The New Puritanism, or, Some Troubling Tendencies in Video Game Criticism

Is the role of the video game critic to protect us from that which we may find offensive?

Conception II

Publisher: Atlus
Format: Nintendo 3DS, Vita
Price: $39.99
Players: 1
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release date: 2014-04-15

Have video game critics grown overly sensitive? Is the role of the critic to protect us from what might be offensive?

"Lenny Bruce is not afraid."

-- R.E.M., "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", Document, I.R.S., 1987

It isn't uncommon when receiving review codes or review copies of a game from PR representatives to include a few notes to the reviewer and editor about the game itself. I recently asked a rep over at Atlus, a publisher largely known for Japanese import games, for a review copy of the game Conception II for one of my reviewers. Along with some general details about the game and some links to assets like screenshots and videos that could be used in the forthcoming review, that rep sent along a brief FAQ about the game, a series of questions and answers that he felt might be issues that came up for reviewers, like how to deal with multiplayer and other technical issues.

Again, none of this is especially uncommon when receiving a review copy of a game. However, one “question” in the FAQ struck me as interesting. Indeed, unlike the other questions that made up the FAQ, it actually wasn't framed as the kind of question that he foresaw a reviewer asking. It was phrased as a statement that a reviewer might make about the game:

Q: I find this game offensive!

A: That’s totally fine. I will default to your journalistic ethics to determine how much it affects your review scores. If you have deeper concerns, I will be eager to talk to you about any issues you have.

This “question” provoked any number of questions in me. Has Atlus grown so accustomed to their games being seen as offensive that they felt the need to say this? Does this speak to the tendency of video game reviews and video game criticism to discuss offensive material more commonly as the medium has matured and increasingly produced “edgier” content? Does this speak to some tendency in video game reviewers and video game critics to get offended easily? Maybe all of the above?

Now, I personally didn't know too much about Conception II when I queried Atlus on behalf of my reviewer, so I ran a quick search on Wikipedia out of curiosity concerning why Conception II might be potentially offensive and read a brief description of what the game is all about. Apparently, Conception II is a game about a high school kid charged with saving the world (no big shock, as that is often the premise of JRPGs). The twist to this common narrative premise is that, like the Persona series , I guess, the protagonist must create relationships with others in order to empower himself in forthcoming battles. Unlike Persona, though, all of these relationships concern fostering relationships with young women in order to produce “star children” that will be helpful in battling evil (which also finally gave me some sense of why the game was called “conception”). Essentially, the game sounds as if it will be a dating/mating simulator.

Is that offensive? I don't know. I haven't played the game.

Does it sound a little weird and potentially troubling? Sure, maybe, but again, I don't know. I haven't played the game.

What also struck me about the whole situation is that I had recently received an e-mail from a PR representative from another company, Idea Factory International, that imports Japanese games to the United States, an e-mail of a vaguely similar nature.

The e-mail's subject line read, “Regarding the decision to censor Monster Monpiece” Again, I was unfamiliar with the game at the time, but what followed was a description of a digital card game involving a group of “Monster Girls” who would be portrayed on the cards in a very sexualized way. The gist of the company's position lay in the following paragraph:

We work very hard to satisfy our fans and want to bring the same content being offered in Japan. However, Western society is not as lenient as that of Japan when sexual images are involved -- especially images of humanoids that appear to be younger than a socially acceptable age. The borderline of what is “acceptable” will always be extremely gray and vary from person to person, but as a responsible company working in the U.S., we had to make the difficult decision that we did. We sincerely apologize for those who do not agree with any level of censorship, but we greatly appreciate your understanding with the decision we have made.

Once, again, I am not entirely certain what to make of this information. Admittedly, the above paragraph made me feel a bit more uncomfortable about the content of Monster Monpiece right from the get go, than my later reading of the contents of Conception II. Indeed, Monster Monpiece does not sound like a game that I want to play myself due to my sense of the potential nature of the content. However, looking back at this e-mail having more recently read the e-mail from Atlus, some similar questions begin to arise about what various game companies' expectations have become concerning how offensiveness is dealt with in the gaming press, as well as the kinds of reactions that have become all too common in that same press.

In the “Preface” to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the playwright Oscar Wilde says of literature, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. “ Wilde's statement, of course, resists the tendency of literary criticism towards an ethical criticism, instead suggesting that what books are to be evaluated on is on their quality of design, nothing else. This statement is likely problematic for those critics who see the chief value of art criticism as being ethical or political in nature, given that the ethics on display in a work of art are often those critics' chief interest.

Indeed, though, Wilde goes on to say that ethical concerns are not what the artist is all about, saying simply, “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style,” and here is why Wilde sees this as true, “The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” Now, please understand that this argument does not get Conception II or Monster Monpiece off the hook for critical evaluation, but what it does suggest is that the role of the critic is to consider the value of the work (whether it is “well written or badly written” or, perhaps, more clearly put in terms of games, whether it is well designed or poorly designed), not to evaluate the values that the work represents, as these are merely its materials.

And indeed, if one begins looking at the history of literature, one quickly finds that there are an awful lot of books that might seem to be (or have been very often seen) as morally or politically offensive in nature: Nabokov's Lolita, (which might seem especially apt here), Joyce's Ulysses, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, anything written by Phillip Roth or Chuck Palahniuk, and the list goes on and on. These books are seen in literature as incredibly important works despite their potential immorality, sexism, racism, troubling sexual content, and possible pornographic content. Indeed, some of them have even been eventually seen as important because of their handling of such materials, not despite them at all.

Once again, this doesn't mean that Conception II or Monster Monpiece are as significant or as artistically rendered as Lolita or Ulysses or Huckleberry Finn, but it does ask that the critic consider these works' relative value as what they are, games, and how well they are constructed as a result before jumping to knee jerk conclusions about them. And frankly, in video game criticism where discussion of previews and teasers and PR releases is so common and so frequent, there is much to be said about critics' tendencies towards their own ethical sympathies, rather than to their concern with evaluating whether a work is very, simply put, “good” or not.

I have been troubled by discussions over the years with game critics about games like Bayonetta and Grand Theft Auto V concerning these games' questionable content, who when asked, “Have you played it yet?,” then hem and haw and tell me about what they think are the troubling ethical and moral concerns of what they “have heard” or what they “have seen” in a screenshot or in a trailer, not in what they have actually experienced as a whole. These critics seem to me to be considering the materials of a potentially artistic work, without considering instead how those materials are handled in the work as a whole, or having given consideration to the idea that offensive material might be extremely important material to successful expression.

I frequently refer to criticism of this kind as the “New Puritanism”, and I see it as coming as commonly from the political Right, as I do the political Left, from deeply religious people, as I do from staunch atheists. And frankly, I see these recent e-mails as a kind of representation of the chilling effect of that attitude of criticism. It places the artist in a bind. Not offending anyone has the potential of cutting off the artist from perfectly valid material, from perfectly valid expression.

I don't know what I think of Conception II or of Monster Monpiece. Again, how could I? I haven't played them. But I do know that I admire that PR rep at Atlus who simply states that finding the game “offensive” is “totally fine”. He has at least given the critic, the journalist the space to express what he or she wants to about the game, and he at least seems confident enough in the game as a whole to have an open discussion about its materials and to advocate for putting the game out there to be judged, regardless of whether its material is offensive or not.

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