There’s a classic quote from Librarian Jo Godwin on the topic of controversy: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” It’s a powerful statement because it refers to the concept of intellectual freedom, and also acknowledges that it is often very difficult to come to any kind of consensus about what constitutes offensive material. A couple weeks ago, some PlayStation 2 titles from Rockstar Games were brought over to the PS4. Bully (2006) and Manhunt (2003) came into being while riding the crest of its company’s Grand Theft Auto wave, and each made an impact of its own. The latter in particular had an effect on me, as it is the first time in my life when I played a video game that actually offended me to the point where I had to put it down.
I’ve played hundreds of violent games before and since, but the specific level of glee it took in showing its kills for no apparent purpose other than titillation really put me off at the time.
Mainstream Media Mayhem
WTF Were They Thinking?
One common way that video games create controversy is when developers either make a boneheaded decision that undermines an otherwise quality game. Case in point, Resident Evil 5 is a really fun installment in the series that looks amazing and features some really outstanding set-pieces. It attracted controversy leading up to its release due to its portrayal of citizens of a fictional Central African country as a crazed mob. Capcom made some changes to appease those concerns (i.e. they made some of the crazed mob white), but ended up leaving in the section which featured villagers throwing spears at the player, which is kind of like putting out a fire by dropping napalm on it.
Hello, It’s 2016
Another way that video games offend people is when they put forth attitudes that are no longer acceptable in modern mainstream society. This type of thing is sadly still pervasive in a lot of video game marketing and advertising, although developers and publishers are starting to change their tune.
In terms of actual games though, the poster child for this idea has to be Duke Nukem Forever. To be fair, if it had come out as-is in around 1999, it probably wouldn’t have been considered half as offensive as it was when it was finally released in 2011. Aside from the fact that the game was lackluster to say the least, its outdated and frankly gross treatment of women came across as a relic from a thankfully bygone era. Some have made half-hearted attempts at rationalizing DNF as ‘satire’, but even if that were true (it’s not, by the way), it serves less as a defense of the game and more as an acknowledgement that its developer and publisher don’t really understand what satire is.
When Offensive = Effective
It takes real skill to be able to unsettle an audience in a way that both serves the immediate story at hand and is able to resonate long after the initial shock wears off. There aren’t very many of those moments in video games that don’t either come across as gimmicky or dumb. One in particular that stands out for me is “No Russian” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.