Video Game Controversy Sparks Meaningful Conversation

Apr 18, 2019

Back in February, Red Candle Games, a Taiwanese video game developer, released Devotion. It was played by gamers around the world until it was quickly taken off the market. Someone found a reference in the game that compared the current Chinese president to Winnie the Pooh. This caused mainland Chinese gamers to purchase the game in order to deliberately give it bad reviews. Some gamers thought that was unjustified.

Rafael Gonzalez is one of the few gamers who managed to play Devotion before it was taken down. He's a video game developer and residence counselor based in Aurora, Illinois. Full disclosure, he's my significant other and we played Devotion together.

Gonzalez thought Devotion was a wonderful game. According to him, it didn't follow the usual tropes in traditional horror games. It keeps the player on edge with changes in atmosphere, variety in scare techniques, and creepy music.

"I felt like I could more thoroughly enjoy the game, knowing that I wasn't going to be sent back if a monster killed me and have to replay a level," Gonzalez said. "I can instead just focus on enjoying the story and immersing myself in the atmosphere. The game in general just felt really well done. There was a lot of thought put into it."

Khee Hoon Chan agreed with Gonzalez. Chan is a video game reviewer for an online publication called Rock Paper Shotgun. What she loved about the game was that it captured a lot of the elements of the everyday Chinese family. The game connected with her on a personal level. That, combined with its horrors and overall storytelling, made it a captivating experience for her.

This game was important to Chan because it's rare to see something that isn't Western or Eurocentric flourish on the market like Devotion did when it was out. She talked about how she would love to see more representation in video game developers, and how important representation is, especially to people who saw their own culture reflected in it.

"I had a conversation with a friend. I think her husband is Asian American, Taiwanese-American if I'm not wrong. And apparently he was really happy to see Devotion," Chan said. "It was, like, people are just really happy to see their culture being represented on screen."

Chan talked more about representative games, including Butterfly Soup, a story about the Asian-American LGBT community, in her worthy mentions. She thought it was a brilliant game as well, and having a diverse variety of games would make the medium more exciting and colorful.

Gonzalez agreed with Chan. He says Devotion was unique compared to the Western games he's played. It was part of what kept him wanting to play the game, seeing all the ways the culture influenced the game. He said games like Devotion could be a breath of fresh air. Whenever there's a game that presents a different perspective, Gonzalez thinks it's important to spread awareness of those games to support representation of minority communities.

"So I think it's really good to push and promote these types of things. Because one, it helps us learn more. If video games are a medium that help people learn about other cultures, I'm all for it. Any medium can be used as a tool to kind of teach people to branch out, and I think it would definitely just be beneficial overall for the gaming community," said Gonzalez.

Chan said the video game was taken down because someone found a joke that made fun of the current Chinese President Xi Jinping by comparing him to Winnie the Pooh, which is a sensitive issue in China.

"At least in China, it has become a joke that is so sensitive that even the Christopher Robin movie -- I think there's a Christopher Robin movie or something -- it was banned in China. So that was how sensitive and how paranoid China is about the whole meme. And Devotion actually included that joke, or that meme, in a talisman in the game which, to be honest, it's quite a bold move," said Chan.

Chan said a lot of mainland Chinese players felt their country was insulted. Detention, Red Candle Games' previous release, was popular in China. So when this joke surfaced, they saw it as a betrayal from the developer. They proceeded to send a large amount of negative reviews on Devotion, sending its ratings down — a practice known as "review bombing."

"So with that in mind, I think the developer got into really big trouble," Chan said. "And even their publisher kind of like cut off ties with them. And they had to take down the game. And yeah, now the game is not available in Steam anymore."

Steam is a online marketplace where computer gamers can buy and play various games. This is the original marketplace where Red Candle Games sells their products.

Gonzalez talked about how Devotion is still unavailable for purchase and how he was lucky to buy it when he did, because it went down only a few days later.

"They've said they plan to return it after removing the asset from the game," said Gonzalez. "But as of right now, that still isn't the case. From what I know, the company has said that this wasn't intended, but that one of the people responsible for helping make the game kind of did this on his own volition."

Chan said East Asian countries treat their authority figures in a different way than Western countries, which is why mocking the current Chinese president was so controversial.

"It is not something that we would do, because it is just very taboo, these kids of things," said Chan, referring to an unspoken rule about referring to leaders. "Of course, not all Asian countries are like that. I think China is maybe one of the more like, so-called extreme ones like that," she said.

As a U.S. gamer, Gonzalez was more surprised by the backlash.

"It's kind of common place in the media and just different mediums, whatever side of the political spectrum you're on, everyone's kind of constantly just poking fun at other figures. So it was surprising to see this taken so seriously in China that they felt the need to review bomb the game, and that the game had to be pulled, and the developers felt that they needed to remove this asset from the game in order to preserve the integrity of their game," he said.

Chan said it's up to each developer's discretion if they want to insert political elements into their game.

"They should have the freedom to do it. That said, I'm of the point of view that most, if not all games have some elements of politics in it. Even the absence of a very overt political statement is in itself a political statement. So, that's my stand on it," Chan said.

Gonzalez said even though people could be sensitive to various topics, it shouldn't change the notion that a good game is a good game, and people should have the freedom to express their ideas. He also said that it's a shame that players might lock themselves out of an amazing experience if they choose not to play a game because it might represent a certain political idea.

"Just because you don't agree with an opinion, I don't think that means you should avoid any type of medium that disagrees with you, because you can still enjoy it for what it is while pushing those disagreements to the side," said Gonzalez.

Chan said problems that followed Devotion's takedown included stopping mainland Chinese players who want to play the game, as well as discouraging Chinese developers from injecting political statements.

"It may probably have some sort of a silencing effect. But ultimately, it's probably not a very good thing to happen. I mean, games -- like books and literature, films, music -- it is a form of expression. And I feel that basically, the developer, the artist, the musician, the composer, whoever it is, should have the freedom and ability to express themselves, regardless of where they're from," said Chan.

Gonzalez said reviews are a good way for people to decide if they want to buy. And regardless of the legitimacy of the reviews, it can affect the business and success of a game.

"But whether the reviews are positive or negative, it's important that they're truthful, both for the companies to benefit and also for the gamers to benefit, so that neither party is kind of being played or tricked into buying a game they won't enjoy," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said events like this could affect how development studios keep caution and care in mind when developing their games, and it could be a huge task.

"It's still an issue that has to be looked into and you have to know you can trust the people who make it, you have to make sure when you're going through quality control, every asset and detail of the game, every line of dialogue is thoroughly checked. Not just for issues like this, but for the sake of quality. You want to make sure everything is at the highest quality you can be," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said all games are more than just games. He believes that they influence the world just as much as the world influences games.

"In the end, all video games, they're made by people. All of our experiences, our culture, our upbringing, influence the types of things we like -- ideas we have. And all of those can shape the way a game is developed, whether it's the genre of a game a developer chooses, the art style, the setting they choose, if they're going for like a more Western theme versus Asian themes, or just any other types of cultures out there," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez added it's foolish to believe a game can be independent of outside ideas because every person is shaped by how they've grown up, which can impact many aspects of game creation. He also recognizes how games have become part of pop culture.

"What games are popular influence what games people make, which in turn influence the future games, which in turn influences the world again by promoting whatever popular games or ideas or themes there are. So it's kind of a hand in hand relationship. We influence games and games influence us," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez notes video games have become more mainstream, which has created a new set of careers:

"You have people that can grow up wanting to do esports, you have people wanting to grow up to develop video games. Both of these careers, just like any other field require a lot of support. Also, there's the video editors for trailers. There's the people who helped set up events, tournaments, you have managers, sound teams, engineers."

For those who haven't played video games, Gonzalez said to keep an open mind. They can be artistic, a fun way to relax, and a good way to relate to people. Parents with kids who play video games can join in on the fun to continue building a relationship. Online multiplayer games are also a great way to keep in touch with old friends.

"There were some friends that, really, the only time I managed to be able to talk to them during college, were the one or two nights a week we would play a video game online together. So I would say don't sell them short. Just because you haven't played a game that you liked yet, doesn't mean there's not one out there that you won't like," said Gonzalez.

Dr. Bonnie Lenore Kyburz is a visiting assistant professor at Northern Illinois University. She works with rhetoric, composition, ethics, and digital media. Kyburz said the role of the artist is to disrupt popular opinion. She's troubled that she forsees more censorship:

"Do I think that there could be like a ripple effect? Or do I think that these sorts of things could happen again? To quote Battlestar Galactica, 'It has happened before, it will happen again. This is not new.'"

She said that creative people will be at the heart of resisting censorship of art because they push limits. This sheds light on inequities and political issues. Kyburz wants creative people to have their messages heard, telling them through stories and art.

"When you can find a way to kind of implicate your politics within, or embed your politics within a narrative in an interesting, creative way, people are more responsive to that. They're much more responsive to that then then simply being told, 'Here's what we're going to do, here's how you should be,'" said Kyburz.

Kyburz added games are more than games, movies are more than movies, stories are more than stories.

"We also maybe walk away from them thinking more critically about our choices, our choices in terms of how we vote, who we vote for, what we support, what we won't stand for, and so on," said Kyburz.

Since the Devotion controversy, Steam created a new system to prevent off-topic reviews on games.