Cultural standards and the current gaming landscape

Zombie Bait

So you’ve probably heard about the controversy behind the collector’s editions of German developer Deep Silver’s Dead Island Riptide. The collector’s edition includes a bust of a woman’s risqué torso, with arms and a head apparently gnawed off by a ghoul of some sort. It’s also marked by a two piece bikini, adorned with the British flag.

Sites such as Rock Paper Shotgun and Destructoid are quick to point out that it’s misogynist and appalling, but aren’t so quick to do the research.  And that’s understandable – in today’s “gaming journalism” landscape, he who gets the story or sensationalist headline out quickest is king, especially when ad revenue and page hits play such a large role in paying staff. Fortunately I don’t make my living this way, so I can afford to take my time to fact check, perform research, and poke around a bit.

What these outlets won’t tell you however, is that this particular collector’s edition is for the European and Australian markets, whose cultural standards are much different than ours in America.  Those of us stateside receive a far different version, titled “Rigor Mortis Edition,” which includes a woman in a Hawaiian skirt and a suitcase instead of the female bust. See the difference?

Rigor Mortis

This naturally brings a few conversations to the table, which  I think we need to explore a bit more to have a full understanding of the situation and are able to have an open dialogue about this.  Doing a bit of research on the cultural standards and norms of a particular geographic region can go a long way, but research takes time, energy, and effort – something not many journalists are willing to do in a time when having the quickest-draw to post a story makes you sheriff.

Cultural Standards

It is glaringly obvious today, but America has a bit of a violence problem. Recent school shootings and massacres seem to be the norm, as they appear in the papers on almost a daily basis. There were even talks this week with leading members of the games industry and the White House, in regards to violence in gaming. This isn’t the time or place to discuss this further, but it at least helps to illustrate America’s fascination with violence.

Conversely, sexuality is completely frowned upon in the United States. It’s considered risqué to have any sort of nudity in public, and television includes strict laws against such things. The FCC has plethora of confusing regulations regarding TV decency in the states. Is it bizarre to see someone’s naked body? What about it is so taboo exactly? I’m not here to discuss those things, but simply to get you thinking. Does that mean I want items like this to be part of this industry? Absolutely not. Let’s keep the gaming about games, and keep the objectification of women out, as it has no place here.Dead Island Tweet

Our friends overseas however, see things in a far different light.

I’ll never forget my experience at GamesCom, where all violent games had to be showcased behind closed walls, and only after gamers showed an official ID which detailed the individual’s age (over 16 at the time). On the other hand, I was waking up in a hotel where a window to the east faced a billboard with a woman wearing the smallest bikini I had ever seen was common place. I had never see anything like that before, and I’m from New York!

Additionally, in Germany (where Deep Silver resides) has softcore porn on the public television in every major city I visited. When I brought this up as a discussion point with locals, the seemed bewildered that we didn’t have the same thing where I grew up. There were women walking around in tight leather outfits, revealing nearly every inch of their body, along with a whip and stiletto heels, apparently dressed as some character I was unfamiliar with. the most surprisingly aspect of it all? No one seemed to be phased by it. Were the same scene visible in the states, it surely would have drawn some attention.

Is the objectification of women OK? Of course it’s not. As someone attempting to make a living in the games industry, the last thing I need to have others respect this field as much as I and my colleagues do is misogyny and objectification. But I understand that it’s part of nearly every major industry, television, film, and fashion included. I’d like to be able to show my family an industry with a squeaky clean image and one which welcomes the female demographic, both professionally and as gamers, with open arms. It’s not right that a woman should ever feel uncomfortable in her own skin, and things like this surely don’t help.

The high cost of development, both financially and morally

Perhaps part of the reason teams of publishers or developers feel the need to push sexuality in gaming is to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  The skyrocketing costs of development aren’t leaving anytime soon, and in fact have risen exponentially in the last generation. These teams need to recoup these costs, and what better way than by maximizing sales?

Does that make any of this right? Again, of course not. I also don’t believe that reducing the costs of development and marketing will eliminate this kind of behavior completely, but it’s a step in the right direction. There may never be a cure for it, but at least we know that there are ways to treat it. The solution may be found if we search far deeper than this, and I don’t have all of the answers, but hopefully this can at least get us talking.

I can’t guarantee that on our way out we’ll leave the gaming landscape a better place than how we found it, but I can only hope that we can at least attempt to improve it before we’re all done.


Edit: I should be more clear about this, after receiving a few comments from readers.

I believe the statue is wrong, distasteful, and I don’t agree with it. My point for this article was twofold:
It was to serve as a catalyst for discussion about how different cultures view violence and sexuality, particularly in games. Furthermore, I also wanted to promote discussion about misogyny. I agree, I don’t want to be part of an industry that accepts this as ok. But I want us to understand why some people are willing to accept this, how things got this way, and who this is being marketed towards.

There are reasons we see things like this over and over in the gaming landscape – because it sells. If it didn’t, it would be stopped in its tracks. Let’s better understand who is buying this idea, then we can come to some sort of understanding, rather than approach it with a closed mindset.

Posted on by Dave Voyles in News, PC News

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles

  • Anthony Swinnich

    I don’t know that the statue is ‘wrong’ per se, but it’s my opinion that it’s gaudy and senseless. Really, who wants a dismembered and bloody torso in a bikini hanging out in their residence? It’s serial killer caliber decor. I enjoyed the God of War games but I don’t need the severed body parts of my enemies strewn about my house for an additional $10 at retail. The suitcase promo is a far better option and should be the standard.

  • Kathleen

    Hi Dave!

    I can appreciate cultural “norms” but it doesn’t really justify something like this in my honest opinion. This isn’t really on the same level of “soft core porn” it’s more ugly, like a “Faces of Death” collectible doll.

    I also don’t know that there is a way to determine if taking the lazy marketing path is a cheap, short route to success. There are plenty of games that are plenty successful that don’t need to resort to stuff like this. Sure, people will buy this, but there isn’t really an easy way to determine if those same people would have bought it had it been less of an offensive, repulsive disaster.

    I see people rise to its defense and shake my head. This past year I’ve seen more and more people pipe up (as you have here) to say “hey, I know why this happened. What can we do to prevent it in the future?” My hope is that the more that crap like this gets negative attention, because people are finally finding their voices. People are figuring out that ignoring a problem doesn’t really ever make anything better. I speak from experience when I tell you it’s a scary prospect to be the one voice in the room that says, “Um, is anyone concerned about how this will come across?” Most of the time you’ll be patronized, ignored, and shunned. This happens a lot less if even just one other person agrees, or at least has your back. I feel like more of us are out there these days. It makes me hopeful for a future with a lot less of this sort of lazy shlock and more creative, inclusive and exciting ideas and innovations.