Ken Levine: Games Should Not Be Restricted From Using Controversial Subject Matter

In a six minute interview with Joystiq, Irrational Games boss and lead on BioShock Infinite Ken Levine talks about why it is important to not be afraid of using topics that some might consider controversial as vehicles for a story. In BioShock Infinite, Levine has weaved a narrative around a number of belief systems and ideals, and all of these things come together in the floating city of Columbia to create tension and drive the narrative.

The game touches upon such topics as the idea of American exceptionalism, how the pseudo-science of Eugenics was used in the early part of the 19th century to discriminate against different races (and those with physical and mental handicaps), the workers' rights movement, and plain old racism.

Levine notes that he doesn't want to shy away from these kinds of topics. He also says that he doesn't want to add characters of a specific race, gender or sexual orientation just for the sake of adding them.

Levine compares not hiring a person based on gender, race, and sexual orientation to employing (or excluding) characters in a game based on the similar criteria. He says that employers should hire based on skillsets and not on the race, gender, or sexual orientation of a person – just because they have some sort of personal bias, Levine also says that he uses characters that are important to whatever kind of story he is trying to tell as opposed to putting someone in a game for the sake of having them there to be a "positive force" represented by race, gender, or group.

You can watch the whole interview on Joystiq.

BioShock Infinite is set for release in March 2013.

Update: Adjusted the latter part of the story for the sake of clarity.

Source: Joystiq

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  1. 0
    GrimCW says:

    tbh i wish more were like this.

    i was also surprised there wasn't much in the way of controversy raised over Assassins Creed 3: Liberation given the protagonist has a "slave" disguise.

    things that spark controversy are oft the best sets to work off, and get the point out in part WHY its a controversy to begin with. isn't that part of the whole "art" spiel we always hear regarding still pictures/sculptures/etc..?

    the purpose is to make a person think, and understand. And IMO games have gotten to the point where they've, in some cases, breached the line from being strictly a simple entertainment venue, right out there into being capable of holding a full on purpose in story and sometimes gameplay.

    all these "moral choice" games are fine examples. do you kill for an easier go? or perhaps work harder to circumvent having to commit to extreme acts? and the more graphic these acts are, the more likely we are to decide based upon literal choice, rather than simply gaming (for many, some will still just be "oh this is the easier road? i'll take that")

    sadly, should such continue to grow, i'm sure we'll see the "omg kids play this!" complaints again from people who stupidly didn't check what their kids were doing, and bought them the game in the first place….

  2. 0
    Samster says:

    Extremely true. I remember a lot of things being said about the Tomb Raider controversy to the effect of 'this is what would happen IRL' etc. etc. That is never the case with a game. Everything about a game is designed, and storytelling/design choices are made by individuals who often inadvertently pander to well-known tropes, personal biases/privilege and publisher/marketing whims. Challenging those tropes would ironically lead to more innovative and fresh storytelling in many cases.

    Example: Far Cry 3. White guy strolls in, becomes better than the natives at their mysticism, saves their helpless communities. We haven't seen THAT before. Imagine if you played a native empowered to save and help his or her own communities, or rallying them to help themselves. Trope averted, story fresh.

  3. 0
    Neeneko says:

    I am not sure the hiring metaphor really works since characters are created from scratch.  There is no 'well, I have this black character and white character, but which is more qualified?'  Everything about them is fabricated.

    Personally, I always like the 'dice' method of selecting such things.  Need a character to fill some role in the plot where their race or sex are not integral? Role some dice.

  4. 0
    Samster says:

    Hmmm. Hiring based on skillsets would be great in a genuinely equal-opportunity environment. Unfortunately, plenty of studies and the statistics themselves indicate that equal-opportunity environment and natural diversity balance doesn't exist yet, and that minorities with competitive skillsets still get a raw deal.

    Similarly, it's very easy to decry the inclusion of minorities as game characters as tokenism, but a great deal of the time, race and gender have little bearing on a fundamental character or plot, so why do studios still play it safe by sticking with their ever-popular white male brown-haired protagonists? I'd say it's far more likely that we see Mr White Male Brunet so often because marketing and publishers won't support lead characters who are more diverse, and not because Mr WMB is such an important storytelling tool.

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