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LISA controversy highlights non-transparency and arbitrariness of platforms policing video game content

Demands to modify art to satisfy contemporary sensibilities never seem to age well.
Sony sign at the Sony Interactive Entertainment offices in Silicon Valley

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As with any other art form, the video game industry is no stranger to demands for censorship. But it seems current calls are coming from inside the house.

In the latest incident, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony apparently required developer Serenity Forge to remove content from a pair of role-playing video games before their release on the companies’ consoles — with Sony asking for extra sanitization. While Sony and other platform owners have the right to set their own content standards, policing content based on unpublished rules and an apparent double standard in the application of those rules does not bode well for artistic freedom.

What can’t you say? Who knows

Platform holders like Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony act as gatekeepers insofar as they must grant licenses for games to appear on their systems. This enables them to maintain content policies for what video game developers make and users consume — not unlike how social media companies exercise editorial control under their content policies. Like social media content policies, these may be applied arbitrarily and with double standards — more on that later — but unlike social media terms of service, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo’s content policies are not available for public scrutiny, offering arguably less transparency than Twitter or Facebook.

To put it bluntly, demands to modify art to satisfy contemporary sensibilities never seem to age well, and it’s hard to see why this modern regime will be different.

In a 2019 Wall Street Journal article, a developer complained that they lacked guidance in regard to what Sony would allow:

“You don’t know what they will say until you complete the work and submit it for review,” said the chief executive of a small game developer in Japan. “And if they are not happy, even if they allowed the same degree of sexuality a few days before, we need to take it back and ask our staff to make adjustments. That’s very costly.”

[ . . . ] 

“We don’t have criteria in written guidelines or that sort of thing because the policy was introduced kind of suddenly in the wake of the #MeToo movement,” [a Sony official] said.

These guidelines, to the extent they exist at Sony and other platforms, should be available for public scrutiny. Such transparency also benefits consumers, who will know when choosing a platform what kinds of content — and content limits — to expect.

Make no mistake, intruding on developers’ artistic vision is problematic regardless, but if a platform with bottleneck control is going to do it, establishing clear and consistently-enforced policies is the absolute minimum needed to ensure artists making games for your platform know what to expect. A relevant parallel lies in FIRE’s position on social media content moderation, which advocates: “Users deserve to know with reasonable precision what speech is off limits [and] whether platforms are implementing their policies fairly and consistently.”

‘Definitive’ with a definite asterisk

“LISA: Definitive Edition” comprises “LISA: The Painful” and “LISA: The Joyful” — two independently developed role-playing games for PC about characters struggling to survive a brutal post-apocalyptic wasteland. The games cover many dark themes of violence, drug addiction, and abuse, and have developed a cult following and sparked extensive artistic critique.

When Serenity Forge announced the collection is heading to Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and Sony PlayStation systems, it noted that would come with content changes:

LISA contains sensitive content that is designed to move players out of complacency, to put them into a world that’s absurd and inappropriate, and to prompt players to confront how they feel in these specific moments. We feel confident in the direction and purpose of LISA’s content, but we also know that certain platforms have regulations that we have to follow.

[ . . . ]

Whether or not to make these changes was not easy to decide, but ultimately it became an exciting prospect to alter some content in a small way in hopes that it welcomes and includes more players.

Developers are certainly free to change their own games. But to the extent they do not freely make those artistic decisions but rather have them compelled by platforms, there is cause for concern.

As concerning as it is that Microsoft and Nintendo’s store policies may have required Serenity Forge to sanitize its game, Sony’s policies demanded additional changes for release on PlayStation consoles. As Serenity Forge explained:

In a similar vein, a few more changes were made on PlayStation only in order to launch the game on that platform, but we're happy to say that none of them affect the meaning and intent of LISA. For the PlayStation version of LISA, we’ve added a notice about the protagonists at the beginning of the game. Additionally, cigarettes have been renamed to ‘cigarette candy,’ Joy is no longer referred to as ‘pills,’ and alcohol has been renamed as ‘soda’ in Joyful only (characters still drink alcohol in Painful). Basically, the changes are not a big deal. We just wanted to make everyone aware of it in advance, because we know that LISA fans will notice it as a difference from the original games.

Notably, though, Serenity Forge did not apply those same changes to “LISA: Definitive Edition” for the other platforms. This is a clear indication that the sanitized PlayStation version doesn’t represent the developers’ ideal for the game. While some developers may not feel content changes imposed on them by the console platforms are a big deal, other developers forced to water down their artistic vision at the behest of Sony (or others) may not necessarily feel the same.

Sex and violence for me but not for thee

This is not the first time in recent years Sony has demanded removal of content its competitors have allowed on their platforms. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 on developer complaints that Sony had begun to “crack down” on racier sexual content in games. As for the reason, anonymous Sony officials cited the increasing popularity and reach of the streaming platform Twitch, and “the rise of the #MeToo movement in the U.S., which pointed to the dangers of being associated with content that some might see as demeaning to women.” 

Much of the content Sony has demanded removed has, in fact, been racy sexual content. But in another demonstration of the slippery slope tendency — in short that content proscriptions tend to grow over time — it wasn’t long before other objectionable content was on a PlayStation-branded chopping block. The subversive visual novel “Doki Doki Literature Club+” had a blood spray scene changed from red blood to a black, ink-like substance. And Italian horror game “Martha Is Dead” had interactivity removed from a scene involving mutilation of a corpse.

Even more concerning is that there seems to be a double standard at play with one set of content rules for games made by Sony and large publishers and another, stricter set of rules for smaller indie titles. The Last of Us Part II, developed by a Sony-owned studio, is a dark post-apocalyptic zombie game with graphic and brutal violence, drug use, and a sex scene. It includes content on par with, or more graphic than, the above-described content sanitized by Sony. However, as of publication, Sony continues to sell The Last of Us Part II with all violent and sexual content intact. 

Cyberpunk 2077, a game released with all content intact on PlayStation systems, also features sex, violence, and drug use more graphic than what you would find in “LISA,” “Doki Doki Literature Club+,” or “Martha Is Dead.” Sanitized titles tend to be independently developed games with smaller budgets, whereas the highly successful CD Projekt Red developed Cyberpunk 2077, which has sold more than 20 million copies to date.

One supposes it’s possible there is some consistent standard being applied. But that is impossible to know, as Sony’s acceptable content policies are not public — which is itself a problem, if not “the problem.” 

Sanitization demands on art age poorly

The drive to remove violent and sexual content from video games is a recurring one. 

In the 1990s, Nintendo distinguished itself from its competitor Sega by proudly sanitizing more content — e.g., Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo removed depictions of blood and heavily sanitized the fatalities — than did Sega. In an ironic and welcome twist, modern Nintendo provides a better model for content policies than competitor Sony. 

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In that 2019 Wall Street Journal article, Nintendo claimed it now does not regulate content other than requiring games on its platforms to receive regionally-appropriate age ratings. In other words, if what it says is true, Nintendo has rightly decided to leave artistic decisions around games to their developers, and decisions about what games to buy to consumers.

Ultimately, three companies — Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo — control the home console market, as noted above, and their content decisions effectively decide which and what nature of games developers can create and users can play. While Sony, for example, has the right to decide what kinds of content it allows on its platform, it should put that freedom in the hands of artists and consumers. 

Nintendo’s strict content policies in the 1990s appear antiquated now. Past regimes like the Comics Code Authority for comic books, the Hays Code for film, and the long, terrible reign of American censor-in-chief Anthony Comstock range in retrospect from merely cringeworthy to morally outrageous. To put it bluntly, demands to modify art to satisfy contemporary sensibilities never seem to age well, and it’s hard to see why this modern regime will be different.

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