Free speech, big publishers and game makers

Some passionate words from a Gamasutra article (quoted from the end of page 3):

Free speech is not a marketing plan. Free speech is only any good if you take advantage of its invitation. So I say this to you, my video game maker brethren: say something. Say it like you mean it. Otherwise you just make a mockery of those who do, those who have the courage – the honor even – to go out on a limb, to compromise their popularity, their success, their safety even on behalf of something more than a bonus check.

Free speech is defended in courts, but it is practiced on the streets and in the media by people who want to intervene in their world, not just to occupy it. Commercial video games deserve a place at that table, to be sure. Whether they will ever choose to show up for dinner is an open question.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ian Bogost, there. There is a great, unfulfilled need for big publisher games with something to say and we will not have them if someone doesn’t start making them.

The full article talks about EA’s decision to remove the title Taliban from Medal of Honor multiplayer and the First Amendment rights of game makers.

Why would a video game publisher say anything that would cost them sales? How can you expect a corporation to willingly make a decision that would “compromise their popularity”?

I’m all for video games saying something worthwhile, but it seems misguided to expect that from companies that have yearly earnings reports riding on the popularity of the latest release.

If you have to make a call upon your right of free speech you are most likely going to say something that might divide your customer base. Why would they want to do that? Well perhaps they would, but I doubt their investors do. And we all know that their investors aren’t the smartest of people (looking at all the failed WoW clones that have been near endlessly financed in the hope of striking gold just as much as the original).

Wow. Don’t even know where to begin, but “Ian Bogost’s reach exceeds his grasp” seems like a good start.

How about market growth ? There seems to be quite a market for books and movies with a clear opinion, isn’t there ?

It’s not as if Clancyesque macho fiction didn’t have a meaning… A very retarded meaning, but a meaning nevertheless.

Someday when EA has the resources and can hire more than a handful of people, maybe they’ll put together some people to do market research to determine if having the word “Taliban” in the title of their game would grow their sales and market or cost them.

To clarify this point, with which I agree, for large, publicly-traded game companies such as Acti-Blizzard and E.A., yearly earnings reports are delivered to shareholders who are officially part-owners of company. As an executive at such a company, you are beholden to shareholders to produce value and profits that increase value of the stock, and are generally not at liberty to make an unpopular decision that could cost shareholders money. Your job, instead, is to generate as much profit as possible (which may or may not make you an evil moneygrubber ala the image Mr. Kotick carries). Failure to generate profits makes you a bad executive and eventually puts you on chopping block.

Implying that Medal of Honor: We’re Just As Good As Call of Duty has something as important to say about war as the movies The Hurt Locker, Restrepo, and The Deer Hunter is a bad way to start that article.

One reason would be to be able to hold up something they made as a cultural breakthrough in the medium. That’s something to point out to your more educated country club golf and tennis pals. The critical awards look nice on the mantlepiece, too.

Aren’t movie companies able to achieve the same even though they also work in the popular media?

Renaming a side is not subtext. The subtext will be to make the taliban side have weapons has powerfull has the usa ones. And maybe add the ability for USA soldiers to take a AK-47, and make such weapon interesting and better than some USA ones.
That will be a subvertive and powerfull subtext.

Renaming things to avoid criticism is what artist do. You are a writter living in soviet russia and want to critice the party? Easy do!, you just write “science-fiction” and attack the idiotic “Machine empire”.

The “Text” of games is pretty ignorable, the fun only start on the subtext.

I’d rather have the bonus check.

That’s a fine quote. I find it hard to believe that EA will ever exercise its 1st amendment rights for political purposes, or indeed, for any laudable purpose whatsoever. EA executives, producers and designers must have known they’d be controversial with playable Taliban, but they presumably expected mere tut-tutting from the establishment, and positive publicity from this “bold” move or they wouldn’t have conceived and approved the idea.

The retraction in the face of whatever outrage was honestly expressed by the public and dishonestly by the press and by high-horse politicians obviously has nothing to do with the suppression of free speech, and is simply PR CYA.

The average level of culture (to use a clumsy and not quite appropriate word) of the game industry is so low and retarded that it might well be quite some time before a major publisher comes out with any game that has anything important to say, politically, intellectually, or socially. But then, I don’t think most people really want their games to say such things, so what the heck.

Anyhow, it is kind of interesting that so many people didn’t think playable Taliban would be a bad idea. Imagine some popular tabletop game being marketed in the 40s where you could play as a Nazi or as the Japanese… Whether this is a sign of culture development or debasement, I have no idea.

Making works with a message isn’t firing-worthy in movies.

It could have something important to say if the makers put it in there. The potential is the point and will never be realised if present trends continue. Bucking them starts with raising the issue.

Yes. If the latest trend of big corporate entities who manufacture things for public consumption creating those things to appeal to the widest audience and lowest common denominator continues, we sure will see some new things.

Not everyone thinks or has to think that way. There is room for games with a message and games without one in the medium. Not every book has a message beyond genre trappings.

Gamers are far too immature to handle “message” games. Even now, if any developer dares show any opinion or discusses themes in the games, the forums are full of “LOL!!1! pretentious twit, I just want to shoot things!!1!” Remember, gamers want games full of meaning until games full of meaning appear, at which point they want games where they just shoot stuff and don’t have to think too hard.

Also, who says there aren’t message games? Every shooter is basically a right-wing wet dream, a la those Tom Clancy novels. “America, fuck yeah!” jingoism is a message. Red Faction Guerrilla had a message. Hell, there are tons of messages in games; Bogost is just expecting them in summer blockbuster popcorn games. Sorry, dude; that’s like criticizing Iron Man 2 for not being a referendum on Bush’s America.

You’re an amazing artist. Next meeting, when someone’s talking about really doing something fantastic that may have the slightest risk involved, whip that one out to impress the team.

It’s not an either/or decision. You can have both. You could make something meaningful to you and others, and still make money with it. Ask James Cameron.

Sure. It could. I could fly and herd moon ponies as well. I think we all knew what kind of game EA was making.

The one thing Ian gets right in the article is that the Taliban in the game is totally interchangeable with “Opposing Force” or whatever other generic shooter bad guy targets you’d like to name them.

I’d love to see a video game about combat that has something more substantive to say than “explosions look cool” but I don’t think we’re going to se it from the likes of Activision or EA. I’m pretty sure that some indie outfit will do it.

I was being a little funny there but if it comes down to an either/or situation, I really will take the bonus check. If we can do both, that’s great too.

I think games with a message that are doomed to fail commercially are pretty squarely in the realm of the indie developer these days. Large companies can’t really afford to do the “art” games and keep the doors open.

At the same time, you don’t need to use “ripped from the headlines” factions/races/nations to say something about terrorism, or whatever issue you’re wanting to talk about. If anything, you’re guaranteed to date your game/message over time.