Original image: Shawn Lipowski
Original image: Shawn Lipowski

Earlier this week, video game publisher Deep Silver unveiled a promotional statuette, set to ship in Europe and Australia with limited editions of their upcoming title, Dead Island: Riptide. Entitled “Zombie Bait”, the scuplture’s subject was the mutilated, decapitated and dismembered torso of a bikini-clad woman. “Warning,” read a label on the promotional image, “includes content that may cause offence.”

1. Cultural forensics

Writing at Gameranx, Jenn Frank drew an analogy to television forensic procedurals:

[...] you’ll remember that, to ensure there are no dental records, you’ve got to decapitate. No hands mean no identifiable fingerprints. Ultimately, this torso is anonymous.

Turn the channel, though, and there are the history shows, where anthropologists attempt to reconstruct the features of long-dead humans from fragmentary remains. If Zombie Bait is based on a human model, then those experts could presumably extrapolate from the sculpture and arrive at some reasonable guesses as to the general shape and size of the omitted limbs and head.

How about psychological profiling? The FBI employs experts who compare crime scene evidence with past cases to build a conjectural profile of the perpetrator. Many critics have likened Zombie Bait to the work of a serial killer, so it might be interesting to see how accurate a profile could be made of the sort of person who would want such an artifact.

Is that taking things a bit far? Fine; the point is merely that, while we may not be able to identify any particular victim or villain, there may still be something to learn from the body. We can, perhaps, perform a kind of social forensics on the torso, and so arrive at a better understanding of the culture that produces it.

2. Objet d’art

It’s a good thing Deep Silver told us that Zombie Bait was meant as a “grotesque take on an iconic Roman marble torso sculpture.” Otherwise, how would we have known?

True, Roman sculptors were devoted to representations of the body, but generally not as meat for luring undead cannibals. They tended to focus on form and motion, which is why even a torso fragment looks dynamic, and not like a public service announcement about the dangers of slouching. Because they were actually complete body sculptures that simply broke over time, those Roman torsos have no blood or gore sculpted onto them. Nor, to my knowledge, were any ever adorned with Union Jack bikinis, which has the perverse effect of making Zombie Bait even more sexual than classical Roman nudes.

Assume for a moment that Deep Silver’s explanation is a reflection of the actual commission, rather than a post ad hoc rationalization of what might otherwise be mistaken for something far more disturbing. That gives us a cultural baseline from which to start. It lets us ask what sort of sensibility starts with a fragment like the Venus de Milo and interprets it as something like Zombie Bait.

3. “We sincerely regret this choice.”

Deep Silver issued its apology via Twitter— or, to be more specific, TwitLonger, a service that allows Twitter users to broadcast messages that are too wordy for the usual 140 character limit. Some of the words used in shaping the apology were deeply, sincerely, regret. Some of the words that did not make the cut were sexistobjectificationimproper.

“For now,” the apology concludes, “we want to reiterate to the community, fans and industry how deeply sorry we are, and that we are committed to making sure this will never happen again.” What, precisely, will never happen again? The apology is vague on that point. It may mean nothing more than that they intend to never again be the subject of bad press.

But maybe the poverty of their apology is beside the point. The more critical question is this: What do we want in an apology? If we’re satisfied with a hand-waving declaration of regret, then maybe all we wanted was acknowledgment.

At the very least, we should expect some indication that the publisher understands the grievance. Otherwise, we cannot be sure that they are apologizing for their part in causing offense, rather than for the regrettable fact that our having taken offense might lead to fewer sales. “We deeply apologize for any offense caused by the Dead Island Riptide ‘Zombie Bait Edition,’” said Deep Silver’s apology. No direct mention is made to the specific concerns of the offended.

For that matter, how does one apologize “deeply?” Sincerity is a welcome addition but requires demonstration, not just profession.

4. Is it offensive?

Wrong question. Nothing is offensive but context makes it so. Ask instead, did it provoke offense? The answer is yes. With that out of the way, we can move on to the more imperative question: Why?

Personally, I think the Union Jack bikini bears a lot of the blame here. Deep Silver saw Zombie Bait in one context—that of Dead Island and its fans—but for people not immersed in the game, the bikini recalled another. There’s more to it, of course, like the idealized shape of the torso and the cosmetic prominence of the breasts. Maybe no explicitly female version of the statue could have avoided criticism, but nothing recalled the beauty industry context quite so neatly as that bikini. It’s the sort of thing that might be worn in a beer commercial, a Swimsuit Issue photo shoot—or a video game trade show booth.

Even if we accept the dubious proposition that the Island part of the milieu required some for of swimsuit, ask yourself: why that swimsuit? Not that it would have put Deep Silver in the clear, but why not a one-piece racing suit? That, at least, would have been functional swimwear. It would suggest a woman with ambition or modesty. It would suggest a woman with thoughts.

We live in a culture that uses sexuality to market everything from soft drinks to real estate. Disproportionately, that focus falls on women, and it habitually reduces them to a set of “assets” rather than embrace them as whole persons. Zombie Bait seems to render that in the most literal possible terms. Its subject is a woman caught in the act of sexual display, and violently reduced to just that act.

While you’re at it, ask yourself this: Who are the zombies in this scenario, if she’s the bait?

5. Uncommon sense

Game journalists were quick to decry Zombie Bait. In the comment section, though, you could see many of their readers verbally shrugging. Mountains out of molehills, some argued. Others said they might like to own a copy of the statue.

Zombie Bait may have shown a radical disregard for good taste, but there’s evidence to suggest that it did not entirely misjudge the game’s audience.

6. The player is the context

Given the relationship between the game and its promotional material, why have we been so much more outspoken about Zombie Bait than about Dead Island? Deep Silver’s apology asked as much when it described the torso as having been “cut up like many of our fans had done to the undead enemies in the original Dead Island.”

In saying so, though, Deep Silver has made accomplices of their own players. It draws attention to our willingness to engage, in the context of the game, what few of us will countenance outside that context, even in a prefabricated 12-inch statue. The implication is that this torso, with all vestiges of identity thoroughly and brutally removed, is the product of what you do when you play Dead Island.

7. Trophies

There’s a certain misguided canniness to the notion that fans of the game would want an object like Zombie Bait. Some players will want something to show for having spent so much time reducing bodies to torsos: a trophy awarded for excellence in dismemberment. And why wouldn’t it resemble the product of dismemberment?

The body parts kept as mementos by serial killers are sometimes referred to as trophies. I might have been less inclined to make that association had Deep Silver commissioned a gold foil embossed statue instead of hand-painting gore onto semi-realistic flesh.

8. The anxiety of influence

How directly was Zombie Bait inspired by the game it promotes? Did designers construct a scenario that involved using a bikini-clad torso as bait for zombies? If so, can they get away with leaving it in the finished game? Will some markets tolerate it better than others? When the company’s apology mentions “ongoing internal meetings with Deep Silver’s entire international team,” it’s easy to imagine them asking the same questions.

9. Swag culture

This year, it’s a woman’s torso. Last year, it was Medal of Honor-branded assault rifles. In 2009, it was a contest promoting Dante’s Inferno by offering what sounded suspiciously like a night with two call girls in a limousine.

Those are just the missteps, though—drops, really, in an ocean of swag. Very few triple-A games are released without some sort of branded, collectable promotion. Publishers commission those pieces because they know the game industry is serviced by an enthusiast press that can be relied upon to report on swag.

That leads to an arms race of cool, with each publisher trying to push the envelope. Sometimes they step over the line, but it works often enough to justify the missteps. While it would be foolish for a game publisher like Deep Silver to market something like a statue of a mutilated woman’s torso, it might be a relatively cheap way to get magazines and websites to promote your game for you.

Some have argued that criticizing Zombie Bait ultimately rewards Deep Silver by increasing awareness about the game. As Edge‘s Jason Killingworth wrote on Twitter, “If Riptide ends up being a solid game, Deep Silver wins big. Few will continue to fret about the crassness that sparked all the awareness.” But publishers make bad swag decisions not because bad swag works. They make it because swag in general works, and we’re not usually so discerning. The only way to discourage bad swag is to remove the source of temptation by swearing off swag altogether, the good along with the bad.

10. Choose your zombie, redux

One rationale that was offered in defense of Zombie Bait was that it was conformed to the conventions of the genre that most of us have already embraced. If you have no qualms about movies like Night of the Living Dead, books like World War Z, or television shows like The Walking Dead, then why should you balk at Zombie Bait?

One difference is that no other medium asks us to take quite so direct a role in killing its zombies. By contrast, Romero’s Dead movies leave a vast gulf of emotional distance. Sympathizing with his protagonists is tough, but maybe we’re not supposed to.

That’s important, because zombies resemble nothing so much as other people. One of the principle jokes of Shawn of the Dead is that Shawn goes the better part of a day without noticing that there’s an outbreak going on because the living were practically zombies already. The mall setting of Dawn of the Dead is perfect because malls have been turning us into zombies for decades. One of the more notable recurring motifs of The Walking Dead is the group’s distrust of the other living people they encounter. It makes them fallible, flawed, potentially villainous. It’s a line the writers push a little more each season, reminding us that it’s no virtue to see the world as populated by nothing but mindless feeders.

It’s a difficult balance to pull off in the best of circumstances, but especially so in an action game. No matter how much you complicate the player’s relationship to the protagonist, violence against recognizably human bodies remains a condition for winning.

Is it cathartic to see the head of a zombie explode in a gush of blood and overripe brains? Sure—a little too cathartic. We should have an ambivalent relationship to the humans in fictional zombie apocalypses.

11. I walked with a zombie

The original Dead Island was announced in 2006. The finished game was released in 2011. Maybe it’s only to be expected that, by then, Deep Silver would be so inured to beach-themed corpses as to think that Zombie Bait was a good idea. Five years is a long time to spend looking at brutalized and dismembered bodies, a long time to spend populating a world with morally disposable people.

Immersion is considered a virtue in certain kinds of game. A movie spits its audience back out after a few hours, but the expectation with triple-A games is that the player will be able to inhabit them for dozens of hours and more. That’s time spent training to think within the constraints of the game world.

12. Misdirection

This all comes at a politically sensitive time. The Newtown massacre was barely a month ago. Just last week, Vice President Biden invited representatives of the video game industry to discussions about how the country can reduce gun violence. Some game writers, like Ian Bogost, wrote that accepting the invitation was a no-win situation—as though winning was an option with 30,000 annual gun deaths.

Do video games cause violence? The question is a red herring. If a hobby as popular and widespread as video games were a direct cause of gun violence, we’d be extinct by now. But maybe it isn’t really gun violence we should be worried about. There is, after all, a stronger correlation between certain kinds of video games and the desire for (not to mention production of) cultural artifacts like Zombie Bait. Maybe the more immediate danger is the warping of our sensibilities.

13. So this is the aftermath

In my version of the future, Deep Silver decides on a more substantial gesture than a middling three-paragraph apology on social media. Rather than distributing all those Zombie Bait statuettes or, what’s more likely, burying them in a Mexican landfill next to all the E.T. cartridges, they opt to transform them into something redemptive. They hire sculptors to fashion limbs and heads, each with unique features and proportions, to reshape the torsos themselves into more diverse builds, to patch up the torn skin and buff off the gore—to heal them, in other words, and fashion them into representations of complete women. When Deep Silver goes to trade shows like E3 or CES, they take the remade statues with them and prominently display them as an exhibition in their own lot as a reminder, not only to Deep Silver but also to the rest of the video game community.

Needless to say, that’s not how it’s likely to go down. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern in video game marketing—a company offers a poorly conceived collector’s item to promote their game, then must issue an apology to pacify the appalled masses. And as a general rule, we do seem pacified. Deep Silver’s mea culpa marked the zenith of controversy surrounding Zombie Bait. Everything that follows has the feel of aftermath. Even this.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.