I don’t usually get involved in politics or social issues on here, save for the occasional effects it has on geek culture and for good reason. Most of us are looking for an escape from such issues. However, there has been a major trend recently where such issues have invaded nearly every facet of our existence, including unfortunately, our escapism. As such, it would appear that my participation in such topics is not optional, hence the title of this post.
In many previous advice posts, I have said that a writer should write stories that they want to read and enjoy, let the audience decide later if they want to read it. If the writer spends all of their time worrying about what their readers or viewers want to read/see, then the work will likely be a lot more lackluster and forced in many places. Not only that but no matter what you do, you will never be able to please everyone.
So let me start by posing the question; should fiction cover controversial issues? I think most people would agree that it absolutely should. However, there are some out there that disagree because covering such issues would be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, these people tend to rail against anything that lands outside their comfort zone like Christian purist from the 40s.
Now I think that the appropriateness of covering a controversial issue should be taken on a case by case basis, and even then will be in the eye of the beholder. When Mark Wahlberg put out a movie about the Boston Bombing, a lot of people thought it was in bad taste, especially because of the timing. Others thought that those people were being oversensitive. As someone who experienced the Boston Bombing first-hand in that I wasn’t far away from the area when it happened, I’m on the fence with this one. I’m no fan of Mark Wahlberg by any stretch and the fact that he’s become a local hero is disgraceful to Boston, IMO, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think this movie should have been made. Those that say otherwise are what I refer to as ‘moral guardians’. The fact is, no one has the right to tell a creator what they can and cannot create. The exceptions to this are, of course, deliberate slander, threats, and incitement of violence. Everything else resides in the purview of the creator’s morality. Creators should be able to tackle any topic they want in any way they want and then the audience can decide with their dollars if the creator went too far. Telling someone before-the-fact that they shouldn’t be able to experiment and try out something new or uncomfortable is counter-productive in the worlds of fiction and fantasy.
Pandering to Moral Guardians and/or Culture Warriors is never a good idea. For starters, because they’ll often go into writing, video games, and several other mediums that tackle controversial issues and instantly label them as bad without any context such as… actually reading or experiencing the full work. Like it or not, feminist frequency has done this on several occasions with their attacks on video games while bolstering really bad characters simply because of their appearances and genders.
Polygon in their article “Stop using extreme violence to sell your game”
Heavily criticized the abuse of women that were put in, as they called it, extremely violent situations.
“The violence is particularly upsetting as it features the assault of women. Violent attacks on women, many times for perfunctory purposes, isn’t new. The Killing Joke saw the Joker torture Barbara Gordon in a statement that reinforced the notion that gender influences violence. The volatile imagery used in the trailer to underline the heinous acts being committed are familiar scenes to us. We’ve seen this play out in other TV shows or movies before, and in real life. 35 percent of women have experienced violence at the hands of another person in their lifetime, according to 2017 report from the United Nations.”
However, these are the same people that complained about the under-representation of female protagonists in these stories. The problem is that… you got what you wanted; more women in fiction. The problem is that fiction can in many cases be extremely violent and as such, the more you put women in the forefront of these stories, the more you’re going to expose them to these situations. It is not avoidable if they’re going to get the level of equality they want.
Simply put, there is no pleasing these people. No matter what you do or how much you try to cater to them, they will find something to complain or faux virtue signal about. There will always be something that they find offensive. They want fiction to tackle controversial topics and then get mad when it does.
Another example I want to tackle is an article by Eurogamer. This time dealing with the imminent release of a game that both I and my wife are really looking forward to; Detroit Become Human. This game looks like its going to be amazing! A narrative-driven story where the choices you make have major consequences on the plot, perma-deaths, etc. A creator’s dream!
Before reading on, I’d advise everyone to watch the most recent trailer for the game. NSFW just as a heads-up:
(I smell a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence if this game does well…)
So… as awesome as this is, of course there are going to be some detractors. Eurogamer does not disappoint me here:
I want to explore a couple of the questions:
“The concern I have is that it’s using something like domestic abuse and child abuse – which is a very real issue for unfortunately far too many people – and using it as window dressing rather than exploring the ramifications of those issues.”
Okay, one it’s a trailer. It doesn’t really give you a lot of time to explore the ramifications. Literally, it’s a three-minute taste of something that many writers would have trouble adequately explaining in a 500-page book. Trailers are meant to give you a sample of what you’re going to be experiencing. If something dealing with child abuse bothers you too much that you don’t think this is something you would enjoy, that’s fine. Don’t purchase the game. I have no issue with that, as a child rights advocate, I admit that this put me outside of my comfort zone.
That being said, right after that scene, there is one sentence in the video that makes me think this writer didn’t actually watch the trailer ‘Things could have been different.’ The trailer actually shows you how the decisions you make in the game can change the outcome of this situation for better or worse. The child doesn’t have to end up abused, you as the gamer have the opportunity to prevent it.
However, even if you didn’t… so what? Child abuse is a very real thing. As someone who has experienced it both first and second hand worked at a program for children taken out of their homes, etc. I can honestly say that what goes on in the trailer is not far from reality for too many children. It’s uncomfortable, but it is definitely not something that should be ignored. If fiction can help bring a light to the discussion on this topic, I applaud any attempt made to.
The other question the writer asked that irked me…
“Finally – I know I need to wrap up – is nothing off-limits as far as you’re concerned as a writer?”
I think David Cage answered this one perfectly. So I’ll add his response here:
“Off-limits? What is off-limits is what goes beyond the values I believe in. There are things I’d never do. I’d never do a racist game, or a misogynist game. These are the limits. When you feel okay with the content and the meaning when you know you have nothing to be ashamed of because it’s fair and it tells the right story and because it’s moving. There are no limits.
There’s been these discussion in literature for years and years and years – one of the most famous poets was called Baudelaire, this guy was sued because he was talking about things he should be ashamed of. Today he’s one of the most famous poets in French literature. I think it’s normal that we have this conversation in games now. It’s part of the process.“
He is absolutely correct here. The only limits on creators should be those imposed by our own morals and values. The whims of the readers or critics should not be taken into account because it’s not their story. It’s our story that we put out there for them to enjoy. I’m not saying our readers and/or consumers aren’t important. Of course, they are and we want them to enjoy what we offer them. The problem is that our readers typically come from a diverse background and have different wants, desires, and expectations. You can’t pander to all of them and in choosing to pander to any, you run the risk of alienating the rest.
Even worse if you try to pander to the culture warrior or moral guardian crowd. This is something Marvel Comics has done and frankly… they’re hurting bad became of it as I’ve explored in many other topics. These people cannot be pleased and even if you can appease them for a short time, eventually you will put a pinkie toe out of line at which point they will eat you alive.
So while I’m sure to not get many brownie points for saying this… You cover child abuse, spousal abuse, murder, rape, prostitution, or bigotry. Tackle situations that will make some people cringe. Make people who are usually the moral right the bad guys! You put your companion character in a skimpy outfit while giving your own absurd muscle masses that even a WWE superstar would drool over. Fiction and fantasy are yours to enjoy, so make them good!
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