Market Censorship, Old and New
(A previous version of this article was posted with sales numbers from Dead or Alive Xtreme 1 attributed to Dead or Alive Xtreme 2. This has been corrected, as well as correcting a couple of grammar errors.)
The year is 1985, the month August. A bipartisan, but primarily left leaning, group called the Parents Music Resource Committee (PMRC) formed a year earlier, lead by a group of concerned wives spearheaded by Tipper Gore. Leading up to this month was a ramp up in awareness of supposed “porn rock” which consisted of lyrics and imagery of sex, drugs, BDSM, and supposed Satanism, culminating in the infamous Senate hearings on the issue of how to discuss this “problem” one fall day 30 years ago. An unlikely trio in Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver teamed up to proffer their view that what was being considered was censorship in practice, and in regards to items that would have been government backed, an attack on free speech.
So what was on the table back then that caused such uproar, and begot such a creative alliance to work to protect what they could of creator rights? Of the items brought forth as primary concerns, we had a ratings system akin to movies at the time (and video games currently) that most lawmakers said they would want to be voluntary, but some folks looking to make a name wanted as mandatory. The result of this was that we got the birth of the “Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics” that you can see today on CDs (those who still listen to physical copies of music at least). This would seem benign at first until major retailers like Walmart, Sears, and JC Penny would stop stocking recordings with PMRC record label warnings on them due to pressure.
Don’t think for a second that this wasn’t the intent in the first place. A group of people wanted these products off the market for fear of the alleged (and largly trumped up and missassoicated) actions we were being told they caused. They used a multi-front war plan to try and combat this through the media, by working to manipulate the market into censorship via teaming up with interest groups to push their message on the consumer front, and by utilizing governmental proceedings to apply pressure where they could. In an age when commercial internet was still budding, this was a massive win for late 20th century cultural authoritarians.
Eric Nuzum writes in his 2001 book Parental Advisory:
“…small record stores also took controversial albums off their shelves, not because PMRC sympathizer groups had asked them to, but because they feared antagonism from such groups.”
“Some music retailers renting space in suburban malls were warned that they would be evicted if conservative protesters picked their stores.”
This wouldn’t be the last time attempts at censorship would be foisted on the market in the next 30 years, pushed by interest groups with the right connections, and worked by people trying to catapult their public image by sucking on like a barnacle to the “right” trending causes.
I remember vividly being called a Satanic Heathen for daring to roll 20 sided dice and pretend I was growing legend of a ranger in Dungeons & Dragons. This was another controversy de jour that grew during this time when folks who just can’t grasp basic logic wanted to supposedly save people from themselves against things these critics just didn’t understand.
It seems redundant at this point to point out earlier video game controversies. The Mortal Kombats, the Manhunts, the Mass “Virtual Orgasmic Rape” Effects. But they stand as a history of this attempt to strong-arm culture.
In the intervening years, once time lawyer Jack Thompson staked his career on defending the public from some imaginary harm presented by video games; becoming a never-ending joke in the process. He was permanently disbarred by the Florida State Supreme court back in 2008 based on his egregious actions in working to push his cause.
For a time there was a much expected sigh of relief. Over two decades of video games controversy being pushed by disingenuous personality cults had abated. One of the biggest proponents of the increasingly mythological “media is harmful” claims was drummed out of legitimacy, and the people rejoiced.
Little did the gaming world know that another gaggle of moral authoritarians was brewing, and not even 10 years after Jack Thompson’s disbarment we would learn again that liberal zealots can be just as controlling as their conservative counterparts. Except this time we wouldn’t have the “enthusiast” gaming press in our corner like that bygone time.
Before transitioning into present day “culture war” era events, I want to point out a trend. Most know this, but I feel it’s important for this to be laid out plainly. Certain figures thought something was inherently “problematic,” and they worked with public and private institutions to remove these items from the cultural vernacular even though they were not the audience for, nor were they intending on buying, these creations, And without the creators and audience for those creators standing up against them… they might have won more ground than their meager victories allowed as it stands.
It’s of no surprise that the rise of, essentially, “not giving a fuck” about these moral grandstanders came about with increased saturation of the internet. The largely unfettered distribution allowed by the internet was a huge equalizer for spreading culture, and allowing those who enjoyed their part of it to meet others who share those views or passions you do. It’s a lot easier for most of us to say “shove off” to others when they know they are not alone with their ideas.
Now I want to throw some definitions out here. This isn’t to patronize the reader, I assure you. I’m fairly confident that most who read our work understand this already. But so-called culture warriors who are now championing the trending “plights” of Social Justice and PC issues just don’t seem to understand these concepts. So why not lay this out plain as a sun lit day before proceeding.
Censorship: “The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”
Chilling effect: “A discouraging or deterring effect on the behaviour of an individual or group, especially [but not limited to] the inhibition of the exercise of a constitutional right, such as freedom of speech, through fear of legal action.”
Market Censorship: “The category of overt market censorship encompasses self-censorship by writers and artists who fear that their work will not be published, exhibited, or distributed.”
Self-Censorship: “The exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid castigation (read: being reprimanded)”
So let’s roll this all together like the Jackson 5, because this is as easy as 1-2-3. Attempts at suppression of “politically unacceptable” ideas or media can create a chilling effect on creators, and overt attempts at that can create market censorship in which creators then self-censor themselves for fear of being reprimanded or worse. Sound familiar? Because if it doesn’t, then you haven’t been paying attention to this past year and a half.
In a flash back to the 1990’s, we saw the controversy with Destructive Creations game Hatred. The day it launched on Steam’s Greenlight program it got promptly pulled down by Valve because “[Valve] found the content so distasteful that it wouldn’t want to distribute it.” It was reinstated shortly after when Valve co-founder Gabe Newell caught wind of the incident, apologizing to the team for what “wasn’t a good decision.”
Xenoblade Chronicles X couldn’t avoid landing in the controversy trap again and again. While some choices can be more understandable, a la the decision to put a bit more clothes on the character Lin (age 13 in the original release, age 15 in the west) for the Western release. Others choices, like the removal of the breast slider or extra coverage of underwear for men and women, can seem arbitrary to people who are actually the audience for this game, and who are becoming increasingly incensed at being treated like children. It should be noted that Xenoblade Chronicles X is rated Teen by the ESRB, and if you feel that someone 13 and above cannot handle a bit of cleavage or a dude in tighty whities then I implore you to make sure they don’t view any TV commercials or the magazine rack at your local grocery store check-out aisle. The horror.
In a recent interview, XSEED Games Vice President Ken Barry touched on how hard it can be for Japanese developers and publishers to walk a line between releasing a product for the people actually buying said products, and those who are picketing it yet not actually consumers of their product.
“That would be placing us in a very, very difficult position because censoring it would alienate the very audience that we are trying to bring the game for, while not really appeasing any of the critics that had no purchase intent in the first place. So we’d be doing a lot of extra work and going through a lot of extra trouble and pleasing nobody. So hopefully, we’re never in that position.”
Xenoblade wasn’t the only Nintendo bound property that got a toned down Western treatment. The Mature rated Wii U title Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water suffered some censorship in it’s western release as well. This time it hits a bit closer to the story integrity mark than the Xenoblade examples. This time a protagonist, Miu Hinasaki, is not shown in her gravure bikini in a flashback scene. On the surface this may seem inconsequential, until you learn that Miu Hinasaki’s former profession is a Japanese Idol. The bikini was an outfit she was wearing as such, and the flashback centered on her feeling empty and used, and to fans the impact of this scene was lessened by the outfit change.
Just last month Koei Tecmo announced that the latest volleyball/BFF simulator spin-off of the Dead or Alive fighting game series was not going to be released for a Western audience. Despite the producer of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 stating, “If demand calls for it, they may release a version of the game adjusted for North America” in Famitsu. It’s also of note that DoA Xtreme 1 2 sold more units in North America (360k units sold) than all other territories combined (240k units sold).
This now deleted Facebook post provides some insight as to the decision to not release this title for a Western audience, and this was clarified later by Koei Tecmo officially.
— KOEI TECMO EUROPE (@koeitecmoeurope) December 1, 2015
One Asian games importer, Play-Asia, decided to capitalize on this situation by letting fans know they could still get the region free English version of the game via their storefront. This incited the normal internet furor raised by the perpetually outraged, and started one of the most laughable failures of a boycott this author has had the pleasure of seeing.
SuperNerdLand contributor Toal Fact bluntly summarizes the events as such:
Recently the localization site Play-Asia has verbalized its disdain for the DoAX3 situation, pictured here:
— Play-Asia.com (@playasia) November 25, 2015
As a result this has, of course, caused a major shitstorm online. The account has since been mobbed by wailing critics — whom seem to be mad because they were called by a title they tried to jokingly apply to themselves in the first place.
One of the more outrageous parts about this entire affair was when a former IGN and USAToday writer, as well as former Bethesda, Bioware, and Ubisoft employee Carolyn [Last Name Withheld] seemingly threatened to use her contacts to punish a Play-Asia’s PR employee. She later backpedaled on her statements, insisting she was using her words extremely poor, and apologized later in a twitlonger.
On the other hand we have less repentant commenters such as CitizenNapoleon, who has gone on the defense for the authoritarian critics. He insists again, and again, that there is not a market for this game, despite the evidence to the contrary in widely available sales numbers. In his video, he is accusing Play-Asia PR of lying about Koei Tecmo’s fear of controversy in America’s politically correct climate. Also despite a recent opinion piece in Japan revealing they see the same issues, as well as statements made by this roninworks piece translated by Twitter user mombot that it was specifically character Rose Marie that gave Koei Tecmo cold feet on a Western release.
Just look at Grand theft Auto 5 getting banned in Australia after feminists protested the title. Or the controversy surrounding Hatred’s release in regards to attempts to remove the game from Steam. Inferring that there isn’t backlash is denial. Another blatant example is with the MMO Blade and Soul, and their removal of adult themes from a quest in an M rated game. So forgive me if you are very poorly convincing me there is no issue with censorship attempts.
In what can be called the worst boycott ever, Play-Asia’s Twitter account more than doubled their follower count since these events, which currently sits at 25.8k followers. I know this doesn’t all equate to sales, but that is a damn good jump in marketing presence.
Wouldn’t you know, just after the Dead or Alive Xtreme 3/Play-Asia controversy, we have a confirmation from Street Fighter V producer Yoshinori Ono that Japanese developers are trying to tip-toe around supposed Western sensibilities when responding to questions about the self-censorship of aspects of the character Rainbow Mika.
“Our objective with Street Fighter ’ is to start over from zero[…] We want the professional players and the casual fans of the series to return, but we also want to reach those who have never even touched a fighting game. So we can’t have something in the game that makes people think, “This is not acceptable.”
“We didn’t make any change because of external influences[…]Those changes came up internally. We decided to remove that because we want the biggest possible number of people to play, and we don’t want to have something in the game that might make someone uncomfortable.”
“Probably we won’t be able to remove everything that could offend someone. But our goal is, at least, to reduce that number as much as possible so that they think ‘Ok, there is this issue here, but it is within the limits’. We want that everyone can play and enjoy without worrying about anything else.”
While the idea of expanding the audience of a given game or genre is an admirable one, he states in his response the number one reason creators should just stick to their vision instead of trying to bow to people cashing in on trendy “issues.”
“Probably we won’t be able to remove everything that could offend someone. …We want that everyone can play and enjoy without worrying about anything else.”
That hits the nail on the head. And when it comes to it, fans of the game — male and female — have no issue with a character smacking her buttcheeks. In fact, that Capcom would change just this aspect seems to reveal that Japanese devs don’t even know what the issue presented by feminists is exactly about, as the followers of Anita Sarkeesian’s personality cult look to have a problem with about every depiction of women in games, not just a single taunting smack of the ass.
So why care about all this? Why should we care if wrestling character can’t smack her ass without it being oppressing to women, or about a musician writing on possibly taboo subjects? Why should we care to fight for the Fatalities, the bikini’s, and the breast sliders?
Because outrages of this kind of are a soup of the day. As quickly as one controversy wanes, another one waxes. It’s a cycle of concerned hang wringing that opportunists use to profit, build acclaim, and to place themselves in a position to dictate what is and is not acceptable culture. If creators and fans of those creations don’t stand up then they actively cede power to moral authoritarians who want to tell you what is damaging you, when in fact they are just being presented with ideas or concepts they disagree with, or feel uncomfortable around — all with nary a viable piece of evidence to back up their outrageous claims.
If you do not stand up to these types of people then it could very well be something you enjoy next. The fickle dice of outrage could term your fandom a problem next. It doesn’t matter if you land a fragile piece of electronics on a damn comet, if you wear the wrong shirt (that was gifted to him by a female friend, FWIW). As gamers found out in August 2014… any group can be targeted next.
What can be done about all this? Well, besides just standing up to the cultural bullies, and saying “NO”? Reach out to the companies you love. Let them know you love their product as is, that your money wants to go to their creations how they want to create them, and not how people who don’t plan on playing the game first place want them.
E-mails are great in this aspect. Even Twitter and Facebook engagement can let a company know that their fanbase appreciates what they are doing.
Some gamers are trying to go a step farther with the creation of the “1 Million Gamers Strong For Japanese Gaming” petition. Their aim is to let these Japanese developers know that the actual consumers of their products don’t want these products changed for some erroneous concept of going against “Western sensibilities.” While I think the “1 Million” mark may be trying to overshoot a reasonable goal, I still applaud the idea behind the petition and the attempt to let Japanese devs know we love them just the way they are.
So what is the moral of our story here today? Just say no. When someone tells you that you are a horrible person for enjoying a certain form media, just stand up and say no. As we’ve seen, the current “culture war” isn’t the first time we’ve seen moral arbiters try to dictate what we should consume, and it sure as hell won’t be the last.