Of Aster*sks and “Acceptable” Censorsh*p
The Tumultuous Landscape of Profanity in Video Games
This is what I sounded like last week:
“Fudging rotten eggs. Heck and fudge it. Fudge me.”
And this is what I sound like now:
“Fucking shit fuck shit. Fuck. Shit?”
Seems a little different, no?
What I discovered rather recently was the power and process of using profanity, especially those sweet, sweet f- and s- words. Up until now, I’ve only ever used “replacement” words, like “fudge” for “fuck” and “heck” for “hell.”
There was no real reason behind my decision to stop or start cursing. I realized sometime around middle school that everyone around me was trying out swearing, peppering their sentences with a “bitch” here or a “dick” there, and I didn’t know how they came to that decision. Was I supposed to consciously decide to curse one day?
So I didn’t. I kept those profane words to myself until this week, when I started trying them out. I gotta say, “fuck” is really the curse word that trumps all other curse words. It’s versatile, too! You can turn that thing into a verb, an adjective, maybe even an adverb if you’re feeling wild and crazy.
The thing is, though, profanity isn’t exactly acceptable. I probably just broke how many social conventions by not censoring any of the swears above. But should I — or any of us — even care about breaking those norms?
The most definite answer I can give is “maybe” — especially in the current age of gaming YouTubers and Twitch streamers. Both platforms have been asking themselves the same question, and they’ve come up with wildly different answers.
Historically speaking, profanity in games has always been a tricky issue. Once, we hated it and tried to keep everything “family-friendly”; then, we discovered that profanity could be a draw, especially for pre-teens just starting to try out word taboos; and then we found out that profanity could be used as an honest form of expression. It’s all rather convoluted, but eventually, it seems like we came to the decision that swearing has a place in games.
As for whether it has a place when playing those games? That’s another issue entirely, one that YouTube has answered with a resounding “no.”
The platform recently updated their advertising policies to more clearly indicate that videos with “strong language” would no longer be monetized. The nuances of that policy, though, were — and remain — unclear, as was indicated by the backlash YouTube suffered after the policy announcement.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, either — the same wave of critiques came in 2016 when YouTube first indicated that vulgarity would not be eligible for ads. Philip DeFranco, a popular news YouTuber, claimed, “By taking away monetization, it is a form of censorship.”
Now, three years later, we’re seeing the same murky definitions crop up again. Creator Insider, an “informal” YouTube channel intended to “share information from the YouTube Creator technical team,” created a video attempting to clear up those guidelines. However, it only made things vaguer.
“Light swearing” was defined as including words like “darn, heck, fiddlesticks, damn, [and] hell.” These shouldn’t impede monetization. “Heavier” swears, including “shit” and “asshole,” can dissuade advertisers. To prevent this, Creator Insider recommends keeping this kind of language “out of the title and thumbnail” and not using it “repeatedly at the beginning of the video,” which they later defined in the comments as the first 30 seconds.
But how much profanity is too much in those crucial seconds? And is there a list of light versus heavier swears that YouTube can provide? Apparently not, since other articles have defined the same profanity categories differently. Todd Spangler of Variety stated in 2016:
“In the ‘totally safe’ category is light or mild profanity, including ‘shit,’ ‘hell’ and ‘damn,’ as well as the occasional use of strong profanity (like the f-bomb) if it’s bleeped out, according to YouTube.”
Wait a minute. Didn’t that last video say that “shit” was a “heavier” swear?
And hold up — here comes YouTube themselves with another definition for their “levels of mature content”:
- “The first option (which is also the default) indicates no mature content in the category”
- “The middle option indicates mild mature content”
- “The third option indicates mature content that should be restricted to viewers 18 and older”
They further state, “Even mild cursing such as ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ or words that are bleeped should be rated as Strong Language.”
So… wait. Hm. “Hell” is largely considered “mild” or “light,” but it “should” be rated “strong,” but it’s also considered “totally safe.” Which is it? Mild, strong, or safe?
None of this language about bad language is getting any clearer, so maybe we should just have a free-for-all. Kind of like Twitch! They don’t ban any profanity… do they?
Twitch does allow profanity and provides the ability to turn on a “Mature Content” warning for streams with “content that may be inappropriate for younger audiences.” That’s a bit vague, but it seems to indicate language alone, as the policy later specifies:
“You may never broadcast sexual activity, nudity, threats or extreme violence. Doing so will result in immediate, irrevocable termination of your account.”
That’s clearer. But Twitch does have one other restriction — particularly about the games allowed on their platform.
Where YouTube has vague terms, Twitch has a specific list of prohibited games based on two qualifiers: whether the game is rated Adults Only (AO) and whether it violates Twitch’s Community Guidelines “as it applies to hate speech, sex, nudity, gratuitous gore, or extreme violence.” What’s interesting, though, is three particular games on the list: Cobra Club, Rinse and Repeat, and Yandere Simulator.
The first two games were made by Robert Yang, a game developer whose works tackle the complexities of gay subculture and often toe the line between video games and art. Though Cobra Club is, on its surface, a game about dick pics, it attempts to deconstruct body image and privacy in the age of social media dating apps. Rinse and Repeat is a game about washing another man in the shower, but it tries to address “punctuality and submission,” according to Yang himself.
Based on these descriptors, one could argue that Robert Yang’s games are art pieces. YouTube certainly doesn’t have a problem with them, and their policy on nudity states:
“We allow nudity when the primary purpose is educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic, and it isn’t gratuitous.”
That seems to fit here, though I understand if the penis modification gameplay featured in Cobra Club doesn’t get a pass. Even still, playthroughs of the game abound on YouTube (albeit with some blurred-out genitalia). Why, then, does Twitch choose to ban it?
Livestreams are, well, live, so it’s understandable that streamers can’t exactly control the content shown in games like Cobra Club. Blurring out genitalia is much easier when you can edit the video beforehand — it’s much harder when you’re playing the game live.
But should that genitalia be censored at all, if it’s in pursuit of an artistic statement? Robert Yang himself has some thoughts on that question:
“[Twitch’s] goal is to remain vague and hazy, so that they can randomly decide what ‘too much sex’ or the ‘wrong kind of sex’ is, while carving out special exceptions for large companies or business partners. I’m sure this is good for business, but it’s very bad for creative culture.”
He then goes on to recommend “cheap” reforms Twitch could make to clarify their banning process. The unfortunate thing is, this blog was written in 2016. Twitch hasn’t appeared to make any of those reforms happen in the three years since.
That brings us back to the profanity question — if that can’t be bleeped out live, why allow it if other, supposed “equivalent” content is not?
This question is further complicated by the censorship of Yandere Simulator, a game that’s been popular on YouTube since its early development days. The game is still in progress, but each update has been documented extensively by gaming YouTubers. Twitch, though? That’s a no-go.
That might be because of the implied sexual content in the game, where you can look up other students’ skirts. However, that kind of activity isn’t unusual in other games — Nier: Automata is another game that allows that kind of behavior and it isn’t explicitly banned.
Perhaps it’s the game’s casual approach to murder and the variety of ways you can kill students? That seems a lot more likely, but there are still tons of other games on Twitch with the same — if not more — levels of violence.
There are no specific reasons provided for any of these banned games, so a lot of it is a guessing game as to why certain content is considered “inappropriate.” Even though Twitch is a lot more open to profanity, it still falls into the same traps of obscurity with other “controversial” content that YouTube does.
And then there’s the matter of harassment. Profanity, as much as it can be fun to use, can often be abused and directed at others in an offensive, disrespectful manner. Hate speech is called such because of the ways in which particular profane words are used to target marginalized people. Context thus becomes an important, if not the most important, indicator where simple profanity ends and potential harassment begins.
That’s evidenced by the formation of the Fair Play Alliance in 2018. Comprised of over 90 companies, including Twitch, Epic Games, Blizzard, and Riot Games, the “cross-industry initiative” aims to “share research and best practices that drive lasting change in fostering fair play in online games.”
Their ultimate goal at the moment is “to create a consistent set of behavior standards between companies.” That means that each company agrees on harassment and toxic behavior policies that are implemented on their platforms, whether that’s in games, streams, or videos.
It’s a lofty goal, especially for Riot, whose tumultuous history only got worse in the past year alone. As much as Riot has, to be blunt, screwed up, it’s still admirable that game companies would attempt to combat harassment in a collaborative way.
YouTube’s harassment policy is on par with Twitch’s, but what’s interesting is that neither of them specifies the use of profanity as a form of harassment. It’s not like they haven’t had cases of harassment before, but it seems that they’re dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I suppose it’s implied in their policies, too, but being vague isn’t going to get you anywhere with me.
When it comes to language used in the name of harassment, a word that gets thrown around an awful lot is “offense.” One forum post from 2008 that debated the use of profanity in games had a couple of users arguing that intention makes profanity much worse:
“Hamster at Dawn: I remember this churchy guy telling me before that it doesn’t matter if you say a swear word, just that you mean offense.”
“ElArabDeMagnifico: Well a common argument to that is that the killing and airstriking is fake — but the swear words are always swear words.”
The intent to harass seems to take profanity to the next level of inappropriateness, and YouTube and Twitch appear to be in some agreement about that. But then there’s Microsoft, coming in hot with their sudden policy changes:
“Microsoft announced new language in their terms of service policies which clarify that the company is able to serve penalties, suspensions, and bans against people who use ‘offensive language’ across Xbox Live, Skype, and other Microsoft services.”
Of course “offensive language” isn’t defined anywhere in their Code of Conduct. What is defined are the punishments they can dole out, including removing content or refusing to publish it at all, blocking “delivery of a communication,” and revoking “content licenses” and “Microsoft account balances associated with the account.”
Ironically, this update was made to try and make their policy clearer, but if anything, it’s only made it more terrifying. Can I get my Microsoft Office license taken away for using a profane word one too many times in a private piece of poetry? Could I get money from my Xbox Gold account stripped if I swear just a little too much when talking to my friends?
This kind of censorship — and I think it’s fair to call Microsoft’s policy a form of censorship — is the kind that truly scares me. The kind where companies hold the power to determine what constitutes “offensive language” and yet aren’t under a burden of responsibility to provide guidelines for what exactly they’re not okay with.
These kinds of approaches have spread to games themselves. Roblox recently came under fire for banning PewDiePie from their platform following a short YouTube livestream. Initially, it wasn’t clear why he was banned at all, though many speculated it was because of his profane speech during the livestream or his rocky history online.
However, Roblox itself states in its policy — as PewDiePie pointed out in a follow-up video — that “Linked websites are not under our control, and we are not responsible for their content.” This seems to imply that third-party content not hosted or associated with Roblox is not under their purview. And yet, the Swedish YouTuber was still banned.
Roblox eventually reinstated PewDiePie’s account and released a statement in which they claimed that the phrase “pewdie” had become “one of these negative memes on Roblox” that “represent or are synonymous for behavior that falls outside of our community standards.”
This seems to hold up — until it was revealed by The Verge that there “isn’t any documented explanation of the ‘pewdie’ meme from mainstream sites or meme explainer publications like Know Your Meme. Even a deep dive into the game’s open forums for community members yields few results for ‘pewdie’ meme controversies.”
Huh. Seems like it was PewDiePie they wanted to ban after all. Along with any of his fans that used his username in chat or on in-game artifacts.
Censoring words that aren’t profanity isn’t an unfamiliar occurrence in games, though. Battlefield V recently came under fire for censoring words that weren’t “derogatory or swear words.” Some of the censored language included “white man,” “DLC,” “Titanfall,” “eat,” “lag,” “nuts,” “defend,” “Nazi,” and “Jews” — especially ironic considering Battlefield V takes place during World War II.
EA responded in a forum post afterward stating that they would “tweak the sensitivity of the filter and improve its usage without censoring relevant conversation.” Again, context matters.
But not every company is in the hot seat for censorship — some are lauded for it. Blizzard was praised for their amusing replacements of “gg ez” (good game easy win) in Overwatch. The toxic phrase was often used by players to demean the opposing team after they lost. Some of the new replacement phrases included “I’m wrestling with some insecurity issues in my life but thank you all for playing with me” and “It’s past my bedtime. Please don’t tell my mommy.”
For livestreams, StreamElements released a profanity filter in June last year that “can be set to detect hundreds of variations of derogatory, obscene and inflammatory words.” Any Twitch or YouTube streamer also has the power to set the filter themselves to “automatically replace a word with another amusing word or emote if they choose.”
What, then, is “acceptable” censorship, if that even exists? Is giving these companies the power to hide certain words or phrases a form of censorship, or is it a necessary form of regulation in an often-toxic online space?
Either way, it’s getting increasingly more complicated to determine what is and isn’t profanity. Kotaku has questioned how we should or shouldn’t monitor it in games and streams:
“Close friends, for example, might hurl gobs of vile trash talk at each other, but they don’t mean it. The same verbal interaction between complete strangers would probably constitute a worst-case scenario. Or maybe not. Context is hard.”
They have a point: context is really, really hard, especially considering the levels of reality at play here. Where once games served as a “fantasy,” now they’ve become much more closely tied to the real world than not. As Nathan Grayson from Kotaku once again puts it:
“There’s no IRL and online anymore. This is just all reality now.”
Profanity is a part of the reality we’ve created for ourselves in and outside of games, and considering its ramifications — as well as the ramifications of censoring it needlessly or not at all — is essential. Our generational concerns need to be taken into account, too — the ways in which millennials and Baby Boomers use swears is already different enough. Who knows how lax Gen Z will be with their f-bombs?
In all of this, there must be a balance between the taboo and the clean. After all, making profanity taboo is what makes it profane in the first place.
Robert Yang ends his blog post about being a banned developer on Twitch with thoughts that, it seems, apply to more than just one streaming platform:
“If Twitch actually cares about games, it should invest time/people/resources into nurturing games as a mature creative culture, to protect whoever needs protection AS WELL AS protect creative diversity of expression at the same time. These goals are not mutually exclusive, and if any system cannot do this, then that system is broken and should be fixed.”
Maybe all of our systems around profanity are broken and have been broken for a long time. Maybe the approach of new generations with new ways of using profanity is a sign that we should change with the times. Maybe we’ll even get to a day where current profanity isn’t profane at all.
Or maybe I just shouldn’t give a ****.