When Your PC isn’t PC

Video games, “political correctness,” and hegemonic discourse.

We rarely engage with purely editorial content here at OTI, preferring to treat with art instead of opinion. But we also spend a lot of our time talking about hegemonic discourse (especially on the podcast) (drink!). So I’m using yesterday’s IGN editorial, “The Problem with Political Correctness in Video Games“, as an opportunity to riff on hegemony, discourse, subaltern narratives and video games.

What do we think about this? And, more importantly, how do we talk about what we think about this?

To save you a trip to Wikipedia, “discourse,” the way we use it at OTI, means “what we talk about and, more importantly, the way we talk about it.” Americans in particular, and Westerners as a whole, live in rather free societies. While there are occasional state controls on acceptable speech – the President and the opposition candidate both insist on veto power over their campaign managers’ statements to the press, for instance – these are tame and benign compared to the totalitarian excesses of the 20th Century. With very few exceptions, you can say anything you want. More importantly, with the growing ease of digital publishing, you can say it on a platform that millions of people can access.

Here’s an example of discourse. Let’s say you’re talking with a friend who’s the father of an eight-year-old girl. He’s speculating about whether to let his daughter get her ears pierced. The ensuing conversation could go one of several ways:

(1) “Girls are being encouraged to ‘act sexy’ so early these days. Are you sure that’s how you want your daughter to be perceived?”

(2) “Don’t you want your daughter to express herself? If you don’t let her, she might do it anyway to spite you, or, even worse, grow up repressed and stilted.”

(3) “Times are so tough, what with the recession and all. This would be a great opportunity to teach your daughter to save money, instead of spending it on earrings.”

(4) “The hell you asking me for? Let’s get a beer.”

Angelina Jolie has this conversation when her girls turn six, apparently.

These are examples of different discourses that can evolve around the subject of eight-year-old girls with piercings: sexual considerations (1), creative or psychological considerations (2), economic considerations (3), or even a willful refusal to engage (4). You, as the friend of the eight-year-old’s father, might plausibly say any of those.

If you’re in the West in the 21st century, however, you’re highly unlikely to say any of the following:

(5) “You let your daughter voice an opinion? Put her in sackcloth until her derangement passes!”

(6) “An excellent idea. Attractive jewelry may raise a suitor’s bidding price when you auction off her virgin rights.”

(7) “Crack open her skull and feast on the brain within. This way you will gain her strength.”

If you said any of these, listeners would at best hope you’re making a poor joke, and might well call the cops. Options (5), (6) and (7) are what we would call outside the range of acceptable discourse. They’re not debatable, they’re not even fringe – they’re borderline insane.

Note that discourse governs not just what’s discussed but how it’s discussed. Talking about the sexualization of pre-teens (option (1) above) is common subject matter. But you couldn’t broach option (1) by saying, “Damn, Ted – last time I saw your little girl, I almost made a pass at her!” without getting cuffed in the ear.

So, while you can say anything you want, you can’t say anything you want. But very few people feel this as a grating form of control. Not only does nobody say (5), (6), or (7), or the pervy version of (1), nobody even wants to. These aren’t options that cross our minds. The discourse governs not just what we say but how we think about issues.

To bring it back from the ludicrous: it’s not hard to picture a future in which eight-year-old girls frequently get their ears pierced (it’s common enough now, but hardly universal). If, in the far off year of 2099, your friend the dad were having this same conversation with you, you might have a different response:

(8) “You’re not letting her get her ears pierced? Hell, Ted – if you don’t pierce her ears, people will think you’re trying to lock her in infancy forever! They’ll think you’re some sick pervert.”

So the range of acceptable discourse changes over time.

In 2099, we have other things to worry about.

Granting all that: who determines what’s acceptable? That’s tricky, because the answer is “no one.” There’s no person, or even a shadowy council, laying down hard rules on what can and can’t be discussed. We can’t even honestly say “the majority” dictates what’s acceptable, because the majority doesn’t have an easily discernable will of its own. Nobody holds an annual ballot on What We Talk About When We Talk About Earrings.

So how do you know what’s acceptable? You just learn it, that’s all. You watch what subjects get people to roll their eyes and what subjects get people to applaud. If you have opinions that fall outside the range of acceptable discourse, or even on the fringe, you get shouted down or snubbed. Eventually, you either get comfortable with being a crank, or you learn to keep your weird views to yourself.

Here’s the weird thing about discourse, though: it’s not invincible. It does change over time, as we demonstrated above. A hundred years ago, the notion of a Western eight-year-old girl with pierced ears would have seemed bizarre. So how did we get to where we are today, where it’s a subject that rational friends can debate? If discourse can change, how and when does that change occur?

Let’s consider the debate between you and your friend the dad once more. He opens with option (1): he’s scared of his little girl becoming too sexualized too soon. You counter with option (2): keeping a precocious young girl from expressing herself will stifle her creativity. The debate goes back and forth, but both sides stick with their original values. The dad believes that proper sexual development trumps creativity; you believe that healthy creative expression is more important than outdated sexual mores.

The debate will continue until one of you gives up, admitting the insufficiency of your discourse, or until one of you subsumes the other’s viewpoint. “If you allow your daughter to express her creativity, she’ll grow up more confident, and make better romantic choices, than if you tried to keep her ‘innocent’ for too long.” If the dad buys this – that creativity leads to proper sexual development – then the creativity discourse emerges as dominant.

The discourse that subsumes all other discourses in a given culture is called the hegemonic discourse. No one brings it down from the mountain on a stone tablet. No one votes on it. But, through trial and error, we learn that certain buzzwords – “freedom,” “justice,” “logic,” “unemployment,” “Yankees suck” – will almost always end a discussion. They may not end it through formal debate; they may end it by, in fact, shouting your opponent down. But what’s important is that one discourse, or a limited set of discourses, have the power to trump all others.

No discussion of Jeter’s merits as a hitter can survive a sustained chorus of these words. It’s just impossible.

How does the hegemonic discourse change? That’s a Ph.D thesis in itself, but the short answer: very slowly, very painfully. The hegemonic discourse is hegemonic because it has power, and power does two things: accrete and defend itself. The most powerful discourse doesn’t defend itself through censorship: there are no literal Thought Police. Rather, the inertia of social pressure unconsciously defends it. If you don’t believe me, go into your office tomorrow and tell a male coworker with an eight-year-old girl that he’s a pervert for not letting his angel get her ears pierced (option (8) above). Nothing’s stopping you!

Discourse: what we feel we can say, and how we feel we can say it. Hegemonic discourse: the things we feel we can say that no one could possibly object to.

Still with me? Thanks for your patience. Back to video games and Colin Moriarty’s IGN editorial.

It’s tough to pin Moriarty’s thesis down: he uses some awfully vague language (“Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy”) and speaks abstractly about abstractions. But he appears to feel threatened by the protests surrounding two games in particular, Six Days in Fallujah and the recent Tomb Raider reboot. He blames “political correctness” for “alter[ing] the landscape,” despite the fact that only the former game was affected by it (Six Days in Fallujah was scrapped; nothing has changed in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot except, perhaps, the marketing).

If Moriarty fears that political correctness will limit the scope of games available to him, I can’t see where this fear comes from. If he wants to play video games where women are under threat of brutal assault, he has a wide catalog: the Soul Calibur series, the Tekken series, the DOA series, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 2, Heavy Rain, etc. If he wants to play video games where he gets to depict U.S. soldiers shooting Middle Eastern insurgents, his menu is also extensive: the Full Spectrum Warrior series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4, Battlefield 3, Medal of Honor (the 2010 version), and so on. The cancellation of one game and a footnote’s worth of objection to another barely limit his choices.

‘elp, ‘elp, I’m being oppressed.

But here’s the important thing: that’s not what Moriarty wants.

I’m presuming, for the sake of being charitable, that Moriarty doesn’t get his jollies from imagining women being tortured (even if only to save them) or from blowing up foreigners (even in the context of war). He’s not saying his desires aren’t being catered to. How could he write that with a straight face?

Instead, he’s raising these objections because he fears that these games might not always be available. Yes, he has plenty of games in that vein now, if he so chooses (which he might not). But Moriarty doesn’t want acquisition. Moriarty wants license. Moriarty wants the freedom to enjoy those type of games for the unlimited future, and he wants publishers to have the freedom to make them.

Moriarty’s not objecting to the closure of doors (because they’re not really closed), but to the loss of power.

Moriarty fears a future in which he can’t say what he wants (note his evocation of “thought police” and “public liberty being strangled”). He fears a future in which consumers are silenced (“we as a group of dedicated, money-spending enthusiasts should say ‘enough is enough.”) But what he longs for is a status quo in which other people can’t say what they want (“Should someone being offended by something actually matter?”). What he wants is a future in which consumers are silenced (“something deemed over-the-top and inappropriate in gaming by some commentators” should not be enough to derail Tomb Raider).

Moriarty is in favor of unfettered discussion and a creative exploration of sensitive subjects, so long as they’re the sensitive subjects he prefers.

This is a textbook example of the hegemonic discourse defending itself. While plenty of anonymous commenters on the Internet would love to explicitly shut up or beat up the Anita Sarkeesians of the world, Moriarty doesn’t go that far. But he would rather that they not voice their objections. “Don’t ridicule the creators of something because their vision doesn’t fit your own,” he says. So he uses resonant language – thought police, freedom of speech, Benjamin Franklin, George Orwell – to imply that a powerful faction is silencing a powerless mob.

Here’s how you can tell Moriarty’s defending a hegemony, rather than challenging it: his arguments fail when applied to his own case.

Moriarty constructs an example about people voicing September 11th conspiracy theories or revisionism. He feels strongly about September 11th, he says, but “I would never, ever tell them that I’m so outright offended by all of this that they should stop and that no one else should hear them out.” Yet this is exactly what he wishes would happen to the feminists, war protestors and Hindus of the video game community. He’s not going to compel them to shut up. He just wishes they would show a little class and “acknowledge that this mentality [of voicing grievances with video games] is destructive?”

“I say to game developers, make me think,” Moriarty says. “Challenge me. Make me uncomfortable.” Game developers are acknowledging consumers’ objections to games like Tomb Raider and Six Days to Fallujah. This is challenging to Moriarty. This is making him uncomfortable. His response is to write an IGN editorial.

Hegemonic discourse is full of two-way mirrors like this: principles that restrict unrepresented minorities, but don’t bar the privileged in any way. It’s deeply ironic that Moriarty spends twelve paragraphs championing freedom of speech, yet objects to the free speech, assembly and market action that resulted in Six Days of Fallujah being scrapped and Tomb Raider being, well, released unaltered. This is because the purpose of hegemonic discourse is to keep the balance of power where it is. Hegemonic discourse doesn’t need to be internally consistent. Why does the status quo have to prove anything?

These internal contradictions demonstrate that Moriarty hasn’t reasoned his position all the way through. But he’s never had to before. It’s only very recently that anyone’s challenged the notion that video games should appeal to 18-35-year-old American males first and foremost, anyone else be damned. So Moriarty seizes on a lot of powerful language, but doesn’t build a coherent case. He doesn’t engage the subaltern discourse because, really, he doesn’t have to. Gaming companies will continue to make the games he wants for many years, whether he argues on their behalf or not.

Where’s the video game that caters to MY desires?

(Does this mean that all attempts to challenge a hegemonic discourse are logical? Hardly. But hegemonic discourse never has to be logical, unless logic gets more people on its side. “YANKEES SUCK” isn’t logical, but it wins every baseball argument in 49 states. If the lone Yankees fan in Saugus, MA is going to make any headway, he’ll have to make an airtight case that the Yankees win on their merits, and he’ll have to find a Sox fan who’s willing to listen to reason.)

Dropping the academic language to editorialize a bit: I don’t think Moriarty’s arguing in bad faith, even if his arguments don’t support his position. I imagine that he genuinely feels like his way of life is under attack. And he’s not wrong! If video game designers start taking the feelings of unrepresented consumers (like women and Hindis and people who object to war) into account, Moriarty no longer gets to have everything he wants. In turn, previously unrepresented consumers now get a little bit more of what they want. The balance of power shifts from favoring one demographic to favoring several.

So he’s not wrong to characterize this as an “assault.” But he is wrong to say it’s about “freedom,” because what he wants is freedom for people who agree with him, not for those who disagree. If you disagree with him, he won’t assault you or threaten you or even tell you to shut up. He’ll just make clear that your means of expression – not even your opinion, just the boycotts and the blog posts that you use to evince it – are “hypocritical and unfair,” are “strangling creativity,” are “doing a major disservice […] to the people who want to give us new stories full of new ideas.” His hope is that they’ll sit down, ashamed, and not voice an objection again.

But the point of this article isn’t to condemn Moriarty. The position he voices is so divorced from reality – the idea that political correctness has “corrupted so many other artistic avenues” and is gunning for video games next – that there’s nothing there to condemn. If we take anything from his piece, it should be an object lesson. This is what a very comfortable person looks like when challenged. Use this observation academically or tactically, as you see fit.

42 Comments on “When Your PC isn’t PC”

  1. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    I gotta say, any reference to Orwell in a political argument is always a red flag for me, probably because I sense that when his name comes up you’re in the presence of an emotional appeal dressed up as a logical appeal.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      That’s an excellent way to put it – it lays a finger on an issue that’s bugged me for years. GANKED!


      • CrazyLikeAFox OTI Staff #

        John, great article, one of my favorites on the site in a while.

        I was cooking up a comment that was an argument against the IGN article, and it involved a comparison to the Holocaust. Then I realized that the point wasn’t particularly well made, because the Holocaust specifically and the Nazis more generally represent (in 21st century America) an example of a (mostly) hegemonic discourse – a comparison to the Nazi’s is typically the “nuclear option” in an argument.

        Of course, that hegemony has been challenged soemwhat with the invention of Godwin’s Law (which your Orwell comment reminded me of). Meta-arguments like Godwin’s law and this post as a whole are probably the best weapon against attempts to appeal to a hegemonic discourse – by pointing out the tactic, it loses a lot of its power.


  2. Chris #

    There are a couple video games I could point to that would be significantly improved with a little political correctness (cough, Starcraft II, cough, Diablo III). The stories of both collapse as the writers denied agency to its female characters. Leah choosing to become Diablo is a much better story than her just being a victim.


    • Orion #

      Gotta toss out there that Blizzard definitely has a problem with female characters that can’t just be put down to the “video games” male culture.
      Between the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo series Kerrigan was the only good female character they had, who they then proceeded to run into the ground in the next game by turning her into a victim again.

      It’s not hard to toss in a female character into even the most macho of game environs that passes muster and like you said it improves the game. Even Warhammer 40 000 Space Marine managed it in a setting where the main character is a 10 foot powered armour hulk with a chainsaw sword and a jetpack. The commander of the surviving human forces you liaise with is female and this goes unremarked upon and at no point is she wearing anything impractical, being captured or falling in love with some git.

      And that addition to an ultra-macho setting added to the story if for no other reason than ensuring someone in the main cast was something other than gruff dudes.


  3. STH #

    Dang, Perich. That’s an extraordinarily good essay, both from the informational standpoint of explaining hegemonic discourse, and from the argumentative standpoint of using it take down Moriarty.

    This essay reminded me about last week’s kerfuffle over Daniel Tosh’s rape “joke”: the “rape jokes are funny” hegemony also uses the freedom of speech as its defense against its challengers.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Thank you!

      This may be a handy rule for determining which side of a conversation has more power: the side that, despite their invocation of “freedom to do [whatever],” isn’t actually losing that much.


  4. MechanusSunrise #

    I think there needs to be an article addressing upcoming Rainbow Six: Patriots using the Occupy movement/Tea Party as the inspiration for the villains.

    My view of political correctness discourse these days is that the term is usually invoked to defend conservative or hegemonic ideas and does not reference actual political correctness. Its usually used by white men to defend casual rudeness, lazy inaccuracies and what many people today believe to be the inalienable right to make any kind of joke.

    I want to reclaim the term political correctness: actual political correctness is when censorship targets burning a flag, criticizing a war, discussing alternatives to capitalism, criticizing police, criticizing United States soldiers who volunteer when they pretty much know what they are getting into and which far weaker foe they are likely to fight, acknowledging that the United States violently conquered all of its territory, acknowledging that history without feminism is masculine history, reminding people how trashed we are leaving the earth for later generations – and more over viewing it as a moral issue whether people actually do something about it-, pointing out how stupid it is to get worked up and distracted by professional sports when there are things that actually matter happening, or pointing out how buying IPhones contributes to civil wars and mass poisoning of humans and critically endangered animals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Political correctness, in a thousand small ways that have to do with feelings of imposition and discomfort, stops those issues from being raised as much as they should be. Political correctness imposes restrictions on when it is “the right time and place” for those conversations to happen – even if the right time and place is so rare it never really happens in most people’s lives.

    One last note: I think a certain amount of the meaning of “occupying” is ignoring or remixing “the right time and place” logic and accepting that sometimes people need to be made uncomfortable – galvanizing them in situations that they are used to the comfort of routine.


  5. CrazyLikeAFox OTI Staff #

    As far as I can tell, political correctness is just what we say when the other guy is offended by something. If you’re offended by something, then that thing is actually incorrect, not just politically incorrect.

    The whole purpose of the word “political” in the phrase is to contrast the “politically incorrect” with the “factually correct.” No one actually says “You can’t say that, it’s politically incorrect!”

    Instead, it’s “Well, this may be politically incorrect….” or “You’re just being politically correct…” In both cases, the implication is that the politics is in contrast with the reality of the situation.

    The problem is that that’s a huge fallacy. It’s politically incorrect to say that 9/11 was a government conspiracy – it also happens to be FACTUALLY incorrect. It’s politically incorrect to say that women belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen – it’s also morally incorrect. (They should at least be given shoes. I mean, c’mon, it’s the 21st century.)


    • MechanusSunrise #

      I think you are literally right but based on actual usage that I hear in conversation and in media, almost every single use of the term “politically correct” is by someone making an excuse for a hegemonic or conservative belief.


  6. Matthew Belinkie #

    John –

    Great article! I think the most revealing thing about the IGN article is that the ONE example the author cites of how protesters actually derailed a game is “Six Days in Fallujah”… from 2008. Four years ago. Really, the whole IGN article is kind of an embarrassingly overwrought freshman-level rant that deserves maybe a C-. He manages to invoke Benjamin Franklin, Orwell, and WWII to defend the developer’s right to have Laura Croft get sexually assaulted, a right that NO ONE AT ALL IS ARGUING. He even has the staggering chutzpah to compare Tomb Raider with The Accused.


  7. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    John, I know you’re big on the feminist stuff, so I’m sure you’ve heard of this Anita Sarkeesian controversy. She had a kickstarter to raise money for a series of videos about misogyny in video games. This made a lot of male gamers very defensive, who then attacked her in hugely misogynistic ways. Exhibit A is a video game someone made where you beat Anita Sarkeesian to a bloody pulp.

    And you know why the creator said he made it? Because she just wouldn’t listen to him, and it made him SO angry.

    I wonder if the author of the IGN editorial would say that nobody should complain about the “beat Anita Sarkeesian simulator,” because of free speech and Nazis and stuff. But there’s a difference between wanting something banned and thinking it’s in incredibly poor taste. We’re allowed to complain about the things that we don’t like – that’s what the internet is FOR. And as John pointed out, what’s REALLY going on here is the consensus on what is poor taste is beginning to shift, and that makes some people uncomfortable.


  8. Nano Shinonome #

    This story sounds to me that you’re not grasping the whole point of what he’s trying to say.

    From someone who follows gaming news and vidya daily, we are in a crucial time where political correctness is beginning to overflow quite a bit into the gaming realm. Not just into the gaming realm, but internet culture in general.

    Just recently Daniel Tosh was outspoken against for a rape joke, which lead to him making a further joke about the person being raped. It’s his show, not the feminist, and last I checked it’s a comedy show not a protest assembly. So what this really leads to is that feminists want to block the free speech of others (As well as ruin the reputation of said Comedian), just because their world view does not coincide with theirs.

    It’s very similar of Whites in Alabama during the Civil Rights movements, they wished to crucify anyone with a differing point of view, claiming that it is wrong to think any different.

    So from Daniel Tosh’s experience, this sounds like a power struggle between Freedom of Speech and Feminists. The same can be applied to Tomb Raider’s recent controversy with rape. You can look at twitters and see what they have to say about it, and the consensus is they would love to have the game banned or changed. When an outspoken minority such as this happens, it can lead to the game getting changed. You address this in your article, but unless you have insider access to the current plans for the next Tomb Raider you can’t comment on whether it will be changed or not. However, as history has shown us with controversies surrounding gaming, it nearly always has gaming being censored in order to appeal to the masses. You can argue that this is the fault of the company’s, but in reality it’s the fault of the outspoken minority attempting to restrict the freedom of something being published (Which often time conflicts with their world view, as in David Tosh’s case.).

    I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the recent banning of twitter user Bendilin Spurr for creating the Beat Up Anita game. This is a first class example of punishment for using freedom of speech via the outspoken cry of a minority that has become “offended” If this group has the power to ban someone over the creation of material not even hosted on Twitter’s domain, then it can also be said that they hold the power to destroy someone’s reputation (Daniel Tosh’s), and completely change the way a game was originally created (Tomb Raider).

    If society begins to allow “offensive” material to become entirely illegal, you will begin to see a decline in creativity as well as a will to continue society in it’s current shape. Why invent, when it will be barraged by hate from left wing crazies? Why paint a picture, if it will only be thrown to the disposal by conservatives? Why think, if society deems my thinking is wrong? Even now you can see this creativity’s decline within the mediums of Film and Music. There has been an increased lack of interest in Festivals for each of these mediums beginning early 2000. Search around within google if you don’t believe me. I’m not proclaiming the doom of any medium, but it will be a medium that’s lifeless and without thought.

    It’s fine to complain about these things, as that is freedom of speech in itself, but to have blatant extremism against something to the point of slander (Tosh), falsifying reports to have users banned from websites (Spurr), and to possibly cause a complete change of an artistic concept (Tomb Raider) is crossing the line from freedom of speech to actively punishing those with a different world view.

    I’ll leave you with One Very Important Thought

    This is the beginning of censorship in an internet age.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Dropping the authorial objectivity for a moment to launch into pure editorialization: you’re using very scary language (“power struggle”, “block the free speech”, “censored”, “blatant extremism”) to divine a trend out of the following unconnected instances:

      * Criticism of Daniel Tosh for the way he responded to a heckler;
      * Objection to the way a new Tomb Raider game was being marketed;
      * “lack of interest in [music and Film] Festivals” (which I don’t think is happening, but if it is, has several more obvious proximate causes than “political correctness,” unless you have a compelling case for why gay and lesbian inclusiveness has ruined Bonnarroo ticket sales, in which case I’m all ears!);
      * A Twitter user being banned.

      Three things here:

      (1) These are all so minor that to call them a serious threat is absurd. What is the actual, concrete harm to Tomb Raider, for instance?

      (2) These are completely unconnected, except insofar as they’re about people objecting to the language used to refer to women, which has been going on for more than a century now.

      (3) (and this is the big one) In each case, you’re extremely sensitive to the effect of shaming or silencing to the aggrieved party, but completely oblivious to the shaming and silencing that they themselves were trying to pull off. Using Spurr as an example: you’re shocked that a vocal minority can complain loudly enough to get someone banned from Twitter. Where is your corresponding shock at the vocal minority that has harassed, stalked and threatened Anita Sarkeesian? If your concern were truly about freedom of speech and a plurality of competing viewpoints, I suspect you’d be much more disturbed at what’s happened to Sarkeesian (including, but hardly limited to, people creating online games where you can simulate beating her up) than at what’s happened to Spurr (being banned from Twitter for creating the aforementioned game).

      Which is the point I was making in the article above.


      • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

        EXACTLY, John. Perhaps a counterexample will help. Let’s say in the mid-1960s, there is a popular American Bandstand style show featuring teens demonstrating cool new dances. This show will not let any African Americans appear. A group of people begin protesting the station, demanding the show be integrated. Eventually, they win. Would you say this is, in Nano’s words, an “outspoken minority attempting to restrict the freedom of something being published”? Or is this exactly how popular culture is supposed to work, with corporations responding to a changing status quo? (FYI: Hairspray is a great movie. Both versions.)

        Honestly, I hear arguments like the IGN editorial and Nano’s comment above all the time, and I don’t fully understand them. These people are angry at the people who are offended, because if enough people are offended it might result in the thing being changed. But are they REALLY arguing that nobody should ever protest anything? Ever? There’s a BIG difference between free speech (good!) and not being free to disagree with something (bad!). Another example: in Japan they have videogames where you actually stalk and rape schoolgirls. These are totally real. I don’t want them banned, but I do disapprove of them, and I don’t see anything wrong with me saying so. If this prevents them from being sold at Gamestop, that’s not censorship; that’s the free market doing its job.

        So here’s an honest question for the people who disagree with John: when is it okay to advocate that a piece of pop culture be boycotted, changed, or cancelled? It seems to me that if you can think of ANY hypothetical in which such a protest would be okay, than you can’t complain about the people who are offended by the new Tomb Raider.


        • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

          All that being said, I do think that Twitter shouldn’t have banned Spurr, or it should have at least been very clear about why it was banning him. That DOES seem like censorship.


        • Appleby #

          I’ll bite: Assuming that at least one side is not going to be hypocritical about free speech, it should always be OK for someone to advocate that a piece of pop culture be boycotted, changed, or cancelled. That said, we must also concede that calling for any of the above is an inferior response to something that offends your sensibilities*. A superior response would be to propose a competitive alternative to the thing that offends you.

          *Not so much in the case of calling for a boycott, since in that case you’re only going to be effective if you convince the original audience to buy in, in which case you’ve essentially managed to win. This wouldn’t apply in cases where you’re convincing parallel consumers to exert pressure on some entity organisationally upstream of the actual creator of the offending artwork.


          • James #

            I think, Nano, that this: “You can argue that this is the fault of the company’s, but in reality it’s the fault of the outspoken minority attempting to restrict the freedom of something being published” is where you lose me.

            Lets take Belinkie’s schoolgirl rape games. They sound off the pale to me, and I certainly won’t be buying any. Thats fine – its not even a freedom of speech issue, just a “its my damn money” issue. But, if I wanted I could go further. I could register banschoolgirlrapegames.com and actually be active against them. Write to my MP (im in the UK). Do stuff like that. Then we move from simply me making decisions about where I spend my money into an actual free speech issue. But the key point is that I don’t own a mind control ray.

            In order for this protest to work, for my voice to carry any weight and for me not to be just a lone nut espousing a crazy position (on the internet! Just imagine) then others have to actually agree with me. I have to tap in to either a pre-existing feeling or sway enough people to my newly created one.

            That then puts the company in a position. Can they make more money from selling these games despite the controversy or is the reputational hit enough that they pull it. I haven’t done anything wrong here because I haven’t created a new opinion, I’ve simply set myself up as a focal point for an existing one. The company can ignore me if it wishes – Tomb Raider – or it can listen to me – Fallujah. But thats an economic decision for the company, not extortion or anything else. Its new information for their marketing department to factor into their decisions, not a dictate from on high.

            End of the day, you seem to be saying that public pressure is an irresistable force that vocal minorities may abuse whenever the hell they feel like it, but its simply not.

          • James #

            Rereading, I;ve just noticed what an atrocious choice of words “Belinkie’s schoolgirl rape games” was.

            I did of course mean “The schoolgirl rape games that Belinkie mentions.

            Sorry about that, Belinkie.

  9. FCDruid #

    Good article, but I disagree on one point. I think the IGN author’s ultimate fear was not that less white-dude-hegemony-reinforcing games would get made, but that he would lose the ability to play said games without feeling uncomfortable or being criticized for it. The uncomplicated, unanalytical enjoyment of mass media is something that fan culture (or at least some fan cultures) is based on, and threatening that is serious business for them. It’s not the ultimate effect of the criticism but the very presence of it. Or, to phrase it more bluntly, “How dare you try to take away my toys?”

    (Not even touching the post above me…)


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      This is a very good point. It’s the mere act of having to justify a deep-seated enjoyment that gets people uncomfortable. And that’s not unusual – our tastes are formed at a very nascent stage and by means we’re not always conscious of. But it’s telling how some people (Anita Sarkeesian, for instance) have to constantly defend their preferences (more interesting female characters, plz) against an epic tide of anonmyous abuse and some people, only occasionally.


  10. Johann #

    Excellent article – I especially liked your explanation of discourse and hegemonic discourse.
    I am reminded of my very nice, but also very conservatively narrow-minded 96-year-old grandmother, who says about gays and lesbians: “I don’t mind them being gay, but they should display it all the time in those parades and such.” – another perfect example (except that she apparently hasn’t noticed that her discourse is not hegemonic anymore).
    It would be interesting to drive the topic further into the question of (hegemonic) discourse leading into real laws and regulation (including the policing and sanctioning of it). Would a pure 1st-person rape game be illegal? Or one where you are supposed to hunt and kill African Americans? I’m no expert on American law, but I think probably yes. What does this tell us about the discourse?


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      I’m no lawyer, but I’m going to disagree with you and say both those games would probably be legal in the US. As a thought experiment, there is certainly no law against making MOVIES depicting those things, right? You might have trouble finding places to SELL your incredibly offensive video games, but there’s no law against making them. (One big exception, of course: if your rape game depicted any minors, that’s very illegal, even though we’re talking about a video game and not real people.)

      And honestly, I’m glad we live in the country where both those terrible games would be legal. I like The People Versus Larry Flynt. You have to look at the most objectionable content to find out how free your “free speech” really is.


      • Johann #

        So when video game violence is targeted against minors, especially sexual violence, that is where the hegemonic discourse merges with legal boundaries. That’s all I wanted to point out, that there is this point where the discourse is synonymous with law. Even in America ;-)


        • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

          Just to be clear, it’s ONLY child pornography that’s illegal, not depictions of violence against children. (Obviously, it’s illegal to actually hurt children, but you can totally use movie magic to depict it.) The reason why child pornography doesn’t get free speech protection is because if it were legal, there would be a tremendous incentive to exploit children for financial gain. Keeping these depictions illegal and establishing stiff penalties is a way of protecting children that outweighs the free speech concerns in this case.

          You raise an excellent point in your comment below: although America technically has free speech, it also has strict laws about what you’re allowed to air on television. (These laws are becoming less important as more and more TV migrates to cable (which isn’t regulated as much).) We also have a movie ratings system that has a whole slew of problems. (For starters, you can show massive amounts of violence in a PG-13 movie, as long as nobody says any bad words.) These ratings are very important, because the movie theaters are largely owned by a few large companies that will refuse to release anything with an NC-17 rating. Therefore, this ratings board effective sets the limits of what movies can be made by controlling what movies can be released. It’s not censorship per se, but it has basically the same end result.

          So I was probably too quick to brag about our unfettered free speech here in the USA. Whether or not a culture establishes LAWS prohibiting something, there are always boundaries to what society is willing to accept.

          But going back to my original point (and John’s too, I believe), speaking up about what we don’t like about pop culture is the only way the boundaries get changed. It’s a two way street – sometimes the boundaries will get moved in a direction you hate. But nobody gets to take their ball and go home; culture is never a settled thing. So to go back to the original IGN editorial, the writer is totally free to argue that Lara Croft being helpless and victimized is an important part of her arc (which could be true!) but I don’t believe he has the right to tell other people to keep their opinions to themselves.


    • Jez Jones #

      America has an extremely strong free speech law (the first amendment to the constitution) that would prevent the government from banning almost any type of expression you can hypothesize, including games like the ones you described.

      It’s apparently the strongest free speech in the world. The “but certainly not” incredulity from non-Americans always amuses me.


      • Johann #

        Your comment, as well as Matt’s above seem to drive the point that the the freer the speech is, the better. That is where I as a non-American disagree. Every free speech has boundaries (for example, defamation or incitement to riot) and that is a good thing. The difficulty is finding out where the legal boundaries should lie – and this is again question of cultural discourse.

        I am from a country where media that is glorifying violence often gets banned, where it is illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened, and where you’re not allowed to show Nazi symbols. But on TV you can say sh*t and f*uck and show some boobs. And I am very glad about all those laws, as are most of my countrymen.

        My point is not to start a “my country is better than yours” argument, but rather to point out how the nationally hegemonic discourse (and its compilation into law) can be different between national cultures. The question now is whether the US discourse on free speech should trump other nation’s ideas of free speech – or whether slightly different ideas of free speech can peacefully coexist.

        From my point of view, REAL threats to free speech do exist, but not in our “Western” countries.


  11. HtWP #

    “Moriarty is in favor of unfettered discussion and a creative exploration of sensitive subjects, so long as they’re the sensitive subjects he prefers.”

    I think this is a little unfair. Moriarty goes out of his way to point out that there is art that offends him, but that he doesn’t believe it should be banned.

    “Political correctness” might be a bit of a boogieman, and he may be overstating the impact that consumer complaints have on the content of video games, but his central point is valid. Art cannot thrive if artists are afraid of offending their audience. And protesting a piece of art because you disagree with its message is foolish.

    Also, the fact is, most of these protests/boycotts/letter-campaigns that Moriarty is complaining about are aimed at more liberal minded works. I would be surprised if you were willing to defend the people who drove ‘All American Muslim’ off the air or who tried to pressure JC Penny into firing Ellen Degeneres because they were uncomfortable with her sexuality. This behavior does have an impact on the entertainment industry, and that impact is typically negative. I don’t think it’s right to encourage that, even in cases where the piece of art being boycotted are ones that I personally find morally reprehensible.


    • Dr_Demento #

      That is the thing though, free speech is free speech. People may hold any opinion they choose, and they may express it however they choose (except in certain instances, such as provocative speech). Free speech can always be met by free speech (hopefully creating a “Marketplace of Ideas”, the only thing free speech can’t be met with is government intervention. AKA, your can yell as loud as you want for Tomb Raider to be banned, the government just can’t actually ban it.

      However, the real issue isn’t people exercising free speech. TV shows don’t get pulled off the air just because of hate mail. Instead, it s people’s economic decisions that hold weight. If JC Penny fires Ellen Degeneres, it is because they think keeping her will cost them too much money in lost customers, the public outcry is only a form of market research. The thing is, I don’t have a right to decide how someone else spends their money either. If All American Muslim is going to to lose money, than it probably should be pulled off the air. Is it terrible that part of the reason it is going to lose money is because a segment of the population outside of its target audience is scaring away advertisers? Yes, but it was hardly the primary reason it was pulled (that would be very low ratings). This is made even more clear in the realm of video games, wherein TV the revenue stream does not come directly from the intended audience, video game revenue does. If companies think that people are going to buy their product, they will make it, even if other people complain. If video game companies think they can get more people to buy their product by changing the game, they will will change the game. Perhaps the next Halo game, it was originally planned for it to be revealed that Master Chief is homosexual, but Bungie found out that focus groups of their target audience violently rebelled to the idea (or perhaps they leaked the information and they had hate mail delivered by the barge load). It is now in Bungie’s court on whether they would prefer to preserve the artistic integrity of their game or make more money. Even though we know what choice they are going to make, it is still a choice. As long as terrible people exist, there will be people willing to sacrifice their principles to take their money, and as long as they don’t trod on someone’s rights in the process they should be free to do it.


      • HtWP #

        I agree with everything you’ve said. Nobody is saying that boycotts and hate mail should be outlawed. But just because you have a right, doesn’t mean you should exercise it. Take the above example of Bendilin Spurr’s game where you beat up Anita Sarkeesians. Spurr should not have made that game, but he also shouldn’t go to jail over it. It’s wrong for people to try to intimidate Sarkeesians into canceling her project, but it isn’t illegal for them to do so.

        I also think there is a huge difference between criticizing a work of art and campaigning to get the work pulled off the market. I doubt Moriarty is opposed to game criticism (he is, after all, a game critic), but he has a right to be annoyed when people actively try to ban anything that has a message they disagree with.


        • Dr_Demento #

          Oh yes, I do love my right to get annoyed at people. I tend to not exercise my right to complain about them, but that’s a personal choice.


  12. Gab #

    (Nice Monty Python reference.)

    I often find that when a person defending the HD does so, their position basically plays out like this:

    A punches B in the face. B says, “Hey, you punched me in the face! That kinda hurt, you know.” A scoffs, says, “Fallacy! What really happened was your face got in the way of my fist. And actually, it hurt a lot, so I think you owe me an apology, B. And then shut up, by the way.”

    Those of the dominant group turn the blame around on the very persons/groups/etc. they have hurt in some way, claiming the former’s declarations of hurt are in themselves hurtful and far worse.

    The consistent fall-back of people defending the hegemonic discourse is free speech, but you’re right, it’s qualified: Free speech that agrees with that position, whatever it may be. There is this fallacy on the part of the advantaged that the assertion of freedom of thought and speech on the part of a disadvantaged group will take away from that of the former. But that’s just not the case. Moriarty is right in a vague sense, that society (and yeah, the hegemonic discourse) can only progress when ideas are allowed to flourish, but his argument loses strength because he’s choosing a specific group of ideas for that freedom, not all ideas in general. Dumb, hurtful, etc. ideas will eventually fade away or be forgotten (the Marketplace of Ideas mentioned above), but dissent, disagreement, and the like aren’t necessarily the same thing as bad, etc.- and, are often times not, in fact.

    I’m not going to pick apart the arguments above that are offended by the offense of others, but I will say a few more things.

    Putting offended (or hurt or any other term applicable in a similar case) in scare quotes is an implicit accusation that those being offended are disingenuous and aren’t actually offended (or hurt, etc.). But these movements and calls for protest, alteration, whatever, they aren’t fake, nor are they coming from some hidden agenda with a goal to harm anyone. They derive from a genuine, sincere place of feeling, be it pain, shock, disgust, whatever, and with a goal of decreasing harm.

    I’m going to use that oft’ misquoted line (and misquote it myself, no doubt) about free speech that I’m sure anyone reading this is familiar with and, I hope, resonates. “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll die defending your right to say it.” Saying they don’t like the game and asking (or yes, even demanding) it be changed isn’t the same as changing it- the decision to change it is in the hands of the execs. And that’s the kicker- this isn’t pure art, it’s art for profit. So arguments about strangling the creative juices out of the necks of the artistes are conveniently ignoring the whole profit dimension. Like Dr_Demento said, the execs don’t give a damn about free expression, not at the end of the day. So the people pissed off about other people not liking the rape in their video games should send their own letters and aim their ire in the direction of the people making said games, not demand the people complaining put a lid on it. Agreement isn’t necessary, like isn’t a requirement, and comfort is probably a detriment to the sincerity of the plea, even. Claiming the protests as calls for censorship that need to be censored is, well, a call for censorship, too, and it’s hypocritical and, yeah, as said above, makes the argument fall apart/ lose its logic/foundation/etc.


  13. Taliesin Member #

    Seems to me that the protest groups who got “Six Days In Fallujah” canned and Ms. Sarkeesian have done a pretty effective job of changing the discourse. The protest groups did so directly in that they convinced a company that the proposed game was beyond the pale of acceptability, and Ms. Sarkeesian provoked a furious response where before the issue of misogyny was, at least in my understanding of the state of gaming, not nearly as high-profile.

    Additionally, your criticism of Mr. Moriarty’s argument “not applying to his own [example]” seems wrong to me. You quote him as saying “acknowledge that this mentality [of criticizing video games] is destructive” The brackets you inserted misrepresent Moriarty’s argument. The relevant passage from his article is this: “Think about the nerve I’d have to say that because 9/11 hit so close to home for me and my family, films shouldn’t be made about it, books shouldn’t be written about it, and dissenting voices and opinions should be silenced all because I’m offended.” Moriarty’s problem isn’t with dissent or criticism per se, it’s with the suppression of product that can result from dissent and criticism.

    The problem here is that, as other commenters have noted, video games aren’t the speech of the players; they’re the speech of the companies which produce them, and only do so in search of profit. Because of this drive, they’re hyper-sensitive to anything that could get them bad PR; they’re not very willing to appear to pass beyond the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Loudly expressed disapproval, even when it is not intended to suppress, can become de facto suppression if it is seen to place the target outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse (i.e., claim the target is offensive).

    Moriarty’s point ought to be well-taken; free speech expressed through a marketplace must be different from free speech expressed between individuals. This isn’t censorship, it’s pragmatism.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Seems to me that the protest groups who got “Six Days In Fallujah” canned and Ms. Sarkeesian have done a pretty effective job of changing the discourse.

      On an exceedingly narrow scale. Count the tens of millions who have heard of DOA (an outdated example, but first thing that springs to mind) against the tens of thousands who will remember Anita Sarkeesian’s name a year from now. Progress is being made, yes, but it’s at the margins.

      The relevant passage from his article is this: “Think about the nerve I’d have to say that because 9/11 hit so close to home for me and my family, films shouldn’t be made about it, books shouldn’t be written about it, and dissenting voices and opinions should be silenced all because I’m offended.”

      Think about the nerve Moriarty would have to say that because criticism of female stereotypes hits so close to home for him, online videos shouldn’t be made about it, blog posts shouldn’t be written about it, and dissenting voices and opinions should be silenced all because he’s offended.

      I hope I’m making it clear, because I don’t know how else to say it. Moriarty wants the Sarkeesians, the Jezebel.coms and the offended Hindis of the world to shut up. He wants them to stop complaining, because those complaints run the risk of shutting down the types of game development that he likes. That’s explicitly what he wants; he says as much elsewhere in the op-ed.

      as other commenters have noted, video games aren’t the speech of the players; they’re the speech of the companies which produce them, and only do so in search of profit. […] Loudly expressed disapproval, even when it is not intended to suppress, can become de facto suppression if it is seen to place the target outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

      This is a good point.

      There’s no question that people who protest the depiction of females, ethnic minorities or religious minorities in video games are trying to get game designers and game companies to change their behavior (i.e., make more inclusive games). And there’s no question that Moriarty and the people who agree with him are trying to get females, ethnic minorities and religious minorities to change their behavior (i.e., stop complaining so effectively).

      So we’re looking at the exercise of power by one segment against another. The question: which segment already has a lot of power to begin with? Who’s more powerful – the vocal minorities who object to a few games, or the millions of people who consume and design the hundreds of new games each year that pass without comment, to say nothing of objection?


      • Taliesin Member #

        You’re being perfectly clear. I just don’t interpret Moriarty’s argument as severely as you do. I don’t see him wanting “the Sarkeesians, the Jezebel.coms and the offended Hindis of the world to shut up…to stop complaining…” I think he disapproves of specific types of dissent which, rather than aiming to expand the range of available games, are intended (or have the end result of) suppressing content only.

        I concur completely that his article is motivated by the fear that “…those complaints run the risk of shutting down the types of game development that he likes.” I just don’t think that he’s being as extreme as you do. I’m slightly confused as to where he “explicitly” says so. The closest I could find to an unequivocal denunciation of all dissent was “…But don’t tell others that they can’t, and don’t ridicule the creators of something because their vision doesn’t fit your own.” The operative word here is “ridicule,” which I take to refer to non-constructive criticism. Other readings are certainly possible, and I may well be giving him too much credit. But I think you’re being too harsh.


        • Gab #

          Well, it seems the basic thesis of the editorial is that people that are offended don’t have the right to say so because it may alter the artistic landscape. Granted, that’s the general feeling I got/get when finished with the piece, at least from my perspective- it’s more like a huge hammer of subtlety than direct address. However, I’d say the most explicit part about people being quiet is this; :

          But don’t tell others that they can’t, and don’t ridicule the creators of something because their vision doesn’t fit your own.

          The “can’t” is referring to playing games found offensive by the person at which the sentence is directed. That’s a straight-forward call for people that are unhappy with the games to keep their mouths shut.

          So the problem, then, is that he’s demanding the free speech/ First Amendment rights of the minority be suppressed in the name of the free speech/ First Amendment rights of the majority. Taken about any issue, that argument is self-defeating, at best. He’s framing it as an issue of natural and civil rights, but the logical consistency of his argument shatters if you follow that framework. It’s usually a vocal minority that sparks the ideas that ignite into actual changes in society, the very things he promotes when invoking his Franklinean/Millean ideals. Even the Orwell quote he uses makes no sense, given what he’s saying overall- he’s saying people should stop complaining, even if they don’t like the game (“don’t want to hear”); he clearly doesn’t want to hear any of it because he doesn’t like it.


        • CrazyLikeAFox OTI Staff #

          I think you are, as you say you might be, giving Moriarty too much credit. He makes pretty clear in a couple different places in the article that ANY interference in the creative process by “subjective notions of good taste” are to be resisted by the public and ignored by game developers. The key quotes:

          -“Or should we stand up and say ‘anything goes'”
          -“the second you start confusing your own subjective notion of good taste with what that means for everyone else and project your own offended posture on the rest of us, you’ve crossed the line.”
          -“I’m certainly saying something that some people don’t want to hear; namely that you being offended doesn’t matter to me”

          Moriarty draws a clear “line” that essentially ANY objection to a game’s good taste or moral content would be over. The problem that Perich so aptly described is that that line is a ridiculous one to draw. We live in a society of other people – that’s great for Moriarty that he doesn’t care if other people are offended, but the offended people DO care, and the people who make money from selling games care, so why shouldn’t the offended people have the right to speak up, and for the people that make money from games have the right to respond to those offended?

          If I use a racial slur to refer to someone, should that person just grin and bear it, because after all, they’re just projecting their offended posture onto me – that’s “crossing the line.”


      • Taliesin Member #

        Also: In the question of who has more power, vocal minorities or millions of consumers, I think for an answer we can turn to the cancellation of Six Days in Fallujah, and the completely insane reaction to Ms. Sarkeesian would seem to weigh on the side of the minorities. Media is a fantastic force multiplier for the vocal, and within the social (rather than political) realm the voices of subaltern groups tend to meet with success disproportionate to their numbers and direct power level.


  14. Nick #

    As a gamer, it’s heartbreaking to hear racist, sexist and homophobic language being deployed in the name of gamesmanship every time I try to play on XBox Live with strangers. I think I know why it happens – kids getting to transgress boundaries in the protective comfort of their bedrooms – but it’s effectively stopped me from playing online unless it’s with friends. I don’t even think most of the people saying these things online are doing so out of hate, but out of a spirit of naughtiness. But they say them without knowledge or care of the history of the words, and without understanding that they can be adding to the weight of oppression. Look at any youtube video or news article; there’s a terrible tide of internet badasses who love to stir up trouble with language just because they can, and I think it comes from the same place.

    Stewart Lee says in his great stand-up act that political correctness is “an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language; there’s all sorts of problems with it, but it’s better than what we had before.” What we had before was unchecked racism, sexism, homophobia. The last fifteen or twenty years have seen a gradual change for the better in the UK, where (for the want of a better term) non-PC language was used by nutters, extremists, or ignorant old people. And when people stopped chuckling along with every “nigger” or “paki” or “faggot” comment in the playground or pub, things got better. We got more understanding. We became happier, we became freer.

    Nobody sensible thinks any word should be banned (except “chillax”, the use of which should be punishable by hanging), and I don’t think anything is off limits for art, be it games or comedy or films or theatre or whatever. But if you’re going to stand in front of me and tell a joke about rape or race or something else that can truly hurt, you ought to make sure it’s funny, and that it doesn’t make the world unhappier. That shouldn’t be the domain of the law, but it should be the standard decent people hold themselves to.


  15. CrazyLikeAFox OTI Staff #

    To the defenders of Moriarty, I ask this question:

    Is there ANY conceivable game that is offensive enough that those offended by it should voice their disconent?

    Moriarty makes it very clear that HIS answer to the question is “No” – he states quite explicitly that your offense is not his problem, and that if it affects game development in any way, then you are making it his problem and that is not justified.

    If so, that’s an extreme position to defend – it would require, among other things, justifying the school-girl rape simulation games. He seems to think that “Six Days in Fallujah” was a perfectly acceptable game to make – would he say the same thing about a game called “15 Minutes in Aurora, CO”? While it would be clearly legal to make that game, it would be clearly offensive to a whole lot of people – any company that tried would be bankrupt overnight, and justifiably so.

    If the answer is “Yes”, some games are so offensive that protest is justified, then we’re talking about a matter of degrees – you might think the new Tomb Raider is not too offensive, I might think it is. We both have our say and the maker decides if it’s worth offending people to sell their game.


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