Censorship and Social Responsibility

Contextual note:   I wrote these two essays last year as part of my honours work for university.  Having written plenty of essays on games and violence for school and college, I tackled this with the hope that it would be the last one I ever write.  The subject of censorship in games is one that I feel pretty strong about, and this article fairly adequately sums up my beliefs on the subject.

To clarify, I don’t have a problem with sex and violence in games, per seI’d be a hypocrite otherwise.  However, I do believe that if games want to be taken seriously as an artistic or entertainment medium, a line has to be drawn somewhere.  For me personally, that line is sadism, of the extreme kind you see in games like Postal2.

I don’t have anything against Rockstar Games,  or Manhunt2 specifically, it just happened to be in the news at the time of writing.  That said, I really hope publishing Manhunt2 was worth all the aggravation with the BBFC.

INTRODUCTION

“Pong didn’t make me aspire to play pingpong, tennis or another racket game in the real world. So maybe no one will want to join a street gang after playing ‘The Warriors.’ But making sport out of theft, murder, prostitution and senseless destruction seems wrong on every level.’ (Tom Martin)

After much controversy, Rockstar Games’ Manhunt 2 was finally granted an 18 certificate in March 2008.  Up until this point, the BBFC had been successful in preventing the game from retailing in the United Kingdom; however after a series of successful appeals by Rockstar Games, the BBFC was eventually left with no choice but to issue the game with an 18 certificate, enabling it to go to retail (Jenkins, D. 2008).  The game was controversial mainly due its explicit violence (including a highly publicised castration scene[1]), and its connection to infamous Grand Theft Auto 3 developer, Rockstar North.  Furthermore, the original Manhunt game had already received considerable bad press after being allegedly linked to the murder of teenager Stefan Pakeerah.  While this link was categorically disproven, the game’s reputation as a corruptor of children stuck, ironically elevating the game to the same status as the fictional world of snuff videos that it portrayed (Jenkins, D. 2007).

However, the debate concerning videogame content, and whether videogames in general are harmful to children and society as a whole, is not a new one.  Over the years, games like Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter II, and Doom have all caused similar public outcries and have also been allegedly connected to various accidents, injuries, and deaths.  Whilst outspoken critics such as Jack Thompson and David Grossman have been quick to condemn videogames as bad influences on children; game publishers, developers, and consumers have be equally quick to defend them, pushing the responsibility to parents, and defending game content on grounds of freedom of speech and artistic expression.

After more than a decade of controversy, legal disputes, and research, it would seem that there is still no conclusive evidence to directly connect videogames with acts of violence and crime.  Despite this, videogames are, and will probably remain for some time, a controversial medium.  As a result, the intention of this essay is not to retread the same arguments for and against videogame censorship, because, as Ren Reynolds highlights, these arguments are grounded on two different theological perspectives which are unlikely to be resolved (Reynolds, R. 2002).   Instead, this essay will consider the potential dilemmas concerning whether or not industry professionals have an obligation to act in socially responsible manner.


DRAWING THE LINE

First, it is important to distinguish between microethics (individual professional responsibilities) and macroethics (responsibilities of the profession itself), and the dilemma this imposes on the individual developer (Ladd, J. 1995).  Looking at the responsibilities of the games profession itself (in terms of game content), there is a clear conflict between social responsibility and artistic expression.

On the one hand, it can be argued that it’s in the best interest of the games industry to limit the production of titles like Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, and other games which make a “sport out of theft, murder, prostitution and senseless destruction” (Martin, T. 2006).

Arguably, the Manhunt games aren’t ethically questionable because of their explicit content, so much as the implication that they were shrewdly marketed as games about murder; leveraging the negative publicity and tabloid outrage to their advantage.  For example, the BBFC’s justification for banning the sequel, combined with its limited availability, inadvertently serves to promote the game further:

“Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing.” (Jenkins D. 2007)

Other examples of games which used controversy to drive their sales included JFK: Reloaded, a game which allows the player to recreate the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and Postal 2, which allows the player to engage in various forms of homicidal and sadistic behaviour, often towards innocent bystanders and minority groups.

These kind of games have already tainted the industry’s reputation as a respectable medium, and incidents such as the “Hot Coffee” lawsuit and Manhunt 2 release have already cost companies like Take-Two significant financial losses (Gamasutra, 2007).  Consequently, concerns have been raised, by industry professionals like Raph Koster, that if the games industry continues to push its luck in this fashion (releasing controversial games for the sake of controversy) there’s a fair risk that society will call for more restrictive self-censorship system, similar to the Comics Code, which he argues “stunted the development of the comics medium severely for decades” (Koster, R. 2005).

Yet, at the same time, Koster acknowledges that “the danger is philistinism” (2005) — in other words that if developers don’t take design risks, and don’t push cultural boundaries, then their games will never rise to more than simple entertainment.  Thus, if developers want the videogames medium to be respected as an art form, alongside the film, literature, and music industries, they will have to challenge the limits of what is socially acceptable.  The problem is, at what point do developers draw the line between acceptable and offensive media?

An interesting example of this is the freeware game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (SCMRPG), which lets the player re-enact the Columbine High School shootings from the killers’ perspective. Whether this game can be considered artistic or tasteless very much comes down to individual interpretation; and while there have been many detractors of the game, it’s worth noting that one of the victims of the shooting incident supported the game (to some extent) (Crecente, B. 2006).  Likewise other developers have commented on its artistic value:

“The game lacks compassion, and I find the Artist’s Statement disingenuous. But despite this, the game does have redeeming value. It does provoke important thoughts, and it does push the boundaries of what games are about. It is composed with more of an eye toward art than most games.” (Blow, J. 2007)

Perhaps then, what differentiates a game like SCMRPG from games like Postal 2, partly depends on the original intent of the author.  Sincere or not, the creator of SCMRPG, Danny Ledonne, argues that he designed the game to make a statement concerning the Columbine incident and the issues it raises (e.g. gun control, videogame violence, bullying, etc) (Crecente, B. 2006).  In comparison, the developers of Postal 2 simply assert that the level of violence in the game is left to the player’s discretion, stressing that it’s possible to finish the game without resorting to violence.  However, certain design choices, such as the range and availability of weapons, clearly indicated that this isn’t developer’s intent.

While history will ultimately cast judgement on these individual cases, the question that has to be asked is: ‘What steps should the videogames industry, as a profession, take to reframe its public profile, in order to be taken seriously alongside other artistic mediums in the near future?’  Raph Koster suggests that a degree of moderation is required.

“The constructive thing to do is to push the boundary gently so that it doesn’t backfire. That’s how we got Lolita and Catcher in the Rye and how we got Apocalypse Now. As a medium, we have to earn the right to be taken seriously.” (R, Koster, 2005).

Silent Hill 2 is a game worth mentioning here, because while it combines violent imagery with sexual symbolism; it is also frequently praised for its mature narrative and presentation — culminating in a unique game experience that sets it apart from similar games in the survival horror genre (IGN, 2007).  Likewise, the BAFTA award winning Max Payne, while primarily an ultra-violent action game, also balances its mature content with an intelligent, film noir inspired story (Davis, G. 2002).  These games, while perhaps not breaking any major boundaries of the medium, are arguably a step in the right direction – not being outright offensive, but taking small steps towards a more mature industry.

PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPER

However, on the microethics level, the individual developer may have to face the dilemma of his personal moral code conflicting with his employment contract (or the contract with their client, such as a publisher).  As a result, an unfortunate developer might find themselves facing the prospect of either ‘lightening up’ and working on a game they morally object to (possibly for several years), or finding a new job.  This was illustrated last year by a revealing and candid weblog article written by a former employee of Rockstar Games, Jeff Williams, who reported that the company was allegedly divided on the controversial Manhunt.

“It may sound surprising, but there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game. It was Rockstar North’s pet project – most of us at Rockstar Games wanted no part of it. ….  It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.” (Williams, J. 2007)

In retrospect, it seems interesting that the publisher would pursue a sequel, in spite of this; however, for the individual developer, there is little guidance available for what to do in such a situation.  Other professions, such as medicine and law, have legally enforceable codes of conduct for members; and even software engineers have broad set of professional guidelines to follow in ethically ambiguous situations (ACM, 1997; IEEE 2007).  However, with an overall lack of union presence in the games industry, individual developers effectively lack representation outside of their employing company, and therefore have to go along with the company’s management and values – or resign. 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Like many ethical debates driven by media controversy, there is a tendency to shift the responsibility to other parties.  For instance, public outrage will likely put pressure on games industry professionals and governments to regulate videogames content more vigorously.  Likewise, game developers and publishers are more likely to hold the view that parents are ultimately responsible for monitoring and regulating what kind of content they allow their children to watch and interact with.

Rather than pursue the circular arguments and inconclusive research surrounding the issue of whether games are actually harmful; it has been argued that in order for the games industry to mature and become a respected cultural medium (either for entertainment or artistic expression), it is in the best interest of industry practitioners to take more professional responsibility for the games they create, and to become somewhat more sensitive to the cultural context in which they create them (outside of their target demographic).  As other mediums have shown over the centuries, adult themes such as sex and violence can be presented in respectable, even artistic manner.  However, the onus is on the creator(s) to approach the subject with some degree of tact and professionalism.

This applies on both an industry-wide and individual level; however it has also been noted that there is a significant lack of professional representation for individual professionals in the games industry.  The software engineering codes and guidelines of the ACM and IEEE have limited application in this field, and hence the games industry could benefit from its own game professional association, providing a moral compass for individual members.  While the IGDA does fill this role to some extent, the issues it advocates (such as anti-censorship) primarily concern the profession as a whole, and do not provide any specific guidelines or codes of professional conduct for the individual.

Ultimately, it would be unfair to suggest that the responsibility rests entirely on the shoulders of the games industry.  In the long run, all concerned parties are socially responsible, in equal measure, for ensuring that videogames are fairly regulated without resorting to unnecessary censorship.  Lastly, it’s in the best interest of the games industry to work with governments, and organisations such as the BBFC and ELSPA, to proactively raise public awareness of the facts concerning the videogames medium, rather than react over defensively to bad publicity.

© 2008 – 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.

REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY

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[1] Casamassina, M. 2007.

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