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LittleBigPlanet’s Little Big Scandal

Sony has pinned high hopes on its newest game, LittleBigPlanet. Which is why the company — and the game’s developer, Media Molecule — scrambled last week to fix a potentially offensive part of the soundtrack without delaying the release too much. But could this episode be a harbinger of more scandals to come?

Media Molecule, the start-up designers of the do-it-yourself Sony PlayStation 3 videogame LittleBigPlanet, have had an unexpectedly big problem on their hands.

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When we hung out at the E3 videogame convention in LA this summer, everything was looking up. The game was out-buzzing all the big AAA titles at the show. It was also considered the underdog hero that might rescue the PS3 from third place behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s breakout Wii. The hook: LittleBigPlanet lets you swiftly, intuitively, and giddily design, play, and trade your own game levels on the fly. As I noted, it marked the new dawn for the YouTubing of games: when ordinary players can create and share game content, just as they can video clips.

Everything seemed on mark for the release of the game until a new post quietly hit the Sony PlayStation blog. On October 17, Patrick Seybold, Sony Computer Entertainment of America’s director of corporate communications & social media, dropped this little big bomb: “During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet,” he wrote, “it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur’an. We have taken immediate action to rectify this and we sincerely apologize for any offense that this may have caused. We will begin shipping LittleBigPlanet to retail in North America the week of October 27th. Sorry for the delay, and rest assured, we are doing everything we can to get LittleBigPlanet to you as soon as possible.”

True enough, a global recall was on (though I was among those who got an early review copy of the game before it was too late). Word spread that a Muslim play-tester had been the one who first brought up concerns over the track. Alex Evans at Media Molecule hit the blogs himself, saying he was just as floored as the gamers left in the lurch. “At MM we were as shocked and dismayed by this as anyone – shellshocked and gutted,” he posted, “We can’t wait for you all to get playing and creating!” A week later, the musician who recorded the song in question – Malian songwriter Toumani Diabate – expressed dismay over the decision. “In my family there are only two things we know – the Koran and the kora,” he explained to the BBC this week. “…I don’t want anybody to joke with Islam and to not respect Islam…I’m really sad and I’m disappointed.”

It seems clear that no one at Media Molecule or Sony intended to offend, but this wasn’t the first time Sony has been in hot water over game goods. The company encountered another controversy when protesters objected to the inclusion of a church in a battle scene in the first person shooter, Resistance: Fall of Man. Sony isn’t alone. Take-Two Interactive got into its own mess – dubbed Hot Coffee – when a secret sex scene was discovered in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Games are unique products because potentially objectionable – or buggy – content can be fixed with a free downloadable bit of software. Of course this opens all kinds of worm cans, since the publishers can be frequently subject to “remove the bad content!” outcries.

So LittleBigPlanet is shipping this week with the music in question fixed. Of course there’s a whole new potential cloud of trouble on the horizon. Since LittleBigPlanet lets you manipulate and even upload your own content to the game, there’s no telling what kind of objectionable fare might be hitting PS3 screens soon.

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