On Among the Sleep, controversy, and the role of videogames

Generally, our project Among the Sleep has received exclusively positive feedback over the web in the months since we published the projects first in-game teaser. But a few people have also expressed concerns about the supposedly fine line that we risk crossing. Understandably, the words horror, game and child in the same sentence seem to have raised a few eyebrows. We take our project seriously, and want to address these concerns in this post.

In addition, I want to discuss the role of videogames in general, and explain why I think our preconceptions are partly responsible for said concerns, not only the content of our project. Through a closer examination of the concerns and their consequences, I will explain why I find them somewhat problematic. As the role of videogames continue to increase in importance, we should reflect on these issues to make sure the medium becomes what we ultimately want it to be.

I guess it’s worth adding that this has not been (and we don’t expect it to become) a big issue for us. It’s just something worth discussing, to encourage substantial criticism. But first, to get them out of the way, I’ll start by sharing the specific reasons why I don’t think Among the Sleep should be considered controversial:

  1. You are the child. At no point in the game is the goal to harm a child. Your goal is naturally quite the opposite: to avoid harm. Our goal as developers is to put adult players in the mind of the child, and let them experience the resulting perspective in a creative way.
  2. Events are not literal. The game mixes an undeveloped sense of reality, with imagination and dreams. Hence, many elements are not necessarily meant to be taken literally. It might seem like metaphors are not yet expected in games.
  3. It’s a game for adults. Our target audience is adults, not because Among the Sleep will feature grotesque violence, but because we expect a certain level of intellect from our players.
  4. Before I reveal the 4th reason I’d like to discuss a few things, so please read on!

Why do people react so strongly to videogames in the first place?
Children are central characters in lots of horror movies and books that are not considered controversial. Does this imply that specific aspects of AtS are responsible for the concerns? Or does it simply mean that the same content is viewed differently when presented in a videogame? The three points above attempted to deal with the first question and specific aspects why I think we have not shared anything controversial. To reach my 4th point, I will be discussing the second question, of why we treat the same content differently when presented in a videogame, as compared to film and literature for example.

I will focus on the two causes I find most important. The direct cause of interactivity and freedom, and the indirect cause of bad examples defining the publics’ perception of what videogames are. Contextually, the concerns make complete sense, but I will go through why I think they fall apart (or will have to be rephrased) when we take a few steps backwards.

Interactivity and freedom
The added element of interactivity and freedom is what makes video games unique, and provides the audience with direct influence over an experience. Freedom is quite different from interactivity, considering how linear videogames often are rich with interaction, but have no real freedom of actions or morals unless you stop playing. Hence, freedom is also very interesting, either to perform experiments, or to let the audience’s own actions and morals define their experience.

Being the unique features of the medium, interactivity and freedom have become the dartboard of most concerns. The assumption is that when reading a book or watching a movie, you are only a passive observant and have no say in the matters unfolding, but while playing you are participatory and responsible for actions. Another concern arise when a contingent of people use their freedom to do the absolute worst thing possible, and publish that online with no artistic justification possible. If noticed by the media, the developer might for example seem to have made a sadism simulator at first glance. As a result, publishers, developers and ratings boards are reluctant to allow some types of content in games, regardless of intents. Hence, concerns regarding interactivity and freedom boil down to how the audience are considered participatory, and thus responsible for actions performed in the experience.

First off, if research ever provide evidence that the element of interactivity has negative consequences, we should take it very seriously indeed. But even if such evidence were provided, I expect the findings would not target interactivity (we interact all the time!), but instead how it was used and presented in specific games. This means that the hypothetical future ‘evidence against videogames’ would only be relevant for game criticism and what we perceive as acceptable, not the videogame medium as a whole.

The flaw of responsibility reveals itself when we consider how audiences of all media process their experiences. Because what are we accountable for in the first place? While experiencing something, all of us reflect upon what we’re presented with, to form our own opinions about it rooted in our own morals. It’s this mental process that ultimately defines who you are, how the experience affects you, and what you should be held responsible for. In a violent movie or book, the audience might be thinking either “the heros’ violent measures are justified” or “the apparent hero, is actually a sociopath”. As such, all media are ‘interactive’ in the sense that what happens is in itself only an empty shell, until the audience process their experience, and become responsible for their interpretations. So when a despicable action is perceived as something worth imitating, this is where we find the problematic interactions taking place, but it’s got nothing to do with pressing buttons, and the interaction is the same across all media. In other words, for the same reason that I will not hold the movie audience responsible for actions performed in a movie, but instead for how they reflect on them – I will only hold the player responsible for how they process the videogame, not what happens.

This is not the same as saying developers should not be held accountable for what they produce. The power of interactivity and freedom can naturally be used for both good and bad, and how people perceive an experience greatly depend on the authors intent. But this is no different from how a book or movie can be didactic or deceptive, so if videogames should be treated differently in general, we need a more convincing argument for not being consistent. Unfortunately, the usage of the medium for bad brings me neatly to the next major cause of concerns towards the medium.

Bad examples defining the publics’ perception of what videogames are
Currently, the industry is one speculative circus in which many performances deserve cancellation. The ones screaming the loudest often have a mechanic focus on revenues (literally). Others continue using cheap provocation and bad taste to earn more money. Another unfortunate aspect is the almost exclusive focus on videogames as fun and easy entertainment.

These are all tendencies that influence and obscure public opinions on what videogames are and can be. With so many actors struggling to keep their integrity, it’s sometimes even hard to defend the medium. How the industry almost exclusively treat videogames as easy entertainment also creates an assumption that videogames can only be easy entertainment. This often makes serious issues raised in a videogame seem trivialized. In general, bad examples greatly influence how we define the medium and it’s role in our societies.

It is still not hard to disarm the concern itself though, because it basically disarms itself. If we take the medium seriously, and define it for what it is and not for what some people use it for, the assumption loses its meaning, as it would only target specific games. The videogame medium, like film and literature, has obvious easy entertainment values. That is great, and I have no wish to get rid of that, but let’s stop shaping our attitudes after the worst examples, and expand our expectations to it’s role in our culture. To explain why I think this is important, I’ll try to define the videogame medium with a few lessons from history:

  • Writing was first introduced as a practical tool for accounting, but today’s diverse usages are truly countless.
  • After the printing press was invented, it didn’t take long until someone saw the commercial potential of erotic novels. It took us another 150 years before the same technology was used to make the scientific journal, making modern science possible.
  • One of the first usages of film was to check if horses had all 4 feet off the ground at the same time while galloping – interesting, although rather trivial. It took us decades to develop more diversity, and over a century to reach the diverse usage film has today.

The same pattern can be seen across historical introductions of all media, and new usages still appear regularly for most of them. What these historical lessons teach us, is that even though a new medium seems like a big new thing that suddenly one day is there in all it’s glory, the significant developments take time. Often a lot of time. When someone in the future is looking back at the history of videogames, is it not plausible that they will see a similar history? So let’s not define the medium for what it is mostly used for today, but for what it actually is and it’s potential. Videogames are basically moving images that one or more actors can influence in any way. In other words it could be anything, and it’s usages endless (one fascinating alternative, is the potential of this hybrid technology).

Conclusions
In theory, the concerns discussed are well intended. But as I have briefly mentioned, they are largely caused by our assumptions as to what defines videogames. One result is that a wide range of people are becoming afraid of interactivity and freedom in itself, instead of discussing the quality of specific projects. Another result is that we define new videogames based on old bad examples, and it’s only usage as easy entertainment. This not only influences the discourse we’re having, but also have huge effects on what games are produced.

For example, if Krillbite Studio were dependant on a publisher and pitched the idea of AtS, the game might not have been made - simply for the fact that we depict a child in discomfort. In that situation, our general assumptions would have become a ruleset. To continue our focus on children; there are lots of cases where depicting children in discomfort can be considered a necessity. The City of Lost Children is an incredible movie, and what makes the awfully powerful Tears of Gaza a masterpiece, is it’s honest depiction of children in war.

With the discussed assumptions widespread, we will keep tiptoeing in circles on the safe paths explored a thousand times over. And where will it take us, except nowhere? We should instead encourage a climate where we punish bad taste in specific projects. Not based on assumptions regarding interactivity, freedom or a specific content category (like children or sex). This should make the discourse more interesting, and provide fertile soil for new usages of the medium. If a developer screws integrity and make something incredibly stupid, we should naturally bash it with (substantive) force, but let’s not develop patterns where the project is not accepted, ignoring the project itself. (We neither fear nor expect this destiny for Among the Sleep, but on behalf of all awesomeness currently restrained in general.)

I’ve arrived at the 4th point on the list of reasons why Among the Sleep should not be considered controversial.

  • 4. Content categories are not controversial in itself, the way it’s presented is. Yes, some unfortunate souls keep insisting that videogames can only be easy entertainment. Others keep using cheap provocation to earn more money. Even though these tendencies are reprehensible, we should not let them obscure the fact that provoking a reaction in the audience is very often a noble goal. Games are no different. The way it’s presented should be our gauge of quality and integrity, not just the category of the content alone.

(No children were harmed in the writing of this article… Or, maybe indirectly if some of this is true…)

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9 Responses to On Among the Sleep, controversy, and the role of videogames

  1. Matt says:

    I just wanted to let you know that not only do I look forward to this game very much so, but I also incredibly respect your views, and how you addressed them.

    If I may be a little less elegant, people need to grow the —- up. Spending millions and millions on movies like “The Expendables”, or slasher flicks are completely fine, apparently. “Taken” had a teenager abducted, used sexually, strung out on drugs, and eventually die. But THAT is ok.

    Just because someone moves a JOYSTICK or pushes BUTTONS to make the story progress, does not mean it is any different than a movie, aside from a great increase of involvement. Watching a movie, you generally remain calm aside from jump scares, but in a game, it is YOU.

    Look, I know you want to please people, and again, I respect you addressing their concerns. But remember a couple things: 1) Society cannot survive without something to bitch about. 2) Blues Brothers was R at one time. Dancing was evil. Witch Trials were the way to handle things. Remember the “concern” around Leisure Suit Larry? Or GTA? The following are just SOME examples of how some people have nothing better to do than try to piss on someone’s parade. And remember, these are all GAMES.

    -1976 (Death Race) – You ran over stick men “gremlins” who then screamed. Whoa, calm the hell down! Thank goodness we did away with THAT kind of craziness!

    -1992 (Mortal Kombat) – You look at the graphics now, and we snicker. But holy crap, that game is believed to have been the CATALYST for the rating system! Just for reference, let’s take a look at some of the horror movies out THAT year:

    +Alien 3
    +Candyman
    +Demonic Toys (Yeah, nothing scary for children THERE)
    +Pet Semetary 2 (Which, btw, means that even EARLIER, the first one came out. Which had to do with… uh… damn, what was it? A graphic representation of a child being ran over, complete with bouncing bloody sneaker? And then, him being killed AGAIN later???)
    + Stepfather 3 (A movie about not being able to trust adults, and the reviews were mainly negative. Was it because of that? No, it was because the murders and blood were not CONVINCING enough.)

    That was just a few from that year. Let’s go back to games.

    -1996 (SimCopter) – A programmer introduced unauthorized “bimbo” characters who would show up on certain dates and kiss. Wait, what? KISS? OMFG SAVE THE CHILDREN

    -1997 (GTA series starts) – Sexual themes, drug use, racism, nudity, language, drunk driving, violence (against civilians and law enforcement officers; in Grand Theft Auto 3, there is also a cheat called ‘Extra Gore Mode’ in which, if you shoot at someone you can blow off their limbs), criminal behavior. Question, what movie doesn’t have most of this nowadays?

    -2003 (Manhunt) – Violence. Gained significant controversy after it was alleged that the game inspired a teenager to commit a murder. So, even if it is not true, if you can allege something, then you can ruin or hold it back. Nice.

    -2003 (Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball) – Sexual themes. Freaking SERIOUS? They play volleyball in bikinis! Nothing you don’t see at the beach!

    -2005 (The Punisher) – Interrogating, torture, gun fights, drugs, and killing with no mercy. Well, at least Saw and the Human Centipede toned that stuff down. God, our society is stupid.

    Even PORTAL 2 had controversy, because at one point Wheatley says “Fatty Fatty No Parents!”.

    I apologize for ranting, but I completely am on board with you. And even if you do not mean to push boundaries, I hope you do. Times change. What we view as morbid, wrong, or disgusting change. And, most importantly, it is YOUR game. If they do not want to play, then they don’t have to.

    I say, do what you want, and forget the unintelligent criticism, especially if they are not even willing to listen to your side. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

    I look forward to the game, keep up the good work! And I really respect that blog post.

    Matt

    • Porcupine says:

      You seem to have forgotten Carmageddon and Postal – both from 1997, both had a lot of people blow a gasket (special German edition with green blooded “zombies” instead of pedestrians etc.)… Yet I don’t recall any massive surge in traffic accidents in the following years. I drive daily and my foremost concern at that time is the safekeeping of those I encounter or transport, but that doesn’t prevent me from running over everything in sight with great pleasure in Carma. Sane adults should know the difference between reality and fantasy, I consider any debate on such issues entirely gratuitous.

      Regrettably, some people lack purpose and a sense of identity in their lives to such a degree that they need to find “a cause to champion” to make them feel important and not-threatened – which is why we end up with angry comments on YouTube or new content rating systems (or an entire “alcohol-free” decade), all seeking to outlaw whatever our self-declared Guardians Of Morality du jour would have us rather not do. I find that having passed a certain age, I just don’t have any patience left to even try taking them seriously anymore…

      Oh, and just for kicks – Stansilaw Lem was ahead of his time on this too: just look up the story of Excelsius in the seventh sally of the Cyberiad. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure we haven’t reached that point – yet…

  2. Hi Matt, and thanks a lot for the kind words and lengthy response! It’s awesome that you are looking forward to AtS, and I’d like to assure you that we have no problem ignoring these problematic tendencies. I see how the post might seem rather defensive though, but the intent was not to excuse AtS in any way. Instead, I wanted to disarm a few assumptions, and hopefully make our conversations more interesting in the process.

    Done right, controversy is not something to eschew either, major progress is always accompanied by debates – which is healthy as long as you dismiss the senseless before it settles. I’ll get back to work now :P Cheers again!

  3. Matthew says:

    This is a brilliant article. Not just for calmly, intelligently addressing budding concerns, but for tying your thoughts into an argument for video games as an art form. Well freaking done.

  4. MyBearSaysRawr says:

    Whoa.. I don’t know where to start but you really sparked some interesting ideas and the way you can look at all the different forms of entertainment that we have created. I really and truly cannot wait for AtS and even more so after reading this. If anyone challenges the development and creativity of this ingenious game without even considering the artistic aspects of this game they must really be angry people. The saddest part is they are never willing to listen.. I wish you guys the best of luck in the development and release of this game. I can’t wait. ~Andrew

  5. Nimja says:

    What makes me happy, personally, is that Valve, through Steam, is making indie games a normal part of the gaming scenery. Where else can you find Towns next to Medal of Honor?

    Plus, I’m not giving up on the gaming industry as long as things like Portal (1 & 2) get funded.

  6. Shadow says:

    Hello,

    I’d just like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Not because it dredges up subjects that are uncomfortable for many audiences (such as violence to children), but because it is a calm, collected, concise example of what a perfect refutation should be. Identify the faults, refute them, then provide evidence to support your claims.

    I look forward to games which really drag me into the experience, such as Myst or Machinarium. I feel that this will be another such game, and look forward to it with eager anticipation. I’ve already voted for it on the steam greenlight.

  7. Eric says:

    I hadn’t heard of your game before I saw a Youtube video demonstrating your game with OR support. I was blown away. So I checked out your Kickstarter, where I came across this article. Not only is it well written with a logical and rational point, it contains a great amount of passion.

    You make not only a great argument for your game, but for the medium of gaming itself. Books, movies, painting, music, all considered art. Video games combine all of these. Yet, they are not usually taken to seriously. I don’t see any problem with the protagonist being a toddler. I think it sounds bloody brilliant. However, I can see how some might find it offensive, without even giving it a fair shot. I just find that ignorant.

    Hopefully, this article can change some minds. Your passion for your craft really shines through. I was pretty much sold on buying this when it released, thanks to the videos. This article on the other hand, persuaded me to donate to your Kickstarter. If this game (which I can tell) is made with just as much love as contained in this article, it will be a sure fire winner, winner, chicken dinner. Awesome work. Really looking forward to enjoying your work. Creativity and passion is much needed in the gaming industry. Y’all exude them both. Best of luck to you.

    Sincerely, Eric from Arkansas.

    PS: To whoever manages Krillbite’s money; please take a few bucks from my donation to buy Mr. Husby a pint or two on my behalf. Or at least a hug. He earned it. :P

  8. Pingback: New Details on Story Driven Atmospheric Horror Game, Among The Sleep | Exclusive Interview | OnlySP

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