Could Censorship Lead to a Different Kind of Maturity in Games?

July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I was younger, going to the toilet in the dead of night terrified me. Whenever my bladder awoke me a preparation period of at least five minutes was required before I could summon up the courage to go. It wasn’t the journey to the bathroom that terrified me so much as standing with my back to the room. As far as I was concerned, practically anything could have been waiting there for me by the time I turned around.

This fear, like so many others children posses (and thankfully largely grow out of) is not based around anything physically being there, but rather a fear of what can’t be seen. Monsters will always choose to inhabit bed’s that are too dark to see under or closet’s whose doors are shut; strangely they never choose to set up shop in the open – perhaps for tax reasons?

Our innate fear of the unknown is something that’s been exploited much by horror games. Silent Hill’s fog introduced the possibility of there being monsters right in front of you, and Doom 3 controversially had you hold a flash light independently of a gun, thus forcing you into moments of complete darkness if you wanted to keep your finger on the trigger.

Recently though, this design choice has crept into an action game, namely Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. Players who get up close enough to enemies before unloading a spray of shotgun shells into their face are greeted with a police-tape style censoring effect over their bloodied head.

The effect of this feature is really quite stunning. Instead of merely seeing a model’s head shaded red with computer generated blood, you’re treated to whatever ghastly images your mind chooses to conjure up. It’s literally as bad as you can imagine it to be.

The human mind is always going to be able to produce something infinitely scarier than anything a developer can show you on screen.

This ‘less is more’ approach is something that’s been exploited in films for quite some time now, though in the past it could be argued that it came about due to a need to beat the censor in certain scenes. In Get Carter for example there’s a scene where Michael Caine stumbles across a piece of pornography featuring his niece. It’s a truly shocking scene, not least because it hardly shows anything of the video itself. Instead we as an audience are treated to her uncles reaction, as his eyes slowly well up with tears, and his rage overcomes his entire body.

Something like a character’s eyes filling with tears is an incredibly difficult thing to model in any graphics engine, and that’s exactly my point. By not showing a crudely animated crying animation or sex scene, we’re not going to be taken out of the experience by laughing at virtual genitals. Instead our imaginations can do the hard work without the game’s visuals getting in the way.

Of course, it’s far easier for a film to selectively choose what the audience sees. In a game this is far more difficult; you have a player in control of the camera at nearly all times, and as such you’re going to need to get creative with how you limit what they can see.

From a quantitative standpoint there’s an obvious benefit here of lower ratings for games with potentially more adult content. Obviously something like Kane and Lynch 2 is never going to be appropriate for children, but it’s not hard to imagine games whose ratings stray far closer to the dividing lines.

More importantly however, is that subtlety could lead a whole new side of maturity to games. Not maturity in the sense of ‘Hey now you can blow off an enemies limbs dude!”, but maturity like a classical piece of music or learning how to drink in moderation. Can video games really be said to have ‘grown up’ when they delight so thoroughly in showing us absolutely everything?


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