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8th July 2021

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Serious Games pulls controversial slave content from Steam

"Maybe we should hide the banana for a while," says CEO on Slave Tetris

At first glance the screenshot from Danish studio Serious Games Interactive's Playing History 2 - Slave Trade looks like a South Park parody, but is in fact from a mini-game that asks players to fit as many slaves as possible into a ship's hold, Tetris style.

Now, in response to media and social media attention, Serious Games has pulled the mini-game from Playing History 2 - Slave Trade.

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Latest comments (21)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
I don't know, it certainly looks like courting controversy is a sound business strategy and that's what this looks like. A conscious decision was made to create "slave tetris" as part of this game and nobody thought it would be offensive? Really?

This is a bait game IMO.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 4th September 2015 9:05am

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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee5 years ago
Really?
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd5 years ago
It would be embarrassing enough for a university to have one of their students make something like this, but a member of staff? Absolutely shameful.
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Show all comments (21)
Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games5 years ago
I think we shouldn't judge this as much unless we played it, or at least saw some footage.

I had seen a trailer from this game in the past, including slave tetris, and honestly I couldn't tell if it was trying to be serious or not at the time, but these guys seem to make games touching controversial topics, while everything else on the industry stays away from it so they can keep targeting their games to teens, including changing the names of factions that were based on real life conflicts to stay under the radar.

Slave tetris may look silly, along with caricatured characters, but maybe try the game before you condemn it.
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Rachel Weber Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
I'm not sure what difference playing the game could make - it's stacking the bodies of slaves inside the hold of a ship - but if you're desperate for footage then it's widely available on YouTube.

https://youtu.be/3E7iWYXnf8s?t=37m43s
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios5 years ago
Robert the problem isn't the game.

Its the subject matter.
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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games5 years ago
I've seen footage of that already Rachel. I just said I did see it last year.

it's stacking the bodies of slaves inside the hold of a ship

Which from what I understand, they made that as part of the motto of their game which is to show cruelty and treating people as objects, commodities. Whether that particularly game scene was a good or not implementation for their message is a different issue than people from the industry hating it and condemning it just for touching on something controversial.

Political Correctness police please go away, it's getting tedious already.
The comments section on gamesindustry.biz has plummeted in quality. I guess it is natural when anyone who isn't an indie can't afford to say anything, otherwise if they touch a nerve they may be fired from their jobs.

Maybe GamesIndustry.biz needs to let people who already were verified as being members of the games industry to post anonymously when they want to. Maybe then we'll start hearing different opinions in here again.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
There is nothing stopping anyone making a game that draws attention to the dark days of slavery, but you have to treat the subject matter with respect or risk a backlash. I think what people are having an issue with is not the subject matter as such, but the half arsed, headline grabbing way in which it was done in this game.

This may seem like people are not allowing free speech or PC gone mad to you, but when you start making games about real-life events dealing with subjects like genocide, slavery, pedophilia etc, you have to do it with respect and empathy towards the families who were affected by those events.

I don't think any of that was present in development of this game.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 4th September 2015 6:24pm

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Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com5 years ago
My initial reaction was that it was an interesting approach that could, in theory, be an effective way to make a point about the dehumanizing nature of packing human beings like cargo. But then I watched the footage, and if that was the intent then it failed miserably. I don't see that it really is effective in either presenting the horror or the real nature of the slave trade (it's not like real slaves would ever have space around them because the slave trader failed to fit them in quickly enough).

I still think making a game out of packing slaves could be an effective and disturbing way of teaching a real lesson. I just don't think this teaches that lesson.
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James Berg Games User Researcher 5 years ago
I watched a chunk of footage while working, and the game isn't glorifying slavery in any way, and the character is actually trying to subtly sabotage the captain he's forced to work for. The slave-tetris is mortifying, but it's supposed to be - heck, the tutorial popup talks about how slaves were treated as objects that just needed to fit a specific space. I don't think the game is particularly good, but folks that doubt it's heart is in the right place should watch more of the game than the tetris bit.
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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games5 years ago
but you have to treat the subject matter with respect or risk a backlash.
I'm not disagreeing with you on this. Like I said, when I first saw slave Tetris around the end of last year, I couldn't tell whether they were being serious or not, which is not good for a company called Serious Games.

However, since 2008, gamesindustry users and articles have been talking about the need for making games that dealt with more important subjects, that were more mature. It has been almost 10 years, and games are still pretty much about swords, magic and guns with one liners. This game here may be an exception to that, where this whole slave tetris thing may have been the "Dawson cry" of video games: a scene where it was supposed to have an emotional connection, but instead it came out as completely silly.

All I am saying is that we shouldn't be so quick to judge, especially not if all we have are accusations of "offensive" material. We are the games industry, if we do not take the time to really look at games and defend them, who is going to? They already removed slave tetris, and maybe this is a pretty good game other than that for educational purposes, but because we were so outraged at something that felt offensive this game may find itself banned on places that could be distributing it because everyone is so outraged at it. We should be better than that.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
I think it's the art style more than the educational elements that works against this. Had the developer went with art from something like this:

http://www.beyondforeignness.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Slaveshipposter.jpg

The impact may have been greater on how awful the whole process was/is. Remember, this will be the first exposure to the concept of slavery to kids. It should be less of a cute cartoon (in my opinion).

Also, if they'd done this with, say... the Holocaust, would people be more, less or equally angered? Just a serious question to consider the next time there's online outrage on these projects.
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I agree that the art style is definitely not helping to convey a serious and sympathetic treatment of such awful subject matter. The art is bold and cartoonish and... well, you can't tell me those huge-lipped slaves in the screenshot aren't racist caricatures. And one of the characters is apparently an anthropomorphic talking mouse, just to keep things grounded I guess? I get that this is meant to be a game for children, but here's some news: kids can understand serious subject matter without having it explained to them by a cartoon mouse.

Games can deal with serious subjects in a sensitive and sober way, and in a way that traditional fine art, literature or movies cannot emulate. Depression Quest doesn't shy away from the seriousness of its topic with cartoony minigames. Brenda Romero's Mechanic is the Message series of board games are amazing examples of serious games. Síochán Leat is about the grim history of colonialism in Ireland, and Train is about the Holocaust. Neither make light of their subject matter; rather they treat it with thoughtfulness, sensitivity and carefully-considered symbolism.

Personally, I'd be much more inclined to sympathy for the developer if their response to this controversy didn't seem so immediately dismissive of people who complained or were upset by their game. Making a game about such a serious and horrible topic means people are inevitably going to have strong feelings about it. Even if you think your work is justified, dismissing people who object to it as 'following like sheep' or 'jumping on a bandwagon' is an insensitive response.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development5 years ago
We are the games industry, if we do not take the time to really look at games and defend them, who is going to?
The stance of prioritizing the industry over human decency suggests one of immediate bias, which is not a healthy thought pattern.

Bear in mind that some people in the industry are also slave descendants, but that is not the only reason to defend them, because first and foremost we are human beings - that is what we defend first.

That's not to say a game cannot be made about a tough subject matter. But take it seriously and do so respectfully. Worst of all is his arrogant response. Had this been done with care it could have gone down much differently.

It's not a matter of political correctness gone too far, but more a case of awareness and respect for people. Not being of African descent I get it, it's not a direct concern to you, but that is why we have empathy, and when empathy fails we have ears and a heart to try to understand.

Only when we can cover sensitive subjects responsibly can we expect people to be accepting of our presentation.
Personally, I'd be much more inclined to sympathy for the developer if their response to this controversy didn't seem so immediately dismissive of people who complained or were upset by their game. Making a game about such a serious and horrible topic means people are inevitably going to have strong feelings about it.
^this.

Simply put this is a sensitive subject so treat it with respect. If people are offended by it, show them respect - period. Only then could we expect to be taken seriously.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 6th September 2015 12:57pm

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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 5 years ago
I am going to be the odd one out here and say who cares. It's a game.
If you are incapable of playing it without being offended, then don't play it. Why is that concept so hard for some people to grasp?
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Seems the inestimable Katherine Cross has written a piece on Gamasutra that very eloquently sums up my misgivings about the game and its attendant controversy. So I'd recommend giving that a read. Some of the comments make interesting contributions too.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
I don't think there was any need for that tetris to have "slave artwork". I think this was just plain attention seeking since (Like happened with Hatred) Either you are completely new to the industry or you know exactly that this was going to be the reaction (educational or not).
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development5 years ago
I am going to be the odd one out here and say who cares. It's a game.
If you are incapable of playing it without being offended, then don't play it. Why is that concept so hard for some people to grasp?
The concept is incredibly simple. What isn't simple unfortunately, is understanding the subject matter and taking the time out to empathize with and be respectful to those who are offended by it. The world is bigger than our little bubble lives and how we perceive the subject in relation to today may differ throughout the world.

Now this subject is important to us as this is a global industry. We can be ignorant, arrogant and defensive if we want, but if we want to mature as an art form we are going to need to develop greater awareness. That is why we have these types of articles.

If we exercise simple defense mechanisms we fail to grow and develop as an industry. If however we approach the subject with responsibility and maturity we will be able to cover the most controversial topics just like in the film industry, but it does not happen by throwing our weight around and telling people, "don't be offended, we'll just haphazardly take liberties with minorities and do things however we feel without taking any effort to be responsible."

Like I said before, if the CEO had a different attitude this would have gone down differently. It is quite easy to cover this subject matter and even make the same game without getting such a backlash.

You're an artist, are you not? Are you telling me you couldn't have presented the game in a better way? or are you saying that it's not worth the bother?
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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games5 years ago
Keldon, how do you go from
We are the games industry, if we do not take the time to really look at games and defend them, who is going to?
To

The stance of prioritizing the industry over human decency suggests one of immediate bias

I'm not saying we need to defend games at all costs because it is games.. I'm saying we shouldn't be so quick to judge a game we didn't play because of a still image we saw, or by seeing footage on youtube without the whole context. For example, I think slave tetris looked bad because 1) the characters were drawn in a caricatured way 2) they didn't express pain or discomfort ever, they literally look emotionless/lacking intelligence. Even if this is for kids, you could have made more realistic slaves and give them proper expressions to match what they went through.

However, I didn't play the whole game and reserve some judgement given I don't have the full context of it.

If we exercise simple defense mechanisms we fail to grow and develop as an industry. If however we approach the subject with responsibility and maturity we will be able to cover the most controversial topics just like in the film industry,
The film industry also made itself popular by having extremely tasteless and controversial movies like Visitor Q or Pink Flamingos.
So I agree with Brook Davidson in the sense that if someone wants to make something that is seen as tasteless or offensive, they should have all the rights to do so. Something that the console and mobile industry will not let you do. Achieving maturity also means embracing freedom of expression
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
We are the games industry, if we do not take the time to really look at games and defend them, who is going to?
That does not mean that we have to favor and rise our arm in defense of every project out there. Sometimes "defending" is also criticizing and rising our voice against what we thing is a bad idea that, as an industry, does us no good.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 5 years ago
@Keldon
but if we want to mature as an art form we are going to need to develop greater awareness.
Sorry, but are you under the assumption the other art forms are subject to the same sort of criticism as video games? Last I checked, most art forms are capable of pretty much expressing what ever it is they want. It's called freedom of expression. If you have not noticed, video games are criticized about things that seem perfectly acceptable in other forms of media and art. This right here, is what is wrong with the world today. People can't seem to make anything without offending someone and it becoming a big deal. Then on top we have all these people sticking up for those offended people as if they are incapable of simply not playing the game. As if ... it simply being sold some how effects them.
If we exercise simple defense mechanisms we fail to grow and develop as an industry. If however we approach the subject with responsibility and maturity we will be able to cover the most controversial topics just like in the film industry, but it does not happen by throwing our weight around and telling people, "don't be offended, we'll just haphazardly take liberties with minorities and do things however we feel without taking any effort to be responsible."
If you approach the subject with responsibility and maturity, as well as logically ... "Don't play the game" is literally the best way to go about it. Why on earth should we give a crap about a portion of people who happen to be offended? Why do we focus on them, and not those who don't have a problem with it? Why are we always taking the side of those who happen to be offended? Do we not care about everyone else who is ok with the game?
You're an artist, are you not? Are you telling me you couldn't have presented the game in a better way? or are you saying that it's not worth the bother?
As an artist, I will make, I will paint, I will draw, I will write, I will compose, I will express myself as I see fit. If someone doesn't like or agree with my art ... They can go to hell. They are not in charge of everyone, and they most certainly should not have a say in the matter, because other people enjoying my art, doesn't effect them. They have the freedom to not look at it, or even buy it.

I am sick of all this ridiculousness in this industry pandering to peoples illogical complaints all the time about being offended. Give me a break.
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