I am a Potty Mouth – The Issue of Profanity in Video Games

As those who can remember as far back as the 1990s will surely testify, games were a very different proposition then. Whereas nowadays every other title has a certificate and features a script peppered with gratuitous profanities, a couple of decades ago gaming was a far more innocent pursuit.

Take for example, early Real Time Strategy epic, Command and Conquer. After fighting countless battles against the evil Brotherhood of Nod and its tyrannical leader Kane, the final GDI mission briefing saw the player sat across the desk from a dishevelled looking General Shepard. Here was a man close to breaking point, feeling the weight of impending world doom on his shoulders. As he explained the mission objective, in his desperate attempt to convey the urgency of eradicating the threat of Kane, Shepard lost his rag and told the player to “destroy the ******* (illegitimate/fatherless person)”. I can still hear him spitting the words out all these years later.

Don’t get me wrong; Command and Conquer was by no means the first game to include salty language. Swearing had featured in certain genres for almost as long as violence and weaponry. The difference though was the likes of Shepard, and those who preceded him, used extreme language sparingly and, for the most part, under extreme provocation. Nowadays every other extra who wanders across the screen can’t wait to turn the air blue. The question I’d like to ask is, should it really be like this?

Perhaps some of you are now asking ‘what’s the problem? Countless film and television scripts are full of swearing; it gives them an authentic ‘flavour’ and mirrors what life is like.’ That’s certainly true, but there are also plenty of movies/shows for mature audiences which don’t resort to such language and still have a powerful message (such as Lord of The Rings, Inception and House). Gaming needs to be careful to strike the right balance or it might always be dismissed as a niche hobby for the immature and geeky.

Let’s think about the contemporary title, Heavy Rain, for the PlayStation 3. I’m sure you’ll all agree that it’s an incredibly immersive experience which achieves the difficult feat of plunging the player into a living, breathing world where the mundane tasks of life sit effortlessly alongside dramatic chases and punch-ups. And yes, the script is definitely part of what makes it great. But having said that, there were definitely times when I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘Not another character who can’t say two words without dropping the ‘F-bomb’.’ The danger is that developers finish up with a product that is so desperate to be cutting-edge and mature, it feels like a potty-mouthed adolescent trying to impress his/her mates.

The situation is a bit similar to what can happen in online gaming. We’ve all been on servers where a handful of infantile players have spoilt the experience with incessant cussing. It gets to the point where either they have to be told to ‘shut up and play’ or, more often than not, those with any sense of decency are forced to leave for pastures new. In the same way, single player games need to ensure they don’t just appeal to the lowest common denominator or they run the risk of losing those with more mature palettes.

Now I know that many genres (and developers) wouldn’t dream of having salty language in their titles. There isn’t going to be a Mario game where the plucky plumber from Brooklyn launches into a foul-mouthed tirade against Bowser anytime soon. Nor can we expect those Angry Birds to vocalise their rage with oaths and curses. But it’s vitally important that genres like FPS, RPG and interactive stories (like Heavy Rain) that are targeted at older users don’t just pad out their dialogue with endless expletives. These styles of games have the potential for strong characters, complex plots and meaningful conversations. Developers must not allow that potential to be wasted with scripts that sound like they’ve been dreamt up in the school yard.

Sadly the controversy factor is often behind the key decisions regarding plotting and dialogue. Getting an 18-certificate on your latest release is probably just as potent for sales as getting 10/10 from a respected magazine. Yet the likes of Half-Life 2 and Shenmue are great examples of games which sold well, despite not resorting to coarse language. Hopefully in the future more and more publishers and development teams will have the bravery to not hide behind swearing and give gamers something genuinely grown up. If they don’t, they might just find themselves alienating the generation who’s cash made the industry what it is today.

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Comments (2)

  1. Mark Hildreth January 20, 2011
  2. Simon Cooper January 20, 2011