Friday, March 31, 2006

US Senate Game Hearings

[News] [Computer Gaming] [Politics]

Raph Koster's website has helpfully directed me towards this page, which contains statements given to the US Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. As you may be aware, this body is currently holding hearings into state regulation of violent video games and the first amendment.

Recently a number of US states have enacted legislation which restricts or prohibits the sale of certain categories of video games (most notably "violent" ones) to minors or to the public at large. Make no mistake, this amounts to censorship (I don't believe that's in dispute). The alleged reasoning is to regulate the "harmful effects" of violent videogames. To clarify, we're not talking here about a classification system to help consumers make informed choices about video game content - we're talking about government making a pre-emptive decision that certain media content is inherently so dangerous that certain classes of citizen should not be given the opportunity to see it to make up their own minds.

The argument put in the US is that this censorship violates the First Amendment, being the one relating to freedom of speech. However, the US does have certain "exceptions" to the First Amendment, being that the First Amendment can be contravened for certain purposes relating to the protection of the public. In the early forays of this legislation, courts have struck down the laws because the states were unable to show a clear link between video games and any particular harm to any class of person. That is to say, they found that insufficient data exists to justify this legislation.

It's worth noting that the CDC (US Centre for Disease Control) are conducting such research right now; given their recent advertising campaigns it can be concluded that they're not exactly a neutral unbiased party in this matter.

Resulting from all this, the US government is inquiring into this issue at a Federal level, and you can see some of the *cough* "evidence" that they're receiving here. (You can quite happily conclude that I, also, am not a neutral and unbiased party.)

My thoughts are as follows:

Computer games currently face an extremely high level of censorship. Commercial games are classified on a rating system in the US and Australia. The purpose of this is theoretically to allow consumers to make informed choices about what media content they purchase. Rating systems also apply to film and television. No such system exists for for books or most print media, with the exception of certain laws relating to the sale of magazines containing pornographic images(there is no corresponding law relating to the pornographic use of the written word).

The specific concern most often cited to justify video game classification is to allow parents to control what content their children are exposed to. It's worth noting that the vast majority of the gaming market is actually now over the age of 18 - although minors are not yet by any means a gaming niche market, they're on their way there.

The system is further complicated in Australia, as the Australian games system has no classification level above "M" - games that may receive an "R" rating are refused classification (read "banned from sale and purchase"). In addition to a lower maximum limit, video games classification enjoys a lower content threshold, as in both Australia and the US content which is "interactive" is considered to be inherently more mature than content which is not - a violent scene that may receive an M rating in film can get an R rating in games simply because you are able to take part to create it - or attempt to prevent it.

I'm reminded of the classification given to the original TIE Fighter game from Lucasarts, one of the first games to be sold in Australia with classification information on the packaging. Many people still have the box in the cupboards, which sports the classification information, "This game is rated PG", with the accompanying reason, "Realistic objects damaged."

Let's compare the video game classification system to film. Australia's film classification system includes both an "R" rating and an "X" rating. ("X" rated films are illegal to sell except within the Australian Capital Territory.) Why should an film which does not achieve an M rating still be appropriate for an audience of 18+, whereas a game that misses out on the M stamp be too dangerous to be exposed to the Australian public?

I'll draw to your attention to the most recent game ban, which was Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. Mark Ecko, for those who don't know, is a fashion designer. His game has been reviewed by those in other countries who've had the pleasure of seeing is as surprisingly rather good - nothing worldshaking, but not exactly a waste of your dollar. The game features the adventures of a hip-hop themed street kid in a fictional city of the future governed by an oppressive fascist state. Much of the gameplay revolves around outwitting rival street gangs, the minions of the government, and lots and lots of graffiti.

It's significantly less violent than the (revised) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it fails to have the explicit sex scenes present in Fahrenheit and God of War, and yet it was refused classification because it "encourages you to break the law". Not an Australian law, mind you (as the game's not set in Australia). Not even an indictable law (the penalties for graffiti can in some jurisdictions be less than the penalties for breaking the speed limit). Reading between the lines you can see the decision in relation to this game being based largely on some significant political pressure coming out of Queensland. And if there's anything more repugnant than censorship, it's censorship due to a political agenda.

I'm not saying this game was a work of art, because I can't. I wasn't given the opportunity to find out. And you won't have that opportunity either. It could be a pile of interactive vomit (like the game Postal 2, also banned in Australia), or it could be a work of thought provoking fiction in a highly violent and gratuitous setting (like the novel American Psycho, at one stage also banned in Australia). You'll just never know.

Let's put it another way; do YOU trust John Howard and Phillip Ruddock to make justifiable and well-reasoned decisions about what you're allowed to see? That's the Australian situation - now go read those submissions to the US Senate subcommittee and you'll see how comparitively fortunate we are. This is material that makes the current Australian government look like a paragon of individual freedoms and well-reasoned debate, and it's genuinely scary stuff.

Links of interest:


Jey said...

I'm a big advocate of informed adults being able to make imformed choices regarding what they view etc however I still wonder what kind of world we live in and what's going on in the minds of ppl where games that depict violence are considered FUN?
I'm not saying that I'm all holy at all though, I'm a huge horror fan and consider such films quite enjoyable.
It still causes the need to question underlying pyches and social conditions.

GregT said...

There's obviously a lot of ongoing research into violent games. Coming from a position completely devoid of supporting research, though, I'd say that games that depict violence are fun on a whole range of levels, not the least of which are that we are, as an animal which is the product of evolution, hardwired with a whole bunch of "fight or flight" instincts which we largely suppress in order to be part of modern society. Games which depict violence allow us to express and release the tensions of those instincts in a harmless way, while simultaneously developing secondary associated skills such as hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Much in the same way, I might add, as most forms of physical sport. Plus there's a whole bunch of societal and educational imperatives along the lines of boundary-testing, shared narrative, exercise of vicarious control, et cetera.