A while back, I addressed the degree of offensiveness in the collectible trading card game Magic: The Gathering, which had made meek moves to clean up its toxic environment. Too little, too late, I pointed out. It got a little attention on social media, some of which pointed at my write-up of the anime Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt and my extremely left-handed praise for works of its kind. What’s with the double standard?
There is no double standard there. The tabletop card game has always been marketed as “for ages 13+.” Anime, even though there are those who will always loudly insist otherwise, is not specifically directed to little kids. In both video games and cartoon shows, we can clap on a “rated M for mature” or “rated PG-13,” what-have-you, and specify a work for mature audiences. The difference is the word “gratuitous.” PASWG has things to say about Western attitudes towards anime culture; it is a commentary. MTG is a family tabletop game simulating fantasy warfare. It doesn’t need to make every other card have an explicit hentai model with giant beach-ball tits. Just print your 2/2 3-mana gray ogre with a funny quote about goblins, turn it sideways, and move on.
The debate over offensive video games
Which leads us to ask, “When is a work offensive?” Because we imply then that an offensive work is an objective line, not suitable for any age. We can’t really come up with an objective standard though, not with stereotypes like this running around:
There are some people who are offended by everything. Most of society tends to mock that attitude as being a fragile snowflake. And then there’s the opposite extreme, those who insist that nothing offends them at all:
Maybe they’re extreme libertarians, maybe they’re just hedonists who enjoy wallowing in filth, or maybe they’re simply trolls lying because they enjoy seeing people upset.
Who’s right? The closest thing we can come to is an average of the consensus between everybody. If one guy objects where nobody else sees anything wrong, that’s the snowflake. If a work incites ire from the masses except for a tiny minority who claim to see nothing wrong, we’re guessing that minority just has a bent moral compass.
So while we navel-pick about this question, it does provide insight into the larger debate of whether video games should be considered an art form. A game such as Tic-Tac-Toe may never be considered art, because it’s just an abstract contest of wits. But as a game becomes more complex, it takes on the same flavor and experience of higher art forms. One could not possibly argue that Tic-Tac-Toe is offensive to anybody. Therefore, video games set themselves apart at some point as being an artistic experience, otherwise they could not offend.
Anyway, you’re here for a list, so let’s get listing. [TRIGGER WARNING] – Obviously from the title, we’re going to cruise into some dark waters here. We’re also going to skip over the later games made to deliberately shock – instead focusing on the pioneers who had no idea they’d generate this much blowback.
The charge: Offensive portrayal of rape and ethnicity.
The evidence: This Atari 2600 game is one of the first adult-marketed games, in which the player is an American general fighting his way through native American attacks to rape a native American woman tied to a pole. At least that’s what is supposed to be happening. It’s ambiguous whether the woman is really tied or just standing there, and she seems to participate with a smile.
The verdict: Pretty offensive alright.
This is a tasteless waste of pixels and an embarrassment to the gaming industry. On the other hand, you could say the same for most games of this type. Custer’s Revenge was the dawn of what we now call erotic video games, of which dating sims could be arguably a category. Hey, we just reviewed Helltaker back here, so what’s the difference? Not all that much, when you think about it. Except in Helltaker, the demon girls are shown to be participating of their own free will through the art of pancake seduction. Also, nobody that we know of – yet – is protesting the game as being an insensitive slur against demons. Fictional creatures are considered fair targets for bigotry.
The only saving grace of Custer’s Revenge is that it’s such an ugly pixelated mess and a transparent rip-off of desperate horny losers that it serves as its own punishment for participation. Anybody who spends hard earned cash to experience being a stack of flesh-colored Lego blocks savaging a square-titted squaw is already living in the dumpster of human existence, and nobody else needs to know about it unless they actively seek it out. But we still have to damn this game pretty hard for being the forbidden fruit of original sin that spawned a whole genre of gross-out games.
The Punch-Out!! Franchise
The charge: Offensive portrayal of many ethnic stereotypes.
The evidence: The popular boxing game simulator is a Nintendo cash cow from the arcade to the NES and Super NES, in which your boxer faces off against a menagerie of opponents. Some of the opponents are of a clearly depicted nationality or ethnicity, representing offensive caricatures of said cultures.
The verdict: A little guilty, but not too much.
Hear me out: The Punch-Out!! series is broad enough to qualify for the South Park defense: An equal opportunity offender. We cringe right away at Bob Charlie or Dragon Chan, but let’s not forget that Bear Hugger seems to be a stereotype of hillbilly / Ozark people. In fact, every opponent could be said to represent an unflattering portrayal of some demographic. You could argue that Gabby Jay (“yay!”) is an ageist depiction of a senior citizen. Soda Popinski, in case you’re wondering what he’s doing here, was bowdlerized from the original “Vodka Drunkinski,” a portrayal of a Russian drunkard.
At the same time, they’re opponents, so it’s hard to see how you could make a game about boxing with people and not show people in a negative light. When it comes to most combat sports, everything that’s offensive about Punch-Out!! is equally offensive about the real sport category the game is based on. Look at real-life pro wrestling: There’s no way Don Flamenco is anything worse than Muhammad Hassan, Papa Shango, or Saba Simba. It’s a game about beating people up; there’s no way to make that kind-hearted. That doesn’t excuse Punch-Out!!, which still goes out of its way to portray some races more offensively than it has to. The game has a handy built-in defense (excuse): “We’re just trying to be realistic.”
The charge: Gruesome game about torturing helpless people.
The evidence: Chiller for the arcade and NES is a shooting-gallery game in which the targets are all people or parts of people lashed down to various torture devices. You just shoot helpless, innocent people, watch them bleed, and score points.
The verdict: Sick entertainment for psychopaths!
We can’t pull any punches this time. Chiller is about being a sadistic misanthropist, the video game equivalent of pulling the wings off flies. Not only do you cap helpless screaming people, but the torture devices are interactive, so you can trigger a guillotine, head press, or stretching rack with a bullet if you’d rather see the victims ripped in half, crushed, or beheaded as opposed to merely being punctured. This is no more challenging than a dartboard, if that. The soundtrack is a somber funeral dirge.
For the defense: Yes, this game has a defense. If you read that interview I linked to, it tells the story of a dying video game company in the early days of Silicon Valley whose management decided that video games were a race to the bottom for violence and gore. So as a final hail-Mary, the programmers were ordered to design the most morbid game they could just to get attention. If you’re asking “What kind of sick bastard made this game?” That’s exactly what they intended for you to ask. Not much of a defense, but at least you know nobody diagnosed with the dark triad designed this game because they thought torturing screaming bleeding people is fun for its own sake.
The Leisure Suit Larry series
The charge: A game about being a sexual predator for the prurient thrill of it.
The evidence: Leisure Suit Larry is a long-running adventure game series launched by Sierra Entertainment. In it, you play a sleaze-ball 1970s-era swinger of the sort Paul and Mary Bland knocked off in Eating Raoul (1982). His whole mission in life is to attempt to get laid.
The verdict: Trashy and crass with loads of poor taste, but lightly justifiable.
In a world where Porky’s (1981), Shallow Hal (2001), and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) are movies, we’re not in a position to judge Leisure Suit Larry too harshly. First off, the protagonist is portrayed as a lame loser. Second, the game is intentionally aimed at the same kind of beer-chugging fratboy that sees every movie Ben Stiller makes. Thirdly, the game franchise is far more concerned with playing up the alleged comedy than depicting the actual sex. I’d have to rule that there’s nothing in the LSL series more offensive than your average one-panel comic from the pages of Hustler magazine. If you say “well that’s a pretty low bar to set,” yes, you are also right, but what are you going to do?
People buy this crap. LSL is its own little culture, with fans who love it precisely because it is so vulgar, dim-witted, and lame. Seriously, the puns in that clip alone are crimes against humanity. If you’re willing to degrade yourself by spending your time playing through this entire series with its rock-bottom quality standards, I’m just glad at this point you have something to keep you occupied and off the streets. It’s not just about the subject matter of the game; the voice acting is bad, the art is bad, the writing is bad, the game design is bad, everything in it sucks. When you mix sex and comedy long enough, you will also eventually make LGBTQ-phobic references. I don’t chalk that up to malice as much as I chalk it up to plain incompetence. Make a general rule to avoid boring garbage and then you won’t be offended by this game or by Benny Hill.
The Grand Theft Auto series
The charge: Violent and antisocial situations in which you play as a criminal; various unflattering portrayals of women, minorities, and people in general.
The evidence: Not only is this game famous for pushing standards on so many fronts over the years, but it’s actively proud of it.
The verdict: At worst, a guilty pleasure; at best, a valuable cultural lesson.
Yes, we reviewed GTA:SA for Android back here and had mostly nothing but praise. And yes, I’ll be the first to admit that the whole GTA series scrapes the bottom of the bad taste barrel once in awhile. But it’s not the first video game to be played from the point of view of a criminal. There’s a whole RPG character class out there called “thief” after all. As for the racial portrayals, they’re borderline with some Spike Lee movies, but the portrayal of females (Hot Coffee mod excluded because, duh, mod) is frankly insulting. The whole series is one misanthropic adventure which shows everyone from Hollywood starlets to L.A. cops as being evil scumbags.
The GTA series has its sins, but wins back points through being a gritty satire of a culture in which thousands of Americans live and die today. During gang wars when it’s all you can do to order a meal at a drive-through without getting ganked, or in those moments when several community members attend a funeral for a member who lived in poverty and died in a senseless crime, as the mourners fume with unfocused rage, the GTA series lets you really feel the streets. If it’s offensive, it’s showing you the offense that a big chunk of America calls “daily life,” mixed in with enough humorous social commentary that even squares who own Falling Down (1993) on Blu-ray can relate.
What Have We Learned?
We learned that it’s impossible to bring up this subject without running out of space. For instance, here we are talking offensive video games and yet we never got to work on this man. A whole generation has grown up without knowing this guy. A man who not only devoted his entire life to demonizing video games, but a man so crazy that his head continuously makes tweety bird and cuckoo clock noises in there. A lawyer who, when he finally got disbarred, motivated marching lines of munchkins to sing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” We literally brought up Grand Theft Auto, see, he’s holding it in his hand despite the scorches the case will leave on his palm.
We’ll leave Jack Thompson for another time.