Everywhere we turn these days, someone is posting a semi-celebratory comment about the meaning behind the games industry’s victory in the case of Brown v. EMA. The Supreme Court has decided that games are protected under the First Amendment as art. Unfortunately, when it comes to censorship, this may be an example of winning the battle without winning the war.
Censorship is as old as organized society. Every peer group and society has its own customs, morals, laws and taboos. These morals and values rule everything from violence and sex to rituals and religious observance. There are several reasons and types of censorship used in modern society:
God/Religion: This is most often a sexual objection. Whatever the outcry refers to, it is usually considered offensive to God in some way.
National Security: Often, this takes the form of censorship through intimidation. If people think they are being monitored by governmental agents, their ability to engage freely in the media will feel hampered. Project Reynard was launched by the U.S. government approximately three years ago. Initially, it was a project to datamine player activity in persistent virtual environments, such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. If the data proved useful, the scope of the project could increase to search for evidence of terrorist activity in online game environments. If this became public knowledge, it could potentially affect the way everyday players play the game.
Peer Pressure or Censorship Through Consensus: “We have a right to control what our children are exposed to.” There is a social pressure to adhere to social or group standards. This kind of pressure is evident in kindergarten, when children are encouraged to line up “because all of the other children are lining up.” It continues as we learn not to cross a picket line or learn about abortion from the screams of protesters outside of clinics. Also called “Moral Censorship,” this is, perhaps, the No. 1 concern to the games industry. The argument isn’t as much about whether or not we can make violent games or games with sexual content, but whether or not we have moral values if we do make them.
With the resolution of Brown v. EMA, the larger problem becomes much more evident. One of the arguments used with the Supreme Court is that fairy tales are rife with violence and yet we put our children to bed with these stories from a very young age. Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter, Snow White’s stepmother orders her death and asks that her heart be returned as evidence of the deed. Clearly, violence is not unacceptable as far as our children are concerned. For this reason, anyone who tries to again raise the issue of violence in video games as grounds for banning them will face a difficult uphill battle. However, sexual content is still acceptable cannon fodder.
Sexual content in video games is still in its infancy. We’re still battling issues over what is acceptable and who to cater to with sexual content. In Asian cultures, sexual content is much more freely expressed, but violence is not as prevalent as compared with the U.S. Australia still does not have a rating higher than MA15+. Therefore, any game that receives a rating higher than this is automatically banned. This alone is pressure to keep game content beneath mature ratings. Indeed, Rockstar games felt the pressure with Grand Theft Auto IV. In order to prevent an RC rating that could potentially shut out the Australian audience, some scenes were changed in the Australian version of the game.
The biggest challenge we face is actually educating the public. ESRB ratings are in place to help parents find the content they deem acceptable for their children. Whether parents like it or not, their children will get their hands on porn, an R-rated movie, anime, and games with violent or sexual content. This does not mean that all games are meant for children or teens to play. The majority of current game developers have grown up playing video games. Like it or not, we’re a maturing audience. As such, we have earned adult content.
Fighting censorship will always be an uphill battle for the games industry. Censorship is nothing more than the suppression of undesirable content. We may not be able to make all of our content desirable, but with consistent and continual public education, we can make it acceptable.
Shelly Warmuth is a freelance writer, journalist and researcher. She is currently working with IGDA Wisconsin on a project intended to bring more tax credits for tech sector jobs. She is also in the process of writing a book that teaches game design using successful commercial games.