‘Political Correctness’ Isn’t Ruining Games — Bad Ideas Are
The idea of “political correctness” isn’t about equality or progress, it’s about fear: fear of embarrassment, fear of backlash — fear of money lost, where business is concerned. And political correctness as a means of self-censorship in order to fight those fears or protect that money has no place in art. In those aspects, IGN’s Colin Moriarty and I agree.
But I have to take issue with a few of the points in his opinion piece, “The Problem With Political Correctness in Video Games,” because too often is the idea of political correctness used as a deterrent against dissent. Moriarty means to support the free expression of ideas in his piece, and he’s right to do so — but the way he goes about it, by vilifying the rights of people to take issue with the messages depicted in video games (inadvertently or otherwise), actually encourages censorship, it doesn’t combat it.
Moriarty points to several games that have offended various groups of people, but I think he misses the point of why these people are offended when he talks about the discussions and arguments on the Internet concerning Smite, Tomb Raider and Six Days at Fallujah. Moriarty argues that those games were and are victims of random outrage from people who like to be outraged. Starting with the premise that “everything offends someone,” he goes on to claim that that outrage causes games to be censored, and to discuss whether “offense” is a good reason to change or alter creative works. He also quotes Ben Franklin and George Orwell to get his point across.
He’s missing a phrase coined by John Adams, though, as long as we’re going by American Founding Fathers and their wisdom. Adams once wrote of the “tyranny of the majority,” a fear he had about democracy (echoed also by Plato, Aristotle and others). That’s the idea that a majority can use its power to marginalize and silence a minority. And backlash against political correctness is a perfect example of that: Moriarty even states, “Don’t let the few ruin things for the many.”
But taking offense is more than just seeing something and getting mad about it. Often when people rail against political correctness, they fail to realize why a person might be upset about that thing — especially when they don’t understand the viewpoint of the person being offended. And it’s important to draw a distinction in the ways that people offend one another, especially in creative works: it’s one thing to offend someone in order to make them think; another to offend them in order to shock them.
But in terms of things like the debacle over Tomb Raider, it’s important to think about why people were offended. That explosion of fervor concerned comments by developers suggesting that Lara Croft’s origin story included her response to her attempted rape, but the issue was never that Crystal Dynamics might be dealing with the subject of rape in a video game — it was how Crystal Dynamics was dealing with the subject.
The trouble isn’t the inclusion of offensive things in creative works when it’s done with a purpose — it’s a problem when those offensive things are included, more or less, accidentally. In the case of Tomb Raider, the trouble with rape in Lara’s backstory is that it suggests that Lara can’t grow into the character she becomes without fighting off sexual abuse. And that’s to say nothing of the idea of Lara being forced to fight off her own rape, which many have pointed out makes the player complicit in the potential failure.
Smite, a MOBA that uses Hindu gods as characters and has been criticized for their depictions in the game, also gets a mention from Moriarty, as does Six Days in Fallujah, a game that depicted the conflict of the Iraq war. In both cases, the sentiment is that “somebody’s bound to get offended,” and, at least in the case of Six Days, now we, the consuming majority, are robbed of a piece of entertainment because of the loud voices of a vocal minority. (How hurt are we, the unoffended, that we’re robbed of the chance to play another military shooter? As our Ross Lincoln likes to say, clearly we are history’s greatest martyrs.)
In the case of Smite, the game features, in particular, the sexualized depiction of the goddess Kali; with Six Days, it was the fact that the game depicted an on-going war with real casualties as a game. In both cases, there’s more than enough reason for a person to be offended, really, and the very least you can do is listen to the reasons those people have for their criticism. And then you can ask yourself, why does Smite need to use religious figures for its characters? Why does Fallujah need to turn an on-going conflict in which many people have been killed into a game?
It’s not that these themes and issues can’t be discussed in video games. There are definitely ways through which games can explore complex and sensitive concepts. The breakdown comes in, however, when developers are dealing with these issues without considering their implications, or considering the viewpoints of the people they may be marginalizing by adding them.
That’s not an issue of political correctness. It’s not a situation in which censorship is necessary. It is a situation in which creators need to think why they’re saying what they’re saying, and whether the thing they’re portraying is worth hurting people, whether they agree or not. Author and games writer Chuck Wendig sums up the point nicely in his blog post, “On The Subject of Being Offensive.”
Political correctness in a case like this is used to sum up any dissent to such messages. It effectively turns the blame for offensive material on the people being offended, and it claims that not only is taking offense incorrect or not warranted, but that bringing it up should be discouraged. Keep your mouth shut and take what you’re given. If it marginalizes you, well — sucks to be you, then. The majority is happy, so your viewpoint isn’t important.
Except that it is important. What are George Orwell and Ben Franklin getting at when they talk about the maintenance of ideas in society, or about making people hear things that challenge them and make them uncomfortable? They’re talking about the ability to voice your dissent and your concern. Moriarty has it backwards: the censorship he’s advocating is against the very people who should be able to speak up when something is wrong. Censoring criticism, as Kate Cox mentions in her response to Moriarty on Kotaku.com, is just as bad as censoring art. I’d argue that it goes beyond that — by demonizing “political correctness” in this case, the comfortable people, those with power, are attempting to marginalize the viewpoints of those who don’t have that power.
The reasons that Tomb Raider, Smite and Six Days in Fallujah are troubling aren’t that they include tough-to-swallow material, it’s that they do a poor job of including it. Including things haphazardly that can and do offend people isn’t something to be applauded or commended; including those things thoughtfully in order to make an important point or to educate people, however, is.
When Moriarty says he wants to be challenged and made uncomfortable, I completely agree with him. But I think he fails to understand that the people who are mad about these things are challenging him and making him uncomfortable, and he’s reacting by saying their voices should be stifled. I want video games that deal with tough themes and viewpoints, that tackle situations that are extreme and maybe even scary — but I want them to deal with those things with brains and heart, not just because they make for good set pieces, dramatic character development, or convenient art or monsters.
And I certainly don’t want to tell anyone that they’re not allowed to discuss troubles they might have with the ways those big, important, tough and challenging issues are being handled. You can’t fight the fear of real or imagined censorship with more censorship; stifling your opponents doesn’t make your message any more right.