Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why all the swearing?

Recently I was touting the amazing time I am having with Monday Night Combat to my buddy at work: "Oh man me and the wife were playing split screen and shooting a bunch of robots and it's so worth the money because can play online or locally" and then my jaw melted and fell of my face. So yeah, it is a face melting good time, but he asked "Can I play it with my 7 and 9 year old kids?" Sure there is violence, but is there any swear words in the game? I think the answer is "no" and that it is safe to play in that regard, but should swearing be the deal-breaker?

As for me, 10+ years ago I played Perfect Dark with my younger brother all the time. I was somewhere around 20 years old at the time, and he was about 8. Our favorite thing to do was team up against a couple of tough sims, handguns only, and turn on slo mo. It allowed him time to react to what was going on around him and created some really intense moments while waiting for the aiming reticule to make its way across the face of the opponent. All around a lot of laughs were had, some digital blood was shed, all the while not a swear word was heard (not even during any of my temper tantrums.) Now if the game had swearing in it, we would never have played.

To some people this may seem odd: why would someone care about swearing and not about the guns, violence, or death? To me the answer is simple: The violence in games, no matter how realistic they are trying to be, is stylized, but words are not.

Swearing is relatively new to the gaming industry. Early on the only games which prominently featured swearing were also full of other adult themes. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series where characters talked about having sex, doing drugs, and killing. The game was already so full of adult content that the swearing fit right in, both in the narrative cut-scenes and in the everyday shouting of the people roaming the streets. It felt as natural as watching the Sopranos or the Godfather; the swearing accentuated the tone of everything. But some games with swearing just feel like a 13 year old trying to be cool by swearing a lot but not really saying anything.

There are two things recently which really made me think about the swearing in the content: Nip/Tuck and Crackdown.

Nip/Tuck was a series on FX featuring a lot of sex, a lot of drama, some killing, and a lot of graphic plastic surgery. My wife only recently started (and not long-after stopped) watching the show on Netflix, and I got suckered into joining her on a few occasions. By all accounts the show is incredibly adult in nature, but there is really no more swearing to speak of compared to other shows on network TV (other than the ONE "shit"-bomb per episode they are allotted.) I sat in amazement as characters grew more and more angry at each other (or when a sexy nympho looked into the eyes of the hunk of man-meat star just before banging), and I waited for their lips to make a ripped paper sound with their upper teeth against their lip, but the fffff's never came. It is strange to see, but the kicker is: it works! Shows like this, and some good network dramas, illustrate that swearing isn't necessary to add impact to language.

Which brings me to my other example: Crackdown. For the sake of argument, lets compare Crackdown to Halo. Both games do not feel like M rated games to me. The colors are bright, the characters are heroic, and the deaths of the enemies are very "ragdoll" and only occasionally have a blood splatter, but the splatter feels small, quick, and insignificant; to me they feel no more violent than a good PG-13 action film. I can play Halo online with the TV blasting at any time of day and not worry about offending prudes in my vicinity. But Crackdown is another story. Random pedestrians drop the f-bomb on numerous occasions, and it feels completely out of place for the tone of the rest of the game. Friends of mine can't play that game in their home during regular hours of the day because random profanity coming from the speakers will go against the house rules they set up with their families, but they can play Halo without any problems.

No matter what your opinion is on the subject (IE: "You're an idiot for not caring about violence." Save it, Dr. Douchebag Phd, I've heard it all before), developers need to recognize this as an issue for their customers and pursue simple, low-risk, low-impact solutions. I myself am someone who enjoys swearing, almost too much, but don't feel that those around me need to be forced to feel the same way, especially people who will be playing the games I make. So what are our options?

Developers can replace swear words with silly words, but I am personally against that option. Sure there are your Battlestar Galactica's, Firefly's, and Pirates of Dark Water's with their Fraks, Gorams, and Noiji-Tuts, respectively. But there are only so many times I can hear "fudge" or "hecka" without wanting to throttle anyone in my vicinity. (If you need an adverb that bad, just say the word, you sound immature.) Or they can cut whole lines. But either way you do it, simply make it an option for the player.

There have already been measures made to adjust violence in games; turning off gore or blood in violent games allows players to still play the game but with less elements of realism in terms of the violence, and the same could be done with audio with ease.

The developers of a game like Crackdown could easily set a flag to all of the phrases in which the pedestrians swear. Then when the player chooses "No Swear Words" from the options menu they won't be surprised by random f-bombs being dropped. For games like this, or online shooters like Modern Warfare, players can play to their hearts content with their TV volume turned up without offending someone in another room with profanity (or in some occasions, being offended themselves.) And while this is easy for most of the sandbox elements of a game where there are multiple, interchangeable phrases, a story section like in the GTA series wouldn't be able to simply drop whole lines of text, so the developers would have to record alternate lines with different words or phrases. A pain in the butt, I'll grant anyone that, but it is not that complex of a solution.

Ultimately, no matter your own personal opinions, this is a medium full of options and choices for the end-user, and it would be great if consumers who are concerned about such things could benefit from these options and still enjoy fun games without having to worry about being offended by profanity.

1 comment:

vanlandw said...

http://www.esrb.org/ratings/synopsis.jsp?Certificate=29447

It's interesting you bring up Halo. In the newest game there is absolutely no profanity at all.

The previous game ODST according to the ESRB containts "some profanity (e.g., "bullsh*t," "a*shole," and "bastard") can be heard in the dialogue and radio chatter".

To me the stakes seem larger in Reach but ODST has plenty of obscenities.