Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Super Meat Boy vs. PETA, or why videogames shouldn't be used as soapboxes

Super Meat Boy is a two-dimensional platforming game in which you play as a skinless cube of meat who is trying to save his girlfriend, "Bandage Girl", from Dr. Fetus, a foetus (sorry, I'm British) in jar, wearing a tux. Super Meat Boy must evade countless gruesome traps (buzz saws, dirty hypodermic needles, piles of salt) in order to rescue his beloved. He is aided only by the fact that his skinless anatomy allows him to stick to walls.

Super Meat Boy is pleasingly difficult, though the mechanic is simple enough to learn within the first minute or so of play. Consequently, it's extremely good value, offering upwards of thirty hours of play for under £10.

But the best thing about the game is Super Meat Boy himself. Everything about him - from the trail of blood that he leaves in his wake to the delightful noises he makes when he runs, jumps, and slaps himself against a wall - is amusing.

The game's two-man development team, Team Meat, have created a platformer that is flexible and imaginative enough to allow players to complete levels in numerous ways. Relevant to today's discussion, however, is the fact that their size enabled them to add an element of tasteless silliness that a larger developer might struggle to get away with.

I don't think there's anything especially offensive about Super Meat Boy, but then I think Robot Chicken is funny. I do eat meat, but that has no bearing on my enjoyment of the game, which is largely due to the superlative quality of the platforming. The meaty aesthetic makes me laugh, but that's because I like silly noises, not because I am bloodthirsty.

This opinion is not shared by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), well-known for their thoughtful pro-vegetarian advertising campaigns.

In the wake of Super Meat Boy's success, Peta released a parody game, Super Tofu Boy. According to PETA's website, "Super Tofu Boy, skewers Super Meat Boy for its limp pro-meat message".

Ok, firstly, there is nothing "super" about tofu.

And secondly, what? "Pro-meat message"???

I'm pretty sure there isn't any message to Super Meat Boy, let alone a pro-meat one. I mean, no meat gets eaten in the course of the game. And even though Meat Boy gets keeps getting minced, it's not because he's getting made into burgers. If anything, this is a bad thing. The player is supposed to prevent Meat Boy getting diced and salted.

If by "pro-meat", PETA means "pro-people-born-with-a-debilitating-skin-condition-that-leaves-their-flesh-exposed-to-the-outside-world", then fair enough, I guess Super Meat Boy is all about equal opportunities. But then why do PETA have a problem with that? Would they rather disabled people were kept indoors?

PETA outline the plot of Super Tofu Boy as follows:

"Super Tofu Boy begins when Bandage Girl dumps Meat Boy for the irresistible Tofu Boy. (With Meat Boy's bad breath, buzzing flies, and high cholesterol, who can blame her?)"

Are PETA suggesting that as a Meat Person (I believe the PC term is "Dermatologically Challenged), Meat Boy doesn't deserve the love of Bandage Girl?

Well you know what PETA? I think that's pretty darned offensive.

Joking aside, I agree with PETA that animals should be treated ethically. I'm not sure the best way to go about this is to stop eating meat, but that's certainly a position I respect. What I don't understand is what PETA thought they were going to achieve by targeting Super Meat Boy.

What they actually achieved is rather easier to quantify. I'll let Team Meat explain:

"PETA is 1000 times more well known then Super Meat Boy and the fact that they went out of their way to make a parody like this is beyond flattering and amazingly helpful. [...] I want to thank PETA for helping us turn Super Meat Boy into a house hold name and of course for making themselves look quite foolish in the process. [...] Meat Boy isn't made of animal meat, he's simply a boy without skin whose name is Meat Boy.

[...] I was Vegetarian for many years, and was an animal control officer who saved animals for a living for a long time, I empathize, understand and accept why people choose to eat, and live as they wish, and obviously I believe everyone should have the freedom to express themselves in anyway as long as it doesn't hurt others."

The icing on the cake (or the bandage on the meat) is that Team Meat incorporated Super Tofu Boy as a playable character in Super Meat Boy. The publicity saw the game shoot up the charts, and nothing else was really accomplished.

It should go without saying that were Super Meat Boy less good, none of this would ever have happened. The game would have drifted through the XBOX Live Arcade without notice, and PETA need never have got their ethically-sourced knickers in a twist. There's no moral to this story, no lesson to be learned, unless it's that all publicity is good publicity.

Sadly, I don't have any data to support my suspicion that nobody changed their meat-eating habits as a consequence of either Super Meat Boy or Super Tofu Boy, but I'm not sure it matters.

I don't think that art and entertainment should ever be the stage for protest. By all means sing a song or write a book about the pain you feel when you think about bunnies being made into earmuffs, but don't sing a song or write a book to explain to me why I should agree with you.

Art should be about expression and entertainment, not reason. There are a thousand ways to approach any argument, each as reasonable as the last. Any perspective or proposal, however abhorrent, can be rationalised, even though it might destroy the lives of others.

But you can't argue with emotion. If something makes you feel bad or makes you laugh, it just does. A feeling is a feeling, it is what is is, and it cannot be justified or explained. I don't think it's the place of art to show us the error of our ways with parables. Art should entertain us and connect with us, and make us feel what the characters are feeling. If, in doing so, it causes us to question our motives and behaviour, then so much the better.

Is Native Son an effective novel because it preaches to us, explaining the inherent contradictions and fallacies of racism? Or it is effective because it is moving, presenting the reader with a cast of complex and flawed characters whose experience we identify with?

It is only through feeling that we are moved to do anything, and it is our emotions that determine our reasoning. We'd like to think it was the other way around, but it's not. If something doesn't make us feel, we won't be moved to think, let alone act.

I think videogames are as well-placed to make us feel as any other art form, and I think it's wonderful that they're really starting to do so. But they shouldn't let the maturation of their audience lead them into political territory, and they certainly shouldn't try to do things like this. It must be tempting for those with an agenda to try and use gaming's growing stature as a platform for political or moral discourse, but I really with they wouldn't.

I don't think books, films and music should be used in this way either, but thankfully games haven't yet plunged to the sanctimonious depths of Avatar or the oeuvre of Morrissey. I'd quite like to see them avoid doing so.

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