Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Offence is in the Eye of the Beholder

Modern Warfare 2 is probably going to be in the news this week over a leaked scene from the upcoming Infinity Ward game's opening act that involves some things that may offend some viewers.  First off I don't want to spoil the game, for that you can read this article and watch the video and I've got to give credit to @rockbandaide for the link. Let's just say it is not any different from the violence already present in games, but who you are playing and who you are performing the violence on is the drama.

And there it is, the key to the whole puzzle behind why IW included the scene in the first place, drama.  In the comments following that article is a litany of complaints primarily focused on how offensive and morally objectionable it is to play that part of the game and not one of these people realizes what they are doing.  They are complaining that a wonderfully immersive story has pulled them so morally and totally into a scene as to make them feel actually guilty, bad, and abhorent for being the character they are playing.  I fail to see how that is a bad thing, given the role you are playing at the time!

This scenaro is akin to a game about WWII putting you in the shoes of an SS soldier tasked with throwing a swtich at a gas chamber or enforcing order at a concentration camp but in doing so crafting the experience in a way that is horrifying to play.  Do you see the power in that story-telling?  The complex moral issues that can be addressed in that space?  We could deride it for being offensive and horrifying but that's exactly what they are trying to do!

Bioshock received acclaims for many things, one of which was it's moral decision in the gameplay and how it vexxed the average gamer.  It made a strong case for the use of interactive fiction as a vehicle to make us experience a disturbing reality, not just watch it on CNN.  I agree that implementing these sorts of gameplay elements should be considered carefully and carry proper gravitas, but I'm afraid mainstream media and consumers may not be able to differentiate a successful implementation from the truly offensive implementation.

This latter would be a game where you are applauded and cheered for performing atrocities in cartoon fashion, making it instead a light-hearted romp.  Wait, that's called Carmageddon isn't it? 

Speaking of which, another deeper layer to this topic can be found by studying the list of banned games on wikipedia.  There you will find the reasons in different nations for banning various video games and the reasons are often enlightening.  Consider who you are specifically playing as in the MW2 leaked gameplay and assume you are an American consumer watching this sensationalised on FOX NEWS, and then compare it to this paraphrased summary of international censorship.

Several banned for "smearing the image of China and the Chinese army", and/or for portraying Tibet, Sinkiang, and Manchuria as independent countries and Taiwan as under Japanese control.
Multiple banned because of Nazi references
Banned (until altered) one game for having a weapon with the same title as the atomic bomb used on Japan near the end of WWII.
Banned one game for Mexican Rebels being antagonists and stereotyping the city of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez.
Saudi Arabia
Banned (Pokemon card game) for "promoting Zionism and gambling".
South Korea
Used to ban any game with a fictional North/South Korean war.
United Arab Emirates
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (MW2's precursor) is banned because in some cutscenes the player shoots Islamic soldiers.

Woah wait, what?  It turns out the first iteration of this game was banned from a middle eastern country for a reason shockingly close to the one that may incite American media.  Okay, I'll give you that there are some key differences beyond the nationality of the victims, but ultimately I contend that the main reason western media may renounce the scene is for the exact same sentiment as all these countries: an offence against a point of national tenderness.  For Germany and Japan it was WWII and for America it is 9/11.
I guess what I am driving at here is that Offence is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, but unlike beauty, we don't jump at the chance to experience it.  And rightly so, I just hope we don't miss out on the beauty of a rich, mature, interactive experience in the process.

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