header is screenshot from Outriders
Profane Solidarity
Diego Nicolás Argüello

 "You have any idea what it was like watching your whole fucking planet die?"

—The Outrider, Outriders

In “Swearing in the ‘Tradie’ Environment as a Tool for Solidarity,” author Lauren McLeod investigates the excessive use of profanity amongst Australian tradespeople (manual workers’ roles such as plumbers, carpenters, and builders). Her hypotheses are that the motivation for swearing originates from the desire to express camaraderie between peers, while simultaneously serving as a means of differentiation from the rest of society. In the span of a ten-day period, McLeod conducted recordings during the workers’ lunch breaks with a group of five individuals.

Throughout this period, the word “cunt” was repeated 195 times while “fuck” resounded much more frequently for a total of 1188 times. Swearing would often be used as a word replacement, similarly to pronouns, but was never directed towards an individual with an offensive intention. “These expletives mostly occurred in general, everyday discussions as both exemplifiers and as a means of building solidarity within the group,” McLeod notes. “Although widely perceived insults like ‘Fuck you!’ were used quite often, analysis of the speaker’s intention and hearer’s reaction have shown that the phrase was used as a kind of jocular mockery.”

Extracting the conversations in Outriders would lead to similar, if not even more pronounced results, considering its increased plethora of swears. Everyone in the game's world, from its rather talkative protagonist to the group of secondary characters that march along with them and the nameless people who fight and die in its setting's trenches, have embraced a similar approach to swearing. These characters’ motivation for using so many expletives shares a common purpose: to try and mitigate despair.

None of the non-player characters react with surprise when hearing profanity in this world, but it is uncommon for mainstream game narratives to highlight it. Videogames often employ bad language for shock value, or to strengthen stereotypical characterizations and bombastic spectacle. “Shit” and “fuck” do nothing to elevate the narrative in the Grand Theft Auto series. They're just what's expected from games proud of their Mature ESRB ratings—ones where criminals and gang members are put front and center, led by studios like Rockstar that seem eager to maintain their controversial status with each release.

In 2011, Scarface: The World is Yours was granted a Guinness World Record for “Most swearing in a videogame” to commemorate 5,688 instances of the f-word. It was also a videogame with a dedicated swearing button, there to be used at will as if the player were controlling a toy with a speaker and anger issues. The appearance of increasingly profane games during this era seemed a juvenile attempt to showcase maturity in the medium and achieve a mainstream spotlight, either by the influence or the translation of other industries such as films.

But it was only a year later when Spec Ops: The Line, also a cover shooter like Outriders (albeit more linear and story-focused), found a use for profanity to potentiate the main character and his squad’s mental and physical degradation. During the beginning of the game, the player commands their fellow soldiers by giving them orders in formal jargon such as “snipe that hostile” and “tango down.” These commands turn more informal and aggressive the deeper into a war-torn hell the soldiers venture into, replaced by phrases like “snipe that son of a bitch” and “kill is fucking confirmed.” Spec Ops was shock value in a sense, too, but there was greater intent behind its provocation.

Outriders shows itself empathetic to this same sentiment, although its method is different. Battles are often silent on both ends of the cover structure-strewn arenas, the player hearing nothing but gunshots and the sound of enemies gruesomely exploding or being impaled by the Outrider’s superhuman abilities. Profanity has a larger presence in the script itself. It’s there when we catch up with a non-player character before jumping to the next mission, or whenever we watch an important cutscene and engage in radio conversations that occur as the player sprints to the next battle arena.

There are hints of Spec Ops-style degradation towards the end—the protagonist admitting that the alternate scenario to the less than hopeful outcome of their mission would have seen them “screwing up the whole damn planet” before anyone else ever set foot on it, an unsurprised “this fuck’s not letting this go” when a previously beaten boss re-emerges in the plot. But by this point these reactions no longer carry value, shock or otherwise.

As a whole, swearing in Outriders ends up feeling overused. But it’s also striking in its own way. Similar loot-based shooters like Destiny that want to sell a mature sci-fi story aren’t shy with cursing, but it occurs far less frequently. Instead, Outriders’ setting makes for an appropriate playground to experiment with the use of swearing and understand its purposes. Its story presents a bleak and hopeless scenario, and while the use of swearing could have been explored further, profanity is also employed as a way to bond and sympathize with others.

When, at one point in the story, the protagonist is tasked with helping a faction repel an upcoming enemy attack, their leader gives his people an invigorating speech. Just as the Outrider passes through the crowd, knowing full well that only a handful of troopers will return to their DIY homes, the leader chants “fuck them up!” followed by a cheer from his followers. During a much earlier instance, the group comes to realize that they’re about to encounter a calamitous instance of déjà vu, and one of them encapsulates it in a single sentence: “Same shit, different planet.”

Back in 2017, a group of psychologists came to the conclusion that swearing can boost one’s strength during physical activities, noticing an increase in speed when riding an exercise bike as people cursed their way through a half-minute test. A previous study in 2009 had stated that “swearing triggers a ‘fight-or-flight’ response and heightens aggression.” But in the most recent results, it was found that participants tasked with repeating the same swears did so without screaming or shouting, maintaining an even tone of voice. “Quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered,” psychologist Richard Stephens added.

In the case of Outriders, cursing doesn’t just invigorate the masses. It’s also a way to deal with the unavoidable end of the world—an apocalypse that is approaching once again, even after Earth's destruction— in order to try and internalize it differently. Bleak worlds and doomed futures are the canvas, and misery is the paintbrush. But the characters choose to embrace this, minimizing a returning villain with a quick swear, coping with grief by comparing which civilization has endured the worst in a joking tone, as if the Earth dying was nothing more than a conversation icebreaker.

Some of the most noteworthy uses of swearing in games come from decaying worlds and infamous characters. Swearing is exclusive to the outcasts, the bad company, the ones who have already fucked things up, and the ones who will inevitably fuck things up again. By the end of Spec Ops: The Line, it’s implicit that the events in Dubai have been your fault all along. Kane & Lynch's decision to feature two disastrously foul-mouthed characters was risky, and as a result noteworthy during a time when everybody else was also working on cover-based third person shooters with more likeable stars. The protagonist of Disco Elysium is a living example of hitting rock bottom in gruesome, despicable ways, transiting a city inhabited by people who have given up on changing the world a long time ago, and one shaken even further by his own mistakes. In all of these examples, everyone shares the same profane solidarity. It’s their way of coping while everything around them crumbles. Just like the Australian tradies, they’re cast in difficult and thankless roles. None other than this in-group understands the importance of building rapport amongst peers as a response to their status.

It’s unsurprising, when looked at as an extension of this phenomenon, that children are swearing more during quarantine. In part this comes from the inevitability of spending too much time at home with adults or unsupervised media, but it’s also arisen as a way of minimizing the frightening worldwide events that prevent them from an otherwise normal childhood, whatever that may be. Social media in and of itself has become a canvas for misery, even more so than before, where cynicism already greets us with the first cup of coffee of the day and never lets go. Professional etiquette has slowly been deteriorating during the COVID-19 era, and there are very few places left to go online that haven’t been affected by the oppressiveness of terrible news headlines. The looming presence of hostility doesn’t need much of a spark to become tangible.

When misery is a common element between people on a global scale, individuals find a way to curse or joke through disaster. A series of TikToks that parody the reality of game development is just one recent example of this. Our online language is ever changing, and cursing remains an important part of it, too, as yet another tool of self expression (when it’s not being targeted at individuals or specific groups).

Outriders’ take on our future is well aware of this. One of the first conversations that the protagonist has after setting foot on this soon-to-be colonized world is immortalized with a selfie—“for the scientific record.” And it’s immediately stated that establishing an internet connection is a priority. The game's future humanity have just lost the Earth, but not their digital traditions. And they’re not allowing swearing to become a thing of the past either. It has helped them to cope before, and will inevitably help them to cope again. Swearing doesn’t always make itself present in hopeful realities, but it can bring solidarity to decaying ones. In the midst of the end of the world, swearing is all the characters in Outriders have. After all, they're just dealing with the same shit on a different planet.


Diego Nicolás Argüello is a journalist and critic from Argentina. He has learned English thanks to videogames, and now runs Into The Spine alongside editors from all over the world. You can find him procrastinating on Twitter @diegoarguello66.