The Charlie Hebdo of Video Games? A Utilitarian Approach to Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac
by A Hand Wagon on April 21, 2017 - 2:24pm
Edmund McMillen is an independent video game designer best known for his video games Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac. Originally released in 2011, The Binding of Isaac and its 2014 remake, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, have seen massive commercial and critical success, with critics lauding its addicting gameplay, randomized (roguelike) elements, and its dark themes, specifically pertaining to religion. These dark themes, although widely praised by its fanbase and reviewers, have seen controversy when the game was initially rejected from releases both on Nintendo and iOS platforms for content relating to religion and child abuse. Although, more recently the game has been released on said platforms after a re-evaluation of Nintendo’s and Apple’s religious content policy, it is clear that there does need to be a discussion on the ethics of producing a game with this type of graphic and offensive content, given the initial decision of the businesses to reject the game from publication on their platform. From a Utilitarian perspective, even if the content in The Binding of Isaac may cause pain to certain groups, the higher pleasure it will bring to people, including those in the offended groups, outweighs the offense that is felt for a net gain in pleasure, because of the higher pleasures that the game promotes, and the creativity that the game has inspired.
Firstly, there is a case against McMillen designing The Binding of Isaac due to the offensive nature of its content. Grotesque imagery, both physical and psychological is abundant in the game. For example, unsettling images of child abuse and child suicide are extremely prevalent in the narrative; The cutscenes between levels portray Isaac being bullied in school and abused by his mother, while many of the multiple endings portray Isaac committing suicide, most often by locking himself in a chest and suffocating to death (Himsl). This type of disturbing imagery can cause desensitization or anxiety to individuals, so there is a case to have it removed. Additionally, the main “villain” of the game is Isaac’s crazy mother who hears a voice from God telling her to sacrifice Isaac, portraying harmful negative stereotypes of both evangelical Christians and mothers (Himsl). Finally, if video games are to be considered as art, such as Grant Tavinor does in his text “Video Games as Mass Art” (Tavinor 1), then it is clear that video games can also be evaluated, criticized and condemned like art if the content is disturbing. Overall, there is a compelling utilitarian case against McMillen’s game but it is also true that The Binding of Isaac encourages the people who may suffer from his game to seek higher pleasures.
Conversely, although the content in The Binding of Isaac can be grotesque, disgusting and offensive, it also brings higher pleasures to people who play the game. Higher pleasures, as defined by John Stuart Mill in his text Utilitarianism mean those which “[O]f two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer, that is the more desirable pleasure” (Mill). Although The Binding of Isaac may temporarily prevent people from attaining lower pleasures such as comfort in their beliefs and convictions, it can also be conceived of as legitimate criticism towards extreme fundamentalist Christianity with the explicit goal of encouraging people to think about the implications of their beliefs on their children. Arthur Chu, someone who grew up in an evangelical household writes in his article “A Defense of Binding of Isaac From a Former Fundamentalist Christian” about how McMillen’s game has helped him express his personal thoughts towards his upbringing, "If I wanted to pick a work of art to explain how being raised as an evangelical Christian kid with a strong imagination fucks you up, and can fuck you up even if your religious upbringing doesn’t seem outright abusive the top pick would be The Binding of Isaac" (Chu). Although McMillen’s satire is harsh and disturbing, it appears to very accurately reflect the feelings of ex-fundamentalists. Additionally, McMillen himself has clarified his position towards Christianity that he expresses in his game, writing in an essay titled “Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl’s The Binding of Isaac” that
As a child growing up with this, I honestly thought it [Catholicism] was very neat,
very creative and inspiring. It’s not hard to look at my work and see that most of
the themes of violence actually come from my Catholic upbringing, and in a lot of
ways I loved that aspect of our religion. (McMillen, “Postmortem”)
Although this may seem to contradict the offensive Christian images that McMillen portrays, it is true that objects of catholic mysticism such as relics, the Book of Revelations, halos, the Sacred Heart and Stigmata are powerful upgrades in The Binding of Isaac (Himsl). Overall, although McMillen’s sense of humour to some people may seem repelling, his use of offensive imagery in The Binding of Isaac is there to provide a contrast between positive and negative influences on a creative child’s life.
Finally, McMillen’s game criticizes the stifling of creativity that a rigid, fundamentalist belief system denies from children, denouncing said rigidity of beliefs as harmful to society. For example, Isaac’s artistic inclination is quickly purged by his mother who wants to get rid of sin (Himsl). This pro-creativity message appears to have successfully gotten to the audience: McMillen notes how “…there are well over 30,000 videos of Isaac on YouTube, countless pieces of fan art, animations, and plush toys all over the Internet, and over 30 fictional fan blogs where people can ask characters in Isaac questions and get in-character responses” (McMillen, “Postmortem”). Lastly, there is theoretical support for this argument, as Jon Robson and Aaron Meskin in their text “Video Games as Self-Involving Interactive Fictions” argue that video games are “…fictions that, in virtue of their interactive nature, are about those who consume them” (Robson 1). In The Binding of Isaac’s case, this self-involvement has spawned a net gain in creativity, and subsequently higher pleasures for society. Overall, McMillen’s game has provided society with net higher pleasures by denouncing the suppression of said creativity by certain groups.
In conclusion, from a utilitarian standpoint Edmund McMillen’s game The Binding of Isaac deserves the praise it has received because of the overall pleasure it has provided to society. Even if The Binding of Isaac contains very offensive imagery that causes harm to certain group of people, it also promotes qualities that are helpful to society and denounces the suppression of said talents by fundamentalist beliefs. However, games that contain violent and disturbing imagery are becoming increasingly common, and it is important to distinguish when this depiction is appropriate or not, which brings up a question beyond the scope of this essay: Is there a universal criteria for determining whether a game’s violent content brings pleasure to society, or does each game need to be evaluated on a case by case basis?
Chu, Arthur. “A defense of Binding of Isaac from a former fundamentalist Christian.” Polygon.
Vox Media, 2015.
Himsl, Florian and Edmund Mcillen. The Binding of Isaac. McMillen, 2011.
McMillen, Edmund. “Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl’s The Binding of Isaac.” Gamasutra.
McMillen, Edmund and Tyrone Rodriguez. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Nicalis, 2014.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Handout. Marianopolis College. Westmount, Quebec. 1861.
Robson, Jon and Aaron Meskin. "Video Games as Self-Involving Interactive Fictions." Journal
of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 74, no. 2, 2016, pp. 165-177. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jaac.12269.
Tavinor, Grant. “Video Games as Mass Art.” Contemporary Aesthetics. Contemporary
Aesthetics inc, 2011.