Christmas at home with the family can be an uncomfortable experience for yours truly. As the sole floppy-haired hippy vegetarian in the Evans-Thirlwell clan, I tend to pass dinnertimes in a state of gently simmering angst, wringing my hands under the table while nearby loved ones shovel down enormous hunks of basted birdflesh.
The inevitable post-meal migration to the living room and our ageing Vega flatscreen has its tribulations too, as besides turning my nose up at succulent, delicious, evolutionarily crucial animal proteins, I’m also the only dedicated gamer in a household of film fanatics. If I want to kick back with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood before bed, I must be prepared to argue the point at length – and trust me, it takes more than a nicely modelled Roman plaza to out-charm Lawrence of Arabia or Edward Blake’s The Great Race.
This Christmas, the rights and wrongs of carnovorism and strife over entertainment preference have shown up arm in arm, thanks to the antics of jolly old PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and jolly old Super Meat Boy, an independently developed, beyond-excellent twitch-platformer for PC and Xbox Live.
On 2nd December PETA published Super Tofu Boy, a browser-based parody of SMB which introduces a new, meat-free protagonist and some cheerily undisguised politics. You can play it for free here. The news was picked up by a few reporters, but it wasn’t till Team Meat’s Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes responded in kind, incorporating PETA’s beancurd blasphemy into the Steam version of SMB as an unlockable character, that things began to snowball.
While PETA’s spoof is not, as far as I can see, a personal attack on Team Meat, but rather an innocuous if cheeky attempt to siphon relevancy from what is fast and deservedly becoming an iconic property, the tale has been spun by some surfers and even some journalists into one of powerful lobbyists bullying the little guy, only to wind up with powdered egg substitute on their leering activist faces.
Over at Maximum PC, for instance, Nathan Grayson observes, “And that, PETA, is why you never pick on the small, seemingly defenseless indie folks; back them into a corner and they have absolutely nothing to lose.”
Dip to comments thread level, and you’ll find many readers busily filing the episode away with the likes of 2008′s Mass Effect sex smear on Fox News (and ensuing Amazon.com fallout), or accusations of racist portrayal in Left 4 Dead 2 – further evidence of the outside world’s failure to understand, engage with or properly represent the industry and its consumers.
McMillen and Refenes are tickled bone-marrow pink by the furore, naturally. It is, after all, precisely the publicity megaton McMillen was hoping for when he himself brought the game to PETA’s notice under an alias on the organisation’s message boards, as revealed on the TM blog:
“PETA is 1000 times more well known then Super Meat Boy,” he cackles, “and the fact that they went out of their way to make a parody like this is beyond flattering and amazingly helpful.
“First off 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… see (as mentioned in countless interviews) Meat Boy isn’t made of animal meat, he’s simply a boy without skin whos name is Meat Boy.. but sshh don’t tell them that.”
To dissect PETA’s values and methods in full would be well beyond the scope of one article, of course, but it’s probably fair to say that McMillen – and the irate masses who have sided with him on blogs, Facebook and Twitter – are missing the point of Super Tofu Boy on at least two counts (besides incorrectly assuming that PETA’s aim is simply to denigrate Super Meat Boy itself).
For starters, anybody halfway acquainted with PETA’s track record will know that it has absolutely no problem with looking foolish, providing its ends are met. While the organisation is good for more than just shock tactics – among other things, it has worked with McDonalds and fellow fastfood monoliths to introduce vegetarian options at restaurants – awareness-raising stunts in the most cacophonous bad taste are its daily bread.
Think, for example, of Pamela Anderson’s appearance on a Time Square billboard to promote the meat-free diet, naked save for a few leaves of lettuce, or the 2003 “Holocaust on your Plate” exhibition, in which 60-feet-square photos of concentration camp victims were compared and contrasted with imagery of animals being transported or slaughtered. In that context, a preachy block of processed bean crop with dodgy hit detection is pretty inoffensive.
We can debate the appropriateness and even the ethics of such campaigns, but if founder Ingrid Newkirk is to be believed, it’s hard to debate their success. Newkirk is entirely candid – and unapologetic – about PETA’s continual questing for controversy.
“We are complete press sluts,” she told Satya Magazine in 2001. “It is our obligation. We would be worthless if we were just polite and didn’t make any waves.” And later on in the same interview: “We make them gawk, maybe like a traffic accident that you have to look at. [...] The fact is we may be doing all sorts of things on a campaign but the one thing that gets attention is the outrageous thing.”
If fans imagine that Team Meat’s counter-parody will deter PETA from further commentary, oblique or otherwise, that the organisation has been left broken and humiliated, they’re kidding themselves; on the contrary, the scale and violence of internet upset can only convince Newkirk and co that here is a hornet’s nest worth kicking. But more pertinent is the question of why, precisely, we would want them to stop.
As is so often noted wherever the ambitious or incurably pretentious gather together, gaming is still embroiled in a struggle for legitimacy, still trying, for all its commercial heft, to assure a dubious establishment of its capacity not just to entertain, but to move, inspire or instruct – not just to subsist in some mean market sense, but to obtain the status of an artform.
Whenever an entity like PETA – with two million members, international recognition and tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues to its name – scores points by way of the apparatus of game design, the industry gains momentum as a cultural player. Rather than deploring what we perceive to be attacks on the sovereignty of “our” medium, we should welcome and be ready to discuss such interventions – however clumsy, and however cheap.
Do you agree? Let us know below.