Transgressive games in the media

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Researching the transgressive aesthetics of games is a very relevant topic. In the past few months there have been several debates about censorship and controversial content in games. The timeliness of the project is also stressed by recent debates and attacks on the freedom of expression. In this blogpost I will present a collection of commentaries and news articles from the media that put focus on some related issues.

Hatred and the re-emergence of ultra-violence
A game that has been characterized as transgressive in recent news is Hatred. Here the player takes the role of a mass murderer killing innocents motivated only by a general sense of hatred towards the world. While the transgressive point of departure of the game may indeed by a PR stunt meant to draw attention towards the game, another controversy related to the game is the fact that members of the development team are far right sympathizers. Valve pulled the game from Steam Greenlight, but changed their decision, stating that “Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers”, indicating that it’s not Valve’s place to censor games based on content. A few days later Polygon wrote a longer feature about the transgressions of Hatred, linking it to the important issue of freedom of expression.

UNICEF sees games as a non-serious medium
A game pitch at the Video Gamers United convention last fall was experienced as so disturbing that people from the audience walked out. Elika’s Escape is not an actual game, but a fake game used in a UNICEF campaign in order to draw attention towards the humanitarian catastrophes that happen every day in refugee camps. Casting the player in the role as a seven year old refugee girl who has lost her family, the campaign is using the game medium in order to create an extreme contrast – that between the harsh realities of the world and the idea that games are only about fun and non-serious entertainment. UNICEF’s strategy is to draw attention to this issue by using a game concept that is crossing the line of what a game can be about.

Polygon: Some games should be transgressive
In an article commenting on both Elika’s Escape and Hatred, Polygon explains why some games should be transgressive and why censoring games is a bad thing. As the article argues, there are voices inside the gaming community which welcome games that have the ability to approach controversial and serious issues in a mature way, thus are pointing out that transgressive content must be understood from a player’s perspective and how it is experienced when playing the particular game. This resonates with the GTA project, which argues that transgressive content may appear repulsive from the point of view of observers, but may be re-framed from the point of view of players actually engaging with that content. In the play situation and also in the fictional context of the gameworld, that which appears speculative may be re-negotiated. For instance, while heavily criticized by pressure groups, Grand Theft Auto players argue that game is satire and that the gameplay is superb. If Elika’s Escape was to be an actual game, this game could let the players suffer with Elika, making them empathize with the girl, and better understand the situation. While such a game could certainly be an unpleasant experience that pushes the player out of their comfort zone, it could lead to reflection and have a real impact. Transgressive in this sense may relate to what goes beyond the boundaries of what we expect and are prepared to experience when playing a game.

Transgressive content as subjectively experienced
Recently, the discussion of controversial content in games has not been limited to digital games. The card game Cards Against Humanity asks the players to combine cards to form typically politically incorrect jokes. The game is playing with the boundary of the transgressive, and it is the ability to make offensive ideas and concepts into jokes that makes the game. For some players, however, the jokes don’t stay on the safe side, but transgresses the boundary and becomes nothing but offensive, losing all its humorous value as they ask the player to laugh at racism, sexism, incest and violence. Nevertheless, re-negotiations may also happen as players reject destructive jokes and celebrate encouraging answers. This example shows that transgressions are very much subjectively experienced and context dependent.

In a piece about the “worst depictions of females in games”, Polygon also stresses how gender representation even though they may appear unproblematic for some audiences, may be experienced as offensive by others. Bayonetta may be a good example here, as some audiences see her as a strong female protagonist and thus a positive portrayal of females, while others experience that Bayonetta’s focus on sexuality and the voyeuristic camera-use are transgressive because they are so exaggerated.

Some may argue that there is a difference between content that is offensive to some, and content that most will agree is transgressing boundaries of decency. However, transgressions will always be culturally dependent, something which is demonstrated for instance by the – in European eyes – strange taboo in American entertainment against sexual content, while having comparatively few restrictions against violence.

About Kristine Jørgensen

Professor in Media Studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen. Project manager and principal investigator of the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project.

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