But there wasn't even time for anyone to get offended by the latest controversy, last week's Scribblenauts affair- something I am loathe to even give a summary of here because I honestly do not understand it. (Here's the Escapist's take on it, which certainly seems like one of their fairer readings of the subject.)
Even more so than the Card issue, there did not seem to be any actual uproar at all before the story was reported - there was no collection of gamers protesting it, no one burning copies of Scribblenauts in the streets or sending death threats to 5th Cell's offices. There was, instead, only a potential for offense, something in the game which could cause anger if you choose to view it in a certain light. An obscure racial reference which no one seems to actually believe was intentional, and which at worst showed that the developer needed to pay more attention to their content (though what it presumably shows is that no one on the development team was aware of the racial references - is not knowing racist references something to be ashamed of now?).
Time was, someone actually had to get offended by something before a controversy existed. We in the gaming industry, never the most patient of types, are now creating controversies where the mere possibility of offense exists. It doesn't matter whether people are actually offended by it, or if they're a mere statistical aberration - and while I'm certain there are people who take genuine offense to both Card's contribution to Shadow Complex and the Scribblenauts affair, you can always find people to take offense to anything. There are people who are genuinely offended by the amount of blood and killing in most major first person titles. Will we be seeing articles about these people when Modern Warfare 2 is released? Somehow, I doubt it.
The worst part of this whole affair is that both Shadow Complex and Scribblenauts are brave and ambitious products attempting to do a lot with very little. They are the kind of titles we in the industry should be supporting, not building non-existent controversy over. And while for these two titles, at least, the publicity will probably be good for sales in the short term, it sets a worrying precedent for future titles.
To put it another way - when we get up in arms about the mere possibility for offense in our videogames, is it any wonder that we end up with so many bland and inoffensive products?
Valid or not, the tabloidization of our media is going to lead to risk-wary publishers increasingly going for the safe decision. Why risk a $30 million project with something that could offend a sliver of society - a gay main character, say - when you can just go for the bald gruff space marine and avoid the issue entirely? Just as with our politicians, who have inevitably become bland and predictable because they are lambasted for saying anything vaguely controversial, so too will our videogames become ever more safe and dull, so long as the risk exists that sales will be affected by unnecessary controversies.
I firmly believe that videogames are art, and as art, not alone should they not be afraid to offend, they should actively seek to challenge popular opinion and the status quo. There are so many more things to be offended by in the games industry - price gouging, the glacial rate of progress, the monopolistic practices of first parties - that the column inches devoted to these topics make cable news networks look intelligent. If we're boycotting anything, please let it be the further tabloidization of our medium.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and wonders if Advent Rising could have used a good controversy.