Why Does South Park Get Away With It? (With Video)

Sorry for the delay between the video and the blog. Life’s a little crazy right now. I kind of talk about why in the video.

Before I get too far in, I should point out that I write this post knowing that I have a particular (i.e. picky) taste in comedy that has only gotten more refined (i.e. pickier) as I’ve gotten older. A lot of things many people find funny I generally don’t get or in some cases, actively dislike. I say this as it might add context to the points I intend to make.

Another day, another video game controversy. It seems a title can’t come out these days without offending someone and the press jumping on the simple narratives that come along with that like hungry sharks after chum. The latest involves Vlambeer’s excellent Luftrausers. Two people on Twitter who I have never heard of but who supposedly are notable in some way voiced very level-headed concerns that some of the character models and uniforms appeared to be loosely modeled after historical Nazi imagery and this made them uncomfortable. This was something that wasn’t mentioned, talked about or written about anywhere before this, despite the game being out for several weeks prior. As soon as this complaint was made, the gaming press did what they do and started blowing its scale out of proportion, suddenly making everyone (including myself) who otherwise never noticed this at best tenuous visual relation start talking about it. It’s funny how so many people acted like it was always there, yet no one mentioned it before these two people brought it up. To Vlambeer’s credit, they actually drafted a lengthy response to this criticism, essentially saying that they’re sorry people were offended, it wasn’t their intention to do so but that being the case, they had no plans to change the game. The two original complainants actually appreciated the response, thanked them for it and both parties happily went about their lives. That’s where the discussion should have ended but of course, the press wouldn’t shut up about it and continued to poke at controversy, then using the hornet’s nest they stirred up as yet another example of how gamers can’t have reasonable discourse. The press did what the press does.

I will never say that no one can be offended about anything. Everyone’s perceptions and feelings are different and obviously, some things will bother certain people and not others. I frequently disagree with what some people take offense to but it’s not for me to say they can’t be offended. That’s the way society works and we should be cognizant of that. I do believe both the press and indie developers have become a little oversensitive to this and I think the need to respond to every offended individual is silly and ultimately will stifle creativity. Art is not about pleasing everyone and trying to do so will only make your art bland and boring.

This post isn’t ultimately about Luftrausers though. In reading about this supposed controversy, the one thing I kept thinking of was how South Park: The Stick of Truth came out not long before and has been celebrated and certainly not been pointed at for the offense it causes.

I am aware of South Park but haven’t actively followed it in a number of years. I’ve seen several early versions of the snow, I saw the movie in the theater on opening night (the best theater experience of my life) and I’ve seen a few recent episodes and tons of clips. I am fully aware of how they don’t push the envelope so much as shoot it out of a cannon that’s also on fire. Personally, I’ve laughed plenty at it and I’m a firm believer than when it comes to comedy, nothing is sacred. A world in which anything is not allowed to be made fun of is a bad world indeed. However, I also think pushing the envelope simply for the sake of doing it is comedic laziness and I find that’s a lot of what South Park has been about the last several years. For as much fun as they make of Seth MacFarlane for just pointing at references (and they’re right, I used to like Family Guy but stopped caring about it when I realised how lazy the writing is), I haven’t seen much different from them recently.

The entire idea of South Park is constantly testing the limits of what is in good taste and while I haven’t played the game yet, I’ve been told it goes several steps further than even the show does which given what I’ve seen on the show, I have a hard time even conceiving. That being the case I think is great and I think it shows how our industry has grown to better recognise that some games are strictly for adults and that’s OK. I have no doubt that South Park would have received an Adults Only rating from the ESRB (essentially banning it from sale) not that many years ago. Games like it should be allowed to be made and sold.
The thing that I don’t get though is that people are upset at Luftrausers for having supposed Nazi imagery that could remind people of a troubling period in history and perhaps, even their own life. Fair enough, even though the game has no swastikas, no dialogue and the pixel art soldiers in the game don’t even use Nazi salutes. And that’s just the latest gaming offense controversy, a few quick Google searches will show a litany of others from the past year alone. Yet South Park: The Stick of Truth has an entire character class called Jew and Cartman, one of the game and the show’s principal characters is a horrible, disgusting, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, fucking scumbag of a human being. His entire character is purposefully designed around being the worst kind of ignorant bigot.

Yet, not only was no one expressing mass offense at this game existing but most reviews and articles I read about it celebrated how offensive it was, saying this was the perfect kind of South Park game that fans always wanted and that if you have even a passing interest in the show, you will absolutely love it. Indeed, I think this game would have been panned in reviews as being unfaithful to the show if it didn’t go so out of its way to be so crass and offensive. Again, I don’t care that people love this game. Despite my being kind of ambivalent on South Park and its style, I think it’s great that something this edgy can succeed on a wide scale. Hell, I’m going to play it some day and I bet I’ll enjoy it too. But to see the press and gamers celebrate this title which goes out of its way to shock and offend while coming down on Luftrausers for having non-existent 8-bit Nazis on it I can’t see a better term to define with than double standard.

Like I said before, people can be offended about whatever they want and to the credit of a great many who speak out loudly during these many controversies, few have ever said that certain games don’t deserve to exist or be released because they were offended by them. When someone starts to call for censorship, then we have a whole other problem. Nonetheless, I find something troubling about how certain elements of our culture are essentially exempt from criticism that other projects get lambasted for, rightly or wrongly. South Park versus Luftrauses is a prime example of this.

It’s really an open question which is why I titled this post as a question rather than a statement because I don’t know. What is it about South Park that makes them exempt from protest over how offensive they are and indeed gets them praise for it? It’s not like they’ve always been free of the critical firing line. I remember reading articles about people writing letters to the FCC demanding the show’s removal after it started. Is it just that it’s been around so long that despite still being popular, it’s fallen off the critical radar and those people just don’t care any more, kind of like violent video games? Do people just expect this so routinely from Trey Parker and Matt Stone that they just go “Oh you guys!” and move on because what they do is no longer fresh?

Is South Park: The Stick of Truth sliding by because people expect offensive content from AAA games now but indies fall under a more artful, critical eye? Personally, I saw what I would call seriously more disturbing stuff in The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, or even the No Russian scene from Modern Warfare 2 than I bet I’ll ever see in South Park or just about any indie game. AAA games definitely get more eyeballs on them but are the audiences who consume indie games not only smaller but on the whole, more critical of individual elements and more into the nuances of the art form than mainstream consumers? Will anyone care that the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Order is likely going to be jammed full of real Nazi imagery or will it get a pass because you’re going to be the one shooting them? If they tried to inject comedy into that game, would it get dogged as making light of a terrible period in history?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions and I wonder if anyone out there does. Perhaps it’s the weird personal standards I have when it comes to comedy. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious. Perhaps this really isn’t that big an issue and it’s just a result of the “enthusiast” press who loves the easy clicks that come from poking the same sleeping Internet bear with one hand that they always decry with the other. I actually commend Trey Parker and Matt Stone for what they’ve done because while I don’t always jive with South Park, I think anyone who manages to push the boundaries of humour and get away with it ultimately benefits us all. People who get offended by content ultimately should only have one choice, that being to state their displeasure if they wish but ultimately, to just stop consuming the content they don’t like and move on. Like most art, humour is a subjective thing and should never be distilled down to a soulless, one size fits all ideal. Nonetheless, I still think that at least in gaming, there’s a double standard where hay can be made about what is essentially a non-issue but something that goes out of its way to make an issue of itself can be held up and celebrated for it. Something’s off there.

So why do you think South Park gets away with it? What am I missing here? I’d love to hear what people think.

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