February 25th 2011 Headshots, Hooters, & Expletives

Tonight I planned to relax with a cup of hot tea and a private viewing of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop when I received an alarming email: I’d been banned for two days from Xbox Live for posting inappropriate material in my personal bio. The offensive material was a passage from my favorite novel, Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.

“I see you are trying to use the word ‘motherfucker’. Could I suggest an alternative like
‘dude’ or ‘ninja’ instead?”

I’m not really sure how I got caught for this gross violation. I could’ve been reported, but Microsoft also informs me that I may have been caught during an audit of Xbox Live profiles. I don’t think this is the case, though. If they have the power to run database searches for naughty words, wouldn’t they just censor me when I try to put a naughty word in my profile? Maybe they could even have Clippy pop up to suggest a clean alternative to my colorful language.

Most likely I got reported by a disgruntled Black Ops player whose ass I mercilessly shot into hamburger.

Lest you misinterpret the intent of this post, I’ll spell it out for you: This is not a rant against Microsoft or the Xbox Live moderators. I have no intention of protesting their decision. When I posted my bio, I knew full well that it could have repercussions down the road; I considered it my own form of self-indulgent social protest, with a pinch of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed in.

I just think that Microsoft’s policies vis-à-vis Xbox Live highlight a sort of hypocrisy in how our society labels and deal with “offensive material”. My critique is especially apropos given that Bulletstorm, a game which (while admittedly fun) rewards players for undeniably outrageous acts of violence, was released this week.

Here’s the thing: console manufacturers authorize every game that is published for their console. And they’re pretty stingy about keeping their consoles “family-friendly”. Even today, it's rare to see nudity or sex in video games; so rare, in fact, that after mowing down a multicultural array of both villains and innocents in Red Dead Redemption, I was shocked to see a cutscene in which a Mexican rebel leader is having sex with a woman, her bodice ripped open to reveal her bouncing breasts. As the gaming demographic ages, sex and nudity have become more common, but they’re still far more rare than gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about depictions of really nasty sex (the kind that involves animals or parts of animals like tentacles); even healthy, consensual sexual relationships are rarely depicted in video games.

Before I incur the wrath of every gamer on the Internet, I’d like to emphasize that I don’t have a problem with violent video games. I’ve been playing violent games since I got my grubby paws on GoldenEye in fifth grade, and aside from the aforementioned foul mouth I think I’ve turned out more or less okay. At the very least, I’ve fulfilled my societal obligations of getting a job, not doing drugs, and refraining from murder. But the way we deal with violence versus sex and profanity in the media says a lot about our cultural values.

To be fair, I am comparing apples to oranges. Sales of rated M games are, theoretically, restricted to minors; even if a kid manages to purchase the game, it’s hard to hide the fact that you’re blasting in digital craniums when you’re playing in your parents’ basement. On the other hand, Xbox Live profiles are (or can be) public, and you can’t expect parents to vet every bio their children see on Xbox Live. It makes sense that Microsoft would more seriously regulate the content of profiles. Somebody has to protect children from assholes like me.

But for a company that bills its product as “a family friendly games and entertainment console” and works hard to police inappropriate player bios and prohibit raunchy games from desecrating its sacred platform, Microsoft has no problems with gratuitous violence.

Okay, rant over. It’s time to ride out my suspension like a man. In two days I’ll be able to go back to slaughtering Victor Charlie in Black Ops.