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Being Adult is Not Momentous

Can video games be grown up without being sensationalized or sanitized?

Article by Cassandra Khaw, .

Putting aside the fact that it looks like a resort for fork-tongued, red-faced imp babies, DC Universe Online's upcoming DLC Sons of Trigon is, if nothing else, a cool-looking place. Familiar infrastructure sucked into a landscape made of burning mercuric sulphocyanate, cathedrals you could film the next Exorcist in and questionably titled amusement rides; Sons of Trigon has them all. An attractive excuse to see what Gotham City would look like under the reign of the Seven Sins and beat up a panoply of cultists, demons and super-people, Sons of Trigon is, more importantly, a reminder that video games still can be a little nudge nudge, wink wink about the things that happen behind closed doors.

In DC Universe Online's defense, the MMO is framed within an per-existing vernacular. Spandex, clear-cut attitudes towards good and evil, dramatic speech and other such hallmarks are essential to intellectual property. Yet, when the presentation migrated to Lust's dominion (and salacious, I assure you, it was was not), I couldn't help but wonder if it could have been just a bit more clever and a little less buried in the conventional. The re-purposed Amusement Mile, the theme park in Gotham City where Lust has set up shop, is bafflingly innocent with its overabundance of pink, deformed roller coasters and faces that vomit flamingo-colored liquids. The most scandalous thing here? The name 'Tunnel of Lust'. The actual contents of the aforementioned passage were quite tame and would, at most, inspire an indolently-raised raised eyebrow from the nearest conservative. Sure, there were the requisite succubi and a veritable entourage of cultists to boot but these too felt like 'safe' expressions of naughtiness, the kind your parents wouldn't be too incensed over.

Which is weird because this IS the Sin of Lust we're talking about and even if we're not going to go at it full throttle, we should, at the very least, have something racier than just two skeletons seated on a derelict couch, damn it.

Darn hoodlums. (Get it? Hood-wearing cultists. Hoodlums. Er.)

"It's like they're trying to discuss the death penalty on a Saturday morning cartoon." A colleague remarks, as I try to put words into why the new expansion vexed me so.

Again, my discontent isn't so much with the new DLC that they're launching, but the fact it so often feels like we're largely operating on the set of Nickelodeon. 'Adult' themes are alien, debauched and titillating rather than cornerstones of existence, forbidden territory comparable to the the most lascivious of pursuits as opposed to things that happen on a daily basis. What you get then is the weird feeling that a lot of games seem to exist on the opposite ends of a fulcrum. On one hand, we have those that celebrate the idea of being adult and edgy with all the extravagance of a Las Vegas performance. Voluminous mammary glands. Torture-porn. Glitter. Sometimes, all of the above, if you're unlucky (or lucky, depending on your predilections). On the other, we have stuff like Sons of the Trigon, which meekly insinuate at such concepts with the trepidation of a Victorian duchess.

Like teenagers giggling nervously to each other about squishy biological functions, video games in general don't seem to quite have a handle on what being grown-up means just yet. This is not to say that they're unintelligent or incapable of elegantly presenting big, frightening ideas or that the medium has yet to demonstrate a capacity for being mature without resorting to sensationalism. Certainly, the indie scene has been forefront in addressing such topics. There's Auntie Pixelante's Dys4ia, an autobiographical examination of the reasoning behind and the results of hormone replacement therapy, Rogue Legacy, which delighted the Internet with how it handled the idea of being queer ("I had a few 'gay' characters' and it seemed like they were normal people." "I believe that's the point.") and Papo & Yo, a fantastical re-telling of the Creative Director's experiences with an alcoholic father. I could name a hundred more, all brilliant and all almost unsettlingly attuned to what makes our world tick.

And it isn't exclusive to indie development either. Bigger titles have been getting progressively better at doing the same. There's a sequence in the Personal Story (an instanced quest chain that puts your choices and character in the starring role) for the plant-like Sylvari where you find yourself assisting a pair of lovers. Both are male and this variable, as it should be, is treated as circumstantial rather than as a salient plot point. Similarly, Borderlands 2 and Fallout 3 make references to the diverse sexuality of their cast without so much as a sly grin. After all, gender is simply an aspect of one's physiology, one as simple as the structure of a person's hair or the color of their eyes.

It goes beyond those games too. Naughty Dog's Last of Us was recently heralded as a 'start' by Eurogamer's Ellie Gibson in our bid to eliminate sexism in the industry. "I don't think this is a game about men; it's about why humans need each other." Gibson says. She describes Ellie as someone residing in the middle ground between 'Defenseless Kitten' and 'Gruff Badass Who Has No Time for Emotions or Lipstick'. "Brave enough to show fear, powerful enough to ask for what she needs. She is not a princess or a warrior queen, just a normal girl trying to cope with life in a broken world."

"She is not a princess or a warrior queen, just a normal girl."

Gibson's sentiments are reflected by Edge's Jason Killingsworth who notes how there is 'nothing pornographic' about Tess's demise, "Tess simply dies and the gears of the plot grind on without her, in the same way the natural world spends no time mourning the extinction of any other individual creature's passing."

That last bit, I think, encapsulates what I'm talking about best. Games don't have to be loud to be 'adult'. Death can be as much of a whisper as it can be a scream. Women can be multi-faceted beings who do not immediately evoke desire. Two men can kiss without the world ending. At the same time, games don't have to be afraid of making a point. To go back to Sons of Trigon, there are little things, nuances that do not need to sway into the realm of poor taste, that could be introduced to make Lust's home seem more like a den of Sin. Disembodied limbs, separated from incriminating genitalia, stretching out from the walls. Photos of Jared smeared across the walls like a stalker's shrine. Chains. The presence of incubus along with the bat-winged seductresses.

There's a word -lagom - in the Swedish language that feels applicable here. Devoid of a precise English equivalent, lagom can be loosely translated to, among other things, 'just enough'. Sufficient but not ideal, a hair's breadth before what we might construe as a perfect medium. We need more of that, I think. We should be able to address sex and death and other topics like depression or poverty without wilting from shock or resorting to exaggerated gestures. Being adult is not a momentous event, it's simply something that is and we should treat it as such.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #1 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @lonecow Thanks! And, criticism is perfectly fine. Journalists need people bapping 'em over the upside of the head to ensure we stay honest and/or on top of things.

    That said, I'm going to have to say I disagree with you in regards to such things being 'pointless'. It's true that there is a huge variety of games to select from and that, I think, from a broad perspective, that change will either happen or not.

    But each time such discussion comes up, there's always a chance it's going to linger in the back of someone's mind. That one person might go on to discuss it with even more people, drawing attention to something that may otherwise slide away from view.

    I definitely don't think we should force things into a single category, but I believe in discussion regardless of how fruitless it might appear on the surface. (At least if it's on a decent topic. o_______o)
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #2 AxiomVerge 3 years ago
    I'm not convinced that the notion of "adult" is anything more than semantic. I often wonder what is wrong with so many adults who can no longer enjoy a Saturday morning cartoon. Are they insecure? Ashamed? Do they feel emasculated? How much of this has to do with peer pressure, culture, expectations, etc? Is "growing up" in this context much different than "giving up"?
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  • Avatar for Winged-Nazgul #3 Winged-Nazgul 3 years ago
    3 words to cure your ails:

    The Secret World
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #4 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @AxiomVerge I can't speak for people in the West having, well, not grown up in the West. (Also still very bewildered by stuff like the notion of dates in amusement parks) BUT, for a lot of people back home, it seems to be a case of social indoctrination? I.E: When you hit this age, you do this and you do that. Why? Because that's what people do.

    Why so few ask for the reasonings behind such things is a mystery of its own...
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #5 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @Winged Nazgul I loved The Secret World so much but it was also so broken in some ways. :/
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  • Avatar for Winged-Nazgul #6 Winged-Nazgul 3 years ago
    @cassandrakhaw Not gonna lie, some stuff is still broken to this day. But it's still a solid MMO and getting better with every issue.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #7 weevilo 3 years ago
    @cassandrakhaw I have the same feelings about this topic that I did in Pete Davison's article "We're All Adults Here... Right?" We seem to have a problem in this culture of treating sexuality as synonymous with adult subject matter. And I see this coming across in two ways: there are games that try to titillate: like some of the Japanese games or comic games; and there are games that are trying to... showcase(?) a personal viewpoint on sexuality: like some of the indies that deal with homosexuality or transgenderism.

    In the first case, as I argued in Pete's article, I think your primary audience is mostly teenage and early adult males, though maybe I'm giving too much credit to us oldies out there - so maybe we can take that off the table as being part of "adult subject matter".

    In the latter case, you're stepping into the same minefield territory that accompanies religious and political discussion; though in our current cultural climate it's much safer to talk about and promote non-conventional sexual behaviors than it is to talk about or promote a religious or political belief. The latter two are almost taboo nowadays, and for good reason. No one has ever been convinced of any religious or political issue on the internet. We all just want to see and hear other people championing our own personal beliefs. And for adults, sexuality is the same thing. I don't buy for a second that someone who is against homosexuality, for example, is going to play a game that attempts to depict the thoughts and struggles of the author or game character, and have anything like a positive experience - at least no more so than a die-hard atheist would after playing a game that deals with a religious subject matter.

    So I would argue that it's nearly impossible to have a game (or even a book or movie nowadays) discuss sexuality, religion or politics without either pandering to the common popular opinion, or being decried as hateful for being against common popular opinion - so let's not bother.

    There are plenty of other fruitful topics that are engaging and speak to the human condition, and don't carry the same useless controversy and baggage. For example, The Last of Us is enjoyable because it deals with responsibility and loss, much like The Walking Dead, though both using different types of games and mechanics to do so. My favorite game of the last few years is Dark Souls, which has one of the most engrossing and.. adult! stories I've ever experienced in a game. I went a little long here and I hope I'm not coming off as overly negative, I'm just very sensitive to how hypocritical the discussion around sexuality has become lately when contrasted against other topics as I mentioned, and am really not looking forward to games being talked about as provocative and adult simply because they promote homosexuality or transgenderism or whatnot - things I don't particularly have a problem with, but like politics and religion, I think are topics best left to ourselves.
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  • Avatar for Unrein #8 Unrein 3 years ago
    A spoiler warning about the Last of Us would have been nice.
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #9 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @weevilo Definitely not too negative at all! As I've mentioned in a previous comment, I think discussion is good regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me. (Wouldn't be discussion if everyone agreed, anyway. o__O) So feel free to bury my articles with your thoughts (which are very articulate, and very appreciated).

    "at least no more so than a die-hard atheist would after playing a game that deals with a religious subject matter."

    To deviate from my own thoughts on this for a moment, I've /seen/ this happen. Ryan Green's 'That Dragon, Cancer' didn't get uniformedly great responses from the secular community but many seemed to get the gist of what he was doing with that.

    For the article, I used sexuality as the primary example because it's the one we seem most emboldened to talk about in games. Personally, I'd like to see the topics you've mentioned - spent a few years in Europe and you immediately become kinda liberal - discussed more. As you've mentioned, 'sensitive' topics tend to be viewed as either pandering or hateful. I'm wondering if simply airing them out and not treating them as extremely negative or positive anomalies but as existing topics that are part and parcel of our world might make us capable of discussing them in an open fashion sometime.

    That said, you definitely have your point and I agree partially with it, even if it's a slightly depressing thing to ponder.
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  • Avatar for docexe #10 docexe 3 years ago
    @weevilo Mmm… I understand your point about how talking about sexuality doesn’t necessarily make a game (or any other work of art or entertainment) “adult”, profound or provocative by itself, and that there are many other topics that can be tackled from a mature perspective and convey a deep and provocative message.

    Where I disagree with you on particular is on the matter of not tackling sensitive topics like sexuality, politics and religion because of the controversy and baggage that accompany them, or because most of them will be perceived as either pandering or being hateful. From a commercial point of view I understand why tackling them is undesirable due to the possibility of alienating a big chunk of your intended audience. From an artistic point of view, I understand why an artist would refrain from exploring them if they are not prepared or willing to deal with the ensuing controversy. But as I see it, even if they are sensitive issues… well, they are still an important part of the human condition and can’t just be avoided forever.

    At different eras, some artists in different mediums have bring them to the front and discussed them, and while many of them were indeed persecuted or demonized for transgressing or opposing the social conventions of the time, I don’t think their efforts were necessarily fruitless. Discussion and controversy about sensitive issues is part of the process on which art and society evolves.

    Truthfully, videogames have only skirted with this kind of sensitive issues. While I don’t think they are the only thought provoking element you can display on a game, neither that displaying them will automatically make a game look “more mature” (indeed, some portrayals of them will inevitably be incredibly clumsy), given their relevance I think more games will eventually have to address them at some point or the other.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #11 weevilo 3 years ago
    @cassandrakhaw I just reread my post and it _does_ sound pretty depressing and single minded. I didn't mean to imply that you were only focusing on sexuality in your article, it just happened to be one of the things on my pet peeve list that got me going :)
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #12 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @weevilo All good! I didn't think it was terribly depressing, just a touch so! And like@docexe said, discussion and controversy about sensitive issues is part of the process on which art and society evolves.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #13 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    Going back to the game from which this article sprung, DC Universe Online is T for Teen, after all. That rating, I find, tends to lend itself to a bit more sterilization than a M-rated game, like most of the others referenced. Now whether or not a game COULD convey "adult" ideas within those confines would depend entirely on the designers (I would argue that it can, but we'll save that for another time). But, given the mainstream position of DCUO (and console gaming in general), that "T" brings with it the burden of not giving young Billy or Sally any ideas that may not jibe with what Mom and Dad want them being exposed to. Something an "M" rating doesn't have to concern itself with.
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #14 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @Captain Gonru Eh, I agree that's true. Having said that, and as you've intimated, I think there -are- ways to convey 'adult' ideas without making your mom's hair turn white.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #15 Fresh_Paprika 3 years ago
    I don't think that video games are necessarily maturing. Their audience definitely is, but games, especially mainstream games, don't seem to handle topics better than games did in the 90s or early 00s, you know, back when they were considered a dumb pass time for kids. They definitely don't handle them with as much subtlety and originality.

    The Last Express handled themes like cultural distrust, lust, piousness, and deceit. It had a discreet lesbian couple without making any fuss. And unlike most games today, its design (though far from perfect) didn't clash with its themes,

    Majora's Mask, Grim Fandango, Panzer Dragoon Saga, all had characters who were depressed and stuck in life (or the afterlife in GF's case) without any real guidance or idea of how to get out of it, something I can strongly relate to. They're all melancholy masterpieces and approached those themes in different ways, but they're all either based on fantasy, fantasy-sci-fi or folklore, a turn off to many people who ask for a more mature medium. A sad truth about maturity: narrow thinking.

    Have you ever played Skip and Nintendo's Giftpia? It had an homosexual character who is naturally accepted in his surrounding. He may look like a stereotype to the oversensitive, but a stereotype that does exist (I met people who were kinda like that, and probably so did you). He eventually falls in love with a bodyguard who bears no stereotypical qualities what-so-ever, and they live happily-ever-after and their neighbors are happy for them, no exaggeration, no fuss. Now, this is a game with deformed cartoony visuals, a game that is mostly known as that "weirdo Japan-only GameCube game". It's main themes are about spiritualism and religious tradition vs. capitalism and economic progress. One look at it and most people who supposedly look for interesting themes peg it for cartoony drivel. It is weird, like most of Kenichi Nishi's games, but it said something without a shred of overbearing preach, like most of Kenichi Nishi's games. The point is maturity can be presented in stereotypically immature ways.

    Or you can take Shenmue II. A massive production without guns or explosions, one that focused on exploration, investigation, and grief while teaching its players about Chinese culture in the 1980s, focusing on the working, middle and lower class without any cheap attempt to make a statement about them. Even the music channeled that 80s-synth sound while mixing it with Chinese traditional (which resulted in a soundtrack like which I've never heard). More Dark 80s than 80s New Wave, but not quite either one.

    It isn't perfect in those regards (far too many horrible tough guy acts to name one problem) and that miserable English voice-dub America got only butchered what they were trying to do, but no game before or since even attempted to do what SEGA-AM2 attempted. Can you imagine today a publisher will put a ridiculous sum of money into capturing those themes? No guns, no ridiculous violence, no conventional safety nets. A main character that asks strangers for directions instead of stealing their car, one who has to work and repays a stranger's kindness by helping with chores. I can't.

    That's my idea of maturity. These days many people falsely take Shenmue as some sort of dull QTE game and insult it with comparisons to Heavy Rain while blaming it for SEGA's financial trouble (which it was just a part of, not the cause). Much of the world wasn't kind to it.

    I realize I'm stepping out a bit from the article's points (I really like your writing style, Cassandra, by the way), but I think it is important not to tap video games on the back for maturing, because as far as I'm concerned, they aren't. Mainstream games are mostly taking a step back, while everyone puts their hopes into indies, which isn't healthy.

    I accept that I probably look bitter, an angry man who tells kids to get off his lawn (I swear, when I saw that video with Yu Suzuki being compared to David Cage a part of me died). But these discussions just don't sit right with me.Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #16 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @fresh_paprika Nonono, grumpiness is a natural part of life. Again, if we're not willing to argue with each other and discuss points, we won't be doing anything with ourselves right now. Would you,@weevilo,@docexe and everyone else feel inclined about being made the stars of a community-generated piece? :3
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #17 Fresh_Paprika 3 years ago
    @cassandrakhaw Um, sure, okay. I'm in. Do you just edit my comment and place it in the article? If so, use my comment however you want.

    I was really flattered and humbled that you guys added a couple of my comments to your work. Thanks!
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #18 cassandrakhaw 3 years ago
    @Fresh_Paprika Pretty much! :D Well, we have a great community with an excellent set of heads on their shoulders. ;D Far be it for us to consign everyone to silence, no?
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  • Avatar for kampret #19 kampret 6 days ago

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