Free speech doesn’t mean what it used to here in the United States, but we’ve so far been able to maintain reasonable confidence that at least our choice of entertainment won’t be silenced or penned. Now, however, with Terminator vs. EMA wending its way toward the country’s Supreme Court, everyone who harbors even a smidgen of faithlessness in the process is getting… well, not panicky, but concerned. It is conceivable, despite massive precedent, that videogames will be denied the level of retail protection afforded to most other entertainment media: that the industry will, in essence, be confined high on a shelf behind the counter, naughty bits covered in cardboard, while Maxim magazine and Hostel III titillate below.
The Sounds of Silence
By Matthew Sakey
September 15, 2010
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Ever since the Mortal Kombat hearings the industry has depended on the same basic defense: that games, as speech – indeed, as a legitimate art form – must be protected and must not be censored. Like many other art forms the industry is totally cool with a voluntary ratings system; unlike others, ours includes unambiguous content descriptors explaining exactly what might be objectionable. The rating system varies nation to nation, but in a general sort of way, aside from China, Australia, Germany, Dubai, and Venezuela, the First World can sleep confidently, knowing that videogames enjoy freedom of expression.
There’s nothing free about the expression in videogames, a fact dealt with every day by developers and silently acknowledged throughout the industry. Even I have argued (still rightly, I think), that we should censor ourselves. The Rockstars and Vince Desis of the industry are not, not not not, doing us any favors.
Where, then, is the “freedom of expression?” How do persistent and occasionally shrill warnings from people like myself – advocating liberty with one hand while condemning those who practice it carelessly with the other – contribute in any way to the medium’s capability (or freedom) to produce as their muses guide them, unafraid of backlash or regulation?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – say what you will about liking or disliking, that’s irrelevant here – includes one of the most shocking and brutal rape scenes I’ve ever encountered. I’m talking about both the book and the movie. Each one does it in their own way, but take your pick; both are… man, they’re hard to read/watch. Robert Kirkman’s comic series The Walking Dead made me literally recoil in horror – and remember, this is a person who shrugged off a scooped-out baby – with just a handful of its panels.
So riddle me this: do you think that Monolith would put Cate Archer through a scene similar to the one in which Lisbeth Salander is assaulted? Do you think Dead State is going to include access to a character like Governor Philip? Do you think any infants will be scooped out to act as handy haversacks in any upcoming games? Heavens no. It’s not because games are incapable of presenting such horrors. No, it’s because to flex those particular artistic muscles would doom the medium, and we all know it.
At the risk of overusing sexual violence as a shocking inclusion in “free” expressive art forms, let us not forget Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. I know I will never forget it, much as I may wish I could. A film that features perhaps the eleven-ish most intestine-shredding minutes of my life. And in the movie, what are the results of those moments? An effort at vengeance.
Meanwhile, what’s a videogame’s vengeance story like? “Dragon Age 2 thrusts players into the role of Hawke, a penniless refugee who rises to power to become the single most important character in the world of Dragon Age.” So says Bioware.
Are you freaking kidding me? ‘Hawke?’ Penniless refugee? It couldn’t be more adolescent and clichéd if his/her village was dest- oh wait! It was! This… THIS? From a developer considered among the industry’s best storytellers? This is what our medium’s thematic exploration of vengeance crystallizes into, when cinema dares be as horrifying and unflinching as Irréversible?
Not that it’s really Bioware’s fault. I mean, maybe their writers do think that’s a rich, tumescent storyline (I hope not), but more to the point is that they wouldn’t dare, and I wouldn’t blame them, to tell a truly horrifying story or reflect narratologically on the themes of vengeance in the same way that the Irréversibles of the world do. I prefer to believe – though after the “Hawke (!) the village-avenger” routine such belief can be a real challenge – that it’s less a matter of can’t than, well, can’t.
They can’t because they don’t have freedom of expression. Imagine the outrage if games included some of the stuff I’ve quite adeptly skirted describing here. Imagine the horror, the Official Hearings. Imagine the talk of bannings. As horrific as they were to watch (or read), the scenes in The Walking Dead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Irréversible had a purpose in their context. Such sequences were not included simply to revolt or appall. Whether the amount of graphic portrayal was necessary in the context of their respective storylines I’ll leave to others to decide; the fact is they were in there because their storytellers felt they were part of the weave. So I’m not talking just shock and awe, putting crap that’s shocking into a game just so you can shock people. That’s why the Rockstars and Desis have no place in the medium. It’s the difference between artists and clowns.
I mean the Levines and Avellones and Kodamas and Spectors and Hennigs and Wolpaws and stuff. Would people like that truly feel they were free to go as far as they needed to express the story within them? It’s not a matter of courage but self-preservation. I wouldn’t disparage them for choosing a safer path. I’d do the same myself, and feel not an ounce of shame.
Game developers have never been free.
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