Video Games – A Duty of Care

What makes video games fundamentally different as a form of entertainment when compared to books, movies, TV or other forms of art? Agency – the ability of the consumer to act upon the world and influence the narrative around them. A book can tell you the story of a person going through an event. A movie can show you someone going through that event. Video games are unique in that they can put you in a character’s shoes and give you agency over their actions. This allows you to gleam a sense of accomplishment when the hero fights through impossible odds to save the day. It can also put incredible strain on players when the actions of a narrative character are attributed to the players actions. Video games are the only medium that can put a character into difficult real world situations, then blame the consumer for the way the scene played out.

Sometimes this agency can put video game consumers in troubling situations, which I believe puts a duty of care into the hands of video game creators that doesn’t exist to the same degree in other artistic mediums.

Here’s an example from a recently released video game (which I will not name to avoid spoiling the narrative for players who have not yet experienced it). You as the player are placed onto a roof alongside a close friend who is planning to commit suicide by leaping to her death in front of a large crowd of people. As you friend stands on the ledge, you are tasked with answering questions to try and convince her not to jump. A huge onlooking crowd is watching you, expecting you to talk her down. Several questions are asked, ending with one question that you would only know how to answer properly if you had intrusively snooped through the friend’s private files and read her emails without permission. One mistake made and your friend leaps to her death, leaving you looking down at an amassed crowd who all know you failed to talk your friend out of taking her own life.

Only a few minutes later, players who fail are informed that the vast majority of real life video game players managed to successfully save her life. Not only did you fail to prevent someone committing suicide, but you’re informed that most people in your shoes would have managed to save that life. Any ability the player had to convince themselves that they were not to blame, that the character was going to commit suicide and you could not have done anything to stop them, is stripped away.

In any other more passive artistic medium this scene would not have had the same impact on the player, but it equally would have had far less of a duty of care toward consumers. A movie that has it’s lead character fail to prevent their friends suicide does not make any statement about the viewer’s ability or lack of ability to handle an incredibly traumatic event. In a video game setting where the player has agency, that scene is in many ways potentially dangerous.

As someone who has personally had to live through a suicide I could not prevent, this particular video game giving me agency in that situation put a large amount of pressure on me and made a lot of implications that were difficult to handle. I was made to relive the experience of trying to talk someone down from suicide, a hugely troubling personal moment from my life, and I failed. I was told by the game that most people in my position would have been able to save my in game friend, that the clues existed and if I had paid more attention I too could have saved her. Years of insisting to myself that no matter what I did in real life I could not have stopped my friend committing suicide suddenly came into question.

I was crushed. I spent the next several hours crying, struggling with incredibly upsetting personal questions.

The point I want to make here is that video games more than any other medium have the potential to effect the emotions of those engaging with them, but this ability does come alongside a heavy duty of care that should be placed in the hands of creators. Be aware of the additional impact that agency can have on your plot. Be aware of the positions you are putting players into and how that could effect real life consumers. Understand the power you wield and where necessary give players the ability to find out within the game what moments they might be expected to have agency over and where they can get support if having agency through real world events causes sincere distress.

Bo Burnham’s “What” – A case study in responsible humour on taboo topics

boburnham

I don’t want to ban rape jokes, I want to ban shitty comedians from making them.

Anyone who has followed me on Twitter for any length of time has likely seen me complain about examples of jokes that I felt were in poor taste. Be it the blase overuse of the word “tranny” in online animation or a joke made at the expense of a rape victim, I sometimes tell the world I think a comedian was in the wrong for making a specific joke. Inevitably, the internet being what it is, I get told to lighten up because “no subject should be off bounds for comedy”.

It may perhaps surprise you to know that I totally agree with that sentiment. Where I differ is that I don’t think that fact changes that humour on some topics has to be handled in a socially responsible manner, one that critiques negative attributes rather than replicating them. Put simply, I don’t think rape as a topic should be off the table for comedians, but I think you need to be a very talented comedian to write a rape joke that is socially responsible. I don’t want to ban rape jokes, I want to ban shitty comedians from making them. The same goes for jokes featuring homophobic slurs, transphobic slurs, horrific tragedies and unforgivable acts.

A little over a year ago comedian Bo Burnham released his new live show, “What”, entierly for free online. The comedy show was met by widespread critical praise which in my opinion was largely deserved. It was a fast paced musical comedy show that kept up a fantastic pace, switched directions at a moments notice and had some real moments of vulnerability and introspection that are in many ways rare to see.

To me however, the most fascinating aspect of Bo Burnham’s show was the way it was able to make jokes on the topic of rape, 9/11, the Holocaust, homophobia, pedophilia and sexism, all of which were framed in a mature and responsible manner. Bo Burnham made jokes on all of these topics, but the victims of these real world problems were never critiqued. The existence of these topics was acknowledged, but in order to provide critique of a separate group. Jokes on these topics always provided critique, never merely replicating the existence of the subject.

Example One: The Rape Joke

The first example I want to look at is a joke referencing rape made during the song “From God’s Perspective”. The track, which tackles blind faith in religious doctrine, is framed as a song in which the character of god points out that you shouldn’t decide your moral code based on any religious text, but rather on common sense aimed at making a world in which people can simply love and support each other. In order to make this point, the song references several different things that are deemed immoral in religious text and examines whether it makes sense to follow those rules for their own sake.

When it comes to the topic of rape, the character of god sings:

You shouldn’t abstain from rape just ’cause you think that I want you to
You shouldn’t rape ’cause rape is a fucked up thing to do
(Pretty obvious, just don’t fucking rape people, please, didn’t think I had to write that one down for you)

The reason I point out this particular rape joke is that unlike many rape jokes I’ve been critical of in the past, this joke uses the subject of rape to make a critical point about blind adherence toward religious doctrine as a moral guide rather than making a victim of rape the subject of the joke. This is not a joke about rape being funny, but a joke about the inherent stupidity in blind adherence to religious doctrine that happens to use rape as the point it balances on.

Example Two: Homophobic Slurs

This is one of the earlier jokes that comes up during “What” and while I was initially uncomfortable with it’s exacution, over time I have come to think it’s actually a really responsible use of a slur for the purposes of comedy. Be warned, incoming homophobic slurs.

Yo fellas, don’t you hate when you’re blowing a guy and he ends up being a faggot? Am I right?

So, let’s unpack this joke a little. The core of the joke is the setup that the character telling the joke (denoted by the uncharacteristic use of “yo” and altered voice) is a homosexual man, as set up by the fact he is “blowing a guy”. The use of the term “faggot” is employed to flip the joke on it’s head, repainting what was initially assumed to just be a homosexual man as a homophobic man, very quickly establishing a backstory through the flipped narrative that implies his homophobia is a result of his own angry attempts to deny his own sexuality. The shocking use of the term “faggot” provides a sharp contrast that instantly paints a portrait of a man tackling his own inner confusion, whilst critiquing homophobic abuse and painting is as something that  homophobes should avoid for fear of it effecting how they are perceived.

Example Three: 9/11 and The Holocaust

Fairly early during the show, Burnham performs a song titled Sad. The track is pretty perfect to bring up in an article about socially responsible humour, because it’s a track primarily dedicated to critiquing comedians that carelessly make jokes about tragedies and assume that the fact it’s comedy gives them a free pass to say what they want about tough subjects.

That’s it, laughter, it’s the key to everything
It’s the way to solve all the sadness in the world
I mean, not for the people that are actually sad, but for the people like us who’ve gotta fucking deal with ’em all the time
Being a comedian isn’t being an insensitive prick capitalizing on the most animalistic impulses of the public, it’s being a hero!

As you can see from the above excerpt, Burnham is clearly aware of the fact that many comedians use the fact they’re telling jokes as carte blanche to say what they want without considering the impact their jokes have on those actually effected by the topics covered in the jokes. He continues this theme of critique by bringing up both 9/11 and The Holocaust:

I saw an old man slip and fall-hey, what a fucking idiot
I saw a woman at her daughter’s funeral-ha ha ha! Classic comedy!
Everything that once was sad is somehow funny now
The Holocaust and 9/11?
That shit’s funny 24/7
‘Cause tragedy will be exclusively joked about,
Because my empathy is bumming me out
Goodbye, sadness! Hello, jokes.

What’s important about this joke is that it’s at no point a joke at the expense of those who died in either tragedy, but rather a critique of the lack of critique when those topics are usually covered in humour. Burnham asserts that both are “funny 24/7”, making the joke the fact that there is a clear disparity between the events and an out of context assertion that there is anything funny about them.

Furthermore, Burnham goes out of his way to acknowledge that most people asking to be allowed to make jokes about national tragedies to find some levity in what happened are not people personally effected and that those who actually need to feel better after those events are rarely considered when jokes on those topics are being fought for.

Example Four: The Pedophille Joke

In the latter half of Burnham’s show, he performs what initially appears to be one of the show’s most lowbrow pieces of humour, a sequence in which he mimes masturbation for several minutes to music, before looking sad and dealing with the aftermath to a more somber piece of music. While initially seeming to be simply juvenile physical comedy, the punchline to the joke comes later when a pun is made about his physical actions, the musical key and the title of the song.

The song is titled “Beating Off in A Minor”, a reference to the act of masturbation, but also to the musical key of the track he was performing the action to. As you’ve likely noticed, the title of the track also sounds the same as an implication of a pedophillic act. Burnham then makes a point to clarify that the title is a reference to the musical key, rather than “the felony”.

In this example a pedophillic act is referenced, but it is done so in the context of a joke about the plurality of language, musical terms and his own crude humour. While this was in many ways the hardest joke to justify during his show, I feel that he went out of his way to make the subject of the joke himself and his own immature sense of humour when it comes to perfectly reasonable sentences, rather than at any point making the punchline about victims of pedophillia.

Example Five: Sexism

My final joke from the show I wanted to dig into from Burnham’s show was the spoken word poem “I Fuck Sluts”. Initially appearing to be a hypermasculine tirade of sexist language directed towards women as objectified sexual objects, the poem slowly reveals itself over the course of around a minute to be a critique of hypermasculinity and the heartbreak that can cause men to unfairly lash out toward women as a societal group.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

I fuck sluts. Nice girls are nice but no good for nut-sucking,
You’ll need a serene night to green-light a butt fucking,
But that’ll be easy with sleazy old slut fucking.
Boo to the nice girls. Praise be to slut fucking!

And here is an excerpt from the end of the poem, where the critique of hypermasculinity comes into full effect:

But other sluts are pretty and funny and smart.
These sluts can lift all your thoughts from your dick to your heart.
They can talk about science, music, or art.
They can put you together or they can pull you apart.
But don’t trust these sluts, don’t, don’t you dare.
They’ll force you to trust them and love them and care.
And then they’ll be gone and then you’ll be aware
Of that hole in your heart that that dumb slut left there.

In this particular context, the use of derogatory language toward women is extreme in frequency and nature, but moves at a fast enough pace that within a very short period of time Burnham can flip the narrative in order to critique the fictional version of himself who used the language and the reasoning for it’s use. The internal critique of language comes quickly enough that the initial aspects of reproduction do not have long enough to set in before being shown to be foolish. Also, you can see that the subject of critique is the person objectifying women rather than he women themselves.

While Bo Burnham is by no means a perfect comedian, in my personal opinion in recent years he has nailed down the art of taking taboo subjects and slipping them into his comedy in a way that safely ensures that the victims of these situations are never the ones being mocked.

I’m not asking for a ban on rape jokes. I’m not asking for a ban on jokes that use LGBT slurs. I’m not asking for a ban on jokes about tragic events. I’m asking that shitty comedians stop making terrible offensive jokes under the smokescreen defense that no subject should be off limits for comedy and leave taboo subjects to comedians who have the talent to handle the topics with the respect they deserve.

(Editor’s Note: During “What”, Burnham does at one point use a racial slur as part of a joke. I did not feel properly equipped to critique his use of the word “nigga” during the opening of “Left Brain, Right Brain”. I also did not feel properly equipped to critique his “don’t be a jew” joke during the show. While I did not cover those in this article, it was not due to any ignorance of it having a potential impact, but due to my own lacking ability to properly contextualise the implications of the joke. I welcome any critique of this aspect of his show, as well as any differing perspectives on the humour that I did cover).