share.

It's also an issue of concern to me personally that so often the conversation is about sexism, when in fact the bigger issue is assuring an inclusive industry for all, where everyone, regardless of class, orientation, color, age, heritage or creed, feels welcome and respected.

So I could do a top five list only about controversies over sexism -- and honestly, it's tempting, because so many of us have been waiting so long to be heard, to feel cared for in an industry we all deeply love, and as one of the more vocal women in the press on this movement I can't help but feel responsible.

Yet I made an effort this year to focus not on smaller fires, but on broader trends toward the maturation of games and their relationship with their audience.

Many small fires become an inferno, after all.

Mass Effect's Ending

After three installments in BioWare's widely-celebrated franchise, the saga of Shepard came to an end. And yet it was far from over -- the ending of the game caused a vocal outcry of fan dissatisfaction with everything from the tone to the logic of the story itself. Particularly damning was the allegation that fans didn't have enough choice and control over their destiny, given that one of the strengths of the series is that it works to give players exactly that.

me3.jpgFans can carry over their protagonist from one game to the next, deeply invested in a character who by him or herself is mainly a cipher, but through player choice becomes someone with an identity and a destiny elected by the game's audience over years. Players saw the fact that they felt such little control over the story's final outcome as nothing short of absolute betrayal, like BioWare had reneged on its commitment to them.

Many fans were happy to eventually receive a new ending and to be heard. What was interesting about the controversy was that it called into question the auteurship of a developer. BioWare's decision to release a new ending provoked much discussion -- should a studio rewire its vision if fans don't like it? Will gamers regularly be able to petition studios to gratify them, and how important is it that fans be totally content with a plot?

The goal of massive franchises for years has been to create a sustaining, even deeply personal relationship with players. But clearly that success comes with a cost.

Anita Sarkeesian, the tall poppy

Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to fund a web series, "Tropes vs. Women," that would enable her to present an exploration of the portrayal of female characters in games. It was a fairly simple ambition for which she asked for $6000 -- and got much more than that, in every sense of the phrase.

Criticisms of the project's purpose or why someone would want thousands of dollars to make videos were to be expected in the demanding crowdfunding age. But what was truly horrifying was the backlash, with vocal online communities mounting hate campaigns and viewing intimidation and harrassment of Sarkeesian as a personal mission. Someone even made a Flash game about beating her face black-and-blue.

Their goal was to get her to give up. But regardless of one's opinion of her work and its goals, the level of purposeful, high-volume vitriol cannot be excused. Calls for change are threatening to a community that particularly values its escapism, its places safe from judgment, and too often men hear the word "feminism" and jump to the conclusion they're being attacked or accused of sexism personally. But there's just no way to rationalize what Sarkeesian endured.

The silver lining is that in a show of support, the community gave Sarkeesian many times what she asked for. The spotlight will be on her intensely now, and the results of her research, the status of which importantly isn't yet known, will be closely scrutinized. But anyone who loves games is obligated to be incredibly conscious of how ugly is the underbelly of our community and how far we have yet to go. We've looked into the abyss.

Are the crowds wise?

This year we witnessed how broad-ranging the impact of crowdsourcing is on determining what products get made, and on the very shape of our industry. In the online age we've talked a blue streak about listening to your players, and about putting the shape of a living, always-on product into the hands of your community.

Now, from a mass rush of Kickstarters to Valve's placing the power of decision in players' hands with Steam Greenlight, the business itself is now increasingly player-led. Largely this has been a good thing, sensible for the allocation of resources and letting demand lead supply at the end of a late console cycle where risk-aversion and uncertainty are watchwords.

But a private anxiety roils beneath the surface of this unprecedented content democracy. To what extent can we trust the wisdom of the crowds? I recently wrote about how a group itself can become just as risk-averse as any investor the more information they're given, and game developers and fans alike are getting increasingly vocal about best practices.

greenlight.jpgSteam's Greenlight program faced some criticisms from the start, as amid a rush of content fans cleaved loyally to familiar concepts, and it soon became clear that crowdsourcing might not be the best engine to direct the spotlight onto new and difficult ideas. Kickstarter saw a retro boom this year -- turns out what people mostly want is things they've already had.

The extent of the power that crowdsourcing gives its community was poorly-anticipated; the initial wild west age has ebbed, and the results of many of the earliest-funded titles have yet to be seen. There's anxiety now, and both sides of the aisle -- creators and consumers -- will be keeping a close eye on that balance of power. We're learning what it really takes to make it in the era of crowd vote, and not everyone likes that. The rumbles of uncertainty have begun, and will likely reach a fever pitch in the year ahead.

Doritogate

Passionate gamers have mistrusted the games press for years, scrutinizing review sites and their writers closely to ensure that they're receiving a trusted, objective opinion that hasn't been massaged by free drinks, marketing swag or corporate pressure. The Kane and Lynch scandal that led Jeff Gerstmann away from Gamespot years ago shows that there is some foundation to their concerns -- advertisers are aggressive.

Marketers have gotten adept at controlling the information cycle that surrounds new releases, and while the online age and the rise of independent outlets has punctured some holes in the old bargaining relationship between print magazines and advertisers, those advertisers still stamp their influence all over us, as Mountain Dew holds hands with Halo and Geoff Keighley is infamously photographed beside a bag of Doritos.

New concerns came to a very ugly head earlier this year at the UK's Games Media Awards, when at Eurogamer Rab Florence criticized the event -- where the nation's games press is recognized at an event plush with sponsors and a cabal of publishers -- as emblematic of the fact that the relationship between supposed journalists and the companies they're paid to cover is still too buddy-buddy.

Individual writers were slammed widely for participating in a hashtagged Tweet-off to win a free PlayStation 3. Amid the controversy one of the accused writers was ultimately dismissed from her job, the final punishment after a virulent outpouring of criticism some likened to witch-hunting. Before that, Florence resigned from Eurogamer as his piece was edited under fear of reprisal from the accused.

It was a painful experience for all who cover games in the UK, and even on our shores it prompted much soul-searching on our role and identity as professionals -- or whether some of us want or need to be "professionals" at all. It was a watershed moment in a burgeoning identity crisis for writing on games, which increasingly serves many different roles and many different audiences.

Games writers are now critics, essayists, industry experts, news reporters, authors of buyer's guides, comedians, diarists and community leaders. "Objectivity" is not only overrated, but impossible outside the discipline of reportage. But many of us will have to define our roles -- and then act in accordance with those roles -- if we hope to sustain the trust of our readership.

Failure to communicate

Back to the small fires, and to the inferno: The issues that raised our hackles the most this year were led by major communications failures. Borderlands 2's decision to include a mode that encourages a non-gamer friend or partner to have an accessible playtime along with you was clearly a sound one -- it was just those two little words, "girlfriend mode," that made people angry, as they perhaps suggested a wider prejudice.

Hitman made not one but two marketing gaffes: The stripper-nuns yielded a bewildered apology, and a Facebook app that essentially gamified bullying to sell the game after it launched to mixed reception showed a baffling failure of judgment. It was live for just an hour before outrage got it pulled. The apology was already prepared; someone's legal department had been ready to pull the trigger. They knew it was stupid and they did it anyway.

hitman.jpgThough I've admittedly not seen it myself, by all the early accounts I've heard the new Tomb Raider game, with Rhianna Pratchett as writer, is actually shaping up to be an interesting portrayal of a younger Lara Croft, who's made a long and often-awkward journey from 90's sex doll toward actual character.

But you wouldn't guess it by the game's early reveals, which featured Croft's torture-porny grunting and moaning as her exposed body took injury after injury, nor by the revelation that essentially the game was going to shape her character by having her endure a rape attempt. We got only enough information to make a negative conclusion -- did anyone actually believe we'd hear that and go, "wow, sounds fun"?

E3 was ugly, too. Our Frank Cifaldi already outlined how uncomfortable our staff felt seeing colleagues and fans rise to cheer for a shotgun blow to the face. Many of us shared our private uncertainty: Tons of us started in this field as barely older than kids ourselves; now many of us have our own, and feel anxious about how an environment where scantily-clad women parade around a celebration of violence reflects on our choice of career. Following the event many women were outspoken about how unwelcome they felt. We want to believe that developers are still doing rich, diverse work -- but it sure doesn't look that way to see how Los Angeles celebrates our industry with that tone.

Or with the recent Spike VGAs, which while much improved tonally on recent years, still featured a Wayans enthusiastic about his son, who by according to him hasn't yet grown pubic hair, getting to shoot people in the face thanks to gaming. "Without characters, how can you shoot someone in the face?" joked presenter Samuel L. Jackson.

We don't need always to be reverent; nobody wants to live with their finger constantly hovering over the "I'm offended" button. There are all kinds of games out there, from tiny homemade essays on the self to big-budget retail war orgies -- and that's good. There's room for all kinds. We are entitled to be silly and violent just as much as we're entitled to be sincere.

The problem is that in spite of the vast array of game development going on, the solving of design problems, the success of games of all sizes and budgets for bigger, richer and more passionately-engaged audiences than ever, most people think this is all we are.

What if they think this is all we can ever be, no matter how hard we're trying to tell both the creative industry and the rest of the world who we really are, what we're really doing here, why we love video games? That should outrage everybody.

More Gamasutra 2012 roundups:

The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012
The 5 events that shook the video game industry in 2012


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Comments


Sharad Patel
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It's not the violence or the sex that's going to hurt this industry - you can take it or leave - the consumers can decide where their tastes lie and as you said, there is something for everyone and choice (however distasteful) is a good thing. What is not good though is mistrust from consumers - that can never be won back.

Joshua Griffiths
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But that's the problem, there is no choice! Sex and violence is all this industry has right now.

John Trauger
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Sex, violence, and a sometimes-puritanical abhorrence of same, perhaps.

People like destroying things and making things too. RE Minecraft, Peter Molyneux's sphere.

Make your game, your vision. The market will reward you or not according to its fickle whims.

I feel an undercurrent in the commentary that's trying to establish some kind of social-moral litmus test for what is "good" game that is worthy of our praise and support.

Kyle Redd
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@Joshua

If you really believe that all games now have sex and violence, you haven't spent any time actually looking for an alternative. There is a massive amount of great titles out there that fit the bill.

Come to think of it, I would struggle to name more than a few games released in the last decade that had any sex at all in them.

Zirani Jean-Sylvestre
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>>Come to think of it, I would struggle to name more than a few games released in the last
>>decade that had any sex at all in them.

Lemmings, Cut the rope, Angry Birds, World of Goo, Minecraft ?

Most indie games are like that... Seriously, stop thinking about block busters, they target the main audience: teens

Matt Wilson
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"Tons of us started in this field as barely older than kids ourselves; now many of us have our own, and feel anxious about how an environment where scantily-clad women parade around a celebration of violence reflects on our choice of career."

Nicely put.

Devin McCamey
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Very true. My three year old son and 15-month old daughter are constant reminders to be vigilant on how I make games, what I put in them, and whether or not it's something that I would want them to play if they were older.

Not to discredit escapism, but have some class.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Ian Welsh
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Yuck. the what about the children stuff is beyond tiresome.

Matt Wilson
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@Dave
It's got less to do with the children and more to do with dignity in work.

Leonardo Ferreira
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I remember making a particularly vicious comment about Bulletstorm in an article in Gama some years ago, because the way that game excused grotesque and banal violence by presenting it omnipresent, internet-savvy irony enraged me deeply; the discussion that followed pretty much favoured the fact that ultraviolence for the sake of it was a-OK.

Nice to know things can take long, but eventually change.

Maria Jayne
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I think it's worth acknowledging that one aspect of video gaming is being able to do ridiculously over the top activities with no consequence, for entertainment value. Violence is a big feature of that, because it's probably one of the major things we are restricted on if we want to live in a civilized society.

I see it as an evolution of entertainment, not some offensive portrayal. It's a far cry to be cheering a digital head exploding (not convinced that was what the cheering was for) compared to watching a bunch of real human slaves get slaughtered in an arena to masses of cheering spectators. If we somehow abolished violence in video games, where would that need be sated? Do we really think it would just go away, or would it go somewhere else? I think I'd rather people cheered at video game violence than any other alternative.

Joe Wreschnig
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"Do we really think it would just go away, or would it go somewhere else?"

I don't think anyone here believes that if violent games were suddenly magicked away, the world would become less violent.

But it's not about that. It's about if we want to *just* be pornography merchants and masturbators, or something instead of or in addition to that. The film equivalents don't go to Cannes. The book equivalents don't win Pulitzers or Nobels. But when you look at E3, or any of our awards shows, that's what celebrated as the core and pinnacle of our medium.

Maybe you're comfortable with that. A lot of people are not. I'm not.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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@Joe

But we're now celebrating some level of merit in games, where once we weren't.

Be comfortable that gaming is now such a widely accepted form of entertainment that developers are feeling less and less constraints in making challenging, artistically motivated projects.

Besides, in a year where Journey won best PS3 game at the VGAs of all places, your argument becomes pretty thin. Hell, games like The Walking Dead, Assassin's Creed III and Mass Effect 3 are also not the stereotypical bro game-each one attempts to have plot and strong emotional motivation.

Tom Baird
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@Joe
If E3 is your gaming equivalent example to Cannes, then I think the issue is not violence, but rather the issues brought up in the 'Doritogate' part of the article. E3 is just a grandstanding stage for AAA behemoths to hock their wares, and make it look like they are more than just self-promoting.

There is plenty of variety in games, but I think part of the issue is that the non-violent and the innovative are still young, and outside of a few competitions like the IGF, we really don't have much in the way of impartially judged awards based on more than just glitz and glamour.

on the bright side, Journey has won a ton of awards and recognition, Minecraft's success was unprecedented and is creating the birth of a new genre, Nintendo has always been a strong contender with a platform of minimal violence/gore, and the dearth of variety coming out of Indies right now (On Console, Mobile, Web, and PC) are all a powerful indicator that we are still moving in a positive direction, if slower than some would like.

Arseniy Shved
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@Joe
"The film equivalents don't go to Cannes."

So not true. Last year's Drive was met by ovations. Oldboy (2004) was highly praised. Actually every year there are several violence0centrik movies at Cannes that are well received.
TV shows like Dexter, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad also heavily rely on violence, some of them feature nudity and display sex without censorship. And still they are critically acclaimed.

Books? Modern - maybe, but what ablout classics? Well, their attention was not captured on violence (but you can find discriptions of what happens to people during war - and that is not pretty - for example in the "War and Peace") but mostly on female beauty. Lots of them described female bodies in colourful details (mostly focusing on - surprise - breasts) in their books.

I agree here with Maria. I'd rather violence to stay in fictional world, then in real. Sadly, we cannot put all the violence there.
It would be sad if all the sex would go in the games though. Maybe that's why game devs prefer players to shoot people rather than to make new ones in their games? =))

Lewis Pulsipher
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It isn't the presence of violent death in games that is so offputting. Anything involving warfare is going to involve a lot of violent deaths, and the world is full of warfare.

It's the constant graphic depiction of violent death, often "joyously" depicted, that offends adults. It's fundamentally non-adult.

I discussed this in early 2010 in http://www.pulsipher.net/Articles/DepictionsViolentDeath.htm (originally from gamedev.net but their links to it are damaged). It's notable that I originally submitted this to Gamasutra as an opinion piece, but after a long delay it was rejected. My suspicion at the time (for which I have no evidence, of course) was that they did not want to risk a very negative reaction. So perhaps things have changed.

Unfortunately, despite the much higher average age of gamers these days, the AAA industry (especially console) still make and market games for non-adults, who evidently are often attracted by extremes of violence.

[User Banned]
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Thom Q
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95% of all games include violence & death. So just because you make it graphic, it's too far? Letting hoards of Lemmings fall to their death was ok, because...?

I mentioned this in another topic. If you're currently working in the industry, chances are, you enjoyed a violent video game. If not, good for you, but then complaining about it is like someone who only watches soap opera's & tele-shopping to complaining about horror movies.

After the mass-abandoning of the Wii, because it wasn't Core enough, it's not the right place or time to suddenly become Anti-violence.

Joe Wreschnig
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Yeah, obviously. All depictions of death are violent, all kinds of violence are all about death, all depictions of violence and death are equally meaningful, valid, and/or affecting, splatter movies are the pinnacle of film as a medium and beyond reproach, anyone saying "hang on a second..." is a hypocritical fascist demanding censorship, and the complete market failure of the Wii is proof and justification for of all of this.

Luis Guimaraes
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Conflict leads to Violence leads to Gore.

The problem is not necessarily the existence of the means or the consequences, but what is put emphasis on, and what is marketed, because it's directly implying that's what people want, which is offensive not to the eyes but to people's intelligence.

Anyway, finding a triple-A title in the last 5 year that doesn't offend your intelligence or treat you like a lab-rat should unlock an Achievement, for positive reinforcement, you know...

Thom Q
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Joe: You've managed to misinterpret every point I tried to make, braveau!

Luis: I agree, it's up to the studio's to make their product as clean or as Gorey as they deem fit.. I don't think they market the games to kids though. Sure, it's what kids want. But dont teenagers always want what they aren't supposed to? Main problem lies with the parents and re-sellers selling them Mature games..


Just to be clear: I'm not a fan of gore, and I don't watch horror movies. I do believe however that there is no difference between 16 bit lemmings falling and breaking into pixels, and blowing up a head with a head shot , after which blood gushes out in 1080p.. Just because you leave out some bodily fluids its ok?

Joe Wreschnig
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@Thom,

"there is no difference between 16 bit lemmings falling and breaking into pixels, and blowing up a head with a head shot"

No, I don't think I misunderstood you at all.

Thom Q
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Joe: Ow.. So you think that by adding blood, the gore line is crossed? And please, next time you quote something, at least quote the whole sentence...

Adam Bishop
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"95% of all games include violence & death. So just because you make it graphic, it's too far?"

Yes. I love professional hockey. I'm disgusted by snuff films. Why is this difficult to understand?

Joe Wreschnig
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There's an enormous gulf between *abstract death as failure* in Lemmings and *carefully-rendered murder as points* in, say, God of War. Both are "violent" in some sense, but the space between them is so large it's not even worth comparing the two.

And your entire measure discounts games with or about violence that doesn't lead to death, like Analogue or Lim.

Basically, you haven't thought about this at all, and have just equated violence, death, gore, blood, murder, etc., regardless of context or theme or style.

Luis Guimaraes
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Maybe we should not mention just "death", and add "torture" into the discussion.

Thom Q
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Adam: Bit of a weird comparison, but then again: Why are American Sports so violent? Why is that behaviour seen as ok, even glorified? (edit: Why would you even think I compare Hockey with Snuff films btw?)

Joe: Of course there's a difference between how it's depicted.

My point is, and yeah I am going to try again: Society is build upon violence. Violence is everywhere. People eat burgers, but when you show them the process of how it's made, people get angry. There's a tendency to shield themselves from it, even ignoring it, while it's right there, every day.. But when some corporations are marketing their products with violence, that's where a line is drawn?

And I'm not even touching on the freedom of expression / Art issue here, since I don't believe AAA studios are making art. All they do is trying to sell, using the means that entice the public. In this case their public is male, lower to mid education, 18-24 years old. If that public likes violence and gore, it's their right, as is it ours to say we don't like that, and therefore don't buy it..

Whether or not those consumers Shouldn't like violence and gore, is essentially a whole other discussion, much broader and bigger then video games. So focusing on being disgusted, calling it tasteless etc, isn't really helpful. By now you shouldn't be shocked at the unethical choices corporations make, that's been a fact since they were first conceived..

All in all, I did think about it (why you'd say I didn't, I don't know..), and yeah, I do equate all violence, death, torture etc. regardless of style or context. Doing anything else would be very hypocritical..

Joe Wreschnig
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@Thom,

"All they do"
"their public"
"it's their right"

When I started reading Gamasutra, and I think for many of the people here still, the games industry wasn't "they", it was "we". As in, this is the site where we discuss what we do. We are not uniform in opinion, but we can't delegate our responsibility and blame to "them", and we cannot act as if there is some kind of determinism of "their" actions, because we are the people that make games - We are them.

So if you don't want to be part of that discussion - and clearly, from your use of third-person pronouns, you don't - you don't have to be. Goodbye.

"I do equate all violence, death, torture etc. regardless of style or context."

And maybe read some basic philosophy, or a dictionary, while you're gone.

Michael Ball
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@Adam: Because horror and snuff are totally the same thing.
Yep, nothing wrong about equating the two whatsoever...
Yessiree, completely reasonable...

...Well, except for the fact that snuff involves ACTUAL murder, but that's a triviality.

Thom Q
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As an Indie I feel there's a Huge difference between "us" and "them".. So whenever we're talking about AAA's, I'd call them they.. Chances for me to ever work for a AAA studio are very slim, seeing there's only 1 my country...

I understand you're point of view, I just tried to get mine across. No need for you to be a dick about it, but clearly you're ticked off for some reason, seeing all of your other posts on this thread..

Joe Wreschnig
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@Michael,

"Well, except for the fact that snuff involves ACTUAL murder, but that's a triviality."

Well, that would be the context of the film, which Thom has (multiple times now) said doesn't matter. So in Thom's view, yes, they are the same and "[believing] anything else would be very hypocritical."

Or maybe Thom's view is bullshit, and that's Adam's point...

Michael Ball
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@Joe: You DO realize that you don't have to be in the industry to post comments?

Thom Q
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Joe: Yeah, you're right. I was saying real violence is the same as video-game violence............

So, besides you not understanding me, telling me to Get Out, You're Views are Bullshit, You're English Sucks, etc, what did you add to the discussion exactly??

Joe Wreschnig
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@Michael,

Yes, I realize that.

I also think it's bullshit to pretend we have no control over "the industry", as if it's some wholly alien monster running rampant. It's *us*. That's true even if you're just a player or an indie developer. It's just especially true if you're working in that industry, and a lot of people here are.

Thom writes with detachment, like this kind of shit is inevitable, but this is a system he's part of. We can push back against and change the path of it, and talk about who we want to make games for and what we want those games to say, rather than just assuming we are doomed to a decade of manshooters and it's all outside our control.

Michael Ball
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Also @Joe:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snuff_film
"A snuff film is a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation."
As in OUTSIDE the context of the film. Thorn's views have nothing to do with the fact that Adam tried to equate the gravity of a real person's death to that of a fictional character, completely dismissing the ability to differentiate between fiction and reality.

Adam Bishop
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@ Michael

My point was that not all violence is equal. I like some real-life violence and I dislike some real-life violence. I like some fictional violence and I dislike some fictional violence. There's nothing hypocritical about that.

Joe Wreschnig
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@Thom,

"what did you add to the discussion exactly?"

Don't you see the irony in asking me this when you're the one claiming everything's the same as it always was and things will never change?

With that kind of attitude, what can you add to the discussion? When your view is that everything is fixed and outside your control, why start a discussion at all?

Here's what I want to add to the discussion: I want you to think about this stuff. I want you read this article closely, I want you to listen carefully to what victims and instigators of violence say, I want you to think carefully and deeply about the relationship between violence and death and gore and sexism and oppression and murder and war and the industrialization of food and all those things that are inter-related but not identical.

And when you make games that touch on any of those, I want you to make your games with that stuff in mind. I want everyone to make games with that stuff in mind.

Thinking deeply about that stuff, and making games with that knowledge, it's impossible if you go into with the view that they're all identical and eternal and outside yourself and your control. It's like a sculptor looking at a quarry and saying "well, it's all stone anyway, and was always stone and will always be stone, I guess I can't do anything anymore."

(I never said your English sucked.)

Michael Ball
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Again @Joe: The only thing you truly have "control" over is what games you and your company decide to make. The abundance of violence-heavy games is merely a symptom of a much larger issue: the homogenization of mainstream gaming as a whole.

Michael Ball
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@Adam
That is a completely valid sentiment, but using loaded terms isn't exactly becoming, especially when he wasn't talking about real-life violence. His point was that fictional violence is still fictional, regardless of how it is depicted. It is entirely possible (and very common) to like violent games and still be repulsed by real-life brutality.

Thom Q
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Michael kinda made my point, but in a nice 3-sentence paragraph. Thanks! :)

Sean Givan
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But isn't professional hockey real, too?

Isaiah Taylor
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Wow, the dudes [and notice it's dudes] commenting on this by sweeping it under the rug, is pretty telling. I guess it never occurs to most that journalists are responsible for highlighting something we may have overlooked or didn't give enough of a second thought.

I, personally, have been kinda numbed by the violence and "over-broing" of games. So much so, that I buy very few of them. It would take someone like a Leigh Alexander or Frank Cifaldi to pretty much pinpoint the "why."

A lot of these very salient points are "why" I don't buy games at launch. They are why I get kinda bored faster than I did at the beginning of this generation. It's how the game is being sold to me and what's being sold.

And I don't think this is about being "anti-violence." I think when we use death, violence, etc. in games differently -- or at least provide more variety on a major scale ... it makes you value this culture more.

This is probably why I'm still playing Demon Souls.

Kris Graft
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"Thank you" to the people who realize that we are not _anti-violence in video games_. We are not a bunch of Joe Liebermans or Jack Thompsons over here, crusading for censorship or saying violent games will destroy the world. We know video games and care about this industry. Otherwise we wouldn't do and say the things that we do.

I'm a fan of violent media--books, movies, documentaries, etc. Anything from Ken Burns' war documentaries to Robocop, sign me up. The people who make violent media that is worthwhile actually think about what the violence means. It carries a message, it tells a story, it's part of the narrative. I almost _never_ see this in the game industry, whether it's regarding the marketing or the game itself.

Destruction and violence have been such a part of games from the start, that this powerful tool is taken almost completely for granted, and is included in games because "that's how games are and always have been and this is what people want." Taking violent depictions for granted leads to the juvenile way that violence is portrayed in games. Again, there's typically no real thought put into it. For me, it's offensive on an intellectual level, not a visceral level.

(Side note: Look at The Walking Dead. It is the best example in recent memory in which violence is actually used as a powerful narrative and storytelling tool in a video game. Now, also, look at the sales and how people appreciate what Telltale was doing there.)

During these end of year roundups, I revisited my post-E3 article that I ran this year (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/172088/From_the_Editor_E3_2012
__The_E3_of_Disillusion.php#.UMX6rYO_F8E). To be clear, the portrayal, level and concentration of violence at E3 didn't make me uncomfortable or squeamish or particularly reflective. No, it genuinely pissed me off, this wholesale pandering to a demographic that I relate less-and-less to. It pissed me off enough to write and publish something that could offend and alienate a whole lot of our readers, but it's how I felt, and I couldn't just ignore it. (It turned out that a whole lot of our readers did agree with me.)

A few people have said that I'm "getting old." It's true. But hey, so are a bunch of other people who would like to continue to experience (and spend money on) video games.

Paul Marzagalli
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I didn't have a problem with your opinion piece last spring, Kris, other than I didn't particularly agree with it. At the time, with a few Kickstarters comfortably funded, "X-Com: Enemy Unknown" on the way, and the first episode of "The Walking Dead" played, it seemed that the industry was already course-correcting. You may not like that audience, but it is there. So are we, and the market was finding its way to us.

There's a joke in the book "Good Omens" where any cassette tape left in a car inevitably becomes "Queen's Greatest Hits". The joke of the '00s was that any franchise in any genre inevitably becomes a FPS. That wasn't universally true, but it did seem there was a degree of sequel calcification in the AAA industry. Along the way, the economics of making and marketing a game lent itself to certain trends. It's fine to dislike them. My concern is when a single opinion piece becomes a concentrated effort - of using your platform to shape the industry instead of reporting on it. That seems a conflict of interest and, quite frankly, a little (to use a popular pejorative around here) "Fox News"-ish. Because you do have power, something you are aware of, but you aren't 100% right or justified every time, either.

E3 works for what it wants to do. There are significant other avenues now for alternative marketing and audience-cultivating - the PAX shows, Kickstarter, Indiecade, the various GDC events, and an increasing slew of smaller, specifically-themed conferences. Frank seemed to indicate a focus on those events (where the games and devs speak for themselves) rather than a rumination on what you don't like (which is ultimately a matter of taste and opinion, not Papal infallibility). I hope that is the case for Gamasutra going forward, because you can achieve the same goals that way.

Isaiah Taylor
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I think Gamasutra is doing just fine opening a discussion about why & how these "course corrections" are occurring in the industry.

Kris Graft
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Paul, I've got plenty of issues with your viewpoints here and would love to expound as to why (maybe later on). But I only have time right now to clear up that I _am_ the audience for The Walking Dead and X-Com. I really, really enjoy those specific games (I did specifically note TWD in the comment you replied to, after all).

Quick rundown of violence in those two games: It actually means something. Certain deaths in TWD carry so much weight that if I talk too much about them here, it'll spoil the game for those who haven't played it. It's integral to the core of the game, making the violence absolutely meaningful. In XCOM, a unit you've been leveling up and investing in for hours is blown away, and is permadead. It's integral to the core of the game, making the violence absolutely meaningful.

Paul Marzagalli
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Kris, no worries. I'm up for the conversation whenever - either here, Skype, or if and when we meet up at some event down the road. As it is, I'm catching myself up with work thanks to the time I spent writing those comments this morning (and visiting back to read what other people are saying)! :-D

Have a good day!

Connor Fallon
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I guess if I'm going to try to chime in on this conversation -- I think the reason games like Xcom and Walking Dead work for me is they don't use violence as a "reward," which is very common in this industry. The thing is, using violence as a reward makes some degree of sense from a design perspective, I guess -- if your goal is to kill X dudes, you make killing X dudes as viscerally "rewarding" as possible, but it's not exactly a healthy pattern.

The problem is that violence in games often serves as a solution without further consequence. Walking Dead, Spec Ops -- games like these are exceptions. But more often than not, because of the forms of interaction currently common in games, leaving a bloody body on the floor is the end of the problem set, and not the start or the middle. It's easier to design with a finite end state for your interactions, and "the guy is dead" seems like a solid place to cut it off.

Zirani Jean-Sylvestre
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I share your feeling Kris.

I really like brainless action movies and I love violent games. However, I am getting tired of the triple-As.

And somehow, I am not tired of playing Hotline Miami. The game is verrrrrry repetitive. The violence is over the top but it is different enough to other photo-realistic modern shooters in it's visuals, game play and story telling that I can abstract the violence.

So, to me, violence is not the problem. I don't specially seek violence. I think the problem is that we have been served the same sauce for big budget games for the entire past console generation: Put some marines or army corps or whatever, put a crashing helicopter, put a bridge and make it explode, more explosion there and there and don't forget the cutscenes, cutscenes everywhere.

The problem is that there's no defined market for a big budget alternative and hence nobody wants to take the risk.

Paul Marzagalli
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The biggest fool's gold in this entire debate over perceptions of violence, sexism, marketing, games, etc. is this idea that the industry needs to "grow up" so it won't be perceived by others as simply being about guns and war and whatever else. Who exactly are these other people? Why does their perception need to change? Who are we trying to impress here? This is a clarion call to nowhere. The world is already aware of what games can and cannot be, and the market is constantly changing to meet potential consumers halfway.

Sony assumed control (said in my best Harbinger voice) of the market share in the mid-90s by catering to an older crowd weary of Sonic and Mario. The unexpected success of the Wii demonstrated again that companies are constantly trying to cultivate new audiences. This is also true of the rise of social and mobile gaming (which is probably where most of those casual Wii owners migrated to). Recent titles like "The Walking Dead" and "Journey" found huge audiences and critical acclaim. For all the chin-scratching over Kickstarter, that's another example of audiences finding and supporting outlets that cater to them. Ask Chris Roberts or Brian Fargo if they expected a year ago to be where they are now. Indie devs probably feel similarly. One billion "Angry Birds" players can't be wrong.

Workplace concerns and the matter of the games themselves may have intertwining elements, but they are still separate issues. This "zero tolerance" approach to the game side is problematic because it leaves no middle ground or allowance, which are both necessary for the kind of inclusiveness that people claim they want (along with diversity and risk-taking in creativity). If you want things one way and not the other, then queue up The Who because it's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." There is room in the industry for both Journey's traveler and freaky assassins dressed up like nuns, and without all the needling and ginned-up controversy.

Across all the different gameplay scapes, the industry is already quite diverse, and where it is not, the market rises to meet the demand. The industry is evolving, not growing up or going through "teenage years" (can't remember where I read that, though it was a recent piece). It doesn't need to "grow up", not in terms of its creativity or to appease anybody else's sensibilities. Insofar as there are many companies, billions of dollars at play, and craftsmen at work, this is an industry. Ultimately, though, the creations are still art and the promotion of that art (and marketing in a way that allows for the sustained creation of such) are the purview of each individual company/artist. They are beholden to their vision and not some nebulous "greater good" and certainly not in a curious endeavor to impress "the rest of the world."

Connor Fallon
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I've always felt, though, that despite their success there are plenty more people who would love games like "Journey" and "The Walking Dead"... if they knew they existed. So for me, the "other people" whose perceptions we want to change are "people outside the central gaming sphere." Angry Birds has broken through that awareness bubble. Our industry as a whole needs to work to do the same, because while we already indeed have some small amount of diversity, I feel our isolation stunts it in many ways. We are losing large swaths of potential players by not broadcasting more variety publicly.

Look at the VGAs. In many ways, the actual awards this year were catered towards innovation -- with Journey and The Walking Dead winning the most awards. (Even Borderlands 2 is not a typical shooter.) But the show itself was tonally still as it has always been, and someone watching the should wouldn't have realized why these games were winning, or that they were different. Having a public facing show like that which actually highlights the games and the developers could do some good.

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k s
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I figure I'll way in on the violence issue myself.

I've always seen violence in gaming as an easy game mechanic to design and implement. It is something we've all scene, partook of, and been victims of at one point or another so we all understand it to a degree and understand the basics of it as do our audience. Now from a gameplay perspective violence isn't really an issue but violence for the sake of violence with no motivation behind it is a problem.

The airport scene in CoD: MW2 was violence for the sake of violence (no matter what others might say) and I'm not a fan of that but the violence in say Red Faction Guerrilla is different. You the player are trying to help the people of Mars overthrow a dictatorship which mercilessly assaults and kills civilians to maintain their hold on power. The difference between these two acts of violence are one is justifiable in the context of the plot and game universe while the other is purely for the sake of raw carnage.

Games that use reasonable context for violence are fine as they do not really glorify the violence itself (unless you score points for killing people/beings) but sadly many of the games released by AAA developers under the direction of publishers do not use reasonable context.

As a final thought, I heard it once said the reason for Halo's success was the player (Master Chief) is fighting to save his entire race from extinction. This is a reasonable context for violence but sadly many AAA games don't really have such a context.

Luis Guimaraes
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For me the "No Russian" level in MW2 is actually one of the few good "games as art" depiction of violence in a game ever. Way better than any made up excuses or BS imposed morality systems in most "RPGs".

The only bad thing was that the linearity of the story never gave you an opportunity to turn the situation around or at least try, even if we'd fail in a meaningful way.

Tristan Mers
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I've found this entire series of articles interesting, and I agree that there is a major problem with our industry. That being said, I feel that a large part of it is a matter of perception, and a lack of a long-term view. We talk so much about the focus on violence in games. It's something that's been an issue for as long as there have been video games. We talk about its effect on children, on how it changes their perceptions as young adults. What I find interesting, amid all this talk of sex and violence being all the industry has to offer is the numbers. Take a moment, like I did, and look up total sales figures. In my case I went over to VGChartz and took a look at the top titles that have sold more then 1 million units. the majority of this list. is made up of games that don't focus on realistic violence and sex. Look at titles that have sold at least 5 million. It's the same story, only a quarter of the list. Move that sales number up to 10 million, and there's only 10 games on the list.

While it very true that this industry has a lot of growing up to do. We truly need to stop acting like college freshmen, and start acting like professionals. We need to bring realistic, believable women, minorities, and people of all orientations into our games, and we need to stop copying all of the worst that hollywood has to offer. At the same time. We need to make money. That's what we're all really doing. We make games because we love them yes, but we also have to pay bills, raise children, and live like everyone else. Taking a moment to look at the kinds of games that really sell. Not just this season, but year, after year, after year. They're not the Call of Duty's, or the Grand Theft Auto's, they're games that any and everyone can love. I just wanted to throw that out there.

Mikhail Mukin
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Violence, half nude female characters, hulk looking main heroes etc... IMHO - it is not a matter of what game industry want to do... it is a matter of what it CAN do. How do you make a person attractive? You make him/her look good, sound good, but you must also make him/mer behave smart/be smart. We can sort of make them look good - but our current tech does not allow yet to make any believable behaviors... Even simple conversation has to be pre-scripted with some kind of dialog tree (which usually has only basic forms of logic), every movement has to be pre-animated.

You want to add simple "character gets progressively more annoyed when user jumps right in front of him over and over" - add a coupe of weeks to the gameplay programmer schedule... and who knows how much time for VO... Want to be able to pick up objects from somewhat different heights - maybe a month+ for animation guy(s)...

And detecting a ray cast against a hierarchy of capsules to check for a body part shot is possible and doable... but even things like that will eat a good chunk of those 33 msecs, and you don't have much time for anything else. So some forms of basic, "not very smart" combat is just all we can do.

Even worse, that combat and all those obligatory leaderboards and TCRs etc is what any game MUST do... And anything about character behaviors - even if it is on original schedule... it will be most likely cut to make the deadlines.

And the girls are half naked not only because games industry is at a level of 14 years old boy... but also because making actual cloth that look good is expensive... and all the collision/penetration issues with different costumes... and you want more then 4 characters in the view and not kill your animations/physics msecs budget...

And to add to all that - as of now, the game's industry did not solve even basic problems - basic rendering, tool chain, scripting support - all that most AAA devs have to write themselves... I hoped by the next installment of consoles Sony/MS would do something... but oh well :( More realistically behaving characters - no time for them! Can ship a game with good looking but dumb characters, but can't ship the game with some rare disconnection handling - it is a TRC violation...

There was an episode (I think star trek Voyager?) where they were programming characters on their holodeck... One day game industry will be a bit closer to that level... But by that time not a lot of people would probably remember what C++ or L2 cache miss are :)

Ian Welsh
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Doritogate and the Mass Effect ending controversy are the same controversy in different clothes: ME got massively positive reviews and none of the initial reviews noticed the flaws with the game that so many gamers hated. Even if you liked the game, pointing out its issues is what Reviewers are supposed to do.

It has gotten so bad that I regularly, now, wait for user reviews before buying most games. I don't trust game reviewers. At best they are clearly subject to group think, at worst many of them are bought. And don't think I don't understand the power that those who pay the bills have, I've been managing editor of a political webiste with more traffic than most game sites.

Ian Welsh
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Anthony,

it is well understood by those who study narrative that if you screw up the ending the entire story is ruined for many people. This is not controversial, it is not something which is a new observation. A "professional" who does not take this into account does not understand his or her own business. The ME trilogy was a game which, for many players, was made great because of the story. Screwing up the part of the game which is most important to many players is going to cause massive complaints, which it did.

The ending was also not the only problem with the game.

This has nothing to do with being an "adult". It has to do with being a competent professional who understand how stories, which are an important part of some games, work.

So, the question becomes "did they not understand the consequences of a messed up ending or did they understand not put it in?"

Neither answer speaks well of them.

Julian Gosiengfiao
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I wish there was a simple "like" button for those moments when you like articles but don't have much to contribute.

The controversies strike a chord with me for how far we've come - even though they tell us how very far we have to go.

wes bogdan
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Well if we always... cough.....cod,halo,gears...do what we've always done we'll always get what we've always got.

I prefer humor and story with great gameplay over waiding hip deep in entrails laughing all the way.

Were'nt we supposed to have ditched the pre pubesent boy steriotype long agao.....and yet seem to always go back to the lowest common denominator.

No ammount of mass effect,uncharted,lbp,ratchet,zelda or mario will change peoples minds when shooters are wht's always pushed hardest just areana's,death,gore and 12 tear olds pawning other players due to ammount of play time vs a working adult with or without kids.

It's up to the industry to do better and put the best foot forward not just easy money drive it into the ground like music games then scramble to beat the next cash cow to death....we can and should be doing better.

Luis Guimaraes
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Mass Effect and Uncharted are both shooters...

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Mike Jenkins
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"We don't need always to be reverent; nobody wants to live with their finger constantly hovering over the "I'm offended" button."

This is definitely untrue. It is clear that many get off on the attention they receive by mashing that button. Others have made a living mashing it. It's played so often in the US that I'm finding little more tiring than false righteous indignation.

C B
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Why is it that Steam Greenlight gets so much crap? There is literally nothing wrong with the way it works - you want to see a game on Steam, upvote it. That's it. It isn't a controversy. It's how voting works. The only reason it became a "controversy" is because people are getting upset that their games aren't getting upvoted. It has nothing to do with a lack of exposure for creative games or whatever. If you want to release a creative game without having the challenge of, you know -- PROMOTING IT YOURSELF -- then go ahead and make a personal website for it. Greenlight does its job - it gauges interest in games and then puts them on Steam. What is so hard to understand about that? Why has it been mentioned in more than one article? What is the difference between Greenlight and being able to thumbs-up a YouTube video? If you want to blame something, blame mediocre and sub-par games.


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