To make this clear: I love swearing. From the whimsical mischief of a flip or a crap, through the dependable viscosity of fuck, to the balls-out unprintable horror of the C-bomb, it’s all good. And I’m totally joking there; that word is “cunt”. Better to be offended by reality than pacified into unconsciousness by sanitised lies, IMHO GUYZ. From this point forward, then, it’s safe to say there will be cunts — and worse. You’ve been warned.
Swearing, then, is brilliant. But not in computer games. If I had a penny for every time swearing in games has made me cringe, I’d be a rich man. Actually, I’d be a man with a lot of penny sweets. Actually, I’d be a man with a sugar rush and belly ache.
Games never used to swear much. Apart from the occasional dark horse — Duke Nukem springs to mind — games were too clearly marked as child friendly for developers to risk alienating audiences with swearing. But as players grew up the industry became increasingly foul mouthed to maintain interest from their key demographic. Nowadays, games like Kane & Lynch and Gears of War make swearing the trend rather than the exception. I bought a Playstation 3 recently, and of the four games that came with it, three contain serious naughty language (the fourth is LittleBigPlanet, and I’m fairly certain my sackboy once — after I’d finished dressing him as a mutant French minstrel — looked right into the screen and mouthed the word “motherfucker” at me).
But so what? Swearwords are just words, after all, like beige or cinnamon or fishfingers. Right? Well … no. The brain handles swearing differently from everyday language. As Steven Pinker notes in his book The Stuff of Thought, swearing “taps the deeper and older parts of the brain”. While most language is controlled with the higher functions of the cerebral cortex, swearing depends upon the more primal limbic system and basal ganglia — dark reptilian and mammalian backwaters responsible for, among much else, the development and control of emotions. Swearing elicits an emotional response, in both the swearer and the target of the attack, in a way that everyday language just isn’t capable of (for example: if I were to say you have a penchant for fellating males of your species, it wouldn’t have the same sting as if I called you a cocksucker).
So to swear is to express ourselves on a primordial level, ferocious in its immediacy, more indicative of the turbulent vortexes at our cores than the measured, refined language of polite thought. Snooty Homo sapiens may sugar coat their acts of defecation, but those of us reconciled to our lizard psyches are happy to just take a shit.
Of course, such uncontrolled and animalistic behaviour has a dark side. To affect how others feel with mere wordplay is a powerful magic, and anyone who’s been the target of a “faggot”, a “nigger” or a “kike” knows the deep down fear and hopelessness such words can inspire. The use of “cunt” as a noun for female genitalia, or even as a synecdoche (thank you Charlie Kaufman) for a woman herself, provides men with an aggressive, hostile means for keeping women in check through shame and revulsion. Which is fairly shitty of us.
Yet all things considered, I still feel swearing is worth it. I’d rather sit by a fire knowing I could get burnt than shiver in the dark, and I’d rather fuck with the risk of being fucked over than live in a world with only clean and palatable means of expression.
The trick when swearing is in understanding the gravity of the situation, in sensing the raw power at the disposal of your synapses and acting with awareness. This is the problem with swearing in games — I just don’t feel most game writers have the wisdom or the élan necessary to swear properly. They have power but not responsibility.
Take Far Cry 2 (seriously, have mine; I don’t want it. Yak yak). The script is littered with enough profanities to make the Hell’s Angels blush, presumably in an attempt to render its war torn African setting grittier and more believable. But there’s no control of the valve, no steering of the emotional journey; the swears simply pepper dialogue without any apparent thought to placement. The film Hotel Rwanda, dealing with similar subject matter, manages to be both menacing and terrifying with milder and less frequent swearing (and less on-screen violence). Far Cry 2 feels juvenile and embarrassing by comparison, the constant stream of obscenities giving me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach — a chronic background discomfort rather than the regulated moments of acute pain that Hotel Rwanda provides.
Not to imply that gratuitous swearing is a bad thing per se. Look at Deadwood. Look at Scarface. But in these examples there is a creativity at work that makes the language lyrical and free form in a way something like GTA is far from matching. GTA IV has the strongest writing of the series, but even here the swearing is dull and leaden compared to Al Swearengen’s poetic potty mouth in Deadwood. Driving a taxi around Liberty City getting called a “stupid prick” repeatedly by your passengers just isn’t in any way enjoyable — although it is perhaps successful in conveying the shittiness of being an immigrant cab driver in a sprawling American metropolis.
Another problem with compulsive swearing is that it adds a serious note to games that otherwise wouldn’t warrant it. Uncharted is, for the most part, an enjoyable romp through Indiana Jones territory, following adventurer Nate Drake’s search for the lost city of El Dorado. The early sections are silly and exciting and the writing is surprisingly robust. But then the characters start swearing, presumably to convince us that GAMES ARE FOR GROWN UPS NOW. Fine, except this one isn’t. You know how Nate finds out about El Dorado? From Sir Francis Drake’s diary, that he hid in his coffin before faking his own death. True story.
Uncharted does not need swearing. It has madcap gunplay, overblown adventuring and a plot brimming with double crosses and romance and intrigue; it is adventure movie cliché translated into gaming. Adventure movies are escapism — Indy and his ilk exist in cartoon worlds with good guys and bad guys and black and white morality. But judicious swearing changes that, it grounds us in reality: the kind of reality where it can be hard to tell who the good guys are, the kind of reality we were trying to escape in the first place (it’s worth pointing out that Hollywood misjudges this balance between fantasy and gritty truth with depressing regularity as well).
The dreary predictability of swearing in games isn’t an isolated problem — rather it points to a more widespread lack of rigour on the part of game writers. Dialogue is rarely done well. It’s about economy: writers should laser in on flabbiness, and cut. For a word to be kept it should earn its place — and this is especially true of emotionally charged swearwords. It would be nice to feel every “fuck” in Gears of War or Modern Warfare had been scrutinised and allowed through to increase verisimilitude in the simulation of overtly macho environments, but it is hard to believe this to be the case.
Yet there is more to this swearing issue than bloated scripts. Game writers use obscenities to point to their maturity, but only manage to achieve the reverse. Here’s Steven Pinker again:
Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator [of swearing] is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it’s worth considering how often one really wants one’s audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener’s attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener, and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to.
The first step on the road to maturity is realising the power you possess, and we should be glad game developers are at this stage. Yet wisdom is found only when you learn to harness your power; when you control it rather than let it control you. In terms of swearing, our industry still has a way to go. At the moment it acts like a fourteen year old throwing back Bacardi Breezers in the park on a Friday night, proud to show it can roll with the grown ups. But, just as the teenager ends up puking his guts out in the back of his car after his mum has been called to fetch him, so game writers only succeed in drawing attention to their lack of experience. Spacewar! was created almost fifty years ago; perhaps it’s time games began acting their age. The geriatric fucks.