In advance of the release of the wildly-anticipated video game South Park: The Stick of Truth, CBLDF reported that some versions of the game were being censored in countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and in Australia. Now that the game is out around the world and enjoying brisk sales and wide acclaim, South Park creator Matt Stone has opened up to UK paper The Guardian about the experience of being censored and testing the boundaries of good taste.
Stone — along with his partner-in-crime and South Park co-creator Trey Parker — is no stranger to controversy. Every one of their film projects has met with meddling from the MPAA, and they are hardly ones to keep silent about hypocrisy in the censorship arena. When Stick of Truth met with censorship in Australia, they replaced the scenes of aliens anally probing the characters with an image of a crying koala and a graphic text description of the content that had been cut.
Stone brought that same sense of indignation in his talk with The Guardian. When asked about the censorship the game faced, Stone explained it frankly:
I was told that Australia has different standards. They have their own ratings system, as does Europe, so I was told that we had to submit it for ratings and they come back and tell you this will pass, this won’t. Ultimately, the full version of the game is in North America, so at least that version is out there, but anywhere it’s censored [in the other version], we just put in little black cards explaining what has happened.
It’s not that big a deal. It doesn’t change things that much, but we weren’t going to change the game downwards somewhere and just not tell anybody. You’ll see how ridiculous that is.
In another interview, Stone further explained that the heavy-handed way that they choose to cut the content was intended to demonstrate to players the way that censorship works:
We’re talking about 30 or 40 seconds out of the whole experience, but we wanted people to know exactly where the line was: this is what you couldn’t see but for some reason the rest of the world could and we have no idea why. It’s not cool — it’s lame, ridiculous and stupid.
When asked about why content might be perceived differently in video games than on TV (alien anal probes have been a part of South Park since the very first episode, after all), Stone blamed the interactivity of the video game medium.
There is an interactiveness that makes it different. In movies and television you can do stuff that’s morally grey very easily, because you get to show consequences, you get to show reward, but in a video game there’s a reason why everything is a Nazi, zombie, or alien — these are pretty clear moral choices.
There are things that make people more uncomfortable in an interactive world, definitely. But that said, what we had in the game, we could have shown that on TV pretty easily, especially now.
The South Park TV show has continuously pushed at the boundaries of what is acceptable on cable television and has even faced some censorship of its own. When asked about how the permissiveness of the culture has changed in the 17 years they have been on the air, Stone said:
It’s crazily more permissive than when we started. The standards were much, much higher when we started out.
You go back and watch the first season of South Park and it’s pretty slow and not the best written and junky-looking, but it would almost play on Nickelodeon at this point.
There are dirty words but, conceptually, we couldn’t have covered the material that we do now. And yet, in the first year, that’s when we were getting all the calls from the network and we had to fight for it, and that’s when we were on the cover of magazines that said: “Don’t let your children watch”.
It’s hilarious, people would probably show it to younger kids now. I think things have loosened up and, generally, I think that’s pretty good. It’s a lot of the reason why television has become so dominant right now.
Part of it is proliferation of channels and being able to do more shit on American TV. Look where the Breaking Bads of the world go now.
That would not have been a mass-marketed thing back in the 90s.
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Jack Baur is a Librarian for the Berkeley Public Library, and the co-host of the In The Library With a Comic Book podcast.