Having been developed by an eastern firm – Bluehole Studio – TERA launched in Korea and Japan initially, on the 25th of January and the 18th of August 2011, respectively. The reception was generally positive; discordant waves only formed upon its arrival on western shores. Reviewing bodies gave the title a lukewarm reception, with universally mixed reviews. One piece of content in particular repeatedly presented an ugly problem for the appropriated production houses.
The original Korean client featured prolific sexualized content. The design for clothing in TERA featured little material, exposing large quantities of skin, especially around intimate areas, for the majority of all gender and racial combinations. Whilst the eastern social climate was accommodating to this aesthetic style, the western was decidedly not. The production house responsible for European distribution of the title – Frogster Interactive – was forced to instigate a censorship effort of an entire race and the related assets, in order to align with contemporary social sensibilities, as they saw it. This inevitably led to a consumer backlash, with debates regarding the censorship’s necessity and moralistic foundations being engaged even to this day.
Whilst the topic of how either metamorphosed into their modern form is both too lengthily and unrelated to engage at this point, it is nevertheless important, if one is to appreciate the psychosocial complexity of the problem, to understand the distinctions between the two cultures. Being developed by constituents of an eastern culture – and presumably with an eastern audience in mind – Bluehole Studios would not have prophesied any negative interpretations from their immediate audience. All hands involved were immersed in the very culture they intended to engage. The social and cultural structure of the west still groans under the slowly receding weight of the post-Victorian era. When something alien enters the delicate western sphere, anti-bodies are immediately dispatched without hesitation, to subdue and mediate the threat; never once is the necessity questioned except in the tinted rays of hindsight. Even then, most objections owe their point of origin to public design.
Public opinion on the matter is divided but the prevailing demographical opinion remains impartial. They comprehend and appreciate the motives behind the move. One forum user when replying to a thread addressing the issue stated: “Sure, to a certain degree censorship is unhealthy, but this is a videogame, not real life. There aren’t any moral ramifications to sticking tiny pants on Elins or sanding off all of the female Castanics nipples, except for those that my be inflicted upon the players.”
Those who argue against the censorship make points relating to the restriction of art, citing games and game animation as art. This is misled to an extent, in as much as presuming art is free from boundaries; it toils under the whip of the same austere warden as every other form of media. Another argument made centres around the lore of the game. The race in question – namely Elin – are not human and should not be judged by our standards; what we perceive as children, are adults and should be portrayed as such, similar to the other races. A sturdier argument proclaims the benefit of choice; if content is prone to offend the individual, they should be provided with the option of censorship, instead of it being unnegotiable. There aren’t many stratagems by which to assault the scaffolding surrounding the societal infrastructure, thus some resort to attacking the parapets directly.
“..either you fight ancestral misplaced morals, and the economists behind, either you just deal with the fact that we live in a society that is afraid and ashamed by what lies between its legs. Nevermind that the very same people fighting against the beauty of nudity are watching every days bloody atrocities”
Those distinctly in favour of the move were in the minority and relatively mute on the subject. Predominately, Frogster Interactive fought their side of the debate alone. They retained confidence in their decision following the turbulent reception received, excepting a minor alteration to the feedback interface. In the original client, upon killing a creature blood is occasionally splattered across the screen, the virulence of the effect could be adjusted in the options menu – this option and the effect were entirely removed from the European edition. In the wake of the outright objection from their player base – which manifested eventually as a player-driven petition – the company revoked the removal via a patch issued in May but modified the effect slightly to remain in the PEGI 12 range.
The official reasoning behind the censorship was clarified by the community manager in an extensive message to the forum community: “[It was] not to comply with a demand from any official board, but because those characters in particular could have attracted to the game a population of unsavoury users, and it is part of our responsibility to protect our younger audiences from them” What is not quantified however, is which specific “unsavoury users” they had in mind. It can be deduced from analysis of the censored race in question though. Diminutive, slender and with proportionately large heads, by typical human conventions of physique we would recognise them as children at a glance. There is a deep-seated paranoia concerning paedophilia in Germany – the production house’s country of origin – thus the company were concerned this race would prove to have gratification qualities for consumers with this psychological disorder. It has been speculated, conversely, that the censorship was issued to meet the standards of a PEGI 12 rating. The censorship was not enacted for the American client; however the title was given a higher age rating to compensate for this.
The motive has a duality to it; not only does the company seek to dissuade already existing paedophiles, they likely suspected, should they have left the content untouched that it would encourage paedophilia by way of passive, or subliminal consumption. This is not to be confused with the hypodermic needle theory regarding the media’s effect on audiences. The former generally addresses individuals, supposedly having a subtle, gradual effect whilst the latter is meant to be instantaneous and applicable to groups. An example of a hypodermic needle effect would be if the outfits featured in TERA began to heavily influence fashion trends in Germany. The theory is exposed to several criticisms; not least the difficulty of proving the correlation is causation.
What lay at the heart of TERA’s design? What justification could have been established to propagate the sexualized direction of its content?
As a whole, MMO demographics consist of a mixed bag of casual and core audiences, yet in the past they have generally catered towards the latter. With a split target audience, only one thing unites them cohesively; the genre. Since its first tentative steps, the MMO genre has always siphoned huge influence from both cultural spheres, thus the bizarre melange of content. Defined as an active form of media consumption, it is nigh impossible for audiences to deny the prevalent cultural influences present in the respective MMOs. It should be appreciated on this front, that it’s not solely the eastern cultural norms causing offence in the west; concepts second nature to the west can be equally affronting to the east. Similarly, not every constituent of either demographic find offence in otherwise alien concepts; some enterprising xenophiles revel in the opposite culture. Furthermore, the genre has considerable audience numbers from both spheres whom interact with one another on a daily basis by virtue of the multiplayer aspect, forming virtual communities and relationships. Interestingly, it is likely the only genre to boast live social interaction as a notable gratification (distraction being the other dominant motive). This helps foster an appreciative player mentality; acceptance not assimilation.
MMOs are fodder for veterans of the genre, typically. The demographic most familiar with the hybrid content, gifted with either an impartial or inclusive mentality regarding foreign concepts. They are acquainted with seemingly impractical and sexualized attire – “Sex sells” was the pithy conclusion given on the subject by one Reddit user – and other such potentially contentious material. From the developer’s perspective, it is a monumentality difficult task appealing to both cultural spheres in their stand-alone state – constituents outside the circle of cultural competence, i.e. new audiences.
The relationship between consumer and developer is unusual tight and to a point, intrinsic. Because MMOs are living forms of media – subject to constant updates and additions of content for years if not decades – content changes receive almost instantaneous feedback from both sources. Development bodies responsible for their respective titles may anticipate and react to the varying reception of their content patches in relatively quick succession, with benefit of constantly relayed feedback. Bluehole Studios were entirely aware of their target demographic, thus the smooth initial launch. Contention only arose when the various production houses sought to entice a culturally incompetent audience in the west, culminating with specific content being suspected of paedophilic appeal.
Original Publication: 2014