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Free Speech and Video Games


  • Free Speech and Video Games

    Video games are more than just a product of the entertainment industry. They are artistic, political, and religious expressions. For anyone remotely familiar with the medium, this claim is obvious and needs no defense. Whether it is BioShock, the Sims, Farmville, or Castle Wolfenstein, all video games function not merely as an art form, but they are also vehicles for expression. Fans, artists, and scholars alike have used the medium of video games to create commentaries on many aspect of contemporary life.

    I have been playing my way through BioShock: Welcome to Rapture (2008) and enjoying the backdrop of Glided Age architecture, art deco inconography, and the Andrews Sisters in the sound track. Bioshock provides a ironic commentary on libertanianism, Christian fundamentalism, the Enlightenment, and free market economics. It is widely seen as one of the first times a major philosopher (Ayn Rand) was used as an inspiration for a game's storyline and zeitgeist.

    BioShock is a fable about the failure of a pro-capitalist philosophy that elevates man over god, the environment, and eventually, man over man. It also involves shooting a mother caring for a (dead) child, and countless other acts of virtual violence that is found in popular first person shooters. BioShock is not a "beat hookers to death with baseball bat" kind of game, but it is certainly mature content.

    America's Supreme Court is about to deliver a decision that will either acknowledge the artistic nature of video games or begin a new era of the moralistic repression of art and expression in the United States. Oddly enough, the very country that has been at the forefront of advances in rights for women, blacks, and gays is also one that appears to be constantly on the edge of a return to the darkness of McCarthyism and made-in-America dystopia.

    It is doubly ironic that the Supreme Court is faced with deciding the merits of video games as an artistic medium when we find games such as BioShock that act as commentaries on the dangers of economic and religious fascism.

    However the Supreme Court decides to treat video games under First Amendment doctrine, it is unlikely that "a law banning violent games would be good policy even if it passed constitutional muster," as was suggested in the New York Times. Unfortunately, both lawyers and judges have demonstrated considerable ignorance concerning the artistic merits of even the most violent video games and tend to have a naive understanding of the very limited effects of media violence on the young.

    When Joseph Nye was Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University he made the argument that, for more peace and prosperity for all, the world needs more McDonald's and Disney. Nye's "soft power" thesis proposed that the world would be a better place if America's values spread to the rest of the world. These American values, symbolized by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse -- fast food, free markets, and corporate entertainment products -- would spread through a globalized free market and conquer the world on behalf of an Empire that is finding the "hard power" of its military to be ever more expensive and ineffective.

    Nye's thesis was welcomed by neoconservatives and ridiculed by those with a more nuanced understanding of the post-colonial world system. Nonetheless, intellectuals on both the left and the right recognize that the entertainment system is a significant form of power. Censoring video games, treating them under the law as merely consumer goods, would remove a powerful tool from America's arsenal of cultural weapons. Worse yet, a wrong approach to video games by the Supreme Court would reduce America's ability to understand the internal threats it faces from the more caustic aspects of unrestrained corporate power and rampant individualism.

    The world may not need more junk food and ideological amusement parks, but America does need more BioShock.

    And now, a bit of video-game artistic expression . . .
    Best viewed in 1080p HD.

    And here is a great backgrounder on the current video game case before the Supreme Court.

    • BigGaayAl
      BigGaayAl commented
      Editing a comment
      A detail perhaps, but this:

      "Oddly enough, the very country that has been at the forefront of advances in rights for women, blacks, and gays"

      seems to be rather Americo-centric.
      I mean gay rights in the US are still abysmal, abortion doctors are being shot which is related to women's rights, and all black people seem to be in jail.

      It is but a detail though, but rly the US isn't at all at the forefront here. Rather I see a tenuous balance with some advances, but equally strong tendencies to go back to the 'traditional family values' and all that jazz.

      Only in the area of freedom of speech, I see the US as a frontrunner. If only because AFAIK you are allowed to swear at a cop, which will get you arrested or fined in most countries like mine.

    • E-Male
      E-Male commented
      Editing a comment
      Good Point, BigGaayAl, but you read too much into my comment. The U.S. is clearly conflicted over basic human rights, such as gay marriage. But my point was not about their current cultural war.

      I think the U.S. plays a role in establishing gay rights (for example). Clearly it would be wrong to claim that they lead they way always in all rights, but when they are not busy persecuting their own citizens for being communist (or socialist, or liberal) they did bring some good ideas to the table.

      Dr. Strangelove (E-Male)

    • L3TUC3
      L3TUC3 commented
      Editing a comment
      Re: Free Speech and Video Games

      Originally posted by Eroak
      Adult content has been restricted for some time now in the form of paper and video. The internet has "bypassed" many of these restrictions but most hold a 18 year old boundary to buying adult form of entertainment which many consider a form of cencored art.

      I'm not against the ban of any form of media but I do understand some "restrictions" can help. I wouldn't want my 10 year old going and buying a violent game or movie. My kid isn't able to comprehend many of the actions and their meaning yet. Although this would be hard for her to do and I keep involved with her content inside my home, but kids are sneaky and smart and find ways. That could give me another layer of protection. But on the other hand, I feel that 18 is to restrictive. Buy this time many kids are able to discern the actions depicted in this media.

      The other hand of the argument is parents should be able to self moderate this in itself. In my honest opinion, I lack faith in the american parent in knowing whats best for their kids. I seen to much neglect, theres over 6000 open cases in Bucks County alone and this is as rich suburban upper middle class as you can get.

      Bans, no. Censoring, nah. Buying restrictions, some maybe.
      Bans and restrictions will cause self-censorship as publishers will aim for the lowest common denominator that's allowed to be sold in most major retail-outlets (while games remain an impulse buy and). It's rather old bag really, as this is already applied in the case of wal-mart, which does not carry ao games. One can imagine that developers will strip out some features to cajole the esrb into a M or T rating. Then there's the chains that voluntarily ID the buyer based on the rating. This is a great tool for parents, but no sure-fire way against it.

      In any case, the kids interests in video games will remain as it is, with the forbidden fruit as the ultimate goal. Oddly enough, for the majority of skewed rating game sales (I was going to write under-age, but there's no such thing as of yet), it's the parents who were responsible for the buy in question. One could ponder the reasons for this.

      1. Ignorance (parent unaware of rating or simply getting what the kid wants)
      2. Intention (parent aware of rating and deems kid mature enough)

      As more and more adolescents of the gamer generation grow into adulthood and have children of their own, I'm convinced that parents (like Eroak) will approach the medium with the proper caution and knowledge how to bring it to their offspring. Just like their great great grandparents did with dime-novels, great grandparents did with music, grandparents did with movies and parents with TV. I too find the neglect cases worrisome, and blaming the problems kids face today on video games is rather saddening (not to mention not proven).

      From a technological standpoint, I believe the problem of skewed game sales will diminish over time, as sales tend to go towards digital distribution. Then it's as simple for the parents as blocking the store with a password/age lock/credit-card and your kid can remain blissfully unaware of the dangers that lurk. Just like you can do already with most modern consoles.

      Parental controls ftw.

      Also, nice article Dr. Strangelove. However, I do not think that an age restriction will hamper games from being used as an experimental vessel for artistic expression, but rather become a hurdle for mass-consumption and sale for Big Games (EA/Activision/Ubisoft). An ideological message can as easily be conveyed with imagery that does not require any nudity or depraved scenes. If an artist does wish to go beyond, he's still free to do so, he just won't make as much money of his creation when it happens to be popular. True artists are poor for a reason =)

      If you like BioShock, you should try playing Deus Ex sometime. It's filled to the brim with theology, mythology, and conspiracy. Also Fallout 3 has some interesting what-if scenarios.
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