Creativity and censorship – these two apparently cannot exist without each other. But are censored media — such as video games — even able to deliver their content according to their creators’ wishes?
Censorship has been with us since 399 BC when Socrates had to have a hemlock drink after a conflict over his philosophical teachings’ validity. Today, it also exists in gaming, providing many hilarious or absurd topics to discuss. Let’s agree – many of the modifications in video games look out of this world. But they are essential to the kids’ safety or national government regulations. Overall, it is a very delicate topic, mingling themes of freedom and legal restrictions.
Shouldn’t game developers enjoy their creativity to the fullest? Or maybe all we have to do is find that sweet spot between someone’s imagination and proper delivery? Let’s find answers to these rather challenging questions, as few topics are as fresh and fascinating as censorship in videogames.
The Evolution of Censorship in Gaming
The first video game to receive criticism was 1976’s Death Race. Its simple GTA-like gameplay featured driving a car and hitting pedestrians – although it was not graphically brutal due to the pixelated visuals. Nevertheless, the title stopped appearing on arcade machines.
It was followed shortly after by 1982’s Custer’s Revenge, which had the ‘Not for sale to minors’ warning on its box. Due to its racist content, the title was unallowed in stores. But censorship only escalated with the launch of more realistic games like Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, and Doom.
The increasing number of controversial titles resulted in the rise of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). Its job is to review and rate games to adjust their content to the recipient’s age.
This event inspired similar organizations, including PEGI in Europe, USK in Germany, and CERO in Japan. They are all responsible for placing icons on game descriptions to signal the appropriate age of future players and inform about controversial content involving nudity, strong language, or blood.
Some, like PEGI, are more of a suggestion than a mandatory requirement. Others, like the German USK, are more restrictive. Moreover, even large companies such as Nintendo and Apple introduced self-censorship to avoid publishing controversial content. This way, we can distinguish two types of censorship – internal and resulting from external influences.
Cultural and Political Impact on Censorship
Comparing Eastern and Western approaches to censorship delivers considerably different results. China is the most extreme example, heavily censoring all sensitive content. To such an extent that the massive Activision Blizzard with its World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Diablo punished professional gamer Chung Ng Wai for supporting anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Ubisoft also introduced dedicated changes to its Rainbow: Six Siege to adapt to the Chinese market. The Western approach to censorship may be a bit lighter – but it still introduces in-game modifications to fulfill the different nationalities’ requirements.
Censorship is a product of cultural and political demands, as digital entertainment can greatly inspire society. Gaming has become increasingly popular, so various national governments are trying to control what is appropriate. Western countries allow much more sensitive content at younger ages, but this does not mean all of it.
Let’s explore the best (and most amusing) examples of censorship in different countries so you can appreciate the bigger picture on a global scale.
We will start with the most famous case of GTA: San Andreas, as its code assumed the introduction of interactive sex scenes. The content was unincluded in the official game version, but the Hot Coffee mod could unlock it. Initially, Rockstar was reluctant to admit these scenes already existed within the game but eventually withdrew it after encountering massive criticism in America. Ubisoft’s South Park: The Stick of Truth also experienced censorship in the European and Australian markets, where any controversial scenes were hidden behind an image informing about potentially sensitive content.
But Europe is still pretty forgiving compared to Germany. Considering the challenging times of World War II, the German USK controls any content that may refer to nazi symbols. This way, Hitler lost his usual mustache in Wolfenstein 2: New Colossus. And Dead Rising 4 or Dying Light were banned from sale due to explicit violence.
Nudity is also a reason for quite strong censorship, especially in Japan. These versions of Far Cry 4, Metro: Last Light, and Watch Dogs 2 don’t allow naked characters by clothing or removing them from the gameplay altogether.
For historical reasons, the Japanese edition of Fallout 3 does not include a nuclear bomb reference. However, the game still exists in Japan, while in the Indian market, it does not. The fundamental cause is Brahmins – two-headed cows depicted in an unholy way. These cases perfectly demonstrate how game narratives intertwine with religions and real-world politics.
Censorship is about protecting kids and publishing entertainment media in a form appropriate to the chosen country and its history. However, some titles like Hatred proudly feature an Adults Only 18 rating from the ESRB and are considered rebellious in many countries.
Economic and Ethical Considerations
When discussing censorship in games, we must understand that it is more of a spectrum than black and white. For some, even a little blood can be enough of a reason for an AO rating. Others may need something more to wonder whether the chosen title belongs to the M or Adults Only category. That’s why some countries don’t allow many games while others let you play everything according to age icons.
By understanding this fact, we can better grasp the developers’ perspective. They need to figure out why and where their creation may lure criticism. And this translates into sales.
Banned, restricted, or modified video games may experience lower sales than those with a more universal rating and no controversial content. In addition to national restrictions, the game must also meet the gaming platform requirements. And when it comes to sensitive content, console giants are unwilling to include it in their stores and libraries. The only exception is Valve, which recently let players decide what they want to play and allowed AO titles on its Steam platform.
This situation encourages developers to modify their games or adjust certain parts to reach the M rating and consoles. But doesn’t that affect creative freedom? Video games — as the fruit of devotion for the entire industry and its history — lack part of their identity when censored.
We can witness this process, especially in the case of games set in historical circumstances, like the Assassin’s Creed series, which has often encountered heavy censorship to gather more fans with its universally appropriate content. Let’s ask fans what they think about such changes.
Community Reaction and the Future Outlook
According to Reddit gamers, video game censorship has evolved. And it’s not a good sign. Moreover, it primarily concerns female characters and nudity themes, not violence. Only three games received an AO rating for violence! As female players note, censoring hypersexualized heroines designed to appeal to male gamers may be a welcome change to provide more relatable characters.
But sometimes, this process goes a bit too far, as in the case of Assassin’s Creed: Origins Discovery Tour mode, where Ubisoft replaced statues’ private areas with sea shells. This revolutionary mode allowed players of all ages to discover ancient Egypt by themselves. But you don’t see such modifications when visiting a museum, do you?
All of this may make you wonder what the future of censorship in gaming holds. At this point, the number of gamers in China represents twice the entire population of the United States. And because of that, that particular country can dictate what kind of product is appropriate – for its residents and everyone else. Chinese censorship already affected the work of over 25 largest gaming companies.
However, the gaming industry is still developing. Innovative technologies like virtual and augmented reality are pushing the boundaries of what is ethically appropriate, requiring different rules regarding ratings and censorship. And that’s where players come in – their job is to be vocal about their expectations of these laws.
The future of gaming may need a new form of dialogue between developers, players, and all kinds of restrictive organizations. Hopefully, this can contribute to the emergence of gaming that doesn’t lack a creative identity and supports the safety of audiences of all ages.
Censorship is like cuisine – everyone has their favorite. It has to exist for various reasons, such as the internal desire to improve the game’s rating, government restrictions, cultural origins, or politics.
That’s quite many motivations! Although censorship originally made some sense in the case of Mortal Kombat or Night Trap, now its power reaches ridiculous proportions, requiring nonsensical changes even in games with a historical setting.
Unfortunately, reforming this state of affairs may require a massive effort from players. It may also demand dialogue between self-censoring companies, national governments, and organizations like ESRB or PEGI. This situation looks chaotic, especially if we assume the ultimate goal is to balance the recipients’ safety with the developers’ artistic freedom.
That’s why we should keep this conversation going. Use the internet to chat about our expectations and not ignore excessive cases of censorship in video games to develop an environment that is responsible and fulfilling for all parties involved.
Share your thoughts on this topic – it can be the first step to carving a better future!