Sunday, December 7, 2008

Should Games Have Content Filters?

I never got around to posting it here, but I got a position writing at Hardcore Christian Gamer, aka HCG. It's a volunteer thing, of course. It's Yet Another Games site, of which there are hundreds or thousands on the Internet, so it's not like anyone is getting paid to write for them. The community is growing though, and I enjoy doing it during my free time at work. It gives me a way to work on my writing skills and learn how to write for a specific audience. I write the occasional review, and post news up throughout the day.

My evangelical Christian days are behind me, for the most part, but I'm still sympathetic, I suppose. The range of beliefs among the community is pretty wide, and some of the discussions on Christianity get pretty heated. One topic that comes up fairly often is whether or not a particular game has language and gore filters on it. The Gears of War games have these filters in them. Gore is changed to bright sparks. The language filter apparently only blanks out the f-bomb, which disappoints many in the HCG forums. I've heard that Call of Duty: World at War also has some sort of filter. Some won't even play games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band because of some of the lyrical content in the songs. Others can tolerate most bad language, but get upset when a character takes the Lord's name in vain.

My first reaction to questions about filters in these games was, "Isn't the gore and language part of the point of these games?" Taking them out leads to an experience as watered down as an R rated movie shown on network TV, or a vulgar rock song played over the radio. The tune is there, and so are most of the lyrics, but it loses its impact.

This of course brings up other questions like, should there even be such a thing as "bad" words? Or, why is the violence okay but the language not? I occasionally see someone start a thread on other forums asking about content filters in games, and the responses are usually something like, "Go play crappy movie games if you don't like language." People looking for the fun of a certain game without the more questionable content are generally dismissed without a second thought.

I think, however, that if we ignore those questions and take the desire for tamer content at face value, it brings up some interesting issues. The gameplay and story are almost always mutually exclusive in your typical triple-A game. The parkouring gameplay of Mirror's Edge could as easily have been featured in some kind of extreme sports game instead of the dystopian future it actually contained. The cover based, psuedo-platforming, shooting gameplay Gears of War could easily have been set in some sort of benign lasertag game. The underlying gameplay, and whether it's fun or not, is what keeps people playing. The gritty settings and characters of Gears of War are just an aesthetic choice by the developers.

Since videogames, in my mind, are more deliberately constructed than a song or a movie, I think they are more able to feature customized content. Like Gears of War, a game can be programmed to show either sprays of blood or sprays of bright sparks. A more text based game can feature alternate passages of text that don't feature the profanity that offends some people. It presents more of a problem for a game featuring full voice acting since it would be expensive to record to versions of dialogue for a significant portion of the script, but it's still doable. A movie on TV may feature jarring blanks in dialogue or, even worse, bad overdubs to add in a more "appropriate" word. A game just has to have a bit of code to swap in a particular piece of content depending on what the user chose. The RTS Company of Heroes apparently is an extremely fun game (I haven't played it myself) and can even be used to teach about WWII, but the language and gore in the game makes it something you may not want to expose your fifth grader to. The ability to turn that content off wouldn't take away from the gameplay or setting.

If these sorts of things can be added in, then a developer has broadened the audience for its game just that little bit more. It's impossible to please everyone, of course (Just the other day on the HCG forums, a mother was fretting over the presence of cheerleaders in the DS version of Madden 2009. Yes, the DS version.), but I don't think there's a good reason to simply ignore the sizeable population of people who would appreciate that sort of feature.

Incidentally, I also wish that some games were more liberal about the content they allowed. I've often wished that Harmonix would release a version of Rock Band that didn't censor the lyrics of the songs. Alanis Morrisette's You Outta Know loses some of its punch when the line is changed to "...and are you thinking of me when youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuher?" Let people have a choice, either way.



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