I shouldn’t have to say this but everything that follows is simply my opinion. I do not advocate making games like ‘Hatred’ illegal, I advocate for an art/entertainment atmosphere where people, one and all, simply do not want to make or play games like it.
So the streaming website Twitch.tv has banned games rated Adults Only by the ESRB. Most people believe they have done so because of the imminent release of a twin-stick shooter game called ‘Hatred’; the trailer for which marked it as a mass murder simulator. While there are a few legitimate complaints about how Twitch went about this (Why not ban Hatred specifically instead of beating around the bush? What about the other games you allow which feature content that is arguably worse, like the playable torture scene in Grand Theft Auto 5?), I’m generally going to defend their decision.
I’ll first say that I will not be talking about censorship. If you think Twitch, a privately owned platform, deciding it doesn’t want to promote specific games for whatever reason is censorship, you are a fool. Governments censor, internet broadcasters do not.
I decided to write this piece after hearing youtuber Totalbiscuit discuss it on his podcast and watching his video profiling his initial experience with the game. While I find I generally agree with the man about much and respect his opinion (I’ve purchased two video games based on his videos and recommendations), we diverge on this issue. He was of the opinion that the ‘Hatred’ controversy was created mostly by a few games media websites who were attempting to grandstand on a moral soapbox. While that could technically be true, material like ‘Hatred’ will always be the guilty party in these situations to me.
Why? I don’t believe a games media website should be capable of putting themselves on a moral soapbox over an issue like this, because everyone, and I mean everyone, should already be standing on this box. The floor should be made of these boxes. It’s another way of saying that we’re always supposed to be raising the bar. ‘Hatred’ destroys a box, creates a pothole to intentionally trap people, and waits for them to unwittingly fall in. There’s nothing wrong with having a minimum acceptable standard for the tone, theme, characters, dialogue, setting, and plot of any piece of art or entertainment in any medium. It helps us to progress.
Totalbiscuit explained his criticism by mentioning how violence of that nature, and of a worse nature, has similarly shown up in other mediums like film but have not destroyed the medium or led to significant degradation. While I, Totalbiscuit, and science by the way, agree that there is no discernable causal link between playing violent games and committing real life violence, that idea is not at the root of my criticism.
The root of my criticism is that Hatred is simply unacceptable. Not illegal, just unacceptable. It specifically invokes the visuals of security camera footage with its black-and-white aesthetic. The developers are very much trying to upset people who are aware of the very contemporary, very real, very genuinely horrifying in our real actual lives, issue that is mass homicide by firearms in the United States of America. To me, there would be no difference between ‘Hatred’ and making a game about piloting an airplane full of civilians into a skyscraper full of civilians because the voice in your head that claims to be god but is actually either mental illness or an authoritarian madman told you to.
The thing that galls me the most about Totalbiscuit’s opinion on the subject is that he seems to think two very important and fluid elements, tone and context, don’t actually have much bearing on how good a video game is. We could not disagree more. Even if ‘Hatred’ had the tightest controls, the best building-crumbling physics, spectacular lighting, and a frame rate so high it threatened to open a wormhole, it would still be a vile awful piece of inhuman garbage. In his video of the game, Totalbiscuit discussed its performance in a way that suggests he’s doing his best to be an impartial critic (which I believe he is): he talks about the frame rate and the physics engine while he machine guns civilians and smacks a police officer in the back of the head with the end of his rifle. I could not do this. Not because I haven’t done similar things before (I will gladly defend my enjoyment of hyperviolent games like Bioshock and Mad World any time), but because the tone and context are morally repugnant to me. (Many will disagree, but I find GTA goes too far as well. Really, you’re going to call it a satire because you changed iphone to ifruit? That’s… not funny. Nor is it commentary.)
If we were to try hard enough, someone could make a game that even Totalbiscuit wouldn’t be willing to play and discuss. If Youtube allowed such things and it were released for sale, do you think he would play a game where you sexually abuse children? Do you think he would complain about mouse acceleration when he slides his mouse up to remove an eleven year old boy’s shirt? My guess is that he would not, because he would never play such a thing. It would be unacceptable.
People will excuse these games by calling them fantasy. It’s provocative. To that I would say there’s a pretty big difference between stirring the pot and knocking an open metal container of boiling liquid off the stove. I, like most other people, am no stranger to violent fantasies or sexual daydreams. There’s always somebody you want to punch or someone you want to get close to. It is undeniably in our nature. There is a line though. Everyone’s is different. I’m not pretending to be objective, I’m simply saying that I, like most people, think that my personal line is a good approximation for a human being who is not a sentient sack of feces. All I can hope to do is move your line, whether it’s in front of mine or behind it, closer.
If murdering innocent people in large numbers with guns is one of your fantasies, then you have a serious symptom of emotional illness that you should address as soon as possible. The same for participating in virtual child pornography, or being a virtual suicide bomber. These subjects become more frightening to explore as their themes and context draw closer to reality because they are that bad. There is actually a difference between ‘Hatred’, which looks like a recording of a parking lot shooting that happened however many (single-digit) years ago, and a game in the same genre where you shoot lasers at reptilian aliens on Neptune.
Tone and context matter. Otherwise they wouldn’t have made ‘Hatred’ the way they did in the first place. It’s not wrong to complain when someone walks out onto a smooth, functioning, safe road and starts creating potholes with a sledgehammer. Sure you can swerve out of the way, but your life is that much worse for it anyway.