[Controversy over cursing in Warner Bros.' Batman: Arkham City gives Gamasutra news editor Kyle Orland an excuse to speak to a cursing expert -- and to use words like "ass" and "bastard" -- in this goddamn article.
Amidst the glowing reviews
and strong sales
that surrounded last week's release of Batman: Arkham City
, one little issue stuck out for a fair number of players.
Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton referred to the problem succinctly as the game's "weird 'bitch' fixation," arguing the male characters' frequent use of the word to describe female characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn crossed the "fine line between edgy dialogue and forced, angry overkill."
"It comes off like the writers are either misjudging their audience, or possibly aren't comfortable portraying fearsome female characters without having the male characters attempt to belittle them with the world's most famous gendered insult," he wrote.
The reaction to the idea among people I've read and talked with online ran the gamut. For some, that single word was enough to sour their entire experience the entire game, or at least to dissuade them from plans to play it with children present.
For others, the word passed by without note -- just part of the kind of background language they hear in their everyday lives. Others still thought it was ridiculous to even be discussing the use of a mild curse word in a game that already features depictions of torture, murder and general property destruction.
And, as Hamilton noted, it's not just the cursing itself that has been the issue for some, but specifically the repetition of the word "bitch," a word that carries such misogynistic connotations.
Those different reactions highlight how the perception of cursing is highly dependent on the sensitivities and experiences of the specific audience member, according to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts cognitive psychology professor and "Why We Curse" author Timothy Jay.
"I think it's dangerous to make blanket statements about the effect of a medium on people when we all have different sensibilities on these things," Jay told Gamasutra. "It depends on the level of literacy of the person playing the game. For some people they're going to be distracted by it and bothered by it, and other people are going to report that it's really not that notable. Perceptions are going to be variable."
While some curse words, especially the "explicit" ones dealing with sexual and excretory function [i.e. "fuck" and "shit" -- ed.
], have maintained their strong offensive power pretty consistently for hundreds of years, others like "hell" or "goddamn" have gradually lost much of their effect over the years through frequent, everyday use. Jay said he thinks the same process may be happening with the word "bitch" as it has increasingly entered mainstream use through hip hop and rap culture over the past few decades.
"[Bitch] is pretty common," he said. "Even using it as 'I'm gonna eat that sandwich, yeah I'm gonna eat that bitch.' It's used as a punctuation point. ... We went through this with the word 'sucks.' When I was in school, sucks meant cocksucker. Now we've got a whole generation of people growing up with the word meaning 'I don't like it.' The word bitch might go through its fad use now, it might become less powerful and take on different meaning."
Of course, one of the reasons "bitch" stands out so much in Arkham City
is the general lack of other cursing throughout the game (unless you count even milder words like "ass" and "bastard" as curses). A word like "bitch" wouldn't even register as a blip amidst the high-frequency, over-the-top profanity of an M-rated game like Bulletstorm
or House of the Dead: Overkill
. But in a T-rated title set in a classic comic book universe, should players expect even somewhat weakened profanity like this?
"There's really no formal set of rules or policies dictating that specific language will result in a certain rating or content descriptor," the Entertainment Software Rating Board's Eliot Mizrachi told Gamasutra. "Just as with other media like TV and film, there's a contextual element in dialogue that matters in terms of assigning ratings. So it's impossible to say that the presence of a particular term, or a given number of instances of that term, will inevitably produce a certain rating."
That said, Mizrachi notes that the official description for a T rating
includes the possibility of "infrequent use of strong language," and that the rating summary for Arkham City
mentions cursing and includes a "Mild Language" content descriptor.
"So it shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise, particularly given the presence of the other types of content in the game and its overall nature and tone," Mizrachi said. "Besides, it's not uncommon to find [bitch] used in many other products rated for a 13+ audience, including movies and TV shows."
While Mizrachi says cursing alone probably wouldn't raise the rating of a game that already has other potentially objectionable content, salty language can prevent an otherwise squeaky-clean game from getting the family-friendly "E for Everyone" rating that applies to the vast majority of releases.
But this brings up the question of why cursing should factor into a game content rating scheme at all. Are we really protecting anyone when we make it a little bit harder to play a game with a few curse words thrown in?
"In general, nobody's going to learn the word bitch by playing a video game," Jay notes. "They all know what it is, probably by the time they get to elementary school."
And there's even a certain marketing logic to pushing that language barrier. "These media are manufactured to make money," Jay says. "You can bet your boots if people hear that this has bad language in it, that's going to be a method of attraction for a lot of kids. Not so much for their parents, but you know teenagers -- they'll find Grand Theft Auto
, they'll find an R-rated movie, and some kid at somebody's house will have that and then kids will use it and they will be titillated by the adult content. That's the way it's been forever."
The question of whether to include cursing in a game's dialogue is all about context. While a family-friendly Mario
game would sound ridiculous with coarse language of any kind, a hard-bitten game like Gears of War 3
would sound just as ridiculous without it. Batman: Arkham City
runs into problems because, to some extent, it tries to inhabit both worlds -- the game wants to appeal to hero-worshipping kids without coming off as too watered-down for the hero-loving adults those children eventually grew into.
Threading the needle like this isn't impossible, but the brouhaha over Arkham City
's "'bitch' fixation" may prove that gently pushing the language barrier, without breaking all the way through it, may actually represent the worst of both worlds.