Explicit content: why can't games get away with it?

If you want respect, behave accordingly

When it comes to the violent, the titillating and the graphic, developers and publishers of so-called "triple-A" games often insist that they're subject to a cultural double standard. Other entertainment industries, they claim, and in particular Hollywood, get away with degrees of explictness that would make Kratos cringe. The merest whiff of a glimpse of an intimation of such content in videogames is enough, meanwhile, to snow PR departments under for months.

There's a certain truth to the associated allegation that gaming is simply society's latest scapegoat, doomed to shoulder the brunt of middlebrow squeamishness till all those who resent the medium's existence grow up or die off. But when the backlash comes from behind the Maginot line - from players and the specialist press - it's worth asking whether those ostracised are to some extent responsible for their own ostracism. More specifically, it's worth asking why the right to explicitness is of such paramount importance, when alluding to something dreadful can have the same impact, without abusing the player's intelligence.


Consider Life is Beautiful, an Oscar-winning box office smash directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. It's one of the most sweet-natured, upbeat things you'll ever see on a screen, occasionally to the point of mawkishness, and that's saying a lot given that it's also a meditation on the Holocaust. Lead character Guido Orefice's priority throughout is to shield his son Giosuč from gross inhumanities by dressing it all up as a child's game, and this protective agency extends to the viewer. Thanks to Guido's magnetic, madcap persona, there's shockingly little ugliness in Life is Beautiful. The carnage is present, but rarely depicted. The closest it gets - and the closest the film comes to disclosing its own agenda - is during a dream, when Guido retreats in silence before the hazy spectacle of a heap of bodies, holding Giosuč's face to his shoulder.

Many in the games business have yet to learn this trick of pulling back. Instead, they revel in the unflinching portrayal of the bare material event, aiming well below the lowest common denominator in their eagerness to appal. One of Homefront's most infamous moments comes when the player is invited, via a context-sensitive command, to jump into a mass grave. Far Cry 3 sees you clambering out of a charnel pile, shoving the dead aside with taps of a button, and Max Payne 3 allows the player to carry on pumping bullets into a target throughout each grisly cutaway execution. Both the latter are smart, compelling games for the most part, which makes their occasional lapse into crudeness all the more depressing.

There are subtler takes, like Spec Ops: The Line, but they're in the minority - and any claim a producer might make that there's more going on than meets the eye tends to falter the second what does meet the eye forms part of the sales pitch. Tomb Raider, for instance, may well prove to be a searching and substantial portrayal of a young woman's struggle for survival, as Crystal Dynamics insists. But it's hard not to have doubts about motives when Lara's highly graphic pain and suffering are the hinge from which the pendulum of publicity swings.


To recap, the key point of contention is: "if films can depict these things, why not us?" Well, in short - because films have just about earned our trust. Yes, there are regular moments of shame, like Jar Jar Binks and Michael Bay's sad taste in gap-toothed African-American robots - routine reminders that we need to be vigilant for the bigotry, cynicism or mere idiocy of creators. But enough blockbuster film-makers have their eggs in order that we don't set the curtains on fire over the very thought of Tyrannosaur, The Lovely Bones or even The Dark Knight - respectively, films which deal with domestic abuse, child murder and sociopathic behaviour.

Triple-A games publishing has still, by contrast, to evolve beyond the point where the prospect of a game that conjures the suggestion of, for instance, rape goes unchallenged. And within the walls of the hobbyist community, at least, those affected have nobody to blame but their own, sad obsession with their God-given right to brutalise and objectify as horrifically as the dregs of rival media.