Does an outmoded sense of "political correctness" really prevent daring and innovation? The wandering mob is too quick to shout "offense" over creative choice, editor Colin Moriarty argued at IGN today, laying out an opinion that the act of criticism stifles creativity and forces censorship on designers.
Moriarty frames his editorial with a reference to a Benjamin Franklin quotation calling for freedom of thought and freedom of speech, which leads to his core argument: "We aren't showing any of the 'wisdom' Franklin spoke about because 'public liberty' is being strangled by people who think that because they are offended by something, we should all be offended by it, too. In turn, the offended too often act as roundabout thought police, and it has to stop."
The game that inspired Moriarty's current insights was the upcoming fighter Smite. The game has players take on the roles of gods from a number of non-Abrahamic religions as avatars pitted against each other in an online, player-vs-player battle arena situation. Hindu leaders have objected to the portrayal of their gods in the game, citing, among other things, the highly sexualized appearance of the goddess Kali as a "trivialization" and "denigration."
Hindiusm has roughly a billion adherents and is one of the most widely practiced religions in the world. Moriarty concedes to the Universal Society of Hinduism, "You can be offended by anything you want. You can let other people's words, deeds and art get to you however you deem fit." But then he continues: "But the second you start confusing your own subjective notion of good taste with what that means for everyone else and project your own offended posture on the rest of us, you've crossed the line." The advice? "If you don't like it, don't consume it."
The problem with the "if you don't like it, don't buy it, but shut up and leave the rest of us alone" line of reasoning is that the kind of feedback loop seen over Smite (or Tomb Raider, or Hitman: Absolution) isn't a bug; it's a feature.
In the United States and other countries with laws guaranteeing free speech, a content creator can indeed run with any idea he or she wishes. This is how it works, with any book, movie, painting, song, TV show, game, or creative endeavor of any kind. The creator says, "Here is my vision, here is my plan, and here is my product." The audience then responds to the plan and product, either with, "This is wonderful; take my money," or with, "I don't like it."
But "I don't like it" isn't the end of the conversation; it's the beginning. Next comes, "Here's why I don't like it," which opens the door to discussion. Discussion and awareness are the ways in which culture changes over time. Standards of racism were appropriate in mainstream culture sixty years ago that are unacceptable now, and that's not a bad thing. Yes, you can use a racial epithet in your work of fiction if you want. But you're going to have to have a reason; there will need to be an intention behind it. The audience's standards have changed, and artists, who both reinforce and challenge culture, need to understand how and why.
No external force has come around to halt production on Smite or Tomb Raider, and in fact both are churning along perfectly well. Based on what is available so far to see or try, various groups and individuals are registering their approval and disapproval of elements of the games. Contrary to stifling expression, that creates a field in which more people can be expressive. That's how it should be. Criticism is how a medium grows.
In the end, Moriarty asks: "When are we going to acknowledge that this mentality is destructive? When are we going to come to terms with the fact that by strangling creativity because of abstract notions of being offended and hurt feelings, we are doing a major disservice not only to ourselves, but to the people who want to give us new stories full of new ideas?"
The answer is: never, because that's not the case. To stifle criticism is no better than to stifle creativity. A work needs to stand on its own, and either to defend itself, or to fail. To ignore valid offense, and to insist that audience feelings don't matter, is to do a major disservice not only to ourselves, but to the makers who want to give us new stories full of new ideas. To leave old, hackneyed, dated ideas unchallenged is to prevent us from getting new stories full of new ideas. To accept whatever we are handed without challenge, without thought, and without critique is to ensure we will never get new stories full of new ideas.
The "PC police" aren't out to stop anyone from making games just for the joy of feeling angry. Creating offensive or provocative content can be constructive, depending on who is being offended and why. But it can also cause real harm. If someone is saying that they find material offensive, distasteful, or harmful, it is worth taking the time to listen to why.