Taking Offense: The Battle for Censorship in Gaming, bulletstorm, carole lieberman, gaming violence

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Ever since Wolfenstein made its PC debut in 1992, concerned parents and psychologists have banded together in an effort to keep excessive violence off the screen. Many game developers have taken the opposite track, pushing the boundaries of digestible violence and creating games for which “strategic dismemberment” is a core element of the experience. This past month, the battle for censorship escalated when self-described “media psychiatrist” Carole Lieberman claimed that video game violence could be linked with an increase in rape.

On February 8th, Lieberman was quoted in a Fox News article titled, “Is Bulletstorm the Worst Video Game in the World?” The article quoted Lieberman as saying, “The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games.” Obviously, there are some factual issues with her claim (namely, that she doesn’t cite any facts), but Wired has done such a great job debunking the claim that it seems pointless to rehash things. I’m more interested in the ways this type of rhetoric polarizes the discussion around violence in gaming and stymies our ability to scrutinize the industry.

Bulletstorm is indeed an excessively violent video game. The game rewards players for getting creative with their kills and uses sexual innuendo to further glorify that creativity. Kill multiple foes with one explosion and you’ve earned a “Gang Bang.” Among the other achievements: Drilldo, Rear Entry, Gag Reflex, and Mile High Club. Players can even earn a “Fire in the Hole” achievement for shooting an enemy in the ass. The list reads like an Andrew Dice Clay routine. It is tasteless, vulgar, and yet people clamor to defend it. For the most part, I understand their fervor. If the game’s greatest crime is against taste, well, slap a mature rating on that bad boy and ship it. I won’t be buying it. When I have kids, they won’t be playing it. But if someone wants to spend hours running circles around zombies just to get that 1000th ass shot, well, who am I to stop them.

What happens, though, when developers go beyond tastelessness? This summer, Ubisoft will release “Call of Juarez: The Cartel.” The official site claims:

“This first-person shooter brings the lawlessness of the Old West into present day. You’ll embark on a bloody road trip from Los Angeles to Juarez, Mexico immersing yourself in a gritty plot with interesting characters and a wide variety of game play options. Take justice into your own hands in this modern Western shooter.”

The issue, of course, is that cartels are taking justice into their own hands in Ciudad Juarez. Cartel activity has resulted in thousands of deaths over the last decade. In 2011 alone, hundreds of people have been killed, including a particularly violent 72-hour span at the end of February during which 53 people were killed. Forget, for a moment, that kids get their hands on violent video games all the time. Forget all the studies about adolescent development and teen aggression. Forget the idiot doctors making unfounded claims linking rape and video games and just think about what it would be like to play out the evening news on an Xbox. The school teachers in Juarez instruct children to lie flat at the sound of gunfire. One of the residents found a human head in the street just a couple weeks ago. Eight people are murdered every day in Juarez and Ubisoft is spending as much as $25 million to make the city into a game.

I can think of only one game that has made me feel quite so ill as I feel while writing this: Super Columbine Massacre RPG. As the title suggests, the game puts the player in control of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999. The game is abhorrent on every level and utterly fails at any sort of artistic expression or human exposition. It is petty and exploitative, juvenile and ill-conceived. And yet, I still find Ubisoft’s “Call of Juarez: The Cartel” more offensive, if only because a team of developers and decision makers should know better. Danny Ledonne, author of Super Coumbine Massacre RPG, was just a kid when he made the game. He didn’t have millions of dollars to throw at the idea. He didn’t sit in a board room and greenlight the project. He took a tragedy and cheapened it, exploited it by making it a game, but he did it by himself and was willing to stand accountable for the outcome.

Somewhere beyond the claims that video games cause or increase or encourage violent crimes lies the simple fact that video games can have serious moral and psychological implications. In most cases, censorship is irrelevant. Does Ubisoft have the right to make “Call to Juarez: The Cartel?” Sure. But should that be entertainment? Should we continue to support development of games that trivialize the worst aspects of the human experience? I’d like to think the answer to that question is obvious. Someone, please issue Ubisoft a memo.

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