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Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Angry Jedi » Fri Aug 15, 2014 8:02 am

Question for you, Squaddies:

In your opinion, is depicting something "offensive" (or counter to your own values) itself inherently offensive?

I say this in the context of a conversation I "overheard" on Twitter earlier between someone I follow and Brittany "Hatsuu" Avery from Xseed Games, whom I also follow. For those who don't know Xseed well, they're a localisation company who specialise in bringing niche Japanese titles to the West -- previously, they've localised risky titles like Corpse Party and Senran Kagura as well as Falcom's RPGs Ys and Trails in the Sky. Hatsuu is one of their most vocal team members on Twitter, often providing valuable, fascinating insight into the localisation process as well as an admirable amount of genuine, infectious enthusiasm for what she does -- the sort of thing you rarely see from larger developers and publishers.

Anyway. Xseed's most recent release -- not sure if it's actually out yet, but review copies have certainly been doing the rounds -- is a title called Akiba's Trip. This is an action RPG in which you beat up vampires by ripping off their clothes to expose them to sunlight. (I'll add here that there are both male and female vampires involved -- that isn't the "offensive" stuff I want to talk about.) Part of the game's core appeal, aside from the ridiculous clothes-ripping vampire pummelling, is the fact it unfolds in a realistic depiction of Tokyo's notorious Akihabara district -- former "electric town", now home of "moe" culture, and the place to be if you want anime and manga goodies -- featuring well over a hundred in-game shops that can be found in the real world.

As part of the game's depiction of otaku and general geek culture, there's a Twitter-like messaging service in the game called Pitter, in which in-game characters exchange various messages and talk to one another. One character seen on this service, known as Misery, is seemingly a a male presenting as female, in this case in a rather exaggerated manner, pointing out that they're a girl at every possible opportunity -- and is addressed as a "trap" by another character at one point.

"Trap" is a term sometimes used in anime culture to describe a male character who is so convincingly feminine as to pass as a woman, the implication being that if you're a heterosexual dude and find yourself attracted to or aroused by them then you have fallen into the "trap". Bridget from Guilty Gear is probably the most well-known example of a "trap" in popular culture. (I believe the origins of the term in this context are, in fact, from 4chan, unsurprisingly, though the only citation I can find for this is Know Your Meme, and consequently should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.)

"Trap" can, however, also be used as an outright transphobic slur, and it's this latter context that the game uses as another character is less than kind towards Misery. This is an accurate reflection of both the original Japanese text, and the mean-spirited way in which some people address one another on the Internet.

My question, then, is whether you think it's okay to do this: in other words, is it in itself offensive to present something offensive, regardless of context or intention?

Don't get too hung up on Akiba's Trip; this is just one example. For another, ponder this Eurogamer piece from a while back, in which Rab Florence describes the Yakuza series as "full of casual sexism and misogyny". Also contemplate games that deal with subjects considered "touchy" -- violence against women, rape, abuse of children, slavery, whatever you like, really.

Discuss! (Nicely!)
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Alex Connolly » Fri Aug 15, 2014 8:32 am

I think it comes down to an informed and literate audience, which means - sadly - we're pushing shit uphill as the medium and its expectations are confounded again and again by conservative opinions; opinions fueled by that force-fed idealism for games to reach the plateau of cultural legitimacy and high art.

Unfortunately, the outrage - an attempt to level the playing field and bevel sharp edges - seems to undermine the opportunity to investigate and explore offensive things in games. Movies have no issue with this, or theater or books or art or music. But the struggle of the toy continues and as long as the intelligentsia of gaming keep playing the role of the Watchdog, we'll never really see anything hugely subversive.

That said, games have to share some culpability here. For the most part thus far, they have been wonky delivery vehicles for analysis of shock or taboo - outside of ultra-niche genres and markets. Time will heal this deficit, but it's all a bit blunt force trauma until then.

Violence seems quite happy to exist as some sort of acceptable byproduct of gameplay binary. You are alive or you are dead. Everything that happens in between is a means to an end. Sex? Well, if BioWare are leading the charge in the mainstream, God help us with their frankly awful rooting mannequins.

But then, I can't remember the last time I cared too much about games being a delivery system for taboo or offensive concept analysis. Their inherent gaminess always makes me feel my time is being undermined, and would rather read a book or watch a film on the topic at hand. My agency is always meaningless in games, as much as I'd like to think the contrary, and thus don't feel like the medium is - at least, at this stage - productive for laying bare the more offensive issues.

For the meaninglessness of film, the paradox of its passivity makes me feel it is a better tool in the exploration of uneasy subjects. The conduit between artist and audience is as pure as it gets, not infiltrated by mechanics or choice or anything that dilutes the consumption of the piece.

Maybe I'm as inflexible and conservative as those Twitter stooges, railing and hashtagging. I don't know. Maybe I'm not playing the right games. All I know is, the peanut gallery of mainstream gaming do themselves a disservice in their vilification, as noble as it may seem.

Otherwise, gaming will become a thin, lukewarm gruel that everyone can bathe in, but won't necessarily want to drink.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Angry Jedi » Fri Aug 15, 2014 8:38 am

I'll start by providing Hatsuu's explanation for the Misery dialogue in Akiba's Trip, from Twitter:

Hatsuu wrote:Keep in mind Pitter's meant to reflect the things you see on the internet, nice or not. Eriko [the character who dishes out the "trap" slur] in general's pretty hateful. It's more like 2ch/4chan. You're definitely going to find insults and generally offensive stuff meant to reflect the culture. It's pretty accurate to the Japanese as well, in that they're using internet slang and transphobia and all that.

As the person who wrote all the Pitter dialogue, I don't want people to feel I wrote it with the intention of alienating anyone, but because I wanted to get across the exact feel one would get from browsing that kind of forum, good and bad. Still, I'm sorry if it bothers you! This was never my intention, & I want to forewarn you Pitter keeps it going on occasion. Not mentioning it at all in English might keep it from ruffling up a few feathers, but that doesn't change the fact that it's there, plus we have the Japanese text in there to begin with. It's not reflective of our personal opinions. In general, this game will push a lot of buttons for some things and make people laugh with others.

Either way, I hope you'll take it as a localization decision, just like how we always choose to never tone down things like positive reflections of LGBT when it's in our games too.


Here's how I feel.

Writers and creators shouldn't be constrained. My personal opinion on the matter is that, so long as the work in question isn't directly inciting hatred towards a particular group of people -- particularly a marginalised group of people -- then we should feel confident in and happy about games being able to tackle difficult issues and, at times, present a no-nonsense representation of what really goes on.

Let's take Yakuza for a moment. Yakuza is full of casual sexism and misogyny, as Florence said in the Eurogamer piece I linked above, but this doesn't make the game itself sexist and misogynist, as he implied. Rather, it makes it an accurate depiction of the culture it's attempting to present: real-world Japan. Japan is an institutionally sexist culture, and Japan does have some backwards attitudes towards women: the game is simply presenting these things as they are, then allowing players to make their own mind up how they feel about them. At the same time, the game also presents some examples of women who successfully buck the trend and break out of that culture: Sayama from Yakuza 2 is a good example, as are Yumi and Reina from the first game -- and even Haruka.

My favourite way of handling this sort of thing is for a game to present these things in a non-judgemental manner, then allow the player to interpret them as they see fit. This is something that works well in anime -- series like Welcome to the NHK, Steins;Gate and Oreimo present uncompromising depictions of otaku culture, with all its good and bad aspects, but, crucially, they don't tell the player whether they should think this is "good" or "bad". It's ultimately up to the individual as to how they choose to respond to it; even if I found something personally distasteful, I certainly wouldn't suggest that the work in question didn't have a right to exist: in many cases, I relish the opportunity to be challenged and ask questions of myself as to why I feel the way I do.

In all cases, I think the thing to remember is that representing something is not the same as endorsing it; one character calling another a "trap" in the context of an Internet message board in a game is not the same as the developers being transphobic, or indeed that exchange being inappropriate to see in a game. We handle all sorts of uncompromising material in other media, so why should games be any different?
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Angry Jedi » Fri Aug 15, 2014 8:55 am

Alex Connolly wrote:*snip*


You raise an important point: what are games?

That's a question that has a different answer to different people. For me, they're an opportunity to engage with an interactive story and play a role in something that's unfolding, or live out personal fantasies. For you -- apologies for speaking for you -- they're opportunities to luxuriate in deep mechanics, realistic depictions of real-world things or the opportunity to explore fantastic but plausible "what if?" scenarios with regard to technology and the like. For others still, they're an opportunity to be creative or express themselves; for others still, they're an opportunity to test and prove their skills against others. Are they art? I can't answer that for everyone; it's like asking a bunch of people whether some red splatters of paint on a white background is "art" or not. Everyone will feel differently.

In actual fact, most of us don't have one single definition of a "game", as we enjoy different things at different times. And this, I think, brings up the question of appropriateness due to context. I'd argue that the stuff in Akiba's Trip is appropriate due to its context and the game's intentions: it's intended to depict otaku culture in Akihabara, warts and all. Were the "trap" sequence to appear in a game that otherwise didn't have any narrative context -- imagine if, say, Minecraft called the player a "trap" for wearing a female skin when it knew they were male -- then yes, I'd agree that it would be completely inappropriate. But in a context where, in the real world, you might actually witness a similar exchange taking place? I'm cool with that. Same with the sexism and misogyny in Yakuza; to deny that that stuff happens would be to diminish the authentic depiction of life in a Japanese city that that game revels in. Doesn't mean that I condone transphobia, sexism or misogyny -- nor does it mean that Xseed and Sega do, either.

I guess the thing that frustrates me is that triple-A stuff, such as the BioWare sex scenes you described, often gets criticised for its ham-fisted way of approaching perceived "taboo" subjects, yet the stuff that gets it very much right -- the niche titles -- is often either ignored or dismissed based on assumptions. Ponder this dreadful blog from the Official Nintendo Magazine on Senran Kagura, which proclaimed that the game was "damaging the industry" and presented tips on "how to stop it", completely failing to take into account the fact that Senran Kagura, even with all its fanservice, features some of the most well-realised female characters I've ever come across: characters with real motivations and personalities, who undergo genuine personal journeys as the narrative progresses; and even in the fanservicey moments, the characters are depicted as confident and secure in their appearance. Or contemplate the visual novels in which sex is used effectively as part of the narrative -- Katawa Shoujo springs immediately to mind, but I could give plenty of other examples.

I'm not saying all games have to tackle heavy subject matter or indeed try to paint a realistic picture of how life really is. But when a game holds a mirror up to society and it reveals some ugly truths rather than an idealised image of the world, we should think twice before criticising it: sometimes it can make us aware of things in the real world that we should perhaps handle differently, and that's an ultimately positive outcome.

Perhaps I'm giving "gamers" too much credit here. But I feel if you continually cater to the lowest common denominator and assume that every reaction is going to be the worst possible one, you'll never get anywhere.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Alex Connolly » Fri Aug 15, 2014 9:21 am

As we both agreed in the 80 Days thread, the power and deftness of the written word makes 'writing' about touchy subjects a heck of a lot more insightful and illustrative than anything a lumbering Triple A beast can muster. At least, for all the hoo-hah made about expensive Naughty Dog fare, or other multi-million dollar creations boasting motion capture and stellar voice acting...I'm rarely, if at all, moved by these things. Moreover, I'm extremely cynical of their ability to explore what we're talking about here.

Rarely do games as we know them operate with any success on that level. They lack subtlety, tone, and when they don't do violence, they bumble along and camouflage what narrative deficits with technology. Few genres escape this, and when a game does tout respectable introspection, it's nearly always undone by simply being a game. Bioshock. Objectivism? Yeah, sorta. I'm still hitting people with bees from my palm. I don't care how well that fits into the narrative, what contrivances are issued, you're still freezing the narrative ontology until it needs to be thawed.

Perhaps I'm just tired of The World According To Garp experience being wrung from Baby's Day Out. Maybe I'm being blind to the fact Transformers 3 makes a gazillion dollars not on the merits of its story, but lizard-brain appreciation of fast-moving things and bright lights. Triple A games are no different, and when they are, they are rare and imperfect.

I dare not trust the mainstream with taboo exploration in games, as much as I want desperately to, say, play a game where I'm a simple fellow in an ailing, broken Weimar Germany and, hell, National Socialism makes SENSE. I want to explore the uneasy topics in games, not only for their sake, but for the chance to once again feel like games in general can promote thoughtfulness about sordid or unsettling topics. I want to feel something from games, outside of just simply feeling satisfaction.

But hey, Luftrausers is all about the Nazis.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Angry Jedi » Fri Aug 15, 2014 9:55 am

This is precisely why I make a point to champion visual novels as a solid means of storytelling. By abandoning all pretense of "gameplay", these titles can focus entirely on narrative. While this may make them poor "games" in the traditional sense, it means they can use multimedia features we traditionally associate with games as a broad medium to enhance their storytelling. Visual images, animations, voice acting, sound effects, music -- all combine in a good visual novel to provide a compelling means of telling a story that's entirely separate from books, TV shows and movies.

But I'm drifting off the point.

You're absolutely right; I'm not sure I trust the mainstream with taboo exploration, either -- use of "mature themes" in a modern big-budget game tends to be little more than an excuse to be "edgy" and slip the word "fuck" in a few times rather than any attempt to make deep and meaningful social commentary, or even to build a convincing world. Look at the recent Thief reboot: that really didn't need people saying "fuck" or the ability to peep through a hole in the wall in a brothel to see two people going at it hammer and tongs; it felt gratuitous and unnecessary rather than helping immerse me in the world. That may be because I have played the previous Thief games and thus have a frame of reference, however.

I am glad that, thankfully, there are both indie developers and smaller-scale companies willing to push boundaries. They know their audiences, and they cater to them. It would just be nice if, when the peanut gallery got wind of these things, they'd take a little time to explore them in more detail rather than writing them off under the same criteria as triple-A, which I feel is what happens in many situations. (I've seen people make the blanket statement that "games have bad writing" numerous times, which patently isn't true -- some games have worse writing than others, sure, but even then I think it's a question of taking the game's intentions into account as well: if a game's supposed to be a meatheaded dudebro summer blockbuster and it achieves that goal, is it really badly written or just designed to appeal to a particular audience into which you might not count yourself? I tend to incline towards the latter.)

Ban this sick filth.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Beige » Mon Aug 18, 2014 3:24 pm

Hopping into this thread, though what I have to contribute is basically inline with what has been already said.

Do games have the license or potential to push a transgressive, uncomfortable or politically incorrect point? Sure. Absolutely. I will give you money to make those games. But until enough of an audience exists to financially support their creators we are not likely to see very many of them.

Example: I will pay good money right now to play a day in the life of a poor black drug dealer a la The Wire -- violence, mysogeny, racism and all. Gangsta, being thrown to the ground and Rodney Kinged by LAPD's finest? Stupid, dumb decisions, exploration of poverty and desperation. Why people without options or perspective do the dumb shit they do, even if they are not themselves dumb. Will anybody actually MAKE that game? Maybe. Maybe.

I was having a talk about The Last Of Us with a friend on the weekend, and I brought up the point that we are only now starting to get to the point where developers seem to feel comfortable with the statement "OK, we can prove that we are as visually impressive as movies. What comes next?" As an industry, we have been absolutely desperate to ape both film AND novels, and we are only now getting to the point where people are thinking about how interactivity (gaming's unique edge) might be used to one-up either of those art forms at the game of conveying a complex point.

I think up until now the general purchasing audience for consumption of anything more nuanced than your average RA Salvetore novel has been pretty limited. High bar of entry, you have to sell your product to the most people possible.

It is true that are beginning to see a yearning on the part of SOME developers (old ones, probably) to create and make something a bit more nuanced -- Ether Carter, Spec Ops, The Last Of Us, Katawa Shoujo even. To get to this point you have to be able to create and sell a product more akin to art film... something which is done primarily for noncommercial purposes... regardless of whether it is a commercial success or not. But these, as we know, are risky bets. The bean counters have, for the most part, completely captured the means of production and they are not going to greenlight anything that doesn't make the Most Beans as an ROI exercise.

We all hope that a game like This War of Mine makes money, but we also know that games like Papers Please do not make their creators rich the way that Destiny will. But SHOULD people be able to make them? Should you be able to make a racist, horrible, thought provoking, controversial Atlas Shrugged or Mein Kampf of a video game? Absolutely. And those are out there... it's just that Because Commerce they are unavoidably small projects. Stuff like Papers Please is where that is at in the Indie space, Stuff like Spec Ops (COMMERCIAL FAILURE) are where we are at with the mainstream.

Someone will undoubtedly make a nuanced thoughtful challening videogame in our lifetimes, but as it stands there have to be enough old people willing to put up good money to finance it. The Wolf Among Us and Kentucky Route Zero are where it begins. We just have to wait until the people currently playing Minecraft graduate through their Ayn Rand phases and arrive at the point where they want to "read" Lonesome Dove.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Beige » Mon Aug 18, 2014 4:10 pm

Also: Presented as both relevant and self-evident as it applies to games:
http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-a ... ics-74128/

As Entertainment Weekly put it, “‘sarcastic’ media-savvy comedies and morally murky antiheroes tend to draw Dems. While serious work-centered shows (both reality shows and stylized scripted procedurals), along with reality competitions, tend to draw conservatives.”
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Angry Jedi » Mon Aug 18, 2014 6:38 pm

Good points, chaps.

My concern any time the latest Moral Outrage erupts over some derogatory term that appears in a game script is that it will eventually lead to creators not wanting to take chances. "Risky" games that tackle subject matter we don't see in the more commercially-minded sectors such as triple-A are already relatively thin on the ground, and it sucks to see them lambasted by people taking -- in this case -- one word out of context.

To clarify, I'm not saying I want my games to be full of sexism, racism, rape, crime, amorality, bad language and all manner of other stuff, but I do want creators to feel like they have the ability to explore those subjects if they want to. The trouble is we still seem to have a lot of critics who believe that a company even daring to acknowledge that some people in the world are Not Very Nice is somehow completely inappropriate -- so what then? We water down games until everything is nice and happy and no-one gets hurt?

I'm cool with risky projects being small-scale, and where they appeal to me for whatever reason, I'm happy to support them and even to challenge my own "comfort zone" when given the opportunity. I'd be more than happy to encourage an "arthouse" movement in gaming, too; not everything has to be a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately we live in a world where 5 million sales can equate to "flop", so I'm not sure where we stand.
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Re: Discussion Point: Taking Offense

by Bowley » Tue Aug 19, 2014 2:06 am

We're so fucking thin skinned.

The overwhelming cultural narrative right now is that if you make someone feel bad, you are personally offending (attacking) them, and therefore you are bad. When you make a woman feel bad, you are misogynistic, cis-male, shitlord, rape apologist that isn't allowed to have an opinion, especially if you're white. Well, I guess you don't have to form a real argument now since you've shamed and invalidated mine. Oh well, back to my ivory tower of white/male privilege.

It's this mindless labeling that is stopping rational thought dead in its tracks. It's all of this PC censoring that is strangling argument and discussion. Everyone is so afraid to be labeled and outcast that the moment anyone calls them on what they said, it's all backtracking, apologizing, or, in the case of a business, the inevitable jettisoning of the "offending" party. And who can blame them? Those who go against the current groupthink are richly rewarded with a flood of online harassment, slander, doxxing, real life harassment or worse.
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