Press [redacted] to proceed: Censorship in video games

Video games appear to encounter more controversy regarding censorship than other forms of media. Andy Prizeman-Nolan analyzes examples of censorship in video games, and questions whether games deserve this unique regard.

Debates on censorship have been present in all forms of media. As video games continue inching forward into the public eye, the medium has come to have its fair share of run-ins with censorship too, for a multitude of reasons. There are still prominently discussions about the role video games have in influencing violent behaviour, particularly with the younger generation. Age ratings and content warnings plastered on the covers of such games have done little to keep the youth away from playing them, causing many to believe that more needs to be done regarding the regulation of violent games and their content. Are such regulations actually achieving what they set out to do?

One of the most well-documented examples of gaming censorship in recent years came with the German version of 2017’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, specifically in relation to an infamous cutscene. In the original scene, an aged Adolf Hitler walks into a room adorned with Nazi flags, to a group of actors chanting “Mein Fuhrer”. He accuses one of the actors of being Jewish before killing him. The German release of the game saw the cutscene play out in relatively the same way, except the character model for Hitler doesn’t have his signature moustache, all swastika symbols are replaced, and the actors hail him as their “Chancellor”. The man who was murdered was instead accused of being a spy, in order to avoid any direct link to Nazism that anti-Semitism may entail.

This drastic shift came as a result of Germany completely banning Nazi symbolism or likeness in video games in the 1990s. Many players disputed the decision to remove the Nazi theme from this scene. They felt that the scene didn’t do anything wrong, as it was an accurate depiction of how an erratic, paranoid Hitler would have acted in that hypothetical situation. Plus, the simple removal of a moustache and swastika-emblazoned flags was a very poor way of rectifying the situation, as the resemblance is still clear. The scene garnered so much attention for its censorship that any German player could have easily accessed video footage of the original. Since then, Germany has lifted the ban on Nazi likeness in video games, once it is based on artistic or dramatic use, in 2018. This begs the question if the censorship in the game was necessary at all.

The German release of the game saw the cutscene play out in relatively the same way, except the character model for Hitler doesn’t have his signature moustache, all swastika symbols are replaced, and the actors heil him as their ‘Chancellor’.

While Wolfenstein II saw some alterations for it to be deemed suitable for release, some games have faced an outright ban in certain countries. One example is Grand Theft Auto, a series subjected to many controversies throughout the years. Such instances range from the vivid interactive torture scene in the fifth instalment, or the “Hot Coffee” minigame in San Andreas, but in this case the games had a direct effect on real life. In 2008, a man in Bangkok stabbed a taxi driver to death when asked to pay. When confronted by police, he directly cited Grand Theft Auto as being the reason behind his violent actions, being quoted as to saying how “killing seemed easy in the game”. The Thai government saw this as reason enough to ban the series entirely from Thailand’s stores.

Fallout is another series that has faced similar controversy. It faced the threat of being banned in Australia and Japan, but the situation was resolved when they changed the name of the in-game drug morphine to Med-X for the Australian version, as well as changing the name of the Fat Man, inspired by the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945, to the Nuka Launcher for the Japanese release. They also removed the option to nuke the town of Megaton from Fallout 3 for the same reason. The series would face a certain ban, however, as Microsoft opted not to release the game in India, citing “cultural insensitivities” as its main reason. This being the inclusion of the Brahmin, which are two-headed mutated cows used as pack animals that can be killed for food. In a country where the religion reveres such creatures, this would not have been met with a kind reception.

Game developers should not regulate their content for an unintentional audience.

While some may stand in favour of censorship, there is certainly a strong argument against it. Oftentimes, the titles that come under controversy are rated for people over the age of 18. Is it fair for parents to hassle gaming companies to censor aspects of their games, when children are not advised to play the content in the first place? Arguing that games must be censored in order to protect children disregards the parents’ role in filtering what their children consume. Game developers should not regulate their content for an unintentional audience.

Engaging with media must be accompanied by a level of maturity in order to understand that many of the depictions in media shouldn’t be replicated in real life. Anyone who picks up Call of Duty should understand that it is just a game. Games, no matter how violent or vulgar, should be definitively recognised as nothing more than media and respected as such. This is already commonly accepted in the realm of film and television, but as usual, video games lag behind in societal perspective.

As for titles that undergo changes in order to release in certain countries, it raises questions about how integral these aspects were to the overall story in the first place. And, as our world becomes increasingly globalized, it is very likely that the residents of these countries will discover the original material with a simple web search. Overall, it appears that censorship is not truly necessary in today’s gaming climate.