Perhaps it is just gaming's silly season - post-E3 and pre-autumn games rush, maybe there was just nothing else to talk about. Or maybe we gamers, ironically given the vast amounts of blood, guns, cursing and boobs we wade through in our medium, have become hypersensitive. Whatever the cause, the reporting of two tempests in teacups - Orson Scott Card's involvement in Shadow Complex, and the appearance of a potentially racist reference in Scribblenauts - is a worrying trend that could lead to serious repercussions on what we see in our games.
First we saw hand-wringing over whether or not to boycott Shadow Complex, Chair Entertainment's intriguing Xbox Live Arcade Metroid-like title, because of the involvement of Orson Scott Card. Card, one of sci-fi's most acclaimed authors of modern times, has written on many political issues, but the one that sparked controversy on this occasion were his views on homosexuality. To wit, he opposes it, and gay marriage, somewhat vehemently, which led to suggestions of a boycott of the game by some as a statement of opposition.
Judging by the success of Shadow Complex, which broke Xbox Live Arcade sales records in its first week, any boycott would have little effect on the bottom line. But it did get column mentions - lots of them - that all but overshadowed every other aspect of the game. And while refusal to purchase games they may find disagreeable is every gamer's right, the coverage of the issue seemed to turn the whispers of a select few into an unnecessary roar.
It's one thing to avoid a game because it encourages a certain way of thinking that some people might find offensive - not that more than a handful of these games actually exist in the controversy-phobic games industry. But no one made the claimed that Shadow Complex encourages homophobia or has any anti-gay message.
Alternatively, if Card were the creative director or the CEO of Chair, or if his primary business was actively campaigning against gay marriage by, say, leading a political party or lobby opposed to it, then I might be able to understand this. But Card had no more than a peripheral involvement in the game at best, much as he did with The Secret of Monkey Island and The Dig, two games that were obviously released in more sensible times as to have escaped this so-called controversy.
There is something uncomfortable about the soul-searching over Shadow Complex, or the suggestions that gamers who are offended by Card's involvement purchase the game "but offset the hate" by donating to a gay charity. From the amount of racists, homophobes, sexists and outright assholes I've met in this industry, and the size of teams these days, I would say there's someone on every game you've ever enjoyed whose opinions would make you apoplectic. And I would wager the same goes for every movie you've watched, every piece of electronics you've purchased, and every sports team you follow.
At what point should we start boycotts because we disagree with the opinions of a certain percentage of the people making it? Should we stop listening to Wagner's operas because of his deplorable thoughts on Judaism? Should Republicans stop going to see movies made by Democratic supporters, and vice-versa?
But the most unsettling thing is that the controversy was triggered by what seems to be no more than a handful of gamers on the Internet forum NeoGAF. At least the Resident Evil 5 controversy, as misunderstood by all sides as it was, was kicked off by the writings of N'Gai Croal, one of gaming media's most prolific figures, and involved the eagerly-awaited sequel to one of the most high-profile brands in gaming. Is this just a case of the squeaky wheel getting oiled?