Ludum Dare, Heavy Topics, and Anti-Censorship

Today, I want to talk about heavy topics and how it relates with my anti-censorship beliefs. As a warning, I’ll be discussing about domestic abuse, and make very brief mentions of rape.

With Ludum Dare 33 over, and our Tech Valley Game Space stream finished, I can’t help but notice compared to other Ludum Dares, this one in particular had more controversial games. I guess this is to be expected: the theme was, “You Are The Monster.” To be honest, I’m disappointed, not because games were more controversial this time — if anything, it’s a sign that the medium is maturing — but rather, because they didn’t serve to do anything positive. These games have, in my opinion, failed to utilize the power of free speech, and instead serve as examples of how to abuse the lack of censorship in today’s connected world.

For example, there’s a game called Monster in the House which involves a greedy spouse whacking her husband with a bat to extract money from him. In the middle of the game, some children will bounce in, and the spouse has to be careful not to hit them while extracting more money. Game ends when the spouse’s satisfaction meter falls to 0, or the spouse accidentally hits a child. It’s a pretty comical game, to be honest, with all characters in the game either looking like grumpy clowns or bouncing balls. Likewise, the depiction of blood is very unrealistic, utilizing a string of red squares instead of looking like an actual liquid. Playing the game, I think the creator wanted it to be a fun game above all else, and had no intention of offending any specific person. It was made with good intentions, and I personally have no ill will to the creator. That said, the subject hits very close to home, and it’s infuriating that the game fails to recognize the gravity behind domestic abuse issues.

My dad owns a sushi restaurant filled with days of ups and downs. My mom, despite her children still in high school and middle school, did her best to help him out during the downs. Both were hard-working, and my mom especially was resourceful, rarely showing any signs of greed. That day was, perhaps, the worst moment the restaurant faced. I was exceedingly lucky. I was asleep when it happened, and have to rely on my siblings recollection about this event. After one stressful night, my mom snapped. Unable to take the day-by-day stress anymore, she attempted to claw and tackle my dad. My dad, usually calm and quiet, frantically pinned her down until her anger subsided. It only happened one night, and neither parent violently attacked each other again. Yet, it was enough to change our entire family.

I want to get back to my position with censorship for a minute. I’m against censorship: I favor keeping our speech in public as free as possible. The reason? I’m a strong believer that if we want to tackle topics like domestic abuse, it’s necessary to discuss about them directly, rather than working around them as if they doesn’t exist. Similarly, anti-censorship gives us the freedom to criticize, especially those in position of authority. With this measure, we the people can put companies, politicians, law enforcers, and other authoritative or privileged figures in check by pointing out their flaws. Thus, I lament when public schools or libraries — any public locations with employees who are in the exact position and expertise to discuss and educate difficult topics in a civil manner — censor mediums that cover said topics. Anti-censorship is most powerful when a medium causes the public to discuss how to improve our current world.

When mediums cover heavy topics, I’m always asking whether it successfully starts a constructive discussion in the subject matter, or criticizes any unfair practices. For Monster in the House, the answer is a stern no. The game fails to make useful observations as to why domestic violence often goes unreported, and certainly poses no solution to solve it. Even if it was presented as a joke — and to be fair, I do think the creator meant it as a joke — it fails to be either absurd, or a criticism to the practice. Similarly, when Wild Flirtation casually presents “Card Rape Sakura” as an option your monster character can respond to a woman, I fail to see how that joke is absurd, or provide a meaningful discussion about rape. And being a Japanese-American, I’m fully aware what that joke was making fun of. The joke only serves as a criticism to Japan’s image issue, and not the rapists in the Japan, or in any other country. Both games only serves as an example (even a normal) of violence, passive and unwilling to comment on the subject when they should be. They’re just controversial for controversy’s sake.

As opposed to these games, there were two that comes to mind that served to be a more positive example. Manifest Destiny depicts a giant white male figure roaming around and destroying pyramids while small black people runs away from him. A casual observer would probably comment the game is racist, and it is: the game openly admits it’s a metaphorical depiction of colonizers taking over African countries, including selling off the natives as slaves. Even without this message, the criticism the game makes on race still stands: the white giant progressively becomes more demonic as the game moves along, making it clear to the player their actions in-game are evil. I also really liked Hitogochi which, despite it’s more innocent dialog options than Wild Flirtation, was graphically more violent. The game makes the player role-play as a monster being treated by a klutzy and inexperienced caretaker. Important to the plot is a separate, primal personality the monster is fighting against that wants to eat more human flesh. Hitogochi makes it clear this primal split-personality is the main villain, and offers numerous options to fight against it. It successfully criticizes violent urges by presenting it as an absurdly psychopathic personality, and even provides some positive actions one could take to fight against it. While both games contains controversial subject matters, their presentation makes it clear both wants to fix said matters.

Free speech should be treated as a tool, something that can be used for good and for ill. As game developers focusing on pushing bounds of the medium, we should focus on the good behind free speech: providing positive and constructive messages for the public. It is our responsibility to both approach controversial topics with confidence, and with proper research and education. Covering just controversy itself isn’t enough anymore.

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