Lazy journalists and controversial games

In my playthrough of controversial mobile phone game Survival Island 3, I didn’t meet a single Indigenous Australian.

I cut down trees, mined from rocks, and constructed a small base out of wood and stone. I hunted down a poorly animated kangaroo three times in the desert, built a pumpkin patch, and briefly tried exploring the land around me before the pitch black, disorientating rendering of night time, coupled with low draw distance and buggy torches, made me lose the location of my base, discouraging further exploration and boring me to the point of giving up entirely.

Were it not for the furore the game had created, I wouldn’t have grappled with it for as long as I did. The crafting bugs, non-existent documentation, and complete lack of any kind of challenge or threat would have killed it off for me within moments of beginning.

The developer, GFTEAM, is known for creating second-rate computer games, and a quick browse through their pages on the app store shows a number of low-quality, similar titles: with re-used 3D models, simplistic gameplay, and branding designed to piggyback off the successes of popular computer games and franchises like S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Euro Truck Simulator, and The Forest.

Were it not for the controversy, I wouldn’t have looked twice at a developer of this nature. Minecraft clones such as this one are a dime-a-dozen on the android store, but the media coverage and subsequent banning of the game from both iTunes and Google Play turned it into an item of cultural importance, earning it an infamous spot in video game history on a short list of other banned computer games deemed ‘too extreme’ for mainstream distribution.

The problem with Survival Island isn’t that it wasn’t racist or that the title shouldn’t have been banned – it was and I think it should have been – but rather the media coverage.

First of all, it was immediately clear that few journalists actually tried to play the game, instead choosing to repeat (and in some cases, expand upon) the contents of a removal petition, which used racist marketing messages on the game’s store page to argue that the game required players to kill Indigenous Australians, even claiming it presented similar messages when Indigenous Australians appeared on the player’s screen:

The game shamelessly promotes the fact that you will “have to fight with aboriginals” and uses warning messages like, “Beware of Aborigines!” when Indigenous people appear on screen. The game portrays Indigenous Australian’s as violent and aggressive. As well as trying to promote the Indigenous characters as authentic representations of a diverse culture through the description phrasing, “Meet real aboriginals.”

While the petition did explain the issues with the marketing, it didn’t reflect the content of the game. Further media commentary verified this, explaining such encounters were optional and that the tribes could even become the player’s friends, yet numerous media outlets continued to report that players would, for instance, receive points for killing Indigenous Australians.

Such lazy journalism (involving bad fact-checking, a fast-paced media cycle and shallow critiques) is pretty problematic. For one thing, it validates and encourages the delusion of certain sections of the videogame community that journalists are out to get them. But it also gives the games in question a degree of subcultural importance and accompanying financial success.

The developers of 2015 spree-killing action game Hatred are no strangers to this process. In spite of criticism from the usual sources, they received ‘[i]nsanely positive feedback … I need to say here that my mailbox is currently totally overflown with emails full of words of support.’

Such coverage produces a market for offensive games. Hatred was only following a template set by earlier spree-shooting action game Postal; its sequel, in particular, is synonymous with violence and excess, allowing players to not only kill and torture NPC civilians, but urinate on them too. The original computer game was a source of controversy in 1997, when US senator Joe Lieberman called it ‘digital poison’, using it to argue for restrictions on the content of computer games, which he believed were corrupting youth and contributing to the number of mass shootings in America.

These kinds of incidents are common in video game history, and are often regarded as a moral panic similar to the one created by rock and roll, or exploitation movies in the 1970s. Hatred was always going to attract a following, despite its shallow gameplay, because it’s part of a long-standing tradition of ‘shock culture’ marketed to and appreciated by a certain, mostly adolescent crowd of gamers.

But Survival Island didn’t have to see this kind of cult success. Even in the circles that defended it, the reception was lukewarm at best. ‘Okay so “Survival Island: Australia” was developed by GFTEAM,’ wrote one Reddit user, ‘a shovelware developer who spams the appstores with barely-working “games” that are deliberately designed to cash-in on other developers’ IPs and commercial goodwill.’

For once, the SJWs have found an actually unethical target. Of course, they’re targeting them for the wrong reason, but I won’t shed any tears for a shovelware spammer of the likes of GFTEAM and I certainly hope this ordeal doesn’t give them any Streisand Effect style publicity – they certainly don’t deserve it.

Another agreed:

We cannot pick and choose. GFTEAM might be a bunch of tossers, but if those seeking to censor them are doing so on the basis that their games are “problematic,” rather than the actual ethics violations, we should be fighting it tooth and nail.

Also-ran developers like GFTEAM only stand to benefit from the cultural cachet a video-game controversy causes. While it’s important to analyse and respond to popular media, especially racist computer games, we should make sure the analysis we provide is targeted and factual. Otherwise we run the making martyrs out of game developers, allowing them a cultural significance they otherwise would have struggled to achieve. The majority of gamers on the comment thread took issue with what they called the ‘lies’ about content of the game: the gameplay features described by journalists which didn’t match the content they experienced – it’s easy to dismiss these kinds of criticisms when you’re constantly exposed to them, especially when the facts are incorrect.

The recent coverage of Victorian police commissioner Graham Ashton implying that a rise in youth crime in Victoria was due to what he called the ‘Grand Theft Auto Generation’, and ignoring the more obvious sociological causes, is a good example of this type of attack. Anyone with exposure to the games in question – or young people! – will think the angle unfair, yet the media promotes it anyway, creating unnecessary outrage, and setting up an artificial ‘us-and-them’ divide (between, for instance, the hobbyists and the rest of the community).

Not all journalists are gamers. But it’s not too much to ask that features we describe in games are actually present, and our descriptions of the context are correct. The only way to do this is by directly interacting with the media in question, as we should expect for controversial literature or film. If we don’t, we reward the production of offensive games and feed a wider narrative of moral panic.

Controversial games have grown a kind of cultural importance. We need to give them the response that they deserve.


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Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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  1. Great write-up, very much on the money. Ignoring is the best policy, but the media (and Twitter) have other ideas.

    • Cheers for the kind words. 🙂 And honestly, I feel like “why we can’t just ignore this stuff” is an essay-worthy topic in-itself. It would be so good if it worked out though.

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