Sex, Violence And Video Games: Developing For A Worldwide Audience Is A Confusing Minefield

Want more sex in your games? More violence? What’s culturally acceptable here might not be kosher somewhere else. But that pendulum swings both ways.

I recently spoke with CD Projekt, the folks behind “The Witcher” about sex in their PC game.

As a follow-up, I’ve been talking to more game developers about their reasons for pushing for more extreme content or holding back.

Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford proved the most outspoken of the bunch, and suggested a bigger issue was at play: territorial differences in their reactions to sex, violence and language.

This presents an interesting challenge to developers interested in having their games appreciated on a world stage, and one not very different from the obstacles CD Projekt faced in bringing their adult-targeted RPG to the United States.

“My experience has been that different audiences and territories seem to have very different tolerances for content that tests their standards of decency,” Pitchford told me in an e-mail exchange covering everything from sex and violence to “Samba De Amigo” and monks playing “Counter-Strike.”

Pitchford’s company has been best known for the “Brothers in Arms” series of World War II-based shooters. While they don’t feature much sexual content, there’s violence and colorful language abound. That may fly in the US, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world necessarily comes running with open arms.

Every country has its own idea of what’s acceptable, said Pitchford.

“Most of the differences are cultural,” he continued. “As I’ve traveled the world and visited with different kinds of people living under different culturally guided moral compasses.”

The easiest way to sidestep these issues is to avoid building the content in the first place, but as Gearbox tries to avoid self-censorship, it forces Pitchford to “think about the consequences of our position there and budget for it.” With development budgets spiraling higher and higher every year, the cost of building every bit of content has to be taken into account.

Gearbox’s greatest successes so far have come from mining World War II, but ironically, that’s also proved a problem for them. Germany’s notoriously strict anti-violence laws force publishers to modify content or their games are banned. “Dead Rising,” for example, can’t be released in Germany; in “Half-Life,” marines near the game’s end had to become robots.

“We want to do things a certain way in the portrayal of horrific violence in war (heads breaking apart, bodies literally being torn in half by machineguns, limbs getting separated from bodies by explosives, etc),” Pitchford explained to me. “We’re making creative decisions that are not acceptable by law in any form in Germany (and a few other smaller markets). So, we then have to either accept that we’ll make no real money in Germany *or* plan to do special versions for Germany that conform to their local laws.”

These rule sets are in constant flux, however. “Half-Life 2,” for example, didn’t have to swap humans for robots for German approval.

As gamers and developers become more and more connected worldwide, this issue is bound to come up again and again. Game designers Peter Molyneux and Chris Taylor — developers from the UK and US respectively — both jokingly hoped some worldly perceptions would change during a Game Developers Conference panel this year. They both pointed a finger at the US.

“The Witcher” developers would probably approve.

“This is probably a little outrageous to say in this western civilization,” said Taylor. “but I kinda wish we could do more with sex and less with violence. Sex is really great. We need to really get over that thing that we seem to be more hung up on [and] get more European.”

Taylor admitted he might not be the developer who ends up tackling the very thing he was taking issue with, but the crowd didn’t care; his comments were greeted to a thunderous amount of applause, cheers and laughs.

Molyneux agreed. “It is an amazing thing,” he smiled. “It really is! It really bugs me how America is so prudish. It’s incredible. You go to Germany and if you don’t talk about or show a part of your body every hour, people think you’re a bit strange!”

Engaging with these cultural variations seems to be an accepted reality, a necessary bump in the road developing for a global audience.

“I’ve come to realize that most folks feel fairly comfortable with the rules of their society,” said Pitchford. “They tend to believe that their way is the *right* way and that other ways are strange, unfamiliar and probably not welcome.”

Cultural norms vary from city to city, nation to nation; there are almost no hard and fast rules for this phenomenon. Readers, how does your own community react to games?

Have a hot tip? Is there a topic that Multiplayer should be covering and isn’t? Maybe you can explain why America is so hung up on nudity. Drop me an e-mail.