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What Is Censorship, Really?

Censorship has been a hot topic of late. Some people get really fired up at the notion of something they love being changed against their will. It’s a valid reaction, but sadly many complaints exhibit a misunderstanding of what censorship actually is. The term is thrown around so flippantly that it would seem like the whole world is under attack from an army of Reality Auditors . It’s not. True censorship is indeed something we need to be mindful of, but it is also quite rare. More often than not, the object of fan frustration is not censorship at all; it is simply unwanted change trumped up with a righteous cause.

Perhaps the most common flaw amongst claims of censorship is the ignorance of creator consent. Censorship, by definition, is the suppression of freedom of expression by governments, authorities, and institutions. In other words, it’s someone who wasn’t involved in the creative process coming in and dictating what can and can’t be said. This is harder to pin down than it may seem. Video games especially are often the products of many different people with potentially disparate creative visions. Sweeping changes can be instituted from the lowest programming level right up to the highest project management tier. When disagreements arise internally, they are usually resolved amicably with discussion and compromise. It is thus rare - though not unheard of - for creators to be censored within their own organisations.


Typical internal influences include the results of beta and market testing, shifts in the social climate, and, of course, the issue of maximising profit potential. Nothing unusual from a business perspective, but in consumers’ eyes it can be quite worrisome. If a game is marketed early in development as one thing, only to release as something different after surviving the arduous development process, disappointed fans often chalk it up to censorship. To them, they have been denied the ‘authentic’ product they were promised.

This sentiment also crops up with new instalments in established franchises. Big names carry certain expectations: Final Fantasy needs big swords and bombastic summons, Gears of War prides itself on chainsaw executions and chunky gibs, and Battlefield wouldn’t be Battlefield without collapsing buildings and drivable vehicles. If these pillars are not held up by the latest iteration, it is seen as heresy, betrayal. Such was the response when Halo 5 revised the appearance of AI character Cortana, reducing her ‘sexiness’ and covering up her naked visage. Franchise director Frank O’Connor gave a canonical explanation of the reasoning behind Cortana’s various appearances, but that didn’t stop angry fans from raging at 343 Industries, accusing the developer of censoring its own content. It’s a flawed argument. 343i was not pressured to change Cortana; the decision came about organically through the design process. Labelling it ‘censorship’ only confuses the concept, making fruitful discourse of authorial intent virtually impossible.

It’s funny how boobs and butts are seen as more dangerous than gore and guts.

What about cases where a product doesn’t see release in certain territories or markets? Dead or Alive Extreme 3 has been the topic of considerable debate lately, thanks to a post on publisher Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive Facebook page, since removed. The post revealed that the game would not be coming to the West, due to concerns over how the game’s sexualised portrayal of women would be received. Fans of the series have taken to blaming feminists and other proponents of social justice for creating a landscape in which politics prevent them from playing the games they want to. They resent the ‘censorship’ imposed by a PC culture that ‘hates boobs’. But again, is it really censorship? We’re not dealing with an outside party blocking the game’s release in the West. Koei Tecmo itself decided that the Western market was not a worthwhile investment. It’s no different to the many other times the West has missed out on niche Japanese titles.


When a game like Captain Rainbow underperforms on its home turf, a foreign release becomes an even riskier financial prospect. Similarly, if DOAX3 stands to cost more than it would make - in a fiscal or reputational sense - to bring to the West, it is just smart business to spare the investment. There is no big conspiracy or censorship racket behind it. It’s simply economics 101.

The censorship argument loses even more ground in the face of the import scene. Fans desperate to play DOAX3 will be able to import it from Japan in all its salacious glory. They may have to rely on translation guides and some trial and error, but the truly keen will not care. This practice has long been common in all entertainment industries, and has only gotten easier with the advent of region-free hardware and global delivery sites like Amazon and Play-Asia. Many Asian-exclusive titles have even started offering English language options. Given that these games tend to target a niche - if vocal - audience, the reservation of companies like Koei Tecmo makes perfect sense. It isn’t censorship, it’s just good business.


I wonder why Nintendo didn’t just age Lin all the way to 18 instead. It’s just a number, after all.


When foreign titles do see international release, the issue of localisation comes into play. Despite what many seem to think, localisation is a lot more than mere translation. Cultural idiosyncrasies, functional expectations, and licensing rights are just some of the obstacles faced when bringing a product to a new market. Jokes that rely on domain-specific knowledge need to be rewritten, user interfaces often receive tweaks and redesigns to fit the scripts and standards of different countries, soundtracks have to be relicensed for international use or replaced entirely. These modifications can be quite literally game-changing, and hardcore fans don’t always appreciate them. They want the ‘authentic’ experience, and brandish censorship as their weapon against change. Once more, it’s the wrong tool for the job.

This is readily apparent in the recent spate of censorship accusations levelled at Xenoblade Chronicles X. Released in Japan earlier this year, the game underwent a few minor but notable changes before hitting the West. One of the characters, a 13-year-old girl, was aged to 15 and lost access to a number of outfits that portrayed her in a potentially sexualised light. In Japan, sex is treated quite differently than in Western culture, hence why Nintendo decided to modify the game for international release. Some fans have taken umbrage at what they see as censorship, but is really no more than localisation. Different markets require different approaches, just like different hardware platforms require their own development pipelines. Understanding your audience is definitely not censorship.


It’s important to distinguish personal disappointment from legitimate censorship. When something you’re invested in changes in a way that you don’t agree with, it’s okay to get upset - just make sure your ire is aimed in the right direction. Unless a creator is forced against their will to compromise their vision, it’s not censorship. It might be questionable, it might even seem downright heretical, but such is the nature of the creative industry: it’s impossible to please everybody. Sometimes creators do care about sales numbers and potential controversy, and if they choose to change their creation for plutonic purposes, that’s their right. If you don’t like it, go ahead and let them know. Just make sure you’re complaining about the right thing first.

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar

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