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Satire in Games

Yesterday, I was introduced to a game called Ladies and Gentlemen.  The players divide into pairs and then one chooses to be the lady and the other is the gentleman.  The gentleman try to make money by fulfilling contracts, and the ladies buy elaborate outfits with that money.  The ladies have to come over to the gentlemen’s area in order to ask them for money so they can buy pieces to complete their outfit.  The gentlemen can’t tell the ladies how much money they have, so they just have to make vague allusions to the amount.  I didn’t end up playing the game (it was DnD night and I had to leave), but I was told that game was pretty fun and that the premise was also okay because “it’s satire.”

Again, I didn’t play the game, but I thought about it for the rest of the night.  Satire is a pretty interesting thing, so I started to wonder how it would apply to a game.

A quick Google search will tell you that satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”  So, from this definition, the creators of this game were intending on putting it out with a wink and a nudge.  How games could be classified as satire is easy, but, when the user is interacting with an environment or situation like they would in a game, does the point still get across?

The biggest “satirical” game that I can think of is Grand Theft Auto.  The most recent controversy with the game surrounded GTA V.  Anyone who has ever played this game knows that it is unapologetically racist, sexist, and pretty much any other “ist”-ist.  Rock Star games defends it by claiming satire.  I think the GTA games are a lot of fun and aesthetically very good, but I’m not sure that they are satire.

The game that I have the most experience with in the series is GTA V. Anyone who has ever read any of my blog posts or has met me in real life could probably guess that I was less than pleased with the portrayal of women in this game.  For instance, Michael’s daughter Tracey is a prevalent character throughout the game.  Tracey is depicted as being vain, a bit dim, quick to throw a temper-tantrum, and highly sexual.  One of the first times the player meets Tracey, she is being pulled away from porn producers by her father and brother.  This is pretty par for the course with her.  She is practically obsessed with doing porn to get famous and has to constantly be rescued and put on the right path.

So, the exaggeration here is obvious, but what is the point?  What do players learn by interacting with Tracey?  What I got from the game is that it is satire without a point.  They have all the right moves, but they forgot that one critical factor.  Without it, it is just offensive humor.  There is a vague statement about society, but nothing concrete enough to push it from offensive humor to satire.

Dave Chappelle left the Chappelle show in 2005 because he realized that people just didn’t get it.  His show was highly popular and he was on top of the world, but he gave it all up to move to Africa.  At the time, this was a highly controversial move, but, to Dave Chappelle, a necessary one.  To me, this represents a criteria of satire that I think is essential in games: people have to “get it.”

To me, all games have some assembly required.  All of the plastic pieces, the cards, and the board may be in the box, but the most essential piece, the player, is not there until it is purchased.  Satire is tricky to pull off in writing, drawing, or movies, but with a game, it is much more complicated.  Rather than the author being the executor, it is the player.  The author is merely the instructor.  So, even if the author fully intended on a game being satirical, if the player doesn’t get it or otherwise takes it seriously, then I would argue that the game, though its intentions may be pure, is no longer satire.

I don’t have any magical answers for this issue.  I think satire is great and should be done in all forms of media (including games, though I think it’s very difficult to pull off correctly), but the consumer must also be critical.

It’s all fun and games until someone get offended.

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a professional writer and editor living in Cleveland, Ohio with her partner, cat, and many house plants. She is the current editor-in-chief for Project Derailed. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet. She was also a writer for the latest edition of Trinity Continuum: Aberrant. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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