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Its Ok, Its Optional: How Infinity Ward compromised its artistic integrity with Modern Warfare 2

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  • Have you ever seen South Park's Cartoon Wars episodes? If you haven't seen it, then I urge you to go to the show's website and watch it (its really funny). If you have, then you understand why Cartman was trying to get Family Guy off the air and how he was going to do it. In short, if he was able to get an episode pulled due to the complaints of one ethnic group, then another ethnic group has the same right to ask for questionable content to be pulled and thus create a cascade of complaints that would ultimately kill the show.

    Now what does this have to do with Modern Warfare 2? I will admit, I have not played the game( I watched the level in question on YouTube) but my point here is not to discuss the content but rather the access to it. In reading in print Game Informer's review of the game (200), I was informed that said level is optional upon starting the campaign. At first I understood why IWard would do this but it didn't sit well with me for some reason. I read a couple of articles and blogs about the content of the game and was subject to the usual arguments people make about entertainment and gaming in general. However, it wasnt until I downloaded the demo for Left 4 Dead 2 on Xbox live that something clicked.

    When you start the game up, you have a choice of toning down the level of gore in the game. As a twenty something, I laughed at toning down anything and played the game with gore on high. I have played games for a very long time and I am use to seeing gore and questionable material in video games. But then I asked myself, why would anyone tone down anything? In the same GI issue mentioned above, Jeff Cork writes in his "All Ages" article about, how as a parent, he preffered these content options to "an all or nothing approach" in which you wouldn't play the game at all. I respectfully disagree.

    (Dont worry honey, that's just ketchup on the zombie.)

    I have to ask the following question: Why is this material in the game to begin with? What are content filters (a form of censorship) doing in a game meant for older audiences. Suppose I asked Valve about L4D 2- of course I am only speculating as to what they might say but it might go like this:

    Me: Why is there a content filter for gore in L4D 2?

    Valve:We wanted to make the game more accessible to people who might not enjoy some of the material in question.

    Me: So why not take the content out completely?

    V: Well, we also dont want to alienate our fans that have no problem with this type of content

    Me: So I should be able to enjoy the game with or without a certain level of gore?

    V: Precisely

    Me: So any gore in the game is gratuitous and therefore irrelevant to your over all purpose in creating this game and has nothing to do with any emotions, themes, or ideas you wish to portray with the fruition of this project?

    V: uh...

    So if Valve says yes, gore in games is gratuitous and irrelevant to what they are trying to make and therefore have conceded their argument points to all those parents and watchdog groups that like to rail against video games. If they say no, then I have to ask again: why make it optional then? Now, if Valve wants to make a game with gratuitous violence with no real plot, themes, or subtext. Fair enough. They have every right to make said game and I have thoroughly enjoyed L4D as other have for it ithe sheer simplistic fun of shooting zombies with others.

    Now I have to turn around and ask the same sequence of questioning to Infinity Ward with respect to the airport level. I think the questioning would go the same with one key difference. IW wants their game to be taken serious. I believe that IW wanted to make a serious game with mature content that forces the player to face a complex issue...but not really because its optional.

    Here lies my biggest complaint with IW and MW2. Why is the airport level optional? I would gladly applaud IW for taking a stance on the level and saying we made this level because we wanted to explore certain issues within the game and wanted to gauge user reaction and the level analytical thought and maturity of our users. I am not arguing about the content either way and it doesnt matter what I think about the level because everyone is going to react differently to it. However by making it optional, they have opened a new batch of problems with respect to complaints from people who will try to remove questionable content from video games. Imagine the following complaints that could be thrown on IW for the games they have mades:

    Can you remove the airport scene from MW 2 or at least make it optional?

    Can you remove the blood in MW or at least make it optional?

    Can you prevent any NPC marines from dying or at least make it optional?

    Can you not involve the Russians/Middle Eastern people in this game or at least make the villain an optional generic villain?

    Can you remove a nuclear weapon blowing up in the middle east, killing marines or at least make it optional?

    and on and on....


    (What if this was optional because its too sad?)

    So what if this stuff is optional? More people will play the game. Yeah, but you just compromised your artistic vision and integrity and therefore cannot be taken seriously when you want to make the "video games are art/important" argument. Toning down content in games that are meant to be taken seriously to me is the equivalent of ET or Indiana Jones adding walkie talkies in place of guns in the movie which so many people like to complain about. Actually its worse, since MW 2 and L4D is not meant for kids at all. Furthermore, the people who complain will ultimately win out by forcing developers to make a lot of things optional. Once you make it optional, you can make an argument to remove it completely out of the game. Do we want this to happen


    (In the words of the great Vincent Lombardi: What the hell is going on here?)

    I hope this current trend of self-censorship and content filtering stops-at least for games meant for an older audience. If games are trying to achieve a certain level of artistic merit, developers have to argue for their vision because no one else will. If you are trying to say something with your game, if you are trying to evoke emotions out of players, if you are saying to the world "Look at this, FEEL!" then please, dont make it optional. Eventually, the Cartmans of the world will control what you play, not the developers.


  • Although I do agree with most of your ideas behind censorship, Infinity Ward did a smart decision allowing gamers to "self-censor" their games. In today's world, the though of terrorist attacks on civilians is a very real thing. People still find this subject extremely sensitive and I am happy to see Infinity Ward step up and be the first to openly address it in a game. Few developers would have had the guts or talent to pull it off like they did. That being said, the ability to skip the level allows those who want to play the game as an escapist experience to do so. In this day and age, in order for something like that to fly by without huge amounts of controversy, the feature was a necessity. In the case of Left for Dead however, where gore is a given, the idea to self censor s simply absurd. Why bother buying a game where you mow down zombies with katanas if you don't want to see copious amounts of blood? It is just another excuse for developers to try and squeeze away with releasing games in territories where they would be frowned upon and prevent idiot parents from walking in on their kid's playing the new bloodbath they just got for christmas. In the ever tamer would we are living in, violence is being put through much more scrutiny than before. The only solution for this is for society to come to grasps with the thought that games are no longer only for kids.

  • in the particular case of the airport level in MW2 thats a very very touchy subject. they made the smart move, by not taking the level out but making it optional. you have some really good points made but Infinity Ward would never stop getting grief for that level otherwise.

  • I love what you have to say.  I can't knock IW for making it optional for many reasons (including it was ballsy either way, it allows them a way out when people get mad about it, to make more money, etc.) but I love everything you have to say.  You make very valid points.  Thank you for this argument.  If you don't mind, I'm going to repost this in my blog (which nobody reads anyways).

    As for the ET shots, the 2002 one has such vivid colors comparatively.  

  • I agree. Unless a T and M rated version of a game like Left 4 Dead 2 is released, the developers shouldn't even bother. The same goes for MW2 in my opinion. I don't think they should make the scene optional. Its a really thought provoking thing that anyone who plays the game should experience.

    If you post it, they will troll.

  • From an academic standpoint I can agree with most of the discussion that if you allow for options to tame the potentially questionable content of a game you're compromising the design.  But from a pragmatic standpoint I understand that the options provide cover for the game developers to release their vision and allow the consumers to control their experience.  It’s the way of art in business these days.  Some musicians release their music in an original version, then a radio version, and then a dance version, so the consumer can get their product the way they want it.  In the interactive gaming world, we can provide one product with varying levels of content.  Sure, like most purists I consider the unoriginal versions lesser versions but for those easily offended by the original versions, giving them options makes business sense.  

  • I'm thinking the self censorship, in the fashion of the option level or blood, isn't there so much to appease the gamers playing it as it is to make the folks over at the ESRB happy.  Luckily we don't have to deal with the Australia ratings board, but that doesn't mean the ratings folk in the U.S. aren't a touchy bunch, considering they rerated GTA San Andreas for containing hackable content that was "offensive."  The optional status was probably the only way they could get the level included in the first place, considering the various censorship that occurs (the interactive sex scene that went PG when Fahrenheit became Indigo Prophecy, or the topless ladies of the Witcher who, upon arriving in America, decided to cover up).  

  • In a word: Excellent. That was a great article that truly called out developers. I agree with what you say and your right: If developers make content optional, theres no more game. It becomes nothing but a 5 minute waste of time. Hopefully developers don't do this because before you know it they'll be making guns optional. And really, I think that if someone's buying a game they should be fully aware of the content within. If it's a game like L4D2 then they should be able to tell by the cover art and the rating on the back that hey this a gorey game that should only be played by people that are mature enough to handle it. If they don't want to play a game with blood or gore, pick a new game. There's no reason that people that don't mind that should be punished because some people have a problem with a little zombie blood there and the blood spray of a headshot in MW2.

  • Subjective, just as art should be. If you want violence and gore then that is your aesthetic. If you like your game more cushoned you should have the option to enjoy it also in you own right. Different POV's will always leave games as subjective.

    "Fuzzy Pickles".... <<gotta love that

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