The recent controversies regarding Lionhead’s “cleavage tweet” and a joke poem in Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity accused of being transphobic have reinvigorated an important discussion for the gaming industry.
Do consumers have the right to demand creative changes in games?
One side of the discussion says of course. This is simply consumers expressing their preference to a creator. If the creators of said games wish to sell them then they need to take the desires of the public into account, who have the right to not buy, to criticize and to boycott. Removing that supposedly transphobic joke or that barmaid’s cleavage opens the game to an audience that would be offended by such content – it means the game will reach a wider audience.
The other side says absolutely not. Games are art, and their creators, artists. If an artist produces a painting, a song or a film that you have an issue with, you can hate it and rail against it all you wish, but you have no right to change it. To demand a change to a game in the same way is an imposition on the artist at best and censorship at worst. If you believe games are art then you must allow them the rights of art: ownership by the artist, free of interference. If the content offends you, don’t patronize it, but don’t attempt to change it to your preference.
It would seem that for many people the “Are games art?” question has a different answer depending on the situation. When you want something to change, no; they’re a consumer product but when something you love is being criticized then art is not to be manipulated. Its an easy logic trap to fall into. We all carry our biases in everything but recognizing them is the key to thinking clearly on these issues.
I myself fall mainly into the second camp, there are games I don’t like that I don’t play. There are parts of certain games that I don’t like but I do my best to move on and not let it ruin the overall experience. There are people who I don’t like, so I choose not to support their projects. Am I right about this? Are my views on the issue more correct than others?
Of course not. There’s no objective truth in these arguments and this one is made an even more difficult topic due to the nature of games.
Games, unlike almost any other medium, are incredibly adaptive to change. Yes, gaming media is guilty (myself very much included) of comparing games to movies or books or other kinds of artistic media far too often, but in this case it is applicable. If a movie (Kingsman for example) contains a very blue joke it might get mentioned in reviews, some people might write articles about how awful it is, but there aren’t any demands for change, because that change is impossible. The studio won’t reshoot part of the movie to change that joke – actors are busy. They won’t cut the scene, because prints have already been shipped. Even when the film hits Blu-Ray they likely won’t remove it, in fact the more raunchy stuff will probably be a bonus feature.
It’s the same with music. There’s a lot of music people find objectionable, but no one demands that bands rerecord their music. The people who hate Eminem don’t push him back into the booth and say “do it again but this time no homophobia!”. This is because rerecording music, reshooting scenes of a film or even re-painting (the viewers really would have preferred blue there) are massively time consuming and incredibly expensive. For a time, games were the same. A developer would make a game, a publisher would ship it and that was the game.
But that changed, because of the patch.
Patches meant that games could change in any number of ways. Bugs get fixed, Model 1887 damage and accuracy get reduced (yes I’m still pissed about that); patches mean a bad game can be redeemed, broken games can become functional. Developers won’t say “No, that game-breaking glitch is part of the art of the game” because they care about the gamers, they want them to enjoy their games.
I believe however, that this ability to change and adapt has hurt the argument for games as art. It’s great that developers and publishers listen to the feedback of the gamers, but I imagine it can be difficult to walk the line between improving the experience for the player and succumbing to pressure. Gameplay features are manipulated for better competitive balance, bad translations are edited for localization – even DLC and expansions add to the perception of games as fluid and changing. When you can tweak and change and fix so many other things in a game, content like a suggestive bar sign or bawdy poem don’t feel as sacred. When people complained about weapon balance, they listened, why wouldn’t they listen when they complain about this line, or that character?
Does this mean that because games can be changed that they can’t be art? Of course not, but the fluid nature of games means that rightly or wrongly, people will look at them and demand change. Change in gameplay balance, change in graphical quality and of late, change in the content of the game itself.
I’m not here to say that everyone who tweeted in the last week is right or wrong one way or the other. I’m just trying to understand the mindset of those who believe they can tweet at a developer “change this” and expect a positive answer. Where does the technical end and the artistic begin? Can you define which parts of a game are untouchable as art, and which are simply software?
Ultimately the most important question regarding this issue is “do you think games are art?” and to me it seems that too many people are answering;