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Author Topic: Should games always try to stay away from "controversial themes"?  (Read 2079 times)
MagnoliaFan
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« on: February 16, 2016, 11:18:43 AM »

Ahoy!
Well, I was reading something at gamasutra about Shakespeare and violence, and it was an interesting read but at some point the author said something about using "those controversial themes as dramatic themes" for the games.

At that point I was like "in a medium where there's A LOT of games about killing, how come someone is saying violence (more specifically, violence related to killing) is controversial?" but then it reminded me of something that I had been thinking about some time ago. A lot of people speak about how games should be more "open" to other subjects, so the medium "can grow up" but at the same time, if someone comes up with a "risky" idea or theme, it's all about how we shouldn't be making games about "that."

So, why do you think that is? Is it because devs supposedly "can't handle" certain themes? And if they can't, should they stay away from such themes, or should they try anyway and hope they don't fail?
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blindskystudios
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« Reply #1 on: February 16, 2016, 11:33:54 PM »

The way killing is treated in a lot of games is interesting in of itself - games like mortal kombat are still causing controversy today, along with grand theft auto and alike. Whereas violence is treated very differently and hardly gets a mention if you're playing as the American hero. You've also got Nathan Drake, so boyish and loveable you forget he's been mass murdering his way across the continent!

But you'll see a lot of controversy around games like gone home, not for its content but for its lack of content I guess. People stumped asking 'how do I win?' 'when do I get the gun?'

Gone home even went as far as to play on people's expectations of the genre to essentially troll it's players! (disclaimer - I really enjoyed gone home)

I think the trouble is - it's difficult to gameify serous and controversial topics without making light of them. A struggle with mental health becomes a 'sanity meter' or you might find something like 'mash X to escape rape'.

But as we've seen from games like gone home, the act of altering or stripping back what players come to expect from a game causes enough controversy to eclipse the majority of the games actual content.

Regards of all that, specifically aiming to be controversial is just as silly as censoring yourself. If you're telling an honest story and telling it well through an interactive medium, controversy won't be a problem.

That's just my rambling thoughts vaguely linking to what you brought up - nothing I say should be taken too seriously! 

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Prinsessa
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« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2016, 12:27:10 AM »

What blindsky said. If the "controversy" is merely gamers being too comfy with their shooters to play anything innovative, so what? There will still be games for the "traditional" players either way, but there might not be games (at least, proportionally enough games) for others if we do not do not promote and work on more innovation. That's a disappointing selection. Litterature and movies don't have this problem, so why should games?

We do indeed hinder the development of the medium if we allow ourselves to be limited by this, and we need more games that dare do interesting and new things to help push each other. The more, the merrier.

But if the controversy comes from thing like the those blindsky exemplified, then it simply is thoughtless and/or tasteless. There is good controversy (like criticising a flawed system) and there is bad controversy (kicking those who are already lying down).

I'd much rather see developers tackling a heavy subject and failing than seeing yet another game where the main character is praised and unquestioned for murdering everyone in their way. The way some games have gone, punishing the character for this behaviour, and/or rewarding the opposite, is an interesting twist and good criticism of the normalisation of the trope, but honestly I'm more interested in seeing games that simply drop the whole deal/mechanic, working against it instead by simply creating something different that shows that that works too. Certain games have shown that this can make for an great experience. Much more of that, please.

I dare seldom even answer with my thoughts on things like this because even suggesting these things tend to be "controversial" for a lot of gamers and players alike, but there you have it.
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blindskystudios
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« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2016, 02:01:51 AM »


Yes, most definitely! I feel that for a developer things like weather or not you're being controversial shouldn't be a factor. I think you should tell the story you want to tell as honestly as you can, let the narrative and gameplay weave together. The way things seem to be now freedom of expression is high and there's a plethora of games exploring a broad range of interesting and forward thinking themes. There will all ways be 'Shoot the thing III' but it's easy enough to avoid those games on a personal level.

Since controversy is essentially impossible to quantify it's potentially aimless to actively try to be controversial - it's those instances that can sometimes come off as contrived - shock for shocks sake. I feel that acting honestly and staying true to the game you want to make is the key factor - the resulting game may be read as controversial to one person and benign to another. Games are relatively young when compared to things like books and film, they've had plenty of time to push the barriers wide, it's a shame that those same barriers can't just be applied to games too...

Taking your audience into account is super important, but fear of hypothetical players Taking offense should not get in your way! You can't please everyone, usually playing safe is playing dull!

I can think of many times when games have brought me to tears, or caused me to laugh out loud, or enlightened my view point on life. I can't remember a time when I've been shocked by a game...  But I'm most likely taking a far too binary approach to controversy!

(side note -  I'm developing my opinion on this subject as I write about it. I'm not trying to make any solid statements - this stuff is just fun to think about)

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Prinsessa
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« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2016, 02:04:32 AM »

I agree with virtually all of that. c:
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ProgramGamer
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« Reply #5 on: February 17, 2016, 02:18:46 AM »

Here's the thing, controversy is pretty badly defined. Both homosexuality and abortions have been labelled as controversial in the past, so it's not like being "controversial" is quantifiably good or bad. However, it is my opinion that you should not remove something from your game on the basis that "someone might be upset by this". Do what you want to do, and do it with honesty.

Basically a tl;dr of what blindskystudios said.

Edit: As stated bellow, don't add stuff in there just to create that kind of reaction either.
« Last Edit: February 17, 2016, 03:05:40 AM by ProgramGamer » Logged

Prinsessa
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« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2016, 02:35:03 AM »

However, it is my opinion that you should not remove something from your game on the basis that "someone might be upset by this". Do what you want to do, and do it with honesty.
Indeed, but that also goes the other way around, which has already been mentioned: don't add something to your game on the basis that someone might be upset by it either, just to be an dank edgelord. That's just immature and silly. And if what you've added is something that you should know well not to do, then go ahead if you wish, but don't expect not to be criticised for it, basically (if you make a seriously homophobic game, for example).
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ProgramGamer
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« Reply #7 on: February 17, 2016, 03:04:46 AM »

Oh, yes, that would be true as well. I didn't think of that particular case when writing my post, so thanks for mentioning it!
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MagnoliaFan
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« Reply #8 on: February 17, 2016, 03:10:03 PM »

I agree that going after controversy for the sake of doing it is a bad idea that never makes a good product (some people said Hatred was a bad game regardless; I didn't play it), and devs should be free to do whatever they want, even if it's not a story-driven game. I mean, you have popcorn movies, so popcorn games should not be a problem.

I'd much rather see developers tackling a heavy subject and failing than seeing yet another game where the main character is praised and unquestioned for murdering everyone in their way.

Same here. I do get why sometimes you'd like to play safe, though: money.
It's a completely different subject, but for smaller unknown companies it may be difficult to come up with the risky project since their studio depends on the sales of that project. Blindskystudios mentioned Gone Home. It tried to do different and it did well, but I wonder had the game been made by unknown devs, would have it done well?

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Peace Soft
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« Reply #9 on: March 15, 2016, 06:28:13 PM »

I've been thinking a lot about this lately.

Bioshock: Infinite got a lot of criticism for its shallow and equivocal depiction of racism and classism, and I think that was deserved. Familiar game structures often aren't very good at all at representing complex real world problems. "It's a game about poverty, where you can randomly find piles of money in trash cans," someone observed.

On the other hand, I'm kind of glad they tried, even if they didn't do a very good job? An AAA game that started with a pretty accurate depiction of how racism undermines America's idealized self-image came out, and the world didn't end, and it was even a success, and if anything it was criticized for not taking ENOUGH of a stand. So maybe that makes it a little easier for the next person who has something serious to say in a game?

Story-oriented games don't have the same problem with mechanics clashing against narrative usually, and I thought Gone Home and recently We Know The Devil did a great job with touchy real-world problems.

If you're gonna take on something controversial though it probably behooves you to do some research and talk to some people, unless it's so much a part of your own life that you can speak authoritatively on it. Everyone's entitled to their opinion but you don't want to be irresponsibly stupid about something that has real consequences for real people.
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« Reply #10 on: May 06, 2016, 08:23:48 AM »

I figure if you're going to take on a controversial theme, you better understand the subject mater from multiple perspectives and in ways that aren't commonly considered.

I think it really helps to actually have something to say to avoid your work being perceived as trivial or shallow, or perverse.
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JWK5
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« Reply #11 on: May 08, 2016, 12:53:27 PM »

It's been my observation that those aiming for controversial games usually end up making something more offensive and insensitive than anything. For those who happen to make a game that wound up controversial, it rarely seems that controversy was the overall goal.

You have to decide whether or not you feel what you have to say is actually worth saying, and if so then controversy doesn't matter. You either feel it needs to be said or you don't. Beyond that, you need to figure out how you intend to say it. This is where learning a bit about the people you are saying it to can help (and whether or not they are actually the ones to be saying it to). Figure out where what you have to offer will make the most impact (i.e. be best received), that is where you will generate the strongest backing and help give your work a chance to survive against the battery of naysayers (if any).

I am not saying "preach to the choir", just don't let it fall on deaf ears either. Know your message, learn your audience.
« Last Edit: May 08, 2016, 12:58:44 PM by JWK5 » Logged
absolute8
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« Reply #12 on: May 26, 2016, 03:25:26 PM »

You know what the real problem is, people are too stuck on the heroic excuse for violence. On the other hand, if the gameplay does push the envelope, like in the case of GTA, the tone is lightened into a satire or cartoonish level of violence.

When do we get to play a truly immoral character? Even "Hatred" is essentially a mindless arcade shooter with some gratuitous over the top violence scattered about. Yeah, the guy is a psycho that hates everyone, but why?

The way I see it, we're either cast as a hero or a psychopath. Where's the rest of the gray area?

When do I get to play as the cheating husband out for petty indulgences or the scorned CIA agent trying to sell stolen kidneys on the black market?

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voidSkipper
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« Reply #13 on: May 26, 2016, 08:13:33 PM »

Games run into issues by definition when trying to tackle certain subjects. If you're trying to portray something horrible, for example, being able to "beat" the situation the player is in completely sidesteps the horrible thing, either cheapening it or simply leaving the story with nowhere to go. So, the only option is to take control away from the player, at which point it's not a controversial game, it's a game with controversial cutscenes.

There are some examples of this being done well. For example, the [spoiler]mission in COD:MW where you die in a nuclear explosion[/spoiler] was quite excellent, because it caught the player off-guard. However, in, for example F.E.A.R., after a few levels you got to the point where you were thinking "oh, inevitable spooky stuff is happening again, let's just wait 'till it's finished." even the [spoiler]rape scene later in the series[/spoiler] was not particularly compelling.  

The main issue is, most "controversial" subject matter really sucks for the people involved. Whether it's poverty, rape, or persecution, if you're going to make the player one of those people, the game isn't going to be fun. If you try to make the game fun despite the player being in a shitty situation, you're going to trivialise that situation and upset people who are in that situation in real life. You're poor but you can break jars to get money. You're persecuted but you can single-handedly kill an entire lynch mob.

The "Mash X to escape rape" quip earlier in the thread is not terribly hyperbolic at all. If the character is getting raped, there's no way to retain the things that make a game a game without doing the subject matter a disservice. And there's no way to portray the subject matter without doing the concept of a "game" a disservice.

Of course, you can always put /other/ characters in the game in the bad situation, but then you've got the issue once again that the player is either powerless to solve it, or is able to solve it and in doing so trivialises the issue. And in the first case, you have to somehow avoid being voyeuristic.

I personally feel that this oft-repeated mantra about games needing to "grow up and tackle mature subject matter" is a bit of a red herring. Why is the ability to depict controversial social matters the measure of the maturity of a medium? It seems very arbitrary to me.

In the end, any game which does a good job of this is probably going to be a mixed-media affair. Recent MGS games, arguably, do quite a good job of raising some controversial issues in thought provoking ways but, once again, the majority of the actual discussion happens during non-interactive cutscenes. Even an attempt to combine the exposition with gameplay elements was met with much backlash.

Of course, there are people (myself included) who consider visual novels "games", so it somewhat depends on how far you're willing to stretch your definition, I guess...
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absolute8
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« Reply #14 on: May 27, 2016, 05:10:00 AM »

What about controversial dynamics and gameplay? We shouldn't be so reliant on supplemental factors such as cutscenes and dialogue. I want to see a controversial game that is nothing but geometry, logic and suggestion.
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voidSkipper
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« Reply #15 on: May 28, 2016, 09:14:11 AM »

How exactly would you do that?
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« Reply #16 on: May 28, 2016, 11:21:14 AM »

No, that's like the video game version of catering to PC culture.

I'm not saying everyone needs to make games about playing as a modern day Hitler enforcing mandatory abortions on the bottom 10%, with blackface/bignose/chinkeyes vignettes in between levels, but if nothing else the time is ripe for anything goes.  Current tools make it easier than ever to bring ideas to the computer screen.
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absolute8
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« Reply #17 on: May 31, 2016, 01:22:11 PM »

How exactly would you do that?

Oh it can be done, dude. It can be done.
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Peace Soft
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« Reply #18 on: May 31, 2016, 06:41:32 PM »

I personally feel that this oft-repeated mantra about games needing to "grow up and tackle mature subject matter" is a bit of a red herring. Why is the ability to depict controversial social matters the measure of the maturity of a medium? It seems very arbitrary to me.

I think it's the ability to portray the full range of human existence that measures the maturity of an artistic medium. Controversial stuff-- meaning, i guess, things that are real and complicated enough that people have intense feelings and thoughts about them-- can be a good signpost of that. Sometimes, not always, Duke Nukem Forever, etc

And you're right it is hard to translate a lot of these things into game language without trivializing them. On the other hand you look at Papers Please or that food cart game and they're using interactivity and simple, transparent math to illuminate real life problems. their mechanics quietly push the player to act in ways they couldn't rationalize or understand before, and that's really cool. I'm working on a game now where maybe you find yourself shoplifting, trespassing, or doing other petty crimes for purely game mechanical reasons, and it's the same idea, trying to get the player to see the push and pull of money&survival behind these things
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absolute8
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« Reply #19 on: June 02, 2016, 07:37:18 AM »

. I'm working on a game now where maybe you find yourself shoplifting, trespassing, or doing other petty crimes for purely game mechanical reasons, and it's the same idea, trying to get the player to see the push and pull of money&survival behind these things

I want to shoplift! Devlog plz!
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