I: ‘Do what I say, not what I do’
I’ve taken issue with the opinion of IGN Playstation editor Colin Moriarty in the past. A few months ago when Moriarty loudly decried the temerity of fans who would dare question the rushed, illogical, nihilistic endings of Mass Effect 3 (a game whose creators themselves went on to agree needed ‘clarification’ with a free ‘Extended Cut’), I lamented the way in which Moriarty, despite being a mouthpiece for the videogame community, had joyfully set back the debate over the validity of games being Art with a number of stifling and anachronistic sentiments about the way that they should be approached as texts.
In a curiously hypocritical declaration for a game-reviewer, Moriarty had posited that audiences had no right to be heard by the creators of videogames, that their only options in engaging with a text were to either purchase the work and unquestioningly praise it, or to not buy it, shut your mouth, and walk away. For Moriarty there was no avenue for feedback or critique; you either paid your money or got the hell out: nothing to discuss here. Seeing this as a shockingly reductive way in which to interact with any work of Art – let alone in the still-burgeoning medium that videogames represent – I concluded that Moriarty was probably in the wrong profession, and that his stifling hostility certainly did the legitimacy of his own position as a critic no favours at all.
At the time I had hoped that Moriarty would prove this strange outburst to be a momentary lapse of thought. Having finished venting his ire at the ‘entitled whiners’ of the Mass Effect community who seemed to have somehow personally offended him by not agreeing to being satisfied when he told them to, I believed he would return to his function as a reviewer, perhaps even, one day, looking back to appreciate (if never vocalising) the irony that his very career was based upon the commentary he had condemned others for attempting. And yet, only months after his first outburst, in the past week Moriarty has chosen to cast his net even wider. Expanding his buy-it-or-shut-the-hell-up treatise to the whole of the videogame world, Moriarty has decided to decry the ‘Political Correctness’ that he imagines is stifling all creativity in the field.
II: All the little things…
In an opinion piece published on the IGN Playstation website, Moriarty argues that, as he sees it, all videogame Art is currently under threat. Games in the midst of development, he argues, are being choked by the whims of vocal minorities; voices of complaint are stifling the creativity and innovation of developers, compelling them to change their visions based upon the most insignificant of personal grievances. All because, as he states, ‘Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy.’*
But what are those inconsequential ‘tizzy’-inducing ‘somethings’?
Well, helpfully Moriarty offers a list. They are: rape; the sanctity of people’s religious beliefs; and graphic recreations of ongoing real-world military bloodshed (actual events in which currently serving soldiers have watched their squad mates die).
You know? The small stuff.
Extraordinarily, considering how harangued he sounds in his Chicken Little proclamations, Moriarty offers no legitimate examples to support his claims this kind of censorship is rife. Citing the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot (in which pre-release advertising showed the game’s protagonist being overtly threatened with sexual assault), the game Smite (which offers gratuitous and unflattering depictions of Hindu Gods), and the now-cancelled Six Days In Fallujah (an FPS that recreates in painstaking detail the real-world events of the bloody insurgency in Fallujah), Moriarty argues that somehow – he’s not actually able to articulate how, but he can feel it: somehow – these games are being stripped of all creativity and communicative potential by voices of dissent that would question how such subject matter is being depicted. However, in the three examples he has selected only one can perhaps be said to have been effected by the criticism it received. Tomb Raider and Smite are both confirmed to be going ahead without any alterations at all, and it still remains unclear why publishers Konami pulled the release of Six Days In Fallujah – though one can fairly comfortably suspect that it was more to do with projected sales figures than the moral outrage of a ‘vocal minority’.
For Moriarty even the suggestion that one could question any of the design decisions in these games equates to an affront to free speech, but as now appears to be the case with his entire thought process he misses the nuance that can put these complaints into context. The issue with Lara Croft’s threatened rape in the recent trailer was not that the subject matter of sexual assault itself should never be depicted in fiction, it was that it was being used, cynically, as a tool through which to disempower the central protagonist in order to make her sympathetic to a playing audience. Much of the complaint centred around the suggestion that we, the players, needed to be so ham-fistedly manipulated, that we would feel no compulsion to follow a strong female character unless she was first violated and beaten down, a weakened damsel in distress that we, with our godly player-agency, could rescue from the ravenous advances of predatory men.** It was an advertising move that insulted its audience as much as it did the heroine (who thankfully, we were soon assured, was not actually going to suffer a sexual assault).
Indeed, in order to scramble up to his fearful, speculative peak, Moriarty has had to completely ignore the reality that in the history of the medium very little – indeed almost none – of this so called ‘Political Correctness’ has ever actually succeeded in altering the design of a game. Nonetheless, he believes that all dissenting opinions (such as those of veterans of war who questioned how appropriate it was to release a sensationalised portrait of an ongoing conflict in Six Days… – this is literally the argument Moriarty makes***) should always be ignored in favour of the marketplace, which has a better chance of regulating the material to which the public should be exposed. Instead of debate and dialogue, Moriarty proudly subscribes to a form of Darwinian Capitalism in which the dollar is the sole measure of a text’s artistic merit.
And who knows, perhaps he’s right. It’s certainly true that money has, in the past, always been the best arbiter of Art. That’s why Transformers remains the most important cinematic touchstone in recent history; why Twilight is the finest piece of literature to have elevated the written word; and why Justin Bieber is widely considered to be history’s finest composer.
…Hold on. What?!
Alongside being patently idiotic, Moriarty’s purely commercial vision would also theoretically silence any critic who did not speak with their wallet …although it goes without saying that Moriarty (as a ‘critic’) reserves the right to himself complain about whatever he feels (it would appear that he is either addicted to, or is incapable of comprehending, irony).
III: ‘Yer with us, or agin us’
To arbitrarily shut argument down, to point to some mythic commercial idol that will somehow rescue us from the need to converse with one another about social and artistic issues is so mind-numbingly reductive that it is hard to believe Moriarty could be unaware of the false dichotomy he employs. By pointing to some mythic commercial idol that will rescue us from the responsibility of actually having to think for ourselves Moriarty uses the oldest and most rote means of shutting any discussion down; in his new fallacious bipolarity of argument he decrees that either everything is allowed, or everything is not:
‘Should we succumb to the plight of political correctness and let it ruin the creativity of our industry like it’s corrupted so many other artistic avenues? Or should we stand up and say “anything goes” and encourage the creative minds that give us the games we love to push the envelope, social consequences be damned?’
It’s the kind of infantile either/or scenario that is popular in any rhetorically specious debate: ‘Well if you don’t agree that torture is acceptable then you’re pro-terrorist’; ‘If you eat meat then you can’t complain about animal cruelty’; if you laughed at Leno you must hate Dave; Pepsi versus Coke; Jacob versus Edward; ninja versus robot. In discourse it’s the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears and shouting ‘La la la la laaaa…’ to avoid responding to contrary opinion. It’s pathetic.****
Indeed, in any other circumstance it would be comical to hear someone so witlessly misapplying this kind of arbitrary delineation to a debate on artistic merit. It is as if Moriarty were intentionally evoking each cliché of in the history of turgid irrational screeds. We get the predictably uncontextualised Benjamin Franklin quote; the ‘Thought Police’ have their obligatory mention; and his tantrum even comes packaged with its own victimhood complex: I’m sick of being told how to live; I know plenty of fire fighters but I never stop anyone saying anything about 9/11!!, etc. Taken completely out of context (as Moriarty impossibly wants people to consume all Art), his opinion piece is an hilarious, although unwitting, parody – the indignation of a paranoiac with a persecution-complex, wailing that the ‘PC’ bogeymen are ruining all his fun.
However, as Moriarty is not joking, and as these opinions are being espoused by a commentator who is himself a member of the gaming press, this ludicrous fear-mongering has the potential to be quite harmful for a new medium of expression that has, throughout its relatively short span, struggled for legitimacy in a world that frequently dismisses it as juvenile distraction. Moriarty might well be content to pursue an illusory enemy, leaving his city to burn in the process, but for those of us who do genuinely care to see the videogame form accepted for the innovative artistic medium that it is, seeing someone who should be using their platform to advance this message instead railing like a petulant child is quite disheartening. I can only presume that this is why his employers at IGN provided a more rational response from a fellow editor the next day, seeking perhaps to offset the unflattering portrait his eruption presented of the contemporary gamer.*****
For critics who have long dismissed videogames as the competitive playthings of people too self-involved to conceive of what the purpose of ‘Art’ actually is, Moriarty’s petulant ultimatums – silencing debate and reducing the medium to pure consumer product – will confirm their every ugly stereotype of games and the people who play them. Rather than innovative texts that have the capacity to redefine narrative experience and audience interaction, games will merely remain a means of juvenile gratuitous satisfaction, feeding whatever wanton or base desire for which its customers are willing to pay. By reducing the conversation of Art down to a cartoonishly politicised either/or proposition, Moriarty undermines the very validity he claims to defend and risks making gamers everywhere look like infantile fools.
IV: ‘The reason we all have one mouth but two ears’
In the end, Moriarty sounds like little more than a brat throughout his opinion piece, squealing for his toys as the big mean ‘Politically Correct’ mummies and daddies of the world try to tell him that sometimes it’s important to think of someone else in the world besides himself. Indeed, there are so many things wrong with his ill-conceived fantasy of a commercially-dictated artistic merit that in trying to formulate a rejoinder it is difficult to know where to start.
Does one begin by pointing out that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, so profit alone is no validation of Art? Does one explain to Moriarty what the highly profitable pornography industry actually is, and how profitable it has proved over the years – since he seems to have made himself wilfully unaware? No. In the end, one needs to settle on the simplest answer; the most fitting response in this case. One needs to offer him the advice one would offer to the tantrum of a child:
Despite what you might think, Moriarty, you don’t know everything.
No one person does. And it is only through being willing to participate in healthy, adult discussion that works of artistic merit (and ideally of profit) can be produced, dissected, and enjoyed.
For all his bleating about protecting the rights of freedom of speech and expression, Moriarty is so busy weeping for the fun he imagines himself to be denied that he utterly forgets about the social responsibility that any self-respecting artist should value. No artwork is divorced from the social and cultural milieu into which it is presented; no artist works in a vacuum. Any piece of Art (if it is to be considered worthy of the title) – and even if it aspires to speak for generations beyond its time – remains a conversation with an audience that cannot be divorced from its context.
Simply being able to say something is no immediate indication that one should (as Moriarty’s own article proves); and reminding artists that they have a duty to communicate something of value, not to simply pander to whatever base desire floats momentarily across the transom of their mind is not the Orwellian censorship about which Moriarty apoplectically shrieks. It is simply part of the organic dialogue of creativity in which every artist must participate; to pretend otherwise, to mistakenly equate ‘freedom of speech’ with a reckless abandon for purpose and taste is to fundamentally devolve the act of expression itself.
It would therefore serve us all – artists, audiences and critics – to remember that communication itself is the most elemental component of all artistic expression, and lies at the heart of every interaction between audience and text. Videogames offer us an unprecedented window into a thrilling new relationship between creator and player; but with restrictive voices like Moriarty in the gaming press conceitedly shouting such dialogue down, then the debate over whether videogames should be considered Art is only made needlessly harder to justify; they become nothing more than soulless product met by a silent audience, made-to-order fare with nothing innovative to say and nothing to ask of their player.
** The producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku stated that he wanted players to feel an urge to ‘protect’ Lara from danger: ‘When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.’ (http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft)
*** ‘Never mind that we have hundreds of games about World War II – a war in which some 65 million people died – anything to do with Iraq should be censored. Why, because it just happened?’ (http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games)
**** Besides, the ninja clearly wins.