Monday, October 24, 2016

Art, and Censorship, and "Censorship" in the context of Kingdom Death

(I'll come back to this Sunstalker later.)

I'll be writing about Kingdom Death as a bit of a case study on censorship and its perception in gaming, and in general.

Kingdom Death is a pretty divisive game. It's got horror, body horror (visceral, biological horror- David Cronenberg is the obvious example), and it's got a lot of sexualization (nudity, exaggerated proportions, and a whole lot of T&A).

Personally, I think the core of this is the horror principle of combining titillation to create a heightened state of focus and perception, with the ol' bait & switch with the frightening aspects. Then, turn the sensibility to 11, and make it far less about traditional media or things that would actually scare an adult, and you're left with the grotesqueness and sex where they're more about an aesthetic made from the same components, than the same effect, in my opinion.

Some people call it art, some call it sexist, some mature (i.e. the rating you give things kids aren't supposed to see); one of my circles calls it "Dingdong Death." I call it a (sometimes over-)sexualized body-horror aesthetic turned into a setting.

Either way, when a piece is divisive, this leads to discussions of what people do, and don't, like to see; which leads to what people should, and shouldn't, show in good taste; which leads to what people should, or shouldn't, make; which leads to talk of censorship, which leads to a shouting match, since, in this case, it's online.

Don't Tread on Me!
The heart of the matter, in my opinion, is that loaded word, "censorship." I'll engage in a bit of a faux pas since this isn't an academic piece, and remind my dear readers that my generic online dictionary defines it as

the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts
and the reason I've quoted this is that lovely word, suppression, which has a much longer list of possible meanings, though they all revolve around the notion of force. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in art as an essential element of human expression and communication, and believes enough in it to fight for it, I take a systematic inhibition very seriously.

Along with the more grandiose scales of government-level censorship*, there have at numerous times been public outcries about some offense, on a large-enough scale that eventually small, private, and conservative juries have positioned themselves as the lens through which media is deemed acceptable, and the gauntlet through which anything would need to pass before it would receive wide distribution, creating an economic form of censorship. In the USA, a few examples of such institutions include, the MPAA* (Motion Picture Association of America) which is running as strong as ever and international standards have resulted in even weirder overlapping self-censoring in Hollywood; the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) still basically controls large portions of the video gaming industry; and the CCA (Comics Code Authority) fortunately died a forgotten death a half-century after its installation, with DC and finally Archie as the last big publishers to turn their back on it a few years ago. All of these are organizations that could be opted out of, though, depending on the point in history, that might have hobbled the piece's ability to reach an audience.

And this internal industry censorship brings me back to Kingdom Death.

* Officially, the Allies in WWII declared freedom of speech a basic human right, which was later adopted by the UN when it was founded. I don't know enough about censorship history to know about how much this is respected/enforced, though a lot of countries' laws on censorship make this a head-scratcher.

**This Film is Not Yet Rated is a pretty concise documentary looking at this, for those interested in some casual additional delving.

Silencing the Kingdom
Par for the course.
There are numerous naked characters; countless T&A oversized bouncing features; plenty of vulnerable-as-sexy poses; a vast amount of dismemberment and decapitation flavored with a fair bit of skinning, eating, and general mutilation; plain-old sex; fantasy drugs; fantasy smoking; occasional depictions to cannibalism; plenty of monsters with their own more-normal anatomy showing in addition to those references to human anatomy, both mundane and sexual; and a few full frontal shots of men in distress (though not sexy). Unless it's political, KD probably has it on some form.

The company frequently sells out quickly of anything new it makes, and while a few places sell its products, it's basically completely independent of standard retail models, selling almost exclusively on its web store. There aren't specific numbers available, but numbered printings and the success of its Kickstarter make it pretty clear that you're talking about thousands of games sold, and at very least hundreds of any expansion content or setting-related model.

So, short of some government-scale suppression, Kingdom Death will continue putting out its weird brand of horror, and even if it were blacklisted on every distribution list by some hypothetical MPAA equivalent in the gaming industry, it would still survive, without financial damage. Also, since the studio/designer have chosen their outsider route and the sprawling and sometimes unnecessary elements of the game itself would suggest that any internal editors are mostly there for QC than actual editing, the likelihood of self-censorship is nil.

The smaller operation of community censorship is particularly worth noting in our digital, cliquish age: groups often create their own lists of things they don't like, boycotting or even destroying media. Depending on the size of group, this might have an impact, but within a niche like KD, the effect probably wouldn't be felt, since it has an active and quite numerous (considering the small, alternative niche it fills) following with often a seemingly endless ability to spend, certainly enough to keep the capital in the black.

Lively Discussion
This fear or community censorship, though, is exactly what many arguments about Kingdom Death (and many discussions about individual miniatures or whole lines) have revolved around- not a systematic boycott (which I doubt anyone expects could happen effectively), but the perceived desire for one, or the analogous danger of something like one. This is where people start bandying around ideas like censorship, placing themselves of the side of progress and their personal sexual liberation and their opponents on the side of social conservatism or the dreaded Social Justice Warrior*, while others place themselves on the side of inclusion or tastefulness and their opponents on the side of sexism or (again) social conservatism.

...And it's really hard for me to resist allow this article to devolve into what I believe and why the other side is wrong. (Yep, still divisive... Stay on target!)

But, at the end of the day, these are arguments. People are making their (often inflammatory or inflamed) points about what they believe, and the act of debate (if it is debate) defies the label of censorship. These are small communities talking about the merits or failures of this form of creation. Expressing objection to something, whether it's on ethical, creative, or  personal, is not censorship, it's criticism.

The exact point at which this can become problematic (to the community, if not the creative process) is if one side suppresses the other, usually by shouting them down until they can't participate, and, sometimes this happens. Without going into another essay, people get very invested in their hobbies, and will often take criticism of something they like, as an attack on it, and an attack on it as an attack on their values, which, in turn, becomes an attack on them. And, of course, once attacked, attacking back is often the instinct, and even attempts at reason tend to break down once fightin' words have been typed, which escalates into said suppressing shouting matches.

It is not a perspective that approaches censorship, but the aggressive mode of expressing it- the point at which you are telling people what they can't do or attempting to force them out of the conversation is when you become part of the problem.

* Okay, I can't keep quiet here. I don't understand how labeling someone as fighting for justice in society has become an insult or attack. Is the preferred alternative fighting for injustice, or believing in but not fighting for justice, or just not believing in or fighting for anything? Okay, I'm done.

In case you're not familiar with the "Little Free
Library" model.
Personalizing as Censorship
I assume there's a term for this, but don't know what it is. Every once in a while, in a free library in neighborhoods, or in some pile of used books, you find a book where someone has taken the time to personally redact anything they find offensive.

I think it's really weird. I don't like it, and don't expect I'd like the people who do it, or the reasons they've chosen to, but I do believe I understand it- a personal example: One of my favorite movies is ALIEN. I think it's fantastic, and a paragon of horror storytelling. But I think one section of the score is awkward, and some of the practical special effects are wince-worthy in their failure and how much they take me out of an otherwise fantastic movie. They make something I really enjoy less-enjoyable, and I think the movie would be better without them.

Similarly, these people I don't know presumably like their books enough to want to get more enjoyment out of them. This is their right.

This Futurama joke about technology licenses? Yeah, it's not about Qbert and Hubert trampling on the creative rights of tech companies.

You're not harming the creative integrity of someone's work by interacting with it in a way that's more pleasing to you*. If you're an editor for TV cuts of movies, or a producer who has an artist/team on a short leash, or something similar, then maybe you are censoring them**, but that's because you're controlling the medium of communication and expression, in some way suppressing, interrupting their ability to communicate to the audience their message, or (even if it's irrelevant to the message, simply denying them their ability to express themselves creatively).

But, as an owner, redacting your property for personal enjoyment is effectively no different than drawing on the cover because you like the book or are just bored, or taking a message from a story that resonated with you and the author or artist didn't intend, or modifying a tool to suit your needs, or even creating a new mix tape/CD (i.e. manipulating tracks in to a new configuration and juxtaposition, creating a context that the artist didn't intend). You're just actively engaging with it through manipulating your property, not controlling the creator's ability to create or express, nor the audience's ability to access this expression.

 ...Which is why I didn't for a second have a moral hesitation about removing the Sunstalker's penis tentacle, feet tentacles, and phallic chest eye stalks, for the commission at the top of this article. However, to not deprive my readers of the original vision, here's a stock photo of it in all its intact glory.

* In the book example, one could argue that, since they've passed on to my hands, there's an aspect of censorship if the self-appointed redactors are doing this with the intention to disseminate their copies, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, that it was personal and now passed on.

This also doesn't take into account destruction or manipulation of unique works of art (i.e. a single painting as opposed to one poster in a print run). While interesting, that's a different topic: people generally aren't interacting in that mode, in the context of gaming.

** unfortunately for the artist, they're in a contract that allows them to.