Is censorship even remotely effective, or does it just make concerned citizens feel better?
By Patrick Vuleta on March 24, 2014 at 1:43 pm
On Thursday I thought we could all have a nice, friendly chat about whether there’s a parallel between censorship issues in gaming , and the laws restricting guns. After all, Fox News sure likes to link the two together, and gamers need to be able to engage in these debates thrust upon us. What I didn’t anticipate was how emotive the issue would be, and I apologise. I’m not even pro gun—don’t own a gun, don’t have the intention to, and don’t believe that guns are the answer to violence. Like Leliana, I like bows.
But I am concerned that existing laws will not be enough once technology evolves. Laws should always be reviewed, and questioned. They should never be mere appeasement. Always reviewed to ensure they were not the case of politicians taking advantage of people’s emotions, and constantly questioned for objectivity.
So today’s question is whether gaming censorship laws were political appeasement, or whether they’re actually effective. To answer this question, we need to examine what the objective of the laws is, how they pursue this objective, and whether, in the words of one commentator “Some law is no better than no law.”
What is games censorship meant to do?
Games censorship is meant to maintain community standards. Such standards are obviously clear when talking about truly sensitive issues, issues which I don’t want to give the dignity of naming. However, they become less clear when talking about the myriad of other issues. Adults are meant to be able to view what they want, and so R18+ was created to allow this and bring games in parallel with films.
At the same time, games are widely played by minors, so censorship recognises that some things just aren’t suitable for children. The hope is that no one will play pornography games, only adults will play games with explicit images of dismemberment, and minors will play My Little Pony —The Adventures of Twilight Sparkle, Bestest Pony Ever.
How does games censorship do this?
Censorship first reviews games to divide them into a broad classification scheme. Truly objectionable games are refused classification outright. Games showing explicit violence, sex, or drug use, are classified R18. Medium violence gets classified MA15, and ponies are G rated. Unless they’re ponies running guns.
Next up is Customs to filter out the truly objectionable material. This smut shouldn’t even reach our shores. So far, so good—I think we can all agree with that. Anything else gets let through.
At the dealer level, the classification tag must be clearly displayed, and R18 games must not be included for sale along any other games. Dealers are then not meant to sell R18 games to minors. If everyone plays along, the system works as intended.
The concern, however, is what happens when parts of the system break down. Like a stack of dominoes, does knocking over one weak support bring the whole house crashing down?
Censorship is a placebo
We can all agree that Customs blocking smut is good. We can probably agree that 8 year olds should be stopped from playing Mortal Kombat. Judging from my formative years, that’s a 13 year old’s game. What is in issue, however, is whether everything else in between can be too easily circumvented.
The recent uncensoring of South Park demonstrated how quick blocked material can be re-enabled. This is problematic because it encourages kids to actively seek out the uncensored versions. Once it becomes common knowledge that the games we receive can be easily converted to their fully automatic, censorship-free varieties, our censorship laws will cease having effectiveness. It’s not just theory, either. China has this problem where piracy is accepted as a cultural norm. Once something is entrenched, it’s difficult to change.
Yet another problem is that by trying to censor too much, the government sends the wrong message that they are actually in control. With the ease of which games can be uncensored or otherwise acquired illegally, the only effective way to guarantee kids play what they’re meant to is attentive parenting. Our government should not be sending the message to parents that ratings laws are doing anything effective. We should always be promoting parental responsibility. On this issue, some law is not better than no law at all.
Perhaps, then, our ratings laws need to be made voluntary and simplified. Keep the objectionable material out of this country, but everything else is fair game. Games are either banned outright, or not banned at all, giving parents the responsibility to inform themselves what their kids are doing, and act accordingly.
We should not even try to use half-assed censorship to make a sort-of-bad game sort-of-OK. Instead, unless a game is truly objectionable, it should receive the benefit of the doubt and be let in. This is more or less what America’s ESRB system does, and it works well. However, we should not follow the American way on guns.