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Community Insight: Freedom of Speech, Censorship, and Regulation of Gaming

USgamer is a site where your views can become part of the story. In our first community-inspired feature, we turn what was originally a series of user comments into a full-blown article about some of biggest issues that current face gaming.

One of the things we’ve talked about at USgamer is our desire to highlight and use the most interesting community comments and feedback in follow-up articles and features. We believe interesting perspective and analysis isn’t just driven by the editorial team – but can come from our community members too. So to that end, here’s our first community-inspired feature: a discussion about issues of freedom of speech, censorship, and regulation that occurred on the America's Best and Worst Contributions to Gaming article that was posted last week.

In that feature, I held up Running with Scissors’ Postal series as an example of one of the worst contributions to gaming, saying that it’s basically a developer willingly and deliberately giving gaming’s detractors a definitive example of everything that’s sick and evil about our industry, so that it can make a quick buck. The deliberately controversial series is ultimately a selfish and cynical marketing exercise that leverages controversy to drive sales, and offers no contribution to gaming at all. Indeed, it’s nothing but detraction on all counts.

So it’s pretty clear that I dislike the game and everything it stands for. But at the same time, I have to admit that I do support its right to exist – even though I wish it didn’t. One of the greatest things about the United States is that its constitution gives its citizens the right to say and express themselves in whatever way that they see fit. As someone who supports that right unequivocally, I understand the consequences of that freedom is the inevitably of hearing or seeing things that I might vehemently disagree with.

However, what I particularly don’t like about the Postal series is that its developer, Running with Scissors, is cynically using freedom of speech as an excuse to unleash something that is ultimately exploitation – a product designed to cause outrage, and thus draw attention to it to drive awareness and sales. This is nothing new. Movies have done this over the years, particularly during the 70’s, and one can point to decades of pulp books and comics, and even deliberately exploitative music as all doing the same thing. But where I do have concerns is that we’ve seen how these kinds of products can motivate pressure groups to crusade against them, and attempt to shut down, censor or control them – and that’s what’s really at the root of my issue with the series.

The situation is nicely summed up by MaterialDefender: “This illustrates the American video game approach perfectly. We can have tepid and uninspired offensive drivel (Postal) presented to the gaming public, completely unfiltered by anything but public opinion. We, as the gaming public, then get to express our (mostly negative) opinions about the game, lament its excess debauchery, decry its effect on the perception of our pastime of choice, and choose to simply not support such a vapid appeal to juvenile power fantasies.”

“At no point does our government need to come in and help us negotiate the boundaries of what is considered good taste; the ESRB, an industry run company with voluntary participation by developers and publishers, provides that information for individuals who are concerned about the content of a piece that they may not be familiar with. Sure, sometimes the system is flawed, sometimes content is unnecessarily censored by current public opinion, or the industry (inadvertently or otherwise) stifles creativity. However, the system generally works, especially when it is allowed to guide its own evolution. I may not care for Postal or its sequel, but I’m damn glad they exist. My tastes should not govern another person’s pastime. And what’s more American than that?”

And that’s a comment I most certainly support. For me, the Postal series represents everything that’s both right and wrong about our industry. We want developers to have the liberty to express themselves however they want. But the inevitable downside of such freedom is that someone is going to take that liberty and push it its extreme. That in of itself is not necessarily a bad thing when it’s done within the context of artistic expression. But when it’s done purely to shock and offend – as I believe is the case for the Postal series – then it gives video gaming’s detractors a good reason to request that the Government step in. “Because”, those people will say, “if the games industry is unable to curb its own excesses, then someone else should step in and help it to do so.”

However, the games industry already has an organization that attempts to do so in the form of the ESRB. Bla1neOne talked about that in a very interesting comment, saying, “It's like Scarface said: if there were no bad guys, there wouldn't be good guys (more or less!). Although that's not entirely true (you can still do good without there being bad), in this case, I think it is. Do we, as consumers, need the ESRB to guide, or sometimes restrict, our purchasing decisions? Do we need them to sometimes censor our games? I don't think so. But without the ESRB, those people who try and take our games away from us would have no opposition.”

He continues, “When political officials try and use videogames as scapegoats, it's easy for us to say "look, we have the ESRB in place specifically so minors aren't exposed to the wrong kinds of gaming influences." Without games like Postal, there'd be no need for the ESRB, but then we'd lose the protection that organization offers the gaming industry, not from itself, but from outside pressures.”

“Having the ESRB is like having a winning argument before the discussion has even started. And would we have the ESRB were it not for games like Postal? Probably not...”

That’s something I definitely agree with. The ESRB is in an odd position of essentially trying to simultaneously serve and protect the industry, while also trying to serve and protect its customers. It's a tricky balance. For me, the ESRB should be an independent adjudicator that exists to simply tell us what's in the box. It should never censor what's going into the box, but it should most certainly and very clearly warn us about the contents of the box.

MaterialDefender added an interesting perspective here. “As gaming sheds its perception of a juvenile-only pursuit, we can hope that this balancing act will not need to be performed in the future. Gone are the days of moral outrage in the media over the likes of Mortal Kombat and Doom; media ire presently seems to be more about magnifying minute aspects or manufacturing scenarios. Perception is changing, albeit slowly for those most vested in the gaming community.”

“I enjoy and appreciate the service that the ESRB provides for concerned parents and guardians, but I enjoy it knowing that its ratings do cause some self-censorship from game creators. In the past, this could be a big issue, as choosing to not “tone down” content could lead to an AO rating, which is retail suicide. Currently, indie developers can choose alternative means of distribution that do not require retail, so they would not need to worry about an ESRB rating; this allows for freedom to create whatever they want, whether it’s a saccharine-sweet platforming game for all ages or a genre-busting esoteric game about exploring different sexual fetishes. The latter mentioned type of game is unlikely to show up on retail shelves, so I am fine with it not being rated.”

“I like that indie developers can release their content to those who want it without having to worry about retail rules or a harsh moral rating. I also like that when content is more easily accessible by minors (such as console marketplaces), the publishers, developers, and console manufactures have a system in place to rate and explain what exactly a product holds. I especially like that the ESRB is self-regulatory, but that’s another discussion for another time.”

What’s clear is that gaming will always have its detractors looking to censor and control our industry for whatever reasons they believe in. There’ll always be some latest hot-button video gaming issue, such as the absurdities of those who support their right to carry a real gun in real life, but don’t support the freedom for a gamer to carry a virtual gun within a virtual environment. And there will also always be a demand for games that some people might find controversial or objectionable – but are nevertheless legitimate products in their own right that deserve to exist in a free society.

Controversy and influence is something that the media has dealt with for many years – especially when you include “art” as part of that media. Just look at history, and the way artists have expressed things that governments and religious organizations have tried to censor or shut down. In a free society, we are all entitled to express a point of view, and while there might be some disagreement about how much leeway should be given there, I think no matter which side you’re on, there is a general understanding that freedom of speech and expression is a fundamentally important part of American culture.

I feel much of the anti-gaming sentiment comes not from wanting to shut down freedom of expression per se, but concerns over its influence and harm. That reason is the same one that echoes throughout history. But the strange thing here is that whereas historically, ideas and their ramifications are usually intertwined, in the case of gaming, the freedom of expression is not necessarily the thing that drives the concern – it’s simply the its consequence.

But how can those things be separate? That's because the thrust of almost all anti-gaming arguments is one of children being corrupted by the evils of gaming, not adults. Yet the games they cite as evil influences are clearly rated as unsuitable for them - but are fine for consenting adults. So then the argument can go two ways. Anti-gamers will tell us these products shouldn’t exist because they’ll inevitably fall into the hands of those who will be corrupted by them. Whereas gamers will talk about the issue of parental responsibility and enforcement of game sales/access to the appropriately certified audience – and not of government prevention of their existence in the first place.

In that sense, it’s simply an argument of toxicity. We put warning labels on things that are potentially harmful or inappropriate, and let adults take responsibility for themselves and their children. Games falls into that category: just as do movies, TV shows, books, guns, bleach, alcohol, medicines, cigarettes and anything else you can think of that shouldn’t be in the hands of an unsupervised child. We certainly don’t ban all those things just in case children might see them – but we do enforce restrictions on them, and in many cases those restrictions have consequences when broken. Which is something I have no issue with in terms of video games. If a game is given an Adults Only rating, then levy whatever fines necessarily to stop people from selling those games to the wrong people. And parents - use a damn password system on your consoles to stop kids from accessing these games if you have them. Or lock them up. Or whatever.

Because ultimately, the price of freedom is responsibility. Responsibility for ourselves to decide what we want and don't want to play. The responsibility for those who have children to ensure they're protected from, and don't have access to things they shouldn't. And then there's the responsibility for the ESRB and the industry itself - from publishers and developers to retailers - to make sure those who shouldn’t be exposed to those things aren’t. If we can do this, then none of these responsibilities need ever to be taken away from us, so that others can decide what we should and shouldn’t be able to play.

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