A Broken System – Indirect Censorship of Adult Content

Disclaimer: This is a piece about adult content, I’ll try to keep it tasteful but considering the topic of discussion… reader discretion is advised.

Very recently, there has been a storm of controversy surrounding a video game currently in development called Hatred. It’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while now but I could never find the appropriate context to turn it into a piece. Recently I have realized that what I really wanted to do was address beyond just the topic of the game itself, but how games like it, and how games it will now be compared to now that it has received an Adults-Only rating by the ESRB, are treated by the industry.

Let’s start with Hatred. If you hadn’t heard of it by now, I’ll bring you up to speed. It is an upcoming isometric shooter game being developed by studio Destructive Creations. The controversy started with the trailer that first announced the game, which paints the player as stepping into the shoes of a mass-murdering man who hates humanity and has clearly genocidal intentions. There are some quite frankly disturbing moments in that trailer that I choose not to describe here.

This game is not made as some kind of satire a lot of games like these are, rather it is intentionally serious. The developers themselves have released statements that paint the game as a response to how politically correct they think games have become, and wish to create a game that goes against that grain. I will probably not be playing it, and others have expressed that same sentiment. Those that took it farther however, are those that have tried to bring the game down, saying that because it is what they consider to be tasteless it thus deserves to not exist.

I disagree. I’m an American and these people have artistic license to create whatever they wish. Not all art has to be politically correct or make you feel good. I honestly don’t think the developer intends this game to be art, it just seems like drivel to me, but I still think they should be allowed to make whatever they want. Whether their brand of ultra-violence is attractive to people or not is not for me to decide. If people like it, they will buy it, and if they don’t, they won’t. I’m content with that, regardless of what the content might be.

I don't feel the developers intentions with this game are artistic...

I don’t feel the developers intentions with this game are artistic…

There are some legitimate problems with that, of course, when it comes to public opinion on video games. Games like this tend to stand out as tools for the uninitiated to critique our art form, but I think that is a less pressing issue than making sure creators have the right to release their art and express themselves. Public opinion on gaming is less important than the problem of allowing blatant censorship of content just because it’s offensive. It could be very important to people, whether or not it means something to me.

Regardless, Hatred has quickly grown into a controversy machine. After all of the attention hit across the internet, including among non-gamers, the game was pulled off of Steam Greenlight, a service created by Valve for Steam to allow for fans to approve games they want to be on the service, for a short amount of time because it was judged as something Steam would not distribute on their service. Gabe Newell soon after reinstated the game to Greenlight with a personal apology. The game was greenlighted by the community in short order.

I could go on for a while about how the move made no sense if Steam was against the game, considering it just gave the title a whole load of attention it didn’t really deserve, but I think I can clarify the situation just by stating that Steam already has extremely similar games on the service, Such as Postal or Manhunt. Whereas some entries of the series are more more satirical, others aren’t and are pure ultra-violence in the same vein as Hatred. This move by Valve then becomes hypocritical rather than justified. The decision was reversed, but it’s an important point to make that Valve let this happen in the first place.

Steam Greenlight is a community effort for fans to approve games they want on the service.

Steam Greenlight is a community effort for fans to approve games they want on the service.

Soon after that incident, Destructive Creations sent in their game for evaluation by the ESRB. While other, similar games have been received M ratings in the past, Hatred was rated Adults Only by the board. This was very significant, because receiving this rating is a retail death sentence. So many retailers and distributors will refuse to carry games with that rating, and Valve also has a history of not carrying AO-rated games in the past which leaves Hatred’s place on Steam up in the air. Those distributors include the big name companies behind current generation consoles, who will not certify an Adults-Only game for distribution on their respective marketplaces.

I think the developers have the right to make a game that is offensive to people. Art is not something that should always be conformative or acceptable to the general public. In fact, some of the best and most influential pieces of art ever created are those that challenged our ways of thinking or living.

The problem is that while the systems currently in place don’t stop games like Hatred from existing, they also serve to make sure that such offensive products don’t have the same chance of exposure to a wide audience as ones that aren’t. The current marketplaces that distribute the content we consume are set up in such a way that even the people who would enjoy or appreciate such offensive products can’t even find them. This is because the people showing us what content is available are wholly biased towards more politically correct products, and those biases translate to their marketplaces.

Even those who want to consume the content simply cannot find it unless the developer acts in the way that Destructive Creations has by stirring up a lot of controversy around their game. Because it didn’t have an equal chance to shine as all the other games, developers have to resort to tactics like this to make sure their game has a chance of success in the market. Plus, thanks to all the free advertising from those such as myself addressing the controversy, it has actually managed to receive more of a chance than what I think it deserved (that chance being the same chance as every other product).

I am more than willing to bet that the only reason Hatred managed to receive so much traction on Steam Greenlight in order to be approved for distribution on that marketplace was because of the controversy stirred around the game. All of this is the result of a system I feel is just definitively broken, where different products have different chances of success on the market and where consumers interested in content are blocked by indirect censorship.

That doesn’t only apply to ultra-violent video games however. Most of the games rated Adults-Only by the ESRB aren’t rated such because of violence, they are rated that way because of sexuality. We published a piece last week on great visual novels, and a lot of the excellent titles on that list contain overt sexual content. Sex is a very normal thing for grown people to indulge in, but every time it comes up it’s treated as if it’s all perversion, but even more importantly worse than violence! Is there no room for tasteful expression of sex in our art?

Yes, this sort of thing is slowly becoming acceptable, but it’s still another piece of a broken system, where content-creators who are confident enough to create work that don’t have the same chance of reaching an audience as art that is within the norm. I used the term indirect censorship earlier, and discouragement from creating content like this is yet another form of it. Two letters together, A and O, are enough to mean that content we receive is either censored to conform, distributed somewhere where most people would never look, or never reaches us at all.

AO is a retail death sentence, but more importantly is used to conduct indirect censorship.

AO is a retail death sentence, but more importantly is used to conduct indirect censorship.

While I may be against violence for the sake of violence, I do believe it can be used constructively, either for fun, to stir emotions, or to make a point. I also desire more respect for sexual content in games, which seem to be restricted by a society where sex is seen as something that must not be shown or acknowledged. Whether that content is tasteful or tasteless is up to the creator, but I also think there is room for both.

Some art is just tasteless, but it’s something that needs to be accepted in order for the best of it to be experienced. Art has always varied in quality, and it has always been seen differently by different people. Sometimes people enjoy indulging in the tasteless for whatever reason. It’s up to the person, and it’s not something they should be judged for.

If a system is broken, it should be fixed. While the system we have is functional enough for a majority of content, it discourages the exploration of more controversial topics by restricting the capabilities for creators to reach an audience and gather revenue. I’m not sure what a better system would be, but I think one can be found if it is just sought after. Every game deserves the same chance to be seen and purchased by someone who would enjoy it, regardless of whether it’s the next biggest thing, a tasteless ultra-violent gore-fest, or a tasteful interpretation of a relationship between two adult characters.

To be fair, part of the problem also rests on content creators being too afraid to express themselves, and part of the problem rests on the shoulders of those like us who allow the system to exist how it is. Still, I don’t care how long it takes, I just want to see an appreciation for allowing new content into the hands of those who would enjoy it.

I just want to leave you with my opinion that no restrictions should be placed on artists who want to explore areas that are considered offensive. Whether this have to do with violence, sex, or something else is not the issue. If something is bad, it won’t be purchased or celebrated but it will be forgotten or used as an example… but if it’s good, we can grow as people and see things differently. So yes, I think the system is broken in a serious way, and I think it should be fixed so that everyone has a fair chance at success whatever their content involves.

My name is Niko, I'm currently 20 years old. I spend most of my time on my computer gaming as I got hooked on videos games from a young age. While my first experience with video games was with the Gameboy Color, I first got seriously into games while using the original Dreamcast and the PlayStation 1. I played many games back then, but the highlights were definitely Pitfall 3D, Pokemon Blue, Rayman 2, and Ecco the Dolphin Defender of the Future. All games that I spent many many hours on and filled the long hours where I stayed at home mostly by myself thanks to living in unsavory neighborhoods. From then on, I pursued a lot of video game consoles. I was particularly enthralled with the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64. As I grew up further, my tastes shifted and I tried more and more games, especially after I got a PC. My first experience with a PC RPG was Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, and it was really the game that made games an integral part of my life. I played video games a lot back then, but ever since playing KOTOR I've been a lot more opinionated and interested in games. I even entertained the idea of wanting to be a developer at multiple points, but I just didn't have the skillset. Still, KOTOR ignited my interest in video games as a way of telling stories. I loved the ways video games could tell such large and complex stories, combining the best parts of every other medium of entertainment with the unique pieces of what video games themselves offered. Now, my favorite genre is definitely RPG's. With my primary interest being the story driven ones. Though, I still enjoy my occasional shooter and action titles I enjoy mostly great cinematic titles with good stories. Though I also enjoy the Stealth, Strategy, and Action-Adventure genres quite a bit. I also think that the PC is a wildly superior platform to any console, due to the wide variety of options. Whether it be in graphics, mods, or the selection of games themselves.
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