In an interview with Gamespot, Hideo Kojima, the man behind the critically acclaimed stealth series Metal Gear Solid and its latest offering Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, offered a very frank view of the content of his newest game. He claims that games will never be considered as a part of our culture until they begin to touch on sensitive topics. He was quoted saying “I didn’t want to stay away from these things that could be considered sensitive. If we don’t go that far, games will never be considered as culture.” Kojima hints to how Ground Zeroes will contain a lot of things that could be considered controversial and already the MGSV games, both Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain, are generating enough of a fuss. Kojima does point out that not all games need to do this but it’s something that he personally wants to do, otherwise he feels that games will remain to be only games. All things considered, is this a valid point? Should games actually push the boundaries even more than they already have in order to be taken more seriously? There’s definitely a lot of contention with this point.
Games and the game industry are no stranger to controversy. From the constant debate about games and their link to violent behavior, to the hot topic surrounding women’s depictions in games, there’s always something for people to shout at each other about. Some may see these as growing pains for an industry that’s slowly but surely becoming as mainstream as movies, however, not all gamers share this sentiment. Games have certainly gone over some serious topics and some of the best games handle sensitive issues with care. Last year’s Bioshock Infinite featured elements of racism and xenophobia, exposing the fictional world of Columbia’s paradise as a sham built upon the suffering of others. While Bioshock Infinite didn’t go out of its way to make a point about this, it certainly showed how this was wrong and merely used it as a story element. Some games may use sensitive topics as just a part of the narrative whilst others might carry an agenda or message. Spec Ops: The Line isn’t known for being highly controversial, but the copious amounts of violence and shocking scenes are enough to unsettle most people. It’s important to remember that games aren’t all the same, having different genres, target audiences, age ratings and so on. Like Kojima said, the industry as a whole need not push to be more risque but the games that can handle it should at least attempt to.
Where this gets contested the most starts at the level of the fans but also exists amongst the game journalists. Sensationalist articles and prescriptive judgements are the flavor of the month, every month. Many gamers will not hesitate to express their concern at the themes used in a game, regardless of whether or not the game treats it with care. Last year’s Grand Theft Auto V is a widely appreciated and enjoyed title, winning several game of the year awards, but that didn’t stop it from being looked on with disdain, as GTA often is. You can’t please everyone and sometimes adding shock value just doesn’t do it for some people. If games can be likened to art, which is also another topic of its own, then beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so goes the axiom. It’s clearly impossible for something to be liked by all when games and people are all different, and violent, sexual or sensitive content will strike the wrong chords with a lot of people. For all of The Last of Us’ overwhelming praise, there’s a lot of people that just aren’t happy with the disturbing amounts of violence.
Part of what opposes people to controversy in games stems from the belief that games need to stop chasing the mainstream limelight. You might call it being a purist, but there are those who are adamant in the stance that games need to just be games. People will often tell you how cinematic set pieces, quick time events, long cutscenes and so on are ruining gaming as a whole. Whether or not games are up to the status of comics, movies and music is up for debate, though the finer point lies somewhere with the definition of what a ‘game’ is. Perhaps the term is archaic, and we’re merely holding on to it for novelty’s sake. Games like The Stanley Parable and Gone Home are more like interactive experiences than what we’d traditionally consider to be a ‘video game’. It’s my own personal belief that we can’t really tie down what a game is at this point and there’s different experiences for everyone. Some people might avert their eyes at the content of MGSV: Ground Zeroes whilst others may relish in it. That’s just how things usually go.
Games incorporating more mature and sensitive content is also in opposition with games being more inclusive. It’s harder for a game to be liked by many when it contains aspects that people will disagree with, compared to a puzzle game for example, which has nothing that will offend anyone. Some developers are being caught in the trap of trying to be politically correct and fearing the feedback they’ll gain if they put anything even remotely deviant in their game. As they should, as lately game journalism is the angry mob ready to knock on the door of potential offenders. You’ll find that sometimes gamers lambast the themes and messages of a game more than its overall quality, and at times the gaming community can be downright toxic. This isn’t a fault of games or gaming culture at all, but a byproduct of people with very low temper using the medium as a vehicle to do nasty things. With all these many layers of complication, there’s no simple solution to whether or not games should approach more sensitive topics when Kojima has to justify even Ground Zeroes’ short length.
Personally, I agree with Kojima that some games, not all, should go the extra mile to include things that may be considered sensitive, and leave how those games are viewed to the gaming public. It’s not necessarily about turning games into movies or even trying to have games be taken seriously. It’s about artistic expression, telling a story and generating an experience. After all, that’s what games are all about.