October 25, 2021

The Big Bang of Controversy

I am a great believer that, like our universe, we must continue to keep expanding our minds and opening them to the possibility of making previously rather offensive material not really that offensive.

There was a time when it was offensive to use the word “Gay”, now it is wheeled about with ‘gay’ abandon. The word “Retarded” as an insult is now wheeled out in relatively PG sitcoms, although it is still tricky enough to get a daytime TV host into a spot of hot water. And that is before we examine the use of the word “rape” in the last five years or so – a word with such extremely powerful connotations that is used to flippantly, in a way that is watering down the actual deep core of the word.

It is safe to say that in the last two decades, we have expanded our horizons to levels that encompass far more than mere tropes. Where I started to notice this was in Mortal Kombat in the early 90s. A game reclaiming video games for adults, willing to give out mature content with a wry smile, and a game that courted so much controversy that today, you’d laugh looking back at it. Mortal Kombat wasn’t exactly “mature content”. It was comic book, slapstick and ridiculous. But it did have red blood. It did show people chopping off heads, ripping them off, pulling out hearts and setting their opponents on fire. These days, such things are the norm in any 15-rated game.

Then you have Resident Evil – a game that utterly terrified me, and I loved it for it. Where Mortal Kombat started, in 1996 Capcom took a step further. The blood was red, decapitation was the standard method for disposing of zombies in a quick and efficient manner and yes, the fact that these characters talked and you WERE one of them gave a sense of place and connection at last, where actions have consequence. In three-dimensions, this was the most real extreme yet. Bloody rooms with entrails scattered about, mutants with hearts outside their bodies, and death sequences that closed in on your characters demise; it pushed the boundries again.

Funny thing is, these examples now look so timid, so tame. It’s also worth remembering that Lara Croft was controversial – many thought and argued she was nothing more than a sex object, a byproduct of a hobby and industry generally thought to be populated by insular, immature nerdy boys who wouldn’t know a woman if one came and offered them to motorboat on their ample cleavage. Now we have swearing, all the time, constantly. That was once seen as too much to handle, where it was no longer necessary.

But it is in depictions of death and mutilation that we, as a species, have become remarkably blase and disinterested. Now, you can argue that is through games like GTA, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Manhunt – games which were never shy about death and the consequences of death. You can argue this may be through shows like NCIS and CSI, which often break down the whole process of death into stages, to understand the how and why behind death. Or you can look to the movies, with such names as Saw, Hostel and The Human Centipede, which push the limits of taste to breaking point and then go a little further.

But compared to where we started in the 90s, we’re a far more tolerant world than we give ourselves credit for. Where once the merest flash of thigh would have had censors screaming in agony, now thongs are cut so fine that they may as well be strands of spaghetti, behind which a perfectly trimmed topiary can be not-hidden. Whereas once Lara Croft had to cover her cleavage to avoid upsetting the masses, lately she’s been very happy to provide a few flashes of it. Whereas once we didn’t want blood, now we positively bay for it.

There are still taboos – but I sometimes wonder, how long before we have broken those down? The fact The Human Centipede 2 can be released is a testament to the fact that people out there are STILL pushing, still trying to expand what is acceptable, because in doing so, the stuff we’ve covered is dealt with as a normality.

That despite its relative infancy, the video game industry has been there through the past two or even three decades of cultural change and increased tolerance is a testament to its relevance in the world today, and it can be traced back to show a line of how we got to this stage – through the lines of Mortal Kombat, Doom, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Manhunt, Dead or Alive (and it’s volleyball offshoot), Bully, Rule of Rose, MadWorld…

As we have become more tolerant, it seems we’ve also developed a very personal and private taste for the bad stuff. There is no longer shame involved with porn, or going to see a movie like The Human Centipede 2, or buying an 18-rated game off the shelves. These things are now normal – whereas once they made many back off with revulsion, those same people are likely now going to see the sequels. Once we’ve had a taste, it’s very hard not to want more. It makes us think. It makes us feel. It makes us smile, laugh, cringe, cry or vomit. But we react.

And it keeps on going, limits are pushed more and more. There will always be a fear that, like the universe, the whole lot will one day collapse in on itself and destroy any and all cultural progress made within the last few decades, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Nor does it appear to be slowing down – Bulletstorm, Deus Ex, Rage and others are evidence that there are ever more extremes to deal with, ever more barriers to be broken down, ever more bad things to deal with. Ever more controversial subjects, topics and taboos just within reach.

It’s an interesting thought – and one my grandfather made me realise a few years ago. He refused point blank to buy me Mortal Kombat was it first came out. It wasn’t what he believed in – he wanted me to broaden my horizons, but he felt Mortal Kombat was just too obscene, a bit of an insult he felt to an industry he believed was the future.

Flash forward a decade or so, and he’s there in the background, watching me and a few of my mates play Mortal Kombat: Deception. And not only is he totally okay with it, he even joins in and laughs at the ridiculousness of it all. Six or seven guys with beers and cigars and whathaveyou all bunched up in front of a big-screen TV, winner stays on, all having a blast and laughing at how silly this game really is.

My grandfather was a victim of tolerance in time. We all are. In ten years, what seems offensive now will seem perfectly normal and boring to someone who has been there in that bubble. We cannot stop it. We can only be carried on it, or struggle against it.

And struggling against it rarely seems to do any good… so we go with it, and see where it takes us… and hope that the ride doesn’t end too abruptly.


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