Wednesday, October 22, 2008

News for 10/22/08: Little Planet, Big Controversy

This week we are discussing the Little Big Planet delay on account of two Qur'An verses appearing in some background music. We won't be linking to the original story as usual since this is all over the games news media already. The fact this incident received so much coverage is indicative of how interesting and controversial religion is these days. We're pretty certain you've all got an opinion on the subject, so feel free to participate in the dialogue by leaving your comments.

Scott: They delayed the reason I bought a PS3, dammit.

Jorge: It was for your own good Scott. Who knows what kind of rage you would go into upon hearing parts of the Qur'An sung while completely immersed in LBP.

Scott: You're right. It's good to have a friend like you, praise Allah. Wait, was that culturally

Jorge: I don't know. You're Jewish so I think it evens out... In all seriousness, I kind of feel bad for Sony. After all the media blow-up on the subject, they are receiving more flak than they would have had they left the game alone.

Scott: I think you're right on that one. Do we even know who brought it up, or if anyone even complained? Or is this just a preemptive recall?

Jorge: Their exact statement was "During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet, it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur'an."

Scott: Kotaku mentions they may have received this written complaint from a "hardcore Arabic gaming forum."

Jorge: Even their complaint implies they would be fine with shipping the game as long as future prints do not contain the lyrics. They were patching it anyway. The only people who could have heard it and been offended were a small portion of Muslims with keen hearing who bought LBP and played without being connected to the Internet. How many is that? Three?

Scott: Yes, it just seems like a huge amount of work to recall disks, print new ones, and then ship them out. And this says nothing about the larger ethical, cultural, or moral dilemmas brought into focus by Sony's actions.

Jorge: I understand that Sony wants to satisfy their fan base, some of which is Muslim. So in that sense, removing it from future printing and sending out the patch makes sense. But the entire reprinting process and delay hurts the rest of their consumers, albeit minutely. I don't think the ends justify the means in this case.

Scott: Agreed. And I realize that the delay is just a week, which isn't a big deal.

Scott: The thing that angers me is their willingness to completely bend to the will of a vocal minority. Why do a small group of people get to change a game simply because they are offended by it? Jack Thompson tried to do that for years and Rock Star never changed GTA's content.

Jorge: And I'm sure there are plenty of Christians within the US that have been offended by aspects of videogames for quite sometime.

Scott: I mean, think of the number of times someone has said "Oh my God," and "Goddammit!" in video games. Any calls to censor that stuff is met with derision.

Scott: Capitulation to Muslim complaints strike me as racist. Bear with me here: I argue that the only reason to relent to this minority is that Sony views them as "dangerous" people capable as extreme acts.

Jorge: I completely agree with you. Sony seems to have bought into this fear of radical Muslims. There will be people within all faiths that don't always agree. No group is homogeneous. I'm sure there are some Muslims who are more offended that Sony took this action at all. To think you can please everyone through rash action is ludicrous. Pleasing all audiences is impossible, though I commend Media Molecule in trying to achieve a universal crowd pleaser.

Scott: I argue that the only reason Sony took the song out was because they buy into the threat of Muslim extremism. And now those Muslims who don't care have to deal with the backlash of non-Muslims who are pissed at Sony.

Jorge: If videogames are to be classified as art then publishers will have to make these sometimes tough decisions because art will almost always offend. It's a risk inherent in the medium.

Scott: True: good art pushes people's comfort zones.

Jorge: Though I know this isn't that big of a deal in the long run (its only two lines of lyric after all) I think this is a nice reminder that the videogame industry is still couched in the larger global context in which we all find ourselves. I'd like to know if publishers are going to consistently fear offending people, because that is not a quality I desire in the industry, even if that means I will be offended now and again. Material created with the intent to agitate tends to sell poorly, but knowing we can push the boundaries of the medium is important.

Scott: The frustrating thing is that there are real battles to fight in terms of prejudice in games. Prejudice in terms of race, sexuality, gender and a whole host of other topics.This flap about two ambiguous lines detracts from what is really offensive in games.

Jorge: All of which can be addressed by either not purchasing the offensive game in question or engaging in a dialogue between gamers, developers, and publishers. No one in the videogame industry wants to make gamers feel unwelcome, that's obvious. There was no maliciousness on Sony's part.

Scott: Exactly, and instead of start a discussion, people called for censorship and censorship was readily granted. This does nothing to advance the medium.

Scott: And I think neither of us want this to turn into an "anti-PC" rant. Cultural sensitivity is a good thing; alarmist reactions are not.

Jorge: And if anything it's counterproductive in allaying the concern of Sony's consumers. I wonder if they now regret this decision.

Scott: Yes, this was a time when calm, rational reflection was needed. This whole situation casts Sony as a reactionary company willing to sacrifice a game's artistic package on whim.

Scott: Well, at least this controversy has given me something to think about while I wait for LBP.

Jorge: By LBP you mean "Little Blasphemy Planet" right?

Scott: You win, sir. You win.


  1. What if it were not due to extremist reaction fears, but that of another worry: cultural insensitivity breeds news stories. Being accused of anti-Muslim sentiments, or a lack of sensitivity of their beliefs, is much more newsworthy than anti-Christian, and could have brought about a large number of other headaches.

  2. To be honest, I don't think it is very likely that this action was taken out of fear of Muslim extremists.

    Rather than a difference in their willingness to offend Christians over Muslims, it seems to be a difference between the way a company like Sony views their business as compared to a company like Rockstar. It is largely a matter of size.

    Smaller companies are much more attached to their creations, and so are less willing to change them. Rockstar openly acknowledged that they knew people would have problems with their game. They didn't believe it was worth changing the game. As the old adage goes, "if you're not offending someone, you're doing something wrong."

    A company like Sony that subcontracts the game development immediately caves in. To them, it isn't worth the risk. All they've invested is money, and so in the end it all comes down to the profit margin. It's like when a company settles rather than dealing with a lawsuit because in the end it is going to be cheaper.

    But I gotta wonder if they would have caved in so easily 2 or 3 years ago. Not because of the Muslim aspect, but rather because of the increased mainstream attention that video games seem to be getting these days.

  3. @ Nick

    The implications of larger publishers having more sway than the development studios in terms of what goes in and out of a product is a bit unsettling. It would be interesting to see how Media Molecule felt about this recall. I'm also curious about whether this was really the best decision in terms of profit on Sony's part. Surely the recall and subsequent printing of LBP must have been incredibly expensive.

    I think your last statement is most indicative of Sony's reasoning. Of course they didn't fear extremists taking physical action. More likely, as Denis mentioned, they feared bad press in a media climate abnormally aware of religious fervor. It's still reactionary.

  4. From all I've read it seems that Media Molecule is just towing the party line. It would be nice to hear what they really thought...

    I agree with both Denis and Nick in seeing this as a cave in. It's just disheartening to see during a time when we're all fighting to help games stand on their own two feet. If people shy away from controversy needlessly, games will have a hard time gaining broad appeal.