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Recently there was a game that made a lot of people mad.

This game was offensive and bad and was removed from Steam Greenlight. It probably deserved it, and it would be nice to see some more actual curation of the service in the future. There are many reasons for the game to be removed, many pertaining to low quality and being a waste of the customer’s time and money, and Valve certainly has the right to prevent anything from appearing on its service that it deems it does not want there. Being offensive, however, is a fairly poor excuse for removal.

The ability of the gaming community to dictate what it finds morally reprehensible has already been discussed. Having something taken away entirely because of hurt feelings and moral outrage, however, opens up a strange moral ambiguity when dealing with any game, or even any other form of art. This is because everything – any piece of media that has ever been created in the entirety of human history – is offensive if you want it to be.

Everything offends someone, and the extent that people act out due to being offended varies wildly from person to person, or even ideology to ideology. Art has been angering people since art has existed, and if enraging people is all it takes to have any piece of art taken out back and shot, then artistic expression would no longer exist.

The issue with using offense as an argument to hide something away is in deciding where to draw the line. Everything will offend someone, so who is it acceptable to offend? If only the loudest voices matter, then it only invites people to whine loudly to make sure things go their way. Do we only block things that are overtly offensive? If we are going to believe that the existence of hatred in a game is truly altering behavior and beliefs, shouldn’t we also be worried about more subtle messages?

Video games have long been accused of using both extreme and subtle means to encourage violence, laziness, exclusion, and anti-social behavior; accusations of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are just the newest additions to the club. Games have had overtly problematic themes since the days of Atari 2600, with Custer’s Revenge instantly springing to mind. Should games be denied based on how offensive they are, or how open they are in their offensive ideals? At what level is something too offensive, or too blatant? There isn’t exactly a sliding scale, where ranking a 2 on ‘blatant homophobia’ can get a game unanimously removed from all vendors to the excited cheers of the gaming audience.

The truth is, if you dig enough, you can condemn any game. The intended message behind any piece of art is only known to the creator, but it is easily misconstrued. Even worse, this message can be declared to be ‘problematic’ and the creator immediately labeled as a bigot. What is truly problematic is creators having to fear their names being tarnished because of some hidden meaning that was found in their game which was never intended.

Is an artist expected to look at his work from every single possible angle?  Should the artist concoct every situation, no matter how unimaginable, that might result in someone being offended?  In the current climate of constant outrage, this is something that artists must do if they wish to avoid being called a bigot; a single oversight is all it takes to be accused.

While the original intent of an artist is nearly meaningless compared to the message the audience takes away, one mistake or unintended blunder is no reason to tar someone with such heavy accusations.   Even a creation with the greatest of intentions may miss something and accidentally offend someone. Is it better to accuse the artist of bigotry, or would it be more productive, both for the artist and for the offended, to take a less extreme approach?  Without a doubt, there are more calm and constructive ways to express that you have been offended that do not involve assuming hatred and malice on the part of the offender.

But surely such a message could never be discovered unfairly. Games should be inclusive and reach out to a wide audience! These filthy games that promote bigoted ideals, both overtly and covertly, are ancient relics of the past that should be buried and forgotten. This is where audience interpretation becomes an issue.  When the true meaning is up in the air, you can see anything that you want to see; thus, everything is offensive if you want it to be.

A game like Kill The Faggot requires no digging to find what is offensive – everything is right there on the surface. It is so blatantly terrible, both in its moral stance and its actual gameplay, that it is indefensible. Nobody will take anything away from this title; even people who actually are homophobic are unlikely to find anything of value within. It is changing no one’s mind about anything.

But make no mistake: even games that are highly praised for their inclusivity and open-mindedness are not immune to the power of deep digging and oversensitivity!

Borderlands is a series that is considered to be one of the most inclusive in gaming today; it is filled with a wide variety of characters of differing backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities. These traits are treated with the respect they deserve; that is, they are hardly addressed at all and merely exist as part of the character of the people who inhabit the Borderlands universe.

And this mask of inclusivity is what makes the misogyny within all the more vile. Everything seems fine and dandy in the Borderlands world until you go digging deeper.  It is a little odd that all of the truly important characters all share a few similar attributes, especially the women.  Women who are quirky or physically unattractive are just used briefly to accomplish a goal and then left behind. Why is it that the only women who are capable of making any real change in the world of Borderlands are all conventionally beautiful?

There are plenty of women in Borderlands who do not fit the description, but it is only the sirens – the beautiful and literally magical women – that everyone fights over and around whom the world essentially revolves.  That’s right, the game implies that women who don’t conform to a certain standard of beauty are relegated to side quest material, useful only for minor plot bumps and gaining experience. Nothing but objects with which to level up.

There’s certainly more gems in there somewhere. See if you can find your own hidden meanings to start a moral outrage over!

Is this the message the developers intended? I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say probably not; however, someone could come to this conclusion and cry that the game committed the most heinous of crimes: hurt feelings. Is this any reason to ban Borderlands or deny its right to exist?  Should we throw stones at the developers and fling accusations of misogyny at them?

Once moral panic and hurt feelings become legitimate excuses to have something removed, art turns into a draining effort of ironing out anything that could be deemed offensive until you are met with the ugly beast of homogeneity. What is the purpose of artistic expression if the expression itself has to pass through pre-approved filters?  If a message is truly offensive and outrageous, then the market can and will shut it down without outside help – go ahead and take a look.  Can you find a single positive thing that has been said about Kill The Faggot?  I certainly can’t.

The true message and the real value of any piece of art, ultimately, will be decided by the audience.

Clint Smith

I'm an ex-carnie who has been gaming and writing since I was a kid. Lately you can find me over-thinking in RPGs or failing my way through a plethora of indie games.