Over the past month we have had several articles published on things such as disproportionate characters in video games, characters with questionable clothing, photoshopped characters who have been given so-called realistic body shapes, and complaints about sexualization in video games… But is it really such a problem?
In theory, there is. Most of these articles all centralize around what has become commonly known as “political correctness:” the practice of avoiding behavior and words that could potentially cause insult or discrimination towards a particular social group. While this movement originally orbited the realms of race, sexuality, and gender, it has slowly consumed everything from being overweight to accepting just about everything short of murder – as there’s a good enough reason for it.
So what does this have to do with gaming? A lot, actually. As the internet continues to grow, and social practices in the real world (you know, that place on the other side of your front door?) there has been an increasing presence of political correctness directed toward video game designers… and it can get pretty ridiculous sometimes…
I’m going to be upfront about this: I hate political correctness with a passion. I for one dislike it since people have often gone out of the way to make sure they don’t say anything possibly insulting toward me – as I am of mixed race – and it can get pretty tiring. While I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a fan of people insulting me on a regular basis, I can say without regret that it gets exhausting trying to walk on eggshells around people who tend to spontaneously combust if I say the word “black” around African-American people while I’m talking about a coat of paint. Seriously, it’s annoying.
This is not to say that political correctness doesn’t have its upsides. It helps people feel included and helps them feel as though they are part of the community instead of an outsider. The PC movement has also done a lot to push toward equality in the social sphere as many of these movements target the unequal treatment of persons of interest in the workplace and elsewhere. When used correctly, it can be a source for positive social change. However, in the world of video game development it can become a serious problem for writers, developers, and art directors for a number of reasons.
Narration and Immersion may be sacrificed for the sake of political correctness…
Games that particularly come to mind are the Assassin’s Creed franchise or Red Dead Redemption where the games limit interactions with people of African-American or Asian lineages. In fact, in the latter game there are almost no people of color at all, and none of them are part of either the main storyline or side-quests.
While one would expect to see African-Americans in Red Dead Redemption’s setting, the entirety of the game’s cast members are limited to Caucasian or Mexican descent with the only black people being random NPCs
While it is difficult to prove that writers intentionally avoid using these practices for the sake of being politically correct, it stands to reason that it is at least on their minds. However, this desire to avoid conflict with groups of interest can harm the variety in storytelling we can have in video games. I’m not saying that the writers should go out of the way to bring up every single historical politically insensitive insult in the book, but it is harmful to historical accuracy and immersion if we can’t use politically insensitive words and actions in the proper context.
I suppose that there is always the argument that a video game taking place in historical settings does not need to use certain of-era language to be immersive. In fact, the Assassin’s Creed series would be an unintelligable mess without a mass import of subtitles if the directors decided to use of-era pronunciation and language in their games. On top of that, anyone with a basic knowledge of the eras represented by either Red Dead Redemption or Assassin’s Creed should know what the political landscape was like regardless. As a result, their inclusion would seem to be nothing more than an excuse to blurt out racist slang.
I would argue, instead, that while these arguments are true, they don’t warrant their non-inclusion either. If people are – in fact – knowledgeable of the slang and language of the era, then wouldn’t that be more reason to add it? Would it not mean that removing such language for the sake of political correctness is actually insulting to the intelligence of the player? After all, if the player is so enlightened on the subject matter would it not be absurd to become enraged about that which they allegedly know is nothing more than an of-era situation?
All this counter-argument provides is more reason to believe that the PC phenomenon has lost sight of what the true enemy is. In the end, it takes away from the experience, painting a “nicer,” more politically-sensitive world than it actually was, and there is no advantage to this for anybody. After all, if we simply pretend the past didn’t exist, how can we possibly argue for change in the future?
Aside: Oddly enough, Red Dead Redemption did not seem to have any problem using Mexican derogatory language towards Americans or other people of Caucasiand backgrounds. Might be something worth thinking about…
Developers take a hit too…
One of the widest publicized issues of racial insensitivity in video games revolved around the game Resident Evil 5. When the game was released, some cried out that the game was racist for various reasons. Some of these allegations came from a scene where a blonde woman is dragged away, supposedly raped by a black man, or that the Africans presented in the game who are not visibly infected are portrayed as stereotypically violent. However, both of these accusations are weak at best.
Firstly, as clearly evident by the video above (around the 6:20 mark) the woman who is dragged away was not taken away by a black man. In fact, it was a white one. Secondly, even if it was a black man it does not take much time researching to find out that South Africa has some of the consistently highest rates of rape and violence against women in the world. Thirdly, Western Africa – where the game takes place – holds the highest murder rates in the world (beat only by Central and South America) and holds 3 of the top 6 murder counts.
Despite this, many well-known publishers of gaming news were quick to jump on the poor representation of the African peoples in Resident Evil 5. Eurogamer.net’s Dan Whitehead said of the game:
Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory.
Yeah, so the West African “Majini” are represented as extremely violent and in a state of poverty. But guess what? West Africa is an extremely violent and impoverished part of the continent where war is almost a daily occurance! Anyone who does a quick Google search of West Africa can discover this in seconds, so go figure if a game developer uses that setting for a violent video game.
Of course, it could be argued that this is still a misrepresentation of West Africa since it cannot possibly be in this state of turmoil at all times.
In fact, I for one would like to believe that there are periods of peace in West Africa, despite my own cynicism getting in the way. Despite this, should I be confiscated of my evidences I can still come up with one argument: the game is – likewise – a representation of a single period of time in West Africa. This means that it could simply be representative of West Africa during the worst of times. After all, I’m certain that getting infected by any virus from the Resident Evil franchise would be a low point for any country.
To argue against this would border on ignorant naivety. Should political correctness seek to be been seen as an “enlightened” and “better, more civil way of thinking,” it is cases such as this that make me laugh. Why? Because the people are not only lampooning themselves, but also showing how ignorant they are of foreign affairs in general.
It’s an ironic ignorance many seem to completely miss, and one that brings more harm to the cause; as a result, those who fight against racism can quickly gain an image of being extremely ignorant of the real world. That – once again – helps nobody.
And then there’s the art directors…
By far this is one of the worst hit sectors, and it’s usually by social interest groups that target the sexualization and overall presentation of beauty standards of women. This is one of the most extreme sectors as it borders ridiculousness at times. While I certainly cannot speak on behalf of women, I can present some input as to why – in my own opinion – these allegations can get out of hand sometimes, and how they actually can harm the message that they are attempting to present.
The article mentioned at the start of this piece about realistic body shapes talked about a campaign hosted by Bulimia.com: a website that aims to critique society’s concepts of beauty in an attempt to stop the spread of psychological and emotional eating disorders. While their cause is noble, their execution has been somewhat ill-executed due to their diction. Why? Because while they claimed that they were using the body image of the average American woman, their conclusion clearly stated:
The difference between the original video game heroines and their more realistic interpretations is hardly subtle. In these images, unfeasible waistlines expand and arms and legs grow wider. Perhaps the changes are especially noticeable since most of these characters are so scarcely dressed.
This presents the idea that the author had two goals: to present the characters as their interpretation of a “realistic” female body image, and that they believe another issue is the scarcity of clothing. It is in the group’s interests to prevent female gamers – particularly younger ones – from playing such games since it could “develop a skewed image of how the female body should look.”
Firstly, anyone who gets their impressions of how anyone should look based off of animated characters should be institutionalized. I have never been able to accept this argument since one would think that similar argument could be made as to why a male character shouldn’t have skin painted with the ashes of my deceased loved ones, and muscles the size of my head.
I’m looking at you Kratos...
Then there’s the fact that the images they presented as “realistic” undermine people who are actually healthy and have the body image presented in the pictures. If their goal is to stop eating disorders, then presenting women with much larger bodies will cause disorders such as binge eating in order to gain weight. Take the following images as examples:
This is bulimia.com’s Photoshop comparison (left) and a cosplayer (right)
Once again, while bulimia.com’s mission is honorable, their execution is poor. The cosplayer on the right is portraying a picture-perfect image of the character without the use of photoshop, and so to imply that the original image is unrealistic is to claim that the cosplayer’s dimensions are equally unrealistic.
While they are doing something good by trying to stop eating disorders, they might not realize that just because something is the average weight in the United States doesn’t necessarily mean it’s by any means “realistic.” After all, averages are based on the sum of the total BMI of the population divided by the population sample. Considering that 68.6% of the United States’s population is overweight, that is not something we should be supporting.
However, this is one of the least dramatic examples. What causes a serious problem is when people start taking something simple and making it into a big deal. The case and example? Zero Suit Samus in Super Smash Bros. Wii U/3DS.
The above image received a great amount of attention from the gaming community. Kotaku poster Luke Plunkett was quick to weigh in, compiling a bunch of characters wearing the same rocket heels, claiming that the boots would “put her at a competitive disadvantage.” CCC’s Angelo M. D’Argenio even went so far as to claim the rocket boots were “sexist” due to the fact that she could have had a rocket pack or anything other than what he calls “stiletto heels.”
While these seem like a valid claims at first, it actually more damaging to the feminist movement than it is helpful. When people who support equality see such posts, many of them become divided, some of them coming off as misogynistic simply because they do not see the problem with it. Why don’t they see a problem? Because it’s ridiculous. People are arguing about the practicality of space rocket heels in a world where a dinosaur pops out egg bombs, and a baseball bat can launch a talking, spaceship flying fox several kilometers into the air.
I’m pretty sure the last thing in this terrified Charizard’s mind is how those rocket heels in his face sexualize Samus… In fact, I’m pretty sure he looks pretty damn intimidated by Samus’s death glare!
While these examples hardly display developers actively avoiding sexualization for the sake of political correctness, Divinity: Original Sin is a prime candidate for getting attacked for its art design.
In a world where most fantasy games portray female warriors as iron-bikini wearing powerhouses, Divinity: Original Sin was picked out as the lone bullying target in the bunch. The advertisement art for the game (pictured above) was changed from the original midriff-bearing Scarlett on the left, to the fully armored one on the right after numerous complaints were made about the game’s art direction.
According to an interview with Thierry Van Gyseghem, the art direction’s complaints were limited to a small vocal minority until the media caught wind of the game after it launched a Kickstarter campaign. According to Thierry, certain publications who had a more “vigilant political agenda” caused the game to come under heavy scrutiny from their supporters. This scrutiny caused the developers of Divinity: Original Sin to change their game art in an effort to remain in a positive public relations stance.
By definition, censorship is the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts. Since the term is typically applied to governments, media outlets, or other such positions of power it is rarely considered that social media and other consumer groups could possibly result in the censorship of a game. However, Thierry went on record as stating that those who oppose his position that he believes that his game was censored should consider the following analogy:
When you own a pizza place and one day the mob enters your little shack, threatens you by saying if I don’t stop selling pepperoni pizza’s they’ll do anything in their power to make sure you go out of business, then what should we call this? Blackmail? Censorship? Harassment? Extortion? or simply a trade embargo?
In the end the story remains the same, you are forced to rethink your actions and it leaves a shadow hanging over your creations. Every artist deals with criticism differently, I feel that inevitably your next piece will already be affected by it, consciously or unconsciously.
To summarize the full interview, Thierry believes that there are not many legitimate critiques to character design that one can make since they are based upon pure personal preference. The fact that media outlets and social interest groups that stand between the developer and the target consumer can have such a powerful say in game design is – in its own way – a form of censorship.
In my own opinion: video games have character designs based on the world they are set in. Video games revolving around fighting, killing, and other sorts of violence tend to dramatize sexual features since our own imaginations tend to portray strong individuals as attractive. For men this is typically represented by gratuitous amounts of muscle mass and a large crotch bulge, while for women this is usually presented through an overzealous bust, firm rear-end, and a broken back. Similarly, games focused on more realistic or plot-oriented settings tend to have more realistic characters, albeit most of them having Hollywood-styled good looks.
What I’m trying to say here is that this is a symptom of the particular genres, not of the gaming culture as a whole. To limit these over-the-top dramatizations of body images is to limit artistic impressions of the human physique. It doesn’t help women – or men – suffering from weight or eating disorders, and it doesn’t help the hard laborers in art development for video games either.
So what would you suggest, RR-sama?
At the risk of sounding callous… maybe try just getting over yourself?
I know that sounds harsh, and many people will hate me for it. The problem – as previously stated – seems to be mostly in the United States, a country that suffers from a serious case of Social Media Madness (or as I like to call SMM).
In North American culture we have reached a level of self-obsession, self-importance, and -oddly enough- self-loathing that it borders the level of a psychosis. We constantly seek approval from absolutely everybody, and when we do not receive said approval we lash out. This also happens when we don’t get something we want, and the resulting feedback can take many forms, many people quick to claim some sort of unfair prejudice was placed against them before considering any other possibilities.
It’s a sort of entitlement that belittles the true enemies of equality, and oppresses people who simply believe that things might not be nearly as bad as people make them out to be.
Seriously guys… your inner Joffery is showing…
We shouldn’t be allowing this to affect the realm of storytelling and game design. It limits the scope of experiences we can have, and video games – like other art forms – should be the last bastion of the human imagination where developers can tell the stories they want to tell, and in the way they want to.
By imposing ridiculous levels of scrutiny for the sake of making sure we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings we are just fostering a culture of irresponsible people who don’t want to simply accept that maybe things aren’t just sunshine and rainbows. In any case, we should all be able to understand – as thinking individuals – that it is called a “virtual world” for a reason.
But hey, maybe I’m just blowing hot air…
What do you guys think about the landscape of political correctness in video games? Do you think it has gone too far, or maybe not far enough? Do you think people should have a say in how developers decide to make their games? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!