Criticism Does Not Actually Stifle Creativity

Does an outmoded sense of "political correctness" really prevent daring and innovation? The wandering mob is too quick to shout "offense" over creative choice, editor Colin Moriarty argued at IGN today, laying out an opinion that the act of criticism stifles creativity and forces censorship on designers.

Moriarty frames his editorial with a reference to a Benjamin Franklin quotation calling for freedom of thought and freedom of speech, which leads to his core argument: "We aren't showing any of the 'wisdom' Franklin spoke about because 'public liberty' is being strangled by people who think that because they are offended by something, we should all be offended by it, too. In turn, the offended too often act as roundabout thought police, and it has to stop."

The game that inspired Moriarty's current insights was the upcoming fighter Smite. The game has players take on the roles of gods from a number of non-Abrahamic religions as avatars pitted against each other in an online, player-vs-player battle arena situation. Hindu leaders have objected to the portrayal of their gods in the game, citing, among other things, the highly sexualized appearance of the goddess Kali as a "trivialization" and "denigration."

Hindiusm has roughly a billion adherents and is one of the most widely practiced religions in the world. Moriarty concedes to the Universal Society of Hinduism, "You can be offended by anything you want. You can let other people's words, deeds and art get to you however you deem fit." But then he continues: "But the second you start confusing your own subjective notion of good taste with what that means for everyone else and project your own offended posture on the rest of us, you've crossed the line." The advice? "If you don't like it, don't consume it."

The problem with the "if you don't like it, don't buy it, but shut up and leave the rest of us alone" line of reasoning is that the kind of feedback loop seen over Smite (or Tomb Raider, or Hitman: Absolution) isn't a bug; it's a feature.

That's how it should be. Criticism is how a medium grows.

In the United States and other countries with laws guaranteeing free speech, a content creator can indeed run with any idea he or she wishes. This is how it works, with any book, movie, painting, song, TV show, game, or creative endeavour of any kind. The creator says, "Here is my vision, here is my plan, and here is my product." The audience then responds to the plan and product, either with, "This is wonderful; take my money," or with, "I don't like it."

But "I don't like it" isn't the end of the conversation; it's the beginning. Next comes, "Here's why I don't like it," which opens the door to discussion. Discussion and awareness are the ways in which culture changes over time. Standards of racism were appropriate in mainstream culture 60 years ago that are unacceptable now, and that's not a bad thing. Yes, you can use a racial epithet in your work of fiction if you want. But you're going to have to have a reason; there will need to be an intention behind it. The audience's standards have changed, and artists, who both reinforce and challenge culture, need to understand how and why.

No external force has come around to halt production on Smite or Tomb Raider, and in fact both are churning along perfectly well. Based on what is available so far to see or try, various groups and individuals are registering their approval and disapproval of elements of the games. Contrary to stifling expression, that creates a field in which more people can be expressive. That's how it should be. Criticism is how a medium grows.

In the end, Moriarty asks: "When are we going to acknowledge that this mentality is destructive? When are we going to come to terms with the fact that by strangling creativity because of abstract notions of being offended and hurt feelings, we are doing a major disservice not only to ourselves, but to the people who want to give us new stories full of new ideas?"

The answer is: never, because that's not the case. To stifle criticism is no better than to stifle creativity. A work needs to stand on its own, and either to defend itself, or to fail. To ignore valid offence, and to insist that audience feelings don't matter, is to do a major disservice not only to ourselves, but to the makers who want to give us new stories full of new ideas. To leave old, hackneyed, dated ideas unchallenged is to prevent us from getting new stories full of new ideas. To accept whatever we are handed without challenge, without thought, and without critique is to ensure we will never get new stories full of new ideas.

The "PC police" aren't out to stop anyone from making games just for the joy of feeling angry. Creating offensive or provocative content can be constructive, depending on who is being offended and why. But it can also cause real harm. If someone is saying that they find material offensive, distasteful, or harmful, it is worth taking the time to listen to why.

(Top photo: Shutterstock)


    When metacritic stops being the driving force in game development, then when could say all of the above is true.

    But as long as Publishers look at metacritic scores to show their games success, criticism will always stifle creativity.

    There's a very broad difference between making fun of someone's race and making fun of someone's imaginary friend.

      Thank science for you! I shall spread this comment to all religious people on earth, and they shall realise the error of their ways! They shall understand that their religion is nothing but a childish fantasy that they should have thrown away with Santa and the Easter Bunny! ALL GLORY TO DORAIYA!

      *eye roll*

        I tend to agree with Doraiya. People can't help their race, but if they choose to believe something that is demonstrably false, I'm hardly going to think highly of them. I'm far from advocating persecution (they're mostly not hurting anybody after all), but I would generally give less weight to their opinion on anything of importance.

        Of course, I've had enough debates on the subject to realize that whenever religion comes up, first thing I ask is: 'if I provide evidence that every individual component of what you believe is false, will that change your opinion on the existence of god". I find most religious folk will be quite honest and answer 'no'. Saves us all a lot of time.

          "evidence contrary to the existence of god" is a test from God, by the way. *rolls eyes*

          I don't believe it's been proven to be demonstrably false, that's not an accurate statement.

          If we really wanted to get into non-PC territory, we can get into the science-based discussion that - apparently - identifies "race" as a PC/meaningless distinction, when the DNA differences between "pure" "races" would, in non-humans, classify the groupings as separate species.

          That aside, if someone's beliefs in whatever are a defining aspect of their culture, and that culture has existed for many hundreds of years, then you can make the distinction that "race" = "cultural grouping" and "cultural grouping" includes aspects of culture you may not agree with - and by making fun of that culture, you are offending them.

          However, I believe the point of the initial article was "You can be offended. You can't expect to not be offended".

        Please do. The sooner we rid mankind of its oldest and most lethal affliction, the better.

    I'm pretty sure if i was to make a WWII FPS from a nazi perspective, the criticism would pretty much "stifle my creativity".

    How IGN can come out with this article after being one of the main driving forced behind the Hitman and Tomb Raider shitstorm is beyond me.

    criticism does not stifle creativity. Criticism based on Political Correctness does.

      true. the ign article was mainly about people taking offence and trying to convince people of their views. it was not an attack on criticism at all

    "Does an outmoded sense of “political correctness” really prevent daring and innovation?"
    "No external force has come around to halt production on Smite"

    To the first question, the developers left out the Abrahamic religious figures because of predictable backlash.

    To the second statement, the “Universal Society of Hinduism” wasn't just voicing its offense, it were calling for a change to the game. The organisation simply lacked the clout of the Abrahamic faiths. While this clearly isn't a halt in production it also isn't a healthy precedent.

      Yeah, it's such a cop-out that they included the less powerful religions but won't pick on the big guys. Just like a standard schoolyard bully.
      I wonder if they're going to include a caricature of Mohammed in the game? Because that would be interesting. If they're so passionate about free speech or creativity or whatever, they should be prepared to face possible death threats or a fatwah (sp?).
      Sorry, but principles aren't principles unless they cost you something.

      "wasn’t just voicing its offense, it were calling for a change to the game" to which anyone is completely entitled to ignore. Should we start passing laws on what people can and can't think or say? Perhaps we could call it...oh I don't know, it's about what people think..let's call it thought crime.

        Read the sentence that comes after your quote-mine.

        I know it's a subtle distinction I'm making, but I think it's ok for someone to say "we should make laws to deny free speech" so long as we don't actually implement those laws, because that IS free speech.

    If your art/story/game/movie is making a statement, then yeah, maybe you deserve a little immunity from criticism. But if you're, for example, hyper-sexualising a major religious icon just for the titillation factor, you probably deserve to have some criticism thrown in your direction. Doesn't mean you CAN'T do it, of course, just that maybe you should accept that a whole lot of people are going to be offended by it and will express that opinion. I think that's fair. But it doesn't equal censorship.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with political correctness, either. In the end, it's optional. Society will judge you for it in the same way they judge you for any other social misdemeanour, and you have the choice of whether you want to bear that or not - if including the offensive material is worth more to you than the criticism you'll receive it, then go for it. But complaining about criticism stifling creativity just sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it too.

    That Moriarty guy just sounds like a whiny white dude shedding white tears just because he can't call black people the N-word anymore. My heart bleeds purple piss for him.

    Oh jeez. Moriarty has got to be the worst writer for IGN. I stopped listening to him when he said virtually the same thing about online passes. "If you don't like it, don't buy it"

      Ironically enough he's using the “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” argument to criticize an action (calling for stopping a game) that completely falls under the description "if you don't like it, don't buy (into) it".

    We are the consumers, we are the people playing the games for years to come. We know want we want from games.

    We know what we didnt like about the games.

    You dont make a game and leave in all the gameplay we hated, you get rid of it or you build and improve it. For example dragon age 2 got everything good from the first game and threw it out the window .

    The developers make games and have a timeline by the publishers who demand too much input.

    And exactly, when developers stop making games hoping to get high metacritic score then the industry will florish, but for now its held back by fear of innovation.

    Well innovation is the only way to know a bad idea from a good one and will lead to games beyond our imagination

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