Saints Row 4: strap on the silly, not the sexually violent

Thursday, 27 June 2013 07:53 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Do we really need “alien anal probes” to have a good time? Brenna argues for a Saints Row that does what Saints Row does best – without the squick of sexual violence.

This article will discuss sexual violence in frank and potentially disturbing terms.

SAINTS ROW 4’S ALIEN ANAL PROBE: WHAT HAPPENED

Saints Row 4 has been refused classification in Australia, the first game to be so judged since the introduction of an R18+ ratings category for video games on January 1. The R18+ category was intended to demonstrate a clear demarcation between material intended for minors and material intended for adults, rather than to significantly alter Australia’s guidelines for content deemed acceptable by common community standards.

As such, Saints Row 4 has been found unacceptable because it manages to “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified”. The content which has garnered the most attention is an “alien anal probe” weapon, described in graphic detail in the Classification Board’s ruling.

Volition and Deep Silver have confirmed that they will prepare a territory-specific version of the game for retail in Australia – and likely New Zealand.

I really like the Saints Row series. Saints Row began as an “also ran” in the crowded field of open-world, crime-themed games that sprang up in the footsteps of the titan Grand Theft Auto, trudging heavily across the landscape of the PlayStation 2 generation and changing everything forever.

But where other GTA clones ended up mostly forgotten, traded in or left dusty in a corner, Saints Row has persevered. It had something others did not: it was fun. “Here is a silly world,” it said. “Here is a world where crime pays, and the gangster lifestyle is glamourous and fancy-free. Here’s a world where violence is cartoonish and over the top. Go crazy.”

Grand Theft Auto says that, too, in its gameplay – but not in its story, and the artistic grim-dark patina Rockstar now seems to feel obliged to plaster over its often inherently humorous games is, I believe, the franchise’s weakest point. Grand Theft Auto is actually enjoyable, because Rockstar pioneered the genre and remains best in field at crafting the kind of mechanics that make open-world insanity fun. Most of the clones were not, and that’s why they’ve all died off.

Significantly Less Silly

That’s not to say that Saints Row is without its problems. As with any piece of media, it runs the risk of stepping into deeply problematic territory by taking the permissiveness of humour as a carte blanche to do whatever the hell it feels like, with no thought to consequences.

In fact, this attitude seems to have been seized upon at the highest level and turned into Saints Row’s calling card, to the exclusion of its myriad other virtues. When Jason Rubin took over as president of THQ, he made no secret of his love for the more controversial features of Saints Row. When he walked away from the cooling of ashes, he took his giant purple dildo bat with him, and new publisher Deep Silver promised to “keep the dream of the cock alive”.

This really bothers me. I’m proud to talk about so many aspects of Saints Row – its unrivalled inclusiveness, its tongue-in-cheek cultural references, its delightful writing – that I’ll discuss them over dinner with non-gamers. I’m not embarrassed to be an accessory to an industry that promotes violent media; I believe violent video games needs to be subject to the same scrutiny and criticism as other art forms, no more and no less.

I’m not embarrassed to be an accessory to an industry that promotes violent media. I am embarrassed by the purple dildo bat, and although I’m yet to see it in action, I’m very troubled by the anal probe gun.

I am embarrassed by the purple dildo bat, and although I’m yet to see it in action, I’m very troubled by the anal probe gun.

The problem is that a dildo is a sexual object. There’s really no argument here. That’s what it is. When you use a sexual object to commit an act of violence, you turn that act of violence into sexual violence. That’s extremely troubling to me. I can’t tell you with as much certainty that an anal probe is a sexual object – presumably there are some medical situations where it is not – but I am almost certain that in any instance in which a person forcibly penetrates another person’s rectum for their own gratification – shits and giggles, which is no doubt why you’d be pulling that trigger – that is sexual violence.

Do depictions of sexual violence have a place in video games? My first instinct, my gut reaction, is to say that no, they don’t – but that’s because I don’t want them there. I don’t see why you would, either, but I’m aware of the counter-arguments. “Art can have no boundaries”, you will say; it can deal with any subject matter. “Freedom of speech, and all that”, you will perhaps offer, not even bothering to make an actual case. “It is only a joke” is another one I’m expecting.

The thing is, we are mounting these arguments to defend a piece of media which depicts people having something shoved up their arse in a way that clearly causes them distress, for no reason beyond the fact that we will find it amusing. We are supposed to laugh at it. We are supposed to be so childish and so unable to have empathy that we find nothing wrong with this.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with it on its own, although I’m not convinced. But there is something wrong with it in the context of our culture – the culture of video games, and broader human culture. We live in a culture in which horrible acts of sexual violence are enacted and the perpetrators are not punished – this is overwhelming statistical fact. We live in a culture which blames victims and instead of teaching do not rape, teaches us do not get raped. There are so many seriously fucked up things going on in the way we all think, the media we consume, and the lessons we propagate, that even after hundreds of years of examination, discussion, and action we’re only just starting to understand, expose and with any luck one day eradicate them.

“What’s the difference between laughing at dozens of virtual people being virtually murdered and laughing at dozens of virtual people being virtually raped? I don’t know, actually. But I can feel the difference, whatever it is, and I’m with the Classification Board on this one.”

I think there is potential for a safe space, for a world where everyone knows, deep down in their bones, what is right and what is wrong when it comes to sexual violence. Everyone will know instinctively how to conduct themselves – what to say, what to do, when to speak out – to keep everyone around us safe. In that world, “it’s just a joke” and “it’s art” will really ring true. But that is not the world we live in today and every time we add another message (like “it’s funny to rape people”) on the wrong side of the tally we make it harder and harder to get to that world – the world where something like the anal probe gun provokes thought and discussion instead of just mindless titillation.

What’s the difference between laughing at dozens of virtual people being virtually murdered and laughing at dozens of virtual people being virtually raped? I don’t know, actually. But I can feel the difference, whatever it is, and I’m with the Classification Board on this one.

I don’t think the removal of the anal probe gun from Saints Row 4 will make the Australian version weaker than the International release. I don’t think Volition Inc showing a little sensitivity to the manifold concerns surrounding depictions of sexual violence is copping out to censorship and destroying free speech; it’s taking responsibility for the game’s position as a cultural force.

I also think Saints Row 4 is probably going to be an excellent game, and would have been even better if all along developer, publisher and fans had focused on its strengths and positive aspects instead of celebrating the crass, the childish, and the distasteful.

Volition, holster your anal probes and whip out your dubstep guns; let’s just have some fun.

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