Games and Art: How Far Is Too Far?

Let me clarify. When I say “how far is too far”, what I mean to say is “what can and can’t we do?”

I ask this because sometimes I think I know, but then other times I don’t. For example, in GTA, you are free to gun down as many civilians as you please, but Manhunt 2 was banned here in the UK for basically the same reason.

Games only typically get banned if the violence and or sexual content is particularly realistic or gratuitous. When it comes to art (whether something traditional like painting/drawing or something performative such as dance or theatre) the rules are quite lax here. I’ve seen actors/actresses pissing, puking, bleeding, and simulating masturbation on stage. Not that I’m complaining. I think when it comes to art, we should be allowed to be subversive and wild and free! We don’t get those chances in everyday life.

I am speaking from experience somewhat. I was trained in theatre from the age of 16, went on to get 2 degrees, including an MA in various theatre practices, specialising in devising and writing new theatre. The great thing about theatre and art in general is that it is very personal. You subconsciously leave your stamp on everything you make.

It’s a little like back in English Literature class when a “blue curtain” meant the writer was “sad”.

Okay, maybe it’s not like that.

It’s a tough decision. On one hand, I believe that art shouldn’t be regulated. Including videogames. They are art, the same way a performance is. On the other hand, if there were no regulations, you’d have more games like Rapelay (WARNING: Disturbing).

I ask these questions because of a couple reasons: 1) I am currently developing a video game, and 2) Work I’ve made has been censored in the past.

Let’s talk about the latter.

During my MA, for my final performance/assessment, I was creating a piece of theatre which I had to censor. And in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t even that bad. But perhaps it was a sign of things to come?

The performance, titled I Can’t Play The Violin was simple: Three flat mates; an openly gay guy, a closeted bi-curious guy, and a straight girl, live together. One night, the bi-curious guy and gay guy fuck. The bi-curious guy admits he had a good time, but doesn’t know what his sexuality is. He also worries about being perceived as gay. The pair talk it out, the end. The do not get into a relationship or anything. It’s just left like that. They are on speaking terms, the end.

“Masculinity” is the biggest focus of the play. The bi-curious guy is a very typical straight British ‘lad’ type (think Wetherspoons, cheeky Nandos, football, and Top Man) with straight male friends. He is worried that he is no longer the manly man he was before and is now something else – “gay”, which to him, in his world, is bad. It’s an old way of thinking, but one that still perseveres today amongst this type of crowd, and others.

As part of his efforts to PROVE he is straight and masculine and likes women and nothing else, the character desperately over compensates, constantly revelling in misogynistic comments, and homophobia. It was some of these misogynistic comments which were censored – particularly a song about pussy and weed. Honestly, I still don’t know why it was censored by my lecturers (what I mean is, when they saw the performance before it officially took to the stage, I was instructed to take it out, because it was “disgusting”).

I mean, isn’t that kinda the point? This character IS disgusting during these moments. He is confused and angry and anxious about himself and his whole world. He had sex with a dude and liked it. This ‘ruins’ everything for him, a ‘straight’ guy. So his behaviour is destructive; getting constantly drunk and high and hitting on women.

This experience has made me a little weary about what I can and can’t include in the game I’m developing. (Though then again, if Rapelay exists, I should definitely be in the clear)

I realise I’ve not talked about it much, if at all on this blog, and I probably won’t do so again for some time. Without spoiling, the game – an RPG – follows an all LGBT+ main cast of characters as they try to escape The Well, a bizarre and frightening reality. The game deals with topics such as mental health, abuse, neglect, and more.

During the game, you will see into various character’s history, including the cast’s, and you will quickly learn that these characters have not lived good lives – they’ve been through traumatic experiences as children and adults. One character was forced into prostitution as a teen, and though nothing is shown, it is implied.

I estimate my game will be either a 12 or a 16. I think the problem is that PEGI focuses a lot on “realism”. For all I know, my game might be rated a 7. Yes, there is violence in the game, but it is pixel art. And not realistic looking pixel art either, it’s 32×32 pixels!

My motto when creating theatre has always been to not care what the audience thinks. To not consider their feelings or experiences. I still hold that value today. But video games are different. I do care. I want people to play, and enjoy No Body. But I also want them to learn. I want them to connect with the characters, and perhaps, if they’ve been through something like this themselves, find some sort of solace, some connection.

But I do fear being censored. I don’t think I will. But it’s always at the back of my mind.

I had some friends read a section of the script and they said it should be edited because it was “too dark”. The reason I got them to read it was because even I, as the writer, was a bit like “yeesh”. You know? And they confirmed it was… very fucking dark. So I changed it. That’s not to say it’s all happy shiny rainbows, it’s still pretty dark, and gets the point across, without being completely uncomfy.

(By the way If you’re interested in finding out more about my game, you can check out the website HERE, or the twitter HERE).

Education time!

Chances are, you don’t know about Bertolt Brecht. If you do, congrats! Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a full rundown of this theatre-maker’s achievements, but there is one bit of theory I want to touch upon.

The verfremdungseffekt – distancing effect – was a technique created and used by Brecht in his work. This technique, in short, was to make sure the audience did not connect with the characters, and to emphasise that “this is just a play, this is not real”. He used this so the audience could focus more on the message of the play rather than the story/characters. The audience were made to feel uncomfortable, uneasy, and were constantly reminded that what they were watching was not real.

I bring this up because I think it is important to make the audience, the player, uncomfortable. To shake up their routine. A game or movie or art or experience that doesn’t shock or surprise or make you think – what’s the point? We should strive to make a point. To make something that contributes to its medium in a meaningful way. And really, that’s what I want to do with everything I make, be it video games, audio drama, theatre, etc.

Anyway. I hope you enjoyed this post!

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