Video games have always been at the forefront of the so-called culture war. And that isn’t changing any time soon – but forces from within the industry itself threaten to put a stop to the freedoms most creators have enjoyed since the start of the medium.
From the moral panic of the 1990s when Al Gore’s wife Tipper Gore waged a crusade against Night Trap and Mortal Kombat and brought the issue all the way to Congress, to the 2000s when Hillary Clinton and former Senator Joe Lieberman took the fight against Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for its glorification of crime and misogyny – the video game industry and its supporters in the entertainment media were always on the front lines, arguing both in the courtrooms and on television sets across America that freedom of speech provided game developers the liberty to creatively express themselves even if it offended somebody else.
It was a time when the ESRB, the industry-run ratings board, was established to tell concerned parents: “hey, we got this.” Just look for the sign that says E for everyone on the box and you’ll know your kids are safe to play this. If it’s got M on the box, don’t get it for them unless they’re 17 or older. It’s a system that made sense, and it still makes sense – and it was done to pre-empt any sort of government regulation from taking place.
And thankfully, it didn’t result in a repeat of the Comics Code of Authority in 1954, which was established by comic publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics for the same reason way back then. The difference, of course, is that the CCA effectively clamped down on creative storytelling well until the 1980s, while video games – even with the ESRB – flourished and continues to do so as game developers push the creative boundaries with all manner of content, no matter how violent or edgy.
Journalists, too, played their part in defending the creative freedoms of game developers. Arguing that video games are art – to the chagrin of respected movie critics like Roger Ebert – these game critics, writers and the like, successfully campaigned to turn video games into a respectable art form capable of telling emotional, human stories even with all the pomp and flair of a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted charted the course for Nathan Drake, a roguish treasure hunter who, while always failing to become extraordinarily wealthy, found an abundance of adventure, friendship, and family. It was a game that grew up with the players.
Sony’s God of War was very much the same. The formerly two-dimensional series protagonist Kratos goes from being a borderline psychopathic God-slayer into a humble father, imparting to his son the lessons he learned throughout the course of his life as a Spartan warrior. Not bad for a character who tears the heads off Gorgons and other mythical beasts.
And yet, despite the freedom offered by the industry’s governing bodies as well as the government itself – thanks in large part to Justice Antonin Scalia, who delivered the best defenses of creative freedom in video games – that creative freedom is coming to an end.
The industry and its proponents – the entertainment and gaming journalists who once stood as a bastion against censorship – are now actively calling for it and, in many cases, suppressing anyone who dares to express their creative liberties if it goes against the cult of wokeness.
This push for political correctness, which has been a long time coming ever since the enthusiast press called for the medium to be examined through a “critical” lens in the late 2000s, has now become the norm. A video game cannot be allowed, in any way, to “punch down” at any given subject without being taken through the ringer for being misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, or whatever-ist you can pull out of a diversity seminar hosted by Robin D’Angelo.
And instead of Robin D’Angelo and Ibram X. Kendi, the game industry has its very own Anita Sarkeesian. Enough ink has been spilled about Sarkeesian’s intersectional feminist influence on the industry to skip a retread here.
Enter Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered, the latest Sony game to see a release on the PC, where enterprising gamers can modify its files and make unauthorized changes to the game.
Also known as “modding,” anyone unfamiliar with the scene might not realize that gaming has a long history with the practice. Although not officially supported by most game publishers, mods have come to be the defining characteristic of PC gaming, setting them apart from the PlayStation and Xbox experience, which typically only allows players to experience these creative works as the developers intended.
Numerous high-profile developers and the games they made had their start in the modding scene. The ever-popular CSGO was originally devised as a mod for Half-Life, and the Battle Royale genre – Apex Legends, PUBG, and Call of Duty: Warzone – owes its existence to those who modded the military simulation Arma 3. League of Legends and DOTA2 saw their birth in a Warcraft 3 mod called Defense of the Ancients. You get the idea.
PC gaming allows this. Todd Howard wouldn’t be on his 100th release of Skyrim if it wasn’t for the modding community. This ability to modify video games not only extends the life of existing titles, but births new ones. Given investment and faith from moneyed publishers, entire studios have formed around modder groups.
In the case of Spider-Man, a modder took it upon himself to replace the Pride flags found in the comic book-conceptualized vision of New York City with the American flag. This caused an uproar in the community – the controversy driven by woke conversation threads on Reddit and a site called ResetEra, and blown up even further by the video game press.
Websites that host mods very quickly responded to the controversy by banning the creator of the flag mod and anyone who supported its existence. Worth noting that these same websites have no problem carrying an abundance of pornographic creations that strip female characters naked and have them perform sexual acts. Forcing sex on digital characters is apparently acceptable, but God forbid you replace a digital Pride flag.
It's a kind of “They Live” moment, where putting on a pair of sunglasses shows you the advertisements for what they really are. It’s not even a stretch to suggest that the Pride flag represents America, and what has now become representative of American values.
Compounding the controversy over the mod, numerous transgender and Pride activists took to websites like Nexus Mods to upload retaliatory mods to include additional progressive flags, effectively swapping out every instance of the American flag with various Pride flags. Those mods are still up and available for download, despite multiple players highlighting the double standards.
“[W]e are for inclusivity, we are for diversity,” wrote the director of Nexus Mods, which hosts modding content for Spider-Man and other video games. “If we think someone is uploading a mod on our site with the intent to deliberately be against inclusivity and/or diversity then we will take action against it. The same goes for people attempting to troll other users with mods deliberately to cause a rise.”
He highlighted the fact that the original modder had created a throwaway account to upload his mod as a clear indication that he was a “coward” and a troll… though he may have simply done it to try to avoid the retribution he suspected was coming.
In other words, replacing the Pride flag with the American flag is “trolling,” but replacing American flags with the Pride flag is… what, social justice?
Rather than defend the creative freedom of the modder who made this slight alteration to Spider-Man, the games media vilified its creator and questioned how anyone could have the audacity to challenge the woke narrative. Don’t like seeing the Pride flag flown all over the place? Why, you must be a bigot.
If and when the Biden administration, which already openly advocates for the progressive cause, moves to clamp down on any expressions perceived as hate speech, those who once defended the medium against censorship will not only be the first to toe the line – they’ll be the ones leading the charge. So much for freedom of speech.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.