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Bulletstorm and a morality issue

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A game’s morality is rarely questioned in game criticism. Certainly when a game is reviewed the question of morality is rarely addressed, which is generally as much a result of poor story crafting as an unwillingness on the part of reviewers. It’s a shortcoming compared to film criticism, which generally isn’t afraid to question a film’s moral standing and judge it accordingly. Maybe the sheer amount of gaming’s blood and gore over the last few decades has made it a moot point.

It’s a problem when it comes to a game like People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm. At present we only have a demo and pre-release details to go on, but the inclusion of ‘skillshots’ with names like Facial, Rear Entry, Double Penetration, Gang Bang, and other pornographic terms has raised some eyebrows. Its marketing doesn’t do it any favours, with CliffyB speaking wistfully about ‘blowing out a man’s asshole’. Richard Clark at Gamasutra has sensitively and measuredly questioned Bulletstorm’s content, and we can mostly (though perhaps not completely) ignore an absurd Fox News story that blamed Bulletstorm and its ilk for rape crimes.

But most coverage of the game has progressed in the usual manner of screenshots, trailers, previews. Perhaps when the game is reviewed some writers will criticise the names of the skillshots. But I doubt it. They might find them funny, after all, as they’re entitled to. But I hope reviewers don’t simply ignore the obvious and unsettling coupling of sex and violence.

Bulletstorm has a degree of sexualised violence I’ve never seen in a mainstream game before. Living in Australia, I’m very familiar with the rather tenuous accusation of sexual violence levelled at Grand Theft Auto 3 a decade ago by this country’s classification board: that you could hire a prostitute and then kill her afterwards. Those were two different acts, and there was nothing violent about the sexual act itself. Yet it was enough to cause a temporary ban and editing of the content.

Bulletstorm, on the other hand, has no such excuse. How this game passed through the classification process unscathed is a mystery, and probably more worrying than the game itself. The violence and sex are inextricably combined in these skillshots. Shooting an enemy in the face is rewarded with a word that describes the act of ejaculating on someone’s face. (Whatever the more dim-witted of Bulletstorm’s defenders might claim, there’s no chance of Facial referring to a beauty treatment.) Shooting someone in the butt is rewarded with Rear Entry, and given the violent context the subtext of anal rape is clear. Gang Bang needs no explanation.

The names of these skillshots have turned what could be a passable shooter into a juvenile sex fantasy. At its most innocent, it’s teenaged boys giggling under the sheets. At its most guilty, it’s about fucking a girl (or a boy) in a gang bang, deeply penetrating her, fucking her in the ass, and at the moment of climax ejaculating on her face. That’s the game the developers at People Can Fly have created, supposedly because they think it’s a laugh.

Fox News went way too far, but its article has some justification. Bulletstorm is a contributor to a very troubling sexual culture. One in which ejaculating on a woman’s face and teaming up with buddies to tag-team (or whatever) a woman is considered acceptable. Rugby teams cop flak for it when stories of their ‘team building’ escapades come to light. Bulletstorm shouldn’t be allowed to escape its own responsibility.

That may be the most important factor here: responsibility. I’m no prude, but the thought of a 15 year old boy — an age when he’s finding his first girlfriend and experiencing his first intimate relationship — blowing away enemies and being rewarded with supposedly positive and rewarding terms like Facial and Gang Bang is deeply troubling to me. Developers making a game that will be played by millions must consider the impact of their product.

For a few years there RapeLay was the posterboy of gaming’s potential debasement. It still is. Taken on their own, of course RapeLay is ‘worse’ than Bulletstorm in its depictions of hideous sexual predation. But RapeLay will always be the nicheiest of niche products, the domain of the irredeemable. Those of us accustomed to normal and healthy sexual relationships need not concern ourselves. But Bulletstorm, packaged as a typical over the top shooter, can inveigle its way onto millions of screens, with its attitude that dominating and objectifying sexual practices are acceptable and fun. It’s far more influential than an obscure Japanese game most people will never hear of, and therefore more concerning. I’m not talking brainwashing. I give people more credit than do Fox News and the like. I’m talking the creation and moulding of a sexual culture, something that should never be treated lightly.

I’m aware I’m laying a lot at the feet of Bulletstorm here. As far as objectifying sexual practices go, the endless supply of terrible internet porn is a thousand times more responsible. That doesn’t mean we should welcome and reward any crossover of this stuff into mainstream games.

Game reviewers have an important role to play if they feel the medium’s ethics is an issue worth discussing (and maybe even something worth protecting). Imagine, if such a thing is possible, if Bulletstorm was a film. I suspect a dominant thread in reviews would be its puerility, its utter lack of a moral base. It’s just as acceptable for games to be judged the same way.


Written by John Pike

18 February 2011 at 8:48 am

Posted in Games, Writing

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