Monday, April 24, 2006

Fear the Message, Not the Medium

[Computer Gaming] [Politics]

This excellent post from Design Synthesis got me thinking again about the recent political attention-slash-witchunting being directed at electronic gaming. (If you're not aware of the Senate hearings in the US or the censorship issues in Australia then do yourself a quick web-crawl and get up to date.)

To claim that videogames should be censored or controlled because they promote violence, incite crime, or desensitise children it is first necessary to distance videogames from other forms of literature. The battle has already been fought on these topics in relation to the printed word, and the would-be censors lost. The right to publish and to read whatever fictitious content one desires to is one that is now fairly well enconsced in our society, and one that I'd like to think most people understand the importance of. In films the lines are less clear but certainly "the promotion of violence" and "the incitation fo crime" are no longer excuses used to deny film content to interested viewers. So to claim videogames need special treatment, it needs to be made clear that they are a different class of media from film, music, and the printed word.

The main argument put forward by soapboxers like Hillary Clinton in the US, and by the OFLC and certain bush politicians in Australia to draw this distinction is that videogames are interactive. The power of control given to the player, they say, is what turns content that would be considered merely "tasteless" in film into a "murder simulator" on a console. There's very little research to support such a viewpoint, and what little there is seems to support both sides of the argument equally.

But is it really important? Suppose that videogames are inherently more capable of promoting and provoking viewpoints and patterns of behaviour than other media? So what?

Media influences people, and it influences them strongly. This is true of all media, and it has been true for a very long time.

The printed word can inspire people to compassion, to creativity, to faith, to apathy, to leadership and to rebellion. It can march people to war and it can move them to peace. It can create religions, political movements, and it can birth nations. Its use is so closely associated with the wielding of power and the alteration of the material world that it has been fetishised, ritualised, spiritualised, and used as the foundation of law in almost every nation.

Music can inspire passion, sadness, pride, action, and unity. It is no coincidence that it is strongly connected with riots, with rebellion, and with suicide; it is also no surprise that it has for so long been used for national anthems, for marching songs, to unite social groups, and to advertise products.

Film plays tricks with the viewer; it can present the same content as a tragedy, as a comedy, or as a heroic epic. It can take a person and canonise them, demonise them, or eulogise them. It can cast a villain as a king or a king as a villain, and it can do us all without letting us think we're seeing anything but the unvarnished truth. It can elect Presidents, pull down celebrities, or villify entire racial groups. It can be simultaneously the agent of discovery and the bearer of propaganda.

We know that media is powerful; we know it can bring about dramatic changes in those who partake of it. We know that it can convey harmful messages very effectively, and can obfuscate issues by omission and glorification. But has the solution ever been to control the medium? Has it ever been to censor and restrict the content? Has that been the problem-solving method that we have prided ourselves on as a civilisation?

No; we have risen to the challenge. We have grasped the tools laid out before us, and learned to use them every bit as effectively as our opponents. For every book which marginalises and de-legitimises women, we write another that exposes the danger in making half our population second-class citizens. For every film with an offensive racial stereotype, we produce another with a rich cultural experience steepd in humanity. For every song by Enimem, we... *cough* sorry, my bias is showing.

And do we expect that the audience (which is, after all, ourselves) will consume our media, and not that of our competition? No; they'll consume it all, the bad and the good, the pearls and the offal, the gratuitous and the transcendent, and hopefully in amongst all the noise they'll come to their own viewpoint which is greater than the sum of its parts. And we call that process education.

Stop worrying about how powerful interactive media may be, and remember that the way forward in dealing with a new media has never been defined by the word "control" - it's defined by the word "competition".

If you've come here courtesty of the May Carnival of Gamers, click here to see the rest of my site - the power of my mind compels you!

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