For only the 7th time in NZ’s history, the Office of Film & Literature classification has banned a video game: the highly sexualised Japanese game Gal*Gun. This week two of our writers examine and respond to the decision to ban the game in question and we ask the Chief Censor to expand and explain his office’s ruling. Here, Matthew Codd sets out the reasons why he thinks the OFLC made a mistake.
From our Gaming editor José Barbosa: Censorship’s a funny old game; it’s mostly all about viewpoints and there are obvious paradoxes and contradictions in having censorship in an operating democracy. That and questions around where society draws the line and how new technology pushes, and sometimes mocks, the very idea of a line contributes to a deeply interesting area for discussion, which we’ll be having all this week. After reading Matthew Codd’s thoughts below, click through to Eugenia Woo’s law-based response and my interview with Andrew Jack, the Chief Censor.
Last month, the obscure, racy Japanese game Gal*Gun: Double Peace earned an ‘Objectionable’ rating from the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). In other words, it’s banned, and illegal to sell, distribute, or own in New Zealand.
The game in question actually came out last July. It didn’t have any OFLC rating at the time, so it couldn’t be sold in New Zealand, but it was available to import or purchase through online stores like Steam that aren’t beholden to local labelling requirements. The game was brought to the attention of the Chief Censor in early December, prompting a review by the OFLC that ultimately led to the Objectionable rating.
Gal*Gun is a “rail shooter” – think games like Time Crisis or The House of the Dead, in which your character moves automatically along a specified path (or “rail”) while you shoot enemies that pop up. Gal*Gun twists that genre with a far more risque premise: rather than zombies or criminals, you have to fend off hordes of horny high school girls using “pheromone shots”.
Thus, the ban. Here’s the conclusion from the OFLC’s report:
“The game has been deemed objectionable because it tends to promote and support the exploitation of children and young persons for sexual purposes, and also the use of coercion to compel any person to submit to sexual conduct. It depicts young female high-school students in a way that emphasises their sexuality and availability. The game’s lack of difficulty means that this content is available to even unskilled players and further supports the idea that the intention of this game is for the titillation and arousal of the viewer, rather than for any interest in gameplay mastery. It is therefore likely not only to attract people with a prurient interest in young persons, but also to reinforce the belief that a sexual interest in young persons is acceptable, which contributes to their sexual exploitation in wider society.”
The publisher, PQube, tried to appeal the decision, arguing that a ban is unwarranted:
“We’re happy to accept a high level of restriction because of the sexual nature of the game, but believe that he content does not warrant an outright ban due to the cartoon anime style, the light-heartedness of the environment, visuals, and narrative, the arcade nature of the gameplay, and no mention of the “enemy” girl’s ages (the institution is referred to as an academy throughout).”
Gal*Gun is clearly a game that’s problematic in a lot of ways. It certainly presents itself as little more than crass titillation under a veil of innocent, cartoony fun. There’s a lot to criticise in the way it portrays women and how it might influence young people’s body image or attitudes. There’s also a lot to unpack in the way the sexualised repurposing of shooter mechanics frames sex as something violent, or at least confrontational. It’s an open question whether the “cartoon anime style” and “light-heartedness” does anything to mitigate the fact that at its most basic level, the game sexualises high school girls.
But is that enough to warrant an outright ban? That ultimately comes down to a difficult balancing act between freedom of expression and public good – is whatever’s being assessed harmful enough to warrant clamping down on that freedom of expression? In a lot of cases, the answer is a clear “yes”: hate speech, child porn, snuff videos, methamphetamine recipe books, and so on. It becomes trickier with something like Gal*Gun: it’s problematic and arguably tasteless, but is it of such a degree that it’d be “injurious to the public good”? Where’s that line?
Under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act, it comes down to the degree and manner in which potentially objectionable material is portrayed. Something that depicts sexual exploitation of children, or certain other criteria, isn’t necessarily ban-worthy from a legal perspective. If it “supports or promotes, or tends to support or promote” such acts, that’s objectionable, and rightly so, but depiction alone isn’t cause for a ban. It’s all in the degree and manner. That’s an important distinction to make, because art needs to be able to talk about stuff like this, and sometimes that means depicting it.
That brings us to the fundamental dilemma of a ban: it shuts down any chance of discussion around the work in question, and so much is lost as a result. Even low-brow, offensive, tasteless stuff can have artistic merit, in both its good points and its bad. By dissecting it, analysing it, and critiquing it, we learn from it and grow as people and as a society. In fact, transgressive, counter-cultural art is vital, because it offers perspectives not possible in “safe” art. When it first came out, Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita caused a lot of controversy for much the same reasons as Gal*Gun, and it was banned for 10 years. Though it remains controversial, Lolita has become widely regarded as a great literary work, in part because of the way it uses irony and satire to criticise the very things its opponents claimed it supported.
I’m not saying that Gal*Gun is a masterpiece of Lolita’s calibre – not even close. My point is that there can be artistic, cultural, and sociological value even in things that seem objectionable or downright obscene. That value isn’t something for the censors to decide; it’s up to critics and commentators, and the discourse that develops around the work in question. When something’s banned, it shuts down any chance for discussion, and – somewhat ironically – it makes it difficult to even talk about whether that ban is justified.
I’m not so naive that I think art is untouchable, and that nothing should ever be banned. As I said, if the availability of something would genuinely be “injurious to the public good”, then it should rightly be banned. Age restrictions, limited screenings, and what have you are a good way of balancing freedom and public good, but an outright ban has a heavy cost, and it should only be used in the most extreme circumstances.
Many will disagree, but I don’t think Gal*Gun is one of those extreme circumstances. I played it extensively when it first came out, prior to the ban, and it certainly is a lewd game that’s offensive in a lot of ways and arguably tasteless. It’s also overtly, scathingly satirical. I know that “but it’s satire!” is often used to defend awful stuff, and the question of whether it’s effective satire is up for debate, but the satirical element is clear.
Gal*Gun: Double Peace is a parody of “bishōjo” (literally, “beautiful girl”) cartoons and erotic games, poking fun at those games and their audiences. It’s incredibly suggestive, but not really explicit. Underwear and O-faces are all you see, and the interactive elements are kept fairly abstract, limited to simple shooting mechanics and mini-games in which you move a cursor around on screen to simulate fondling. There are no depictions of sexual intercourse, interactive or otherwise, or nudity.
On the other hand, the innuendo and suggestiveness is exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. Horny assailants slap you with love letters, yell cat-calls that take the form of bullet-like words on screen, and knock you to the floor so they can stamp on your crotch. Defeated enemies collapse to the floor in comical displays of bliss, complete with a sultry pink explosion and, sometimes, flower petals that fill the screen.
The narrative framing of all of this makes it even more absurd. The protagonist, Houdai, is your typical dorky high school dude, until a cupid angel-in-training shoots him too hard. As a result, he becomes completely irresistible to women, but if he doesn’t confess to his true love by the end of the day, he’s doomed to a life of loneliness. His actual love is immune to his newfound eroticism, so he has to do things the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, every girl in school (and some of the teachers, too) are trying to jump his bones, and his only way of fending them off is a “pheromone shot” that stuns its target with a fit of euphoria.
It’s smutty, but it’s so farcical, and so rife with self-awareness and oddball humour, that I don’t think it can be taken seriously. I’m sure there are people who’d find it sexy, but to me it seems driven much more by satirical intent than titillation.
Gal*Gun never misses an opportunity to take shots at people who get turned on by the racy nature of this game and those that it satirises. Despite his hapless predicament, Houdai – and, by extension, the person playing the game – gets treated with disdain, frequently accused of being a pervert (or “creep”, or “hentai”). There’s a branching story system with dialogue choices, and often these include creepy options – but picking them typically results in him getting yelled at or hit, to comical effect. They also drive up Houdai’s ‘Lewdness’ stat, and if that gets too high, it basically guarantees a “Bad Ending” in which he fails in his quest to break his curse (or, one case, ends up matched with a tiny, annoying doll version of himself).
The game is also surprisingly subversive in the way it forces you to engage with the 80-odd girls in the game as individual people, rather than faceless sex objects, if you want to do well. As an arcadey rail shooter, Gal*Gun is all about high scores, and getting high scores means knowing the characters well. Instead of the headshots you see in regular shooters, Gal*Gun has “Ecstasy Shots”: hit a girl’s weak spot – either head, chest, waist, or legs – and she’ll go down in one shot. Good scores depend largely on quick, accurate shooting, which means you need to be able to identify individuals and know their weaknesses in an instant.
A quest system takes this a step further. There’s an in-game social media network that Houdai’s classmates use to post requests, and if you fulfil them, you earn extra money to buy helpful upgrades. The early missions are quite easy, with all the information you need right there in the request, but for later ones you need to use girls’ character profiles to find out information about their likes, hobbies, and so on. In one quest, you need to acquire some coffee beans – to do that, you need to figure out who works a part time job as a barista, where in the school you might find them, and then be able to pick them out of a crowd when you get there. They’re not deep, complex personalities by any stretch, but the fact remains that doing well in this game requires seeing characters as something more than sources of titillation.
This is especially true of the main love interests, Shinobu and Maya. The aim of the game, ultimately, is to get the “True” endings, the sort of happily-ever-after conclusions typical of romance fiction. Getting these endings requires making all the right dialogue choices, which means knowing Shinobu and Maya’s personalities and how best to respond when they’re in trouble, coming to you for help, or opening their hearts. There’s also an unexpectedly poignant story laced through all of this, about sisters who feel like they’re constantly in each other’s shadows, and are trying to mend a fractured relationship.
You don’t have to agree with me on any of this, of course. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot to criticise in Gal*Gun as well, and its satirical intent doesn’t shield it from that. Does the satire succeed, or is it just another example of the thing it sets out to criticise? Is it enough to dull the fact that for all its cartoony presentation and over-the-top humour, it’s still a lewd game set, in a high school, that sexualises young people? I think it does, but all that’s up for debate.
It’s a discussion that can only be had if the game’s available, though. The OFLC’s report on Gal*Gun makes a lot of valid points, but I think it fails to take into account a lot of key factors: the satirical element, the subversiveness, the impact the ridiculous tone has on the impact of the sexual content, and the appeal of the skill-based, arcade-style game underneath all the lewdness.
It’s a low-brow, crass game with its share of problems, but I don’t think it goes as far as “supporting or promoting sexual exploitation of young persons.” Nor is it a game that exists purely for the purposes of titillation. I think there’s a lot more to be gained from Gal*Gun being age restricted but available, so that people can pick it apart, talk about what it does well, what it doesn’t, and what it just totally drops the ball on, and learn from that.
What do you think? From what you’ve seen and heard about Gal*Gun, do you think it’s a game that should be banned?
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