Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stand by your nastiness

Konami commences the publishing of a "docu-game", depicting in excruciating detail the events of a real Iraq War battle and the very real veterans that fought and died in them. It's a groundbreaking artistic concept that was sure to acquire some degree controversy as these things tend to do, something Konami itself must have been aware. Unfortunately, Konami would later disgracefully dump it like a hot potato anyway in mid-production the instant said controversy actually came calling, completely stiffing not just the developer, but the many actual Iraq War veterans who worked on the project and just wanted their story told.

Rockstar accidentally leaves naughty bits lying around for some unused sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It's later discovered by "hackers" (or at least what the mainstream media thinks passes for hackers), leading to the "Hot Coffee" scandal and an "outcry"...of politicians, interest groups, and media talking heads looking to cash in. Since Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto are already frequent victims of pols and media making their bones off their notoriety, you'd think they'd actually fight back a little on this one. Apparently not.

You'd have to back ten years for the kicker. In 1999, two students from Columbine High School in Colorado kill thirteen victims in a shooting spree. The media falls all over itself in portraying the murderers as some kind of uber-evil arisen from sinister pop culture items; pop culture items, that is, that were already controversial enough to sell papers/magazines/ratings on their own. The most salacious of them was TIME Magazine, declaring the shooters "THE MONSTERS NEXT DOOR", and their chosen scapegoat was id Software's portfolio of games. "Quake and its ilk...helped desensitize a generation", hissed the magazine (as opposed to real-life violence continually pimped by the news media?), and they even had a Stephen Colbert-style "chart of videogame violence" using the Doomguy's various head portraits as the barometer (next time I'm at the library, I'll see if I can find the issue and scan that chart). All of this baseless conjecture linking id Software's games with the killings was naturally without merit, as a slew of dismissed lawsuits would later prove. So did id Software take TIME Magazine on for that outrageous series of articles? Did they even mention how the magazine themselves devoted a glowing article DOOM just years earlier? ("No gorier than a Sam Peckinpah movie", the magazine then declared) Nope, nothing. id Software simply took it and moved on.

If you notice any pattern from the above paragraphs, it's that game creators have too often a habit of rolling over in the face of creative oppression that is being legitimized as "controversy" or "public concern". The creative oppression of videogames goes back as far as its earliest consumer days, when the mainstream media, lead by 60 Minutes, began a successful crusade to ban the 1976 Exidy game Death Race (yes, this is what passed for "controversial violent videogame" in the 70's). And yet, there's been little pushback from creators and publishers in defense of their own work, then or since. So it was some small consolation when French developer David Cage lectured the industry this week at GDC Europe for not doing just that, more often.

Cage used his 2005 title Fahrenheit to illustrate his position, citing a shower scene that was forcibly censored in some countries (laments Cage: "we had to put a swimsuit on the girl... to take a shower."). At the time, Fahrenheit was already coming on the heels of the Hot Coffee scandal that Rockstar precipitated, and so the censorship pressure then was even more intense than usual. And so Cage drives the point home: Rockstar makes a "stupid game" (and the Hot Coffee mini-game was pretty stupid), then garners bad press, and finally does nothing to defend their own creative decisions, or even just call out the hypocrisy (Cage on the relevance of videogame pornography: "Have you seen the Internet?"). Rockstar's irresponsibility was not Hot Coffee, rather it was not standing up to the gilded lead robe-wearing establishment, which leaves the field that much more messy for when some other creator comes along with legitimate, tasteful nudity. Sure, there's plenty of tactical reasons to just shut up and let the controversy earn its keep; despite getting banned, Death Race still "doubled or quadrupled" the profits of Exidy. But ultimately it does both the industry and the artform a severe disservice to not fight back.

In fighting back, Cage specficially cites the Fox News/Mass Effect conflagration, which is something definitely worth repeating. Last year, Fox News assaults Mass Effect with blatant yellow journalism over scenes with brief nudity, declaring Mass Effect pornography aimed at kids and its home console the "SEXbox". While Microsoft rolls over with a tepid public statement, a guy from Spike TV, Geoff Keighly, rather casually puts Fox News in its place. ("Have you ever played Mass Effect?", asks Keighly. Take a wild guess what the answer was). No doubt emboldened by Keighly, three days later Jeff Brown of EA goes on to give Fox his own backhand slap in the form of a letter that correctly cites the hit piece as "insulting" and notes that the "sex" in Mass Effect is actually less racy than many of Fox's own shows, such as The OC. (Actually, I think even the failed early 90's Fox TV show Herman's Head had more nudity than Mass Effect)

The result was ultimately a massive recant from all involved in the debacle on Fox's end, including a rare apology from the network itself. That's something that not even Fox's natural enemies could do, such as the Obama Administration, whose agenda has been directly and explicitly savaged by the impact of the misinformation the network regularly puts out. It's true that ultimately the confrontation over Mass Effect did not directly benefit its creators, but it did draw at least for the time being a new line in the sand over the creative and artistic rights of game creators. In other words, Fox and the like-minded now know it is in fact possible to get the horns from fucking with the bull. Now if only this sort of thing would happen more often than a blue moon.

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