You do not control the content you wish to consume.
You may kick back, relax with an episode of True Detective and revel in its gritty goodness, but you’re still not seeing everything. By the same token, Grand Theft Auto V sessions can’t be nearly as reprehensible as Rockstar wants them to be. Censorship is alive and well, in many different degrees. Though the media we regularly view, play, and otherwise peruse is generally free from constraints imposed by the powers that be, we’re still on a very short leash – especially gamers.
Videogames and their fans have long been the unfortunate victims of censorship, suffering alterations, redactions, nips and tucks in the name of sanitisation that the populace isn’t always clamoring for. Religious groups, government officials, and even publishers play a role in the sterilisation of art and other expression when it comes to the medium, but for what? How many altered outfits for the sake of “family” or “decency” must we succumb to until a line has been crossed? It’s a thin line between what’s actually required and what’s being done for the sake of false sanitisation, and it’s becoming even blurrier as the days pass.
With modern examples cropping up like clockwork, it’s frustrating as adult gamers to be forced to fit ideals that don’t necessarily line up with our personal beliefs – and even though some of these decisions are made to ensure games reach as wide of an audience as possible, most instances are just trivial, inconsequential alterations that could either have been avoided or done in a less conspicuous manner. Let’s take a look through types of censorship, recent examples, and suggestions for the future – this can’t be a perpetual thorn in the side of our beloved industry forever – especially if we want to be able to label ourselves as “progressive” as we all claim to be.
A Cornucopia of Edits >>
The content repeatedly receiving alterations and cuts varies depending on the circumstances, but violence and “depravity” in games receive most of the neutering. Gratuitous blood, gore, violence, and otherwise reprehensible acts are dealt with accordingly, and in some countries the games are banned outright. Western countries are less apt to completely ban games for violence or bad taste, but are usually quick to pull the trigger when it comes to sexual content or “revealing” outfits. Given the American propensity to be totally backwards when it comes to sex, nudity, or anything that paints the human body in a lewd light, it’s frustrating to see videogames come under fire when film and television push the limits on a daily basis. It’s maddening, but another piece of evidence that games are still very much seen as toys for children in the eyes of those who make the executive decisions for change.
Religious imagery, sexual references, and violence may be repeat offenders when it comes to ratings boards and even publishers, but trivial things such as race and physical appearance have been known to be altered as well, either to change racial representation or to push a certain personality type on a specific character, none of which generally improve the overall experience in any meaningful way. Whether it’s adding shorts instead of a G-string, strategic tentacle placement, or even changing the race of a core cast member entirely, unless the edits are making the narrative, core gameplay, or the product as a whole a more palatable experience, it feels as though we should be respecting the creator’s original artistic vision just a bit more.
The Stick of Tastefulness >>
Surprisingly, sometimes Western gamers end up getting the complete package while other countries’ governments and ratings boards feel the need to button up objectionable content tightly. In the case of Obsidian Entertainment’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, it received a complete release in America, but fell under heavy censorship in Australia and Europe, with Australia taking out a plethora of content that it was decided the general populace simply wasn’t ready for.
One of the scenes in question finds characters Mr. Mackey, Craig, Mr. Slave, and “Douchebag,” the protagonist, having been abducted by aliens. The four are bound to tables while probes that resemble sexual organs are inserted into their anuses. It’s not a delicate kind of scene to be sure, and the narrative marches on without needing to actually see these events transpiring, but much of the appeal of South Park lies with its shock value. It’s not the fact that players want to view this probing, but considering this type of entertainment feeds off of depravity, the game ends up becoming robbed of content that would have otherwise enriched it.
Despite similar content being shown on television as part of the series’ run, these snippets of sexual violence and similarly lewd action were removed entirely, replaced with a facetious image of a crying koala and text that recounts the scene that “isn’t for Australia’s eyes to see.” Talk about adding insult to injury.
While it should come as no surprise that videogames based on one of the most offensive entertainment properties of all time should come under fire, this hotly-anticipated game is a veritable cavalcade of deplorable subject matter, so picking and choosing “borderline” content to omit certainly doesn’t sit well with those who spent their hard-earned cash to purchase a game that is, for all intents and purposes, a shadow of its former self.
Not-So-Bravely Default >>
The exact opposite dilemma arose with Bravely Default, a decidedly traditional JRPG published by Square Enix via Nintendo. It was hotly anticipated as what could be called a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy, though its character designs resembled chibi-styled characters with stoic expressions. Though the ages of the characters in the game did err on the younger side, Bravely Default is not a sexual sort of game, with few moments that emphasize or suggest lewdness, excluding a few playful instances.
While aesthetic alterations such as these aren’t marring gameplay per se, there’s no viable reason for them beyond some sense of false “decency” imparted by the developers and publishers themselves. The offensive content is too silly to even go into detail, but for the sake of readers who aren’t educated on the situation, playable party member Edea Lee’s “Bravo Bikini” outfit was altered to blur out discernible cleavage as well as the risque bikini bottom, which was filled out to resemble a pair of hot pants rather than a cheeky piece of swimwear. Meanwhile, character Agnés' stylish belt outfit a la Lulu of Final Fantasy X fame was changed so that there would no longer be any bits of visible flesh between the belts themselves.
The clothing alterations themselves have no implication on the narrative or its worth as a JRPG itself, but it does go a long way when it comes to making the point that games are inherently toys for children, a reputation Nintendo seems content to wallow in rather than forging a new path and valiantly attempting to open the eyes of its detractors.
When there is a wealth of content (namely, violent and disturbing instances that certainly have no place in a story supposedly being aimed at children), the issue in this case is the fact that Nintendo has become increasingly more liberal with edits and censorship like this. It’s frustrating that when videogames and other media are finally released in the West, it’s only after they’ve been thoroughly scrubbed and made to fit some ridiculous ideal that executives think are much “purer” and “acceptable” than what the creators had in mind. Given the recent furor over Fire Emblem: Awakening’s Tharja being censored with an even more risque edit, it seems these changes are geared only to become more and more common – for no real reason other than the implications that players aren’t mature enough to control the type of content they consume.
Alternative Methods? >>
If censorship to appeal to mass markets and get past stringent regulations isn’t the answer, then what is? It’s a heady topic, but one that merits discussion before everything gets out of hand. It’s abundantly clear at this point that it’s not something completely unavoidable – especially if players around the world are meant to enjoy specific games. It’s obvious that some countries with socially conscious and responsible governments will want some offending content removed, say Germany and traces of Nazi references, or Australia with any sort of obscene violence that isn’t able to pass classification.
The real proponent for change here is choice. Rather than neutering the entire product for all audiences, an optimal solution would be offering offending content at a premium or selling alternate versions, a la the Walmart VHS cuts of movies not deemed suitable for consumption by “families” back in the retailer’s earlier days.
Selling types of passes that would open up or unlock additional content would be a boon both for players and those in the industry, and while at first they might invite the same kind of controversial banter that occurred when online passes and inconsequential DLC made the scene, nearly anything would be a sight better than the system we’ve been forced to succumb to now.
Because in the end, we’ve got to protect these games for what they are and what they stand for – even if it means pushing the envelope when necessary.