shoot ’em up

The US Supreme Court has given full First Amendment protections to violent video games (see coverage on CNET, LA Times, and a more specific, chin-stroking look at The Atlantic .

California’s law banned the sale of violent video games to customers under 18. Lawmakers defined “violent” as activity involving “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Each violation could bring a $1,000 fine.

From the British perspective, it always seems the US obsession with creating law and subsequent trips to the Supreme Court makes the jurisdiction of anything as confusing as the results of a modelling balloon show carried out by a man on meow-meow. On the specifics of video games and their sale, the US is markedly different to Britain with its self-regulated industry, one which California (and in a related manner, Florida), had tried to regulate by State law. In Britain, the video game industry has been brought into film/cinema certificate registration, and as such stores are liable for any under-age purchase.

Has the US-approach turned out more responsible than the marzipan layers of regulation over here?

In 2003, the UK government confirmed it had chosen the Europe-wide “PEGI” classification system, over the BBFC’s ‘in house’ judgements, which resulted in the latter giving a “I don’t like it, but I’m going to have to go along with it” reaction you may recognise from the German Finance Minister talking to Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan.

The safety-net of the First Amendment is a comfort blanket for Americans across the political divide – and good heavens, is there not a more appropriate word than ‘divide’. Protecting the right to freedom of expression obviously makes some feel awkward – what one person considers the right to speech is another’s chipping away at decency. It’s something like this which shines a light on what appears to be inherent contradictions within the attitude over here – swearing and violence can be broadcast on television without many eyebrows raised, running parallel to a strict certificate policy for video games.

For the most part, video game players know their own market, and self-regulate far more than the suited legislators realise. Playing Fallout 3 or Red Dead Redemption is far for funny than fierce – however hilarious it is watching the heads of your enemies flying through the air, a very small minority of those playing would consider continuing the action outside.

(Likewise, cannabis smokers self-regulate far more than drug enforcing politicians understand, for whom the idea of quality control amongst drug dealers seems more outrageous than the concept of homes constructed from malt loaf)

Not much has changed since my earlier blog on Mortal Kombat. My view then, and now, is more in line with how the Supreme Court has seen things. There is a moral justification for a level of regulation which ensures children don’t see, for example, R18 pornography; though the ultimate responsibility must always be with guardians and not censors.

One notable, if distressing, milestone along the way in the UK was the murder of Jamie Bulger in 1993. His killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were known to have watched violent videos, including Child’s Play 3, which includes a toy possessed with murderous rage ultimately killed by a runaway train. No firm connection was ever drawn which connected their actions to films, never mind games. From the coverage of that story, tabloid outrage about violent films, and by extension computer games, grew into campaign for moral reinvention. Clearly the results have turned from uneven to totally haphazard – for every demand for a strict watershed (“Ban this sick filth!”) there is a general demand of, and acceptance for, realism in films which stretches across language and sexual content to violence. The Bulger case has, in time, directed attention to criminals and our attitude towards rehabilitation. What causes the most extreme of crimes, and whether constraints should be put on the freedom to choose, fades into the background of the argument.

Whether video games are influencing cinema, or the other way round, is open to debate. The US Supreme Court recognised the relationship between the two by referencing from the start how many filmic tropes appear throughout the produce of the gaming industry – from narrative structure to character development and explicit scenes. We are expected, and show pretty darn well on the whole, to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, between the world outside the door and that inside the television sets (do we still use “sets”?). Unless the media is suppressing dozens of attacks on innocent bus-stop commuters by crazed Duke Nukham addicts, I’d wager the majority of the UK population clearly can differentiate reality from fantasy, and act accordingly.

I am cheered by the opening paragraph of the Supreme Court ruling. If the United States continues to show far more libertarian attitudes towards personal freedoms in this regard, how deeply embarrassed should European governments or censors feel in comparison?

Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And “the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary” with a new
and different communication medium

Union daze

Is the Coalition doing too much, too soon, with too many potential enemies?

During his time in power, Tony Blair made himself unpopular with the Unions with his attempts to lead public sector reform (and this was a bloke who was at the bottom of the Christmas Card list from the first time he became Labour leader). Blair wanted to be a Labour leader who rewrote the relationship between the Party and their former Union comrades. He was not a typical Labour politician, and New Labour was not a typical labour party.

I’ve never had a problem with the right to strike, my problem has always been towards Union Leaders themselves, the self-appointed ‘awkward squad’ who parade themselves across the media like visiting Presidents from far-flung Socialist islands somewhere. Anyone who grew up from the 1960s onwards could testify to any passing psychotherapist that their childhood was ruined by the constant droning of leftwing firebrands as an audio backdrop.

It’s doubtful that the wider population have fully attached themselves to the causes at hand. Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, never knowingly caught smiling in public, are full of incendiary threats and caustic promises towards the Coalition. It’s one thing (and a good thing) to campaign for the best wages and working practices for the people your Union represents. It’s not quite so laudable to play politics with those workers, to act as activists for a de-facto political campaign. It’s a lot harder to justify strike action to people who are not members of a Union on the same wage as a public sector worker.

Labour’s spending spree, record breaking as it was, has left the country with a massive economic hangover. Not just a lager hangover, this one has Jager bombs, Southern Comfort and a 1996 vintage Cava thrown in too.

There has to be consequences to Labour’s economic chaos. Including the bank bailouts, the national debt is £2.3 trillion; this cloud touches every aspect of our lives, public and private sectors, food prices, the amount Governments can spend, the amount people can save. What the Coalition is trying to do is not ideological blindness; it’s the consequence of facing the balance sheets in such a state that there is no other option. The national credit-card is maxed out.

Of course Unions must ensure their workers are not buffeted too hard by the work required, though that is not what some Union Leaders are doing or saying. In truth, Prentis’ threat of strikes ‘worse than the 1920s’ is the kind of unprofessional hubris you’d expect from the Students Union. The agenda of all three mainstream parties is ultimately the same – reduce government borrowing, make public spending fairer, more affordable and targeted where it’s most needed, and reduce the national debt. Union Leaders are living in an alternative universe if they believe the national debt can be allowed to grow much deeper, or if they believe public spending was sustainable without guaranteed results locked in.

Everybody wants to protect those services – especially the NHS – which we are incredibly lucky to have in this country, and having seen the NHS close-up during my mum’s time in hospital, I want not one word of criticism to go towards nurses and doctors, whose workrate and compassion impressed me from the first moment I saw them. Protecting those services does not mean preserving them in aspic.

On a politics forum I visit, a poster who works within the NHS wrote this :

We’ve got authorities who now require a panel meeting to justify any expenditure over £100. So you’ve got 4 middle managers sat down reviewing a case to see whether they can justify buying a £100 commode.

Palpable nonsense, I’m sure you agree. Examples of a similar nature abound in the public sector – and I know we can list in the thousands examples from within private companies where there’s virtually no check against money spent on such situations. The NHS is a wonderful service, one which I would defend to the death, but at what cost do we wrap cling-film around these institutions? Could private companies provide hospital food at a budget higher than £1.51 per patient, per day, as was the case at Preston Royal?

As someone on a low wage, I understand the pain of getting the money to behave itself. I know how it feels to walk to work to avoid train-fares, the necessity to buy cheap food close to its sell by date from discount stores; I have punched many walls in anger at every time a payrise is denied. These realities are not reserved for just employees of private firms; Union Leaders should stop trying to wrap their workers in bubble-wrap. Sometimes we all need to accept that we can’t get the improvements to our working lives to which we feel entitled. How much somebody earns, and how much they can expect from a pension at retirement, is the most hot of all current political topics. As someone who works for a private company, I have had no pay-rise in 3 years, and have not put anything away for a pension. I earn just under £15,000 for a 40-hour week, suffering just as anyone would trying to make the money stretch the month.

In time, I suspect the reforms and changes this year – the natural extension of Blairite reforms started 13 years ago – will be seen for what they always were intended to be. Keeping Britain’s enviable public services as amongst the best in the world for far less waste and far more affordable overall cost.

Strikes and the right-to-strike are vital parts of any vibrant, functioning democracy. Unions which bargain hard have produced brilliant results for the good of workers running throughout history. Union Leaders who replace responsibility for recklessness are authors of their own misfortune. Governments must always be in fear of their people, Unions are the check to ensure that maxim is never positioned the wrong way round. When Governments take the piss, Unions are one element of the fightback against them. It works both ways, however, something the more militant members of the Union movement have struggled to accept. It’s interesting observing Ed Miliband accept his role as an untypical Labour leader, as John Smith and Tony Blair before him realised very early on.

Whatever happens after the first wave of strikes this week, you can’t say we don’t live in interesting times….


My mother passed away last week, and doubtlessly she would be appalled at the subject matter of this blog. That said, she always felt writing on-line always ensured the author was one paragraph away from a broadsheet’s newsdesk, meaning everything must surely balance out.

The four-letter C-word which is most offensive is matter for discourse after the Mail on Sunday created (in the sense of inventing something from scratch) one of their classic front page stories. Put together the BBC, liberals, non-British nationals and the breakdown in society and you produce classic MoS flabbergasted outrage.

As you may have noticed, the MoS don’t just reproduce the joke at the centre of the outrage, they also make it very clear that Sandi Toksvig didn’t actually use the word itself. In common with every comedian, comedy writer and funny woman in history, she used innuendo and implication. The line in full? The Coalition put the “n” into “cuts”. Hilarious, no?

BBC-bashing removed, the MoS have nothing else but froth and nonsense sprayed across the front page. It must be like helping an elderly former General, working at the Mail, never knowing when an innocent subject would set him off, spewing hate across the room without warning, leaving a poor care assistant to spend the evening wiping spittle off the Union Flag jigsaw puzzle. “How was I to know it was upside down?”

The word in question, all four letters of it, is at the top of broadcasting watchdog’s naughty swears list. For British viewers who must assume that the list no longer exists, it’s still pretty much taboo to say it. Chris Morris got knuckles wrapped for just putting the word in an on-screen graphic. It’s common to hear “fuck” and “shit” and “twat” all over the channels after 9pm – or at first thing in the morning if you’ve fallen asleep without turning off the Thick Of It DVD. The most holy of holy words (or if you prefer, hole-y, innuendo fans), is still only present very rarely. American viewers may never hear it at all on their television programmes (indeed, US audiences are always left bemused at just how much swearing, and inventive swearing at that, features uncensored on British TV.)

Any A-level student worth their salt should recognise the word as one used without much red-faced embarrassment across centuries by writers who could tiptoe (not pussy foot, come on now) around the Monks and printing presses. The Oxford English Dictionary has this from the year 1400:

In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte.

Chaucer, famously, would utilise all manner of alterations to the word – Kent, at one point, making the Wife of Bath seem more well travelled than first thought – and let us not forget “chamber of Venus” while we’re at it. If you want real emphasis with your swears, there’s also this 19th Century construction:

He‥became in fact *cunt-struck upon her.

and this from a publication called “Romance of Lust”.

As the very good blog “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands” says, this entire article is much fuss about exactly nothing. Radio 4 is not CBBC, nor is The News Quiz soft and fluffy family fun. When Alan Coren was a regular team captain, he was just as rude and raucous. Maybe Sandi has the misfortune of being female, and therefore automatically handicapped in the mind of your average Mail journo? Doubtlessly they hated Sarah Lund for not looking after her son properly. These Danes! Nothing but trouble since they landed here, what have we been told about immigration?

Having been brought up without much swearing in the house from either parent, my introduction to any naughty word was at school, and limited in any case to suppressed giggles wrapped around them. I will always remember being ticked off for using “twatted” – in the context of “being hit” – which I used knowing it to be controversial. I tend now to utilise them as and when needed. There’s always times and places for using “shyte”, which is always better with a northern accent behind it. For this fake front-page splash, the Mail have generated outrage where none is justified – the word was not used, only implied, and if the world of Carry On… movies or Blackpool’s saucy postcards are acceptable for their peculiarly outdated world, then so can this.

If you want to go anywhere else to learn about the joyous little world, I can move you towards the BBC Two language programme ‘Balderdash and Piffle’, where Germaine Greer analysed the history of it with characteristic vigour.

I apologise to my mum for using such terms, of course, though having also used it to bash the damned Mail I’m sure she understands.