Download festival

Yes, it’s the year of the sex Olympics, with the United Kingdom dripping wet and sweaty and smelling just a tiny bit of yeast. On one side is the Puritanical Corps., awash with purity and virtue and clean knickers fresh from M&S, and on the other is a looser union of people holding up their hairy palms and placards which read “Keep off my  X-Hamster” and such like.

Not for many moons has the UK seemed so unable to accept that S-E-X exists, and certainly for the first time since the 1990s does it appear the massed ranks of the Establishment has finally decided to take on the Internet, with all its swearing and ‘Breaking Bad’ spoilers and nipples all over the place. Every person who wants “Porn blocks” and the like have consistently failed, doubtlessly deliberately, to understand the distinction between the different kinds of pornography available on the Internet and the relative dangers of watching ‘too much’ of each kind.

As I have blogged before the ‘Porn block’ brigade tend not to appreciate how boring a lot of on-line sex actually is, and have conflated too many different complaints and issues into one damp tissue of negativity. It’s neither constructive nor productive to consider the term ‘extreme porn’ to cover everything from XTube’s amateur hour to a multi-million dollar production Californian production company churning out the glossy tits and teeth.

This week’s target for outpouring of outrage is your everyday public wifi, which has been highlighted as potentially opening up the gates of pure hell and evil to everybody’s smartphones.

This is another overblown reaction from folk who don’t seem to quite get it. (The technology, I mean, not “it” as in “whoopie”. Although sometimes I wouldn’t like to say…)

Here’s a task for you. Go into Starbucks (then leave again because THEIR COFFEE IS RUBBISH). Go into a pub instead, one where you’ll see this sign, or something like it. Now get a pint of something light, maybe a packet of Scampi Fries, sit down with the i and load up your phone. With “The Cloud” you may have to sign in with a password, but that’s fine, it’s free, and reliable (and thanks to some wags at a Greggs near me, available through the wall of the next-door pub which doesn’t have wifi otherwise).  Now that you’ve got free wifi through “The Cloud” and it’s not taking anything from your monthly allowance, search for something adult or naughty or just plain rude.

Found anything? Probably not. And that’s normal. Not completely trouble free, but nothing like the SCANDAL AND SHOCK which you’d assume from the Guardian article linked to above and others like it.

The fact is that “Porn blocks”, content controls and other general settings already shut down a lot of search terms, including links to sites which have nothing to do with pornography. “The Cloud” and other wifi favourite BT are infamous for being very tight with their content controls, particularly as their services are used so extensively in cafes, pubs and public venues. That searching for “horny girls xxx” in my local Dog & Duck brings up nothing at all doesn’t shock or surprise me, I actually support the fact that public wifi makes it harder for people to, well, get hard.

There is no way to ensure each and every potential harmful website is restricted in each and every public building. We shouldn’t be run by politicians who think that the aim for them is to do such a thing, even if it sounds like great logic to their frazzled brains. It may be shocking to politicos and Professionally Outraged Daily Mail Writers that knives can be bought on-line whilst supping a mocha, but what do they want to happen? That all shopping sites be restricted or closed down by “The Cloud” and others? For knives on-line to be only sold if used for buttering toast or at most cutting into a brioche? Where exactly is the “end point”?

Wifi in public places is a great and valuable service. It may need fixing here and there, sorting out this and that, only the mood music of 2013 makes me feel that such tinkering is not what people want. If it’s scary that porn is available at your local library because they’ve not sorted out the restrictions, then talk to the library management or local council. Don’t create a national scandal. Don’t presume everything can be fixed by thinking in terms of cotton-wool and  bubblewrap.

(Is there a fetish site dedicated to cotton-wool and bubblewrap? Back in five minutes……)

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top shelf and behind closed doors

In those hazy, lazy, faraway union-flag-quilt-and-Smirnoff-Ice days of the 90s, “lads mags” were all the rage. Whilst faded in glory today, they retain a certain grip on both supermarket shelves and amongst the court of public opinion. Recently a group of disgruntled feministbots raged against them with threats of legal action on grounds of human rights and sexual harrasment, provoking another flurry of he-said, she-demands outrage on- and off-line.

There’s plenty of threads to pick at here. Let’s start with the body image argument, one which has a very valid foundation even if the rest of the building is unsound. The desire for a body beautiful worries men as much as women, only the boys chasing a six-pack tend to be pushed aside by mainstream media’s coverage of teenage body image crises. As long ago as 2001, the British Medical Journal warned that male concerns about chasing the magazine “approved” look was leading to suicide.

Whilst it’s valid to point to the ladies with the ample balcony and cry “foul”, the lack of any concern for the male equivalent is worrying. Young men are likely to be as wary of not looking “built” as young women are for not appearing to have a glossy-cover body. (And this is before we look at something like the cover of Gay Times, for example, where the well-built and tanned cover stars might attract more concern for perfection from a community already beset with issues of self-confidence and image problems.)

And then we get to porn. Good old fashioned, every day porn. The days of my youth were peppered by attempts to read the top shelf goodies which even by the 1990s were still heavily censored – and for that matter, heavily hirsute, if you know what I mean. What teenagers of 2013 can access with a few clicks makes the 1993 versions seem as tame as Victorian ankle-flashers, but even then dire warnings rained down about the dangers of seeing half-naked women in the pages of “Whitehouse” and “Razzle”.  Iceland would like to outlaw Internet porn entirely and Labour in this country have hinted a similar policy would be forthcoming if they win in 2015. There’s a lot of sayings crossing my mind here – horses, stable doors, the closing of such.

I’m not in denial about the realities of some members of the pornography industry, or of the harsh and often dangerous circumstances for women behind the XXX website banners. But I’m not here to defend the State-sponsored censorship of the Internet on the back of a misguided concern about safety, either for children or women or both. If this sounds like “protesting too much”, I counterargue that the reality of Internet porn is as much wobbly and out of focus amateur videos uploaded to Cam4 as it is slickly edited “professional” material locked behind passwords and subscriptions.

My automatic discomfort against any form of legal threats and censorship comes not from an obsession with porn, but a determination to stand against the moral guardians strongarming common-sense. It’s unjust and unfair for feminist outrage corps. to dismiss lads mags as unacceptable whilst implicitly allowing Take A Break and Closer and others to zoom into wobbly thighs and lumpy stomachs with thick red circles and thicker yellow arrows. If Zoo magazine showing a glamour model is sexist, of what crime is Closer guilty for showing a soap star without make-up under the label “ROUGH AS!”?

A debate has to be had about the attitude towards sex and sexuality which has taken the State unaware, that much I accept. There’s no validity in the “BAN THIS FILTH” argument, especially from such moral champions as The Daily Mail who run an hourly sidebar of shame ticking off women (specifically) for being too thin, too fat, too garish, not garish enough, too daring, too old-fashioned, too feminist and not feminist enough. They’re not being “the best friend” pointing out fashion tips, they’re being the bitter bitch behind the net curtains hating women for being themselves long after their own beauty has faded.

Maybe I’m naive, but teenage boys finding women attractive is the way of nature. If they didn’t have Zoo (or page 3 or anything as soft/censored as I did in the 90s), they’d have some way to beat out (snigger) their natural desires. Ditto women, for whom there’s enough sniggering and tittering about fit men within the pages of their magazines. There’s no innocence amongst women’s glossy magazines when it comes to showing the flesh of either sex, or the demands on men in the bedroom. Is that not counter to the belief amongst certain kinds of feminists, or am I being dismissive?

The debate the country needs must look at everything which relates to sex and sexual politics, and that has to be cut through by some pretty obvious realities about human nature. The fallout from Leveson shows just how dangerous the topic of press freedom can be, especially when the State is put under pressure to regulate or censor material before publication. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a country in which, during a time when people are reminding us “not to let the enemy win”, we sleepwalk into blocking, banning and censoring material on the grounds of morality.

very angry internet

“The Internet does not create social outcasts,” started the line I first heard in the mid-1990s. “It collects  them.”

It’s been quite a week for reeling out the wise old sayings and maxims, from “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to “Never trust a moose to buy a round of drinks”. Or something. To dust off another tired old phrase – “he’s the kind of person who could have an argument in an empty room” – and there’s no more larger collection of empty rooms that the internet outside abandoned building projects in the greater Dublin area. As long as there’s been message-boards and chatrooms there’s been Internet users ready and willing to flame a debate in a flurry of pedantry, insults, defamation and ‘your mom’ jibes. You’re not likely to be more than three clicks of a mouse away from a choice Anglo-Saxon swear word or twelve, be it within the swamps of YouTube comment sections, newspaper story reaction threads or  Twitter.

It’s the microblogging tweeters which have attracted the most attention from the mainstream media this year, to the extent that it appears the BBC and Daily Mail consider themselves to have coined the word “troll”. With trolling becoming the issue of the day for the guardians of good taste and decency, misunderstanding of the realities of everyday Internet use will doubtlessly grow, and from there comes bad law and reactionary mistakes.

With millions of people reacting in real time to every event happening around the world, be it waiting at a bus stop or watching the men’s 100m final (spoiler alert, Americans, Usain Bolt wins), Twitter never stops displaying the thoughts of everyone and anyone within easy reach of a keyboard. It should be obvious to anyone that little corners of Twitter will therefore get testy and tetchy, especially when dealing with those parts of the real world which seems so far away and distant – namely politics and celebrity. People always feel a buzz of starlight and success in the presence of celebrity or power, which is why so many Twitter users rush to get a reply, re-tweet or just a mere mention from someone whose face appears in the newspapers every so often. The Press can examine this as much as they exploit – themselves trolling the search function for enough insults and criticisms to fill a page of orchestrated outrage.

As anyone who’s ever worked in an office will tell you, email and the Internet are considered “great levellers”, enabling people with a slight grievance to email the head of department or supervisors in real time about (and I’m using real examples from my own office life here), the choice of music on a CD player brought in for the Christmas period, the eating of paté at lunch, and requests to take time off for “boyfriend problems”. The consequence of this can be a lack of common sense to the point of sheer lunacy, seen sporadically in message-board rants, seen almost by the minute in foul mouthed, racist or generally violent tweets to celebrities, television presenters or the like. I can see both sides – if a celebrity joins Twitter they should expect both fans and foes, but how does the ‘leveller’ of the Internet justify specifically targeting a presenter for being, say, fat, or boring, or ugly, or too Asian, and how many idiots do we allow to act this way before acting ourselves?

Britain already has laws against malicious behaviour on-line, some of it going back decades to an age when the Internet was talked about without the definite article and nobody had ever considered it likely that the computer in the corner of the room would be used at 2am for watching repeats of QI on YouTube. There’s no real need for additional laws against trolling to be drafted, though it’s tempting to risk it just to see how legalese translates ‘trolling’ into parliamentary language. “Trolls” can encompass all manner of on-line behaviour, not just wishing Tom Daley would be drowned or calling a British Muslim television presenter pub-chant insults. I’m sure some people will gladly call those users who type “FIRST!” underneath newspaper articles “trolls” just to see them woken up at 5am by the finest members of Inspector Knacker’s Computer Corps. Additionally, it could be worth a quick call to the Malicious Computer Behaviour Advisory Group (see, I’m already guessing how parliament might have to transliterate these sorts of things) every time an American calls a Briton “douchebag” in the YouTube comments sections underneath sporting highlight clips.

The fact is – we don’t need additional laws curbing Internet use, Twitter behaviour or blog opinions. By focussing on Twitter, the media are in danger of allowing the rest of the Internet to fester all the more than it already is, and that’s the very definition of the law of unintended consequences. Stretch the net further and you’ll find 4chan (and we all know about that, don’t we), the Daily Mail (ditto, for the same reasons by and large) and Facebook’s campaigning groups division, for which there’s no moral outrage too trivial that can’t be turned into a mawkish flag of life changing importance. There’s no feasible way, short of closing the Internet completely, for every page and every comment to be policed, not least because so little can be easily captured or searched, and as I said before, the ‘great leveller’ of the Internet provokes the most enthused argumenter to waft around “freedom of speech” justification at every turn. Arresting a student for insulting an Olympic diver whilst approximately a hypergazillion people wish death by cancer on approximately an additional hypergazillion in YouTube comments sections seems a little like trophy hunting to me.

I’m not being fatalistic; the Internet can be polices, and despite being a fence-sitting free-speech loving treehugger I accept that some frameworks must be erected to catch the worst forms of insulting or violent behaviour. But from this must come reason and restraint – is it ‘malicious’ that some sites host videos of alleged shooting massacres in Iraq or Syria, shared by some people who campaign for justice in the Middle East and shared by others who just like watching gore and extreme violence? How much legalese do we want to slalom around the distinction between “genuine” and “fake” reasons for sharing around violent videos of this kind? If we learned anything from the ‘Twitter joke trail’, the written word can be redefined howsoever an unintended audience member wishes. Will there be a legal definition drafted for sarcasm, irony, insult? What becomes of a joke when a barrister-turned-MP decides to analyse the definition for the purposes of statute law? If you watch a video in which a Libyan market trader is shot in the neck, do you watch it for pleasure, curiosity or research? What about porn?

The Internet can be a very angry place. You’re never too far away from people ‘swearing down’ that another person, or an institution, or an entire country, is going to feel his/her/their wrath. If we allow the current breed of Twitter trolls to lead the redefinition of on-line behaviour, we could end up with restrictions far beyond any feared by SOPA campaigners. I’m more angered that my mobile phone provider demands I ‘opt in’ to material it considers to be adult, and that this appears to have been largely accepted, than I am bothered by knowing that a celebrity television presenter is being called an ugly slut on Twitter. He/she/they can probably deal with that in their own way, or just stop using Twitter. There’s little chance of fighting back against censorship or state control if there’s restricted access to the very tools to carry out the job. Let’s treat all trolls as we would most permanently angry. I’d rather have an Internet with a few old man’s pubs occupied by barflies and world weary know-it-alls than one with minimal furnished see-and-be-seen bars where you walk around with fixed smiles and bitten tongues.

Gangbanged

Following a Daily Mail witch-hunt/campaign and the Conservative MP Claire Perry’s “Independent Inquiry” into online child protection (see the very good post from Ministry of Truth about defining the words ‘independent’ and ‘inquiry’ in this context), the UK is one step closer to State approved Internet censorship. The proposed law is now available to view, with its innocuous enough title of the “Online Safety Bill”.

I was born in the distant 1980s, making my relationship with adult material follow the usual path of “blissful ignorance”, “Late night Channel 4”, “dog eared copies of Whitehouse”, “copied VHS passed on from a friend of a friend’s friend” and then “Internet access” somewhere around early teenage-dom. If you don’t know ‘Eurotrash’ with the sound turned down and a quilt underneath the door, you don’t know the eagerness with which boys of a certain age wanted to see subtitled naughtiness.

That level of smut is a world removed from the Internet age, in which people of all ages are one Google search away from seeing all manner of explicit bits, bops and fiddling about. There is almost no taste or fetish for which a website exists, and the popularity of YouTube-style amateur upload sites makes it all the easier for a couple (or a lone bloke feeling a bit frisky) to show the world how they’re feeling for about…five minutes (three if, you know, it’s been a hard day at work and I’m tired and this bed isn’t very comfortable and…anyway…..).

As we all know, the Internet cannot be censored, making every innocent search for the latest news headlines or an amusing cat picture one click away from Roxxie Thrust-McKenzie having her way with two garage mechanics….

…No, sorry, the Internet can be censored to a degree already, with parental controls and filters. As with most things in life, forbidden fruit is thought to taste better, which is how most teenagers end up smoking, trying weed, drinking cider in a park or trying to view naughty images on line. Forget to change Google’s image search to “safe” is enough to reveal Page 3 models showing their assets, after all. “Opt in” systems for any kind of assumed adult material has all the practicality of attempting to stop office workers from playing Minesweeper. The point being – if grown adults decide to filter/control Internet access under their own roofs, they can do.

Suggesting that the Internet should be censored or blocked in some way often comes from those “in the know” who choose to ignore that ‘temptations’ can also incorporate video footage of hostage beheading, graphic CCTV footage of car crashes or the 9/11 attacks. Graphic footage of Premier League footballers having their legs broken during play can be on YouTube or Daily Motion within fifteen minutes of it happening. These graphic examples are often dismissed or ignored by advocates of Internet policing, an attitude which differentiates between violence and sex, but not between different kinds of erotica. The lie – “It’s about making the Internet safe for children” – is retold enough times to suggest that no middle ground possibly exists between “free for all” and “State approved content”. Are certain lobby groups unable to suggest out loud that parents might be to blame for children searching for XTube? Or are MPs ignorant to how the Internet is navigated beyond blogs and Twitter?

Of all the worrying/facepalm inducing sentences in Perry’s report is the recommendation that – ” The Government should also seek backstop legal powers to intervene should the 
ISPs fail to implement an appropriate solution. ” If private companies won’t deal with Internet access, then the State is going to have to haul them to court! That’ll teach them to know their own customers, control mechanisms and processes! It’s almost as though there’s wilful blindness going on…

There is much to debate about the pornography industry itself – from what viewing explicit material might do to a person over a long-period to safeguarding the wellbeing of those who choose to participate in the industry. Parents have a responsibility to educate their children to whatever extent they feel comfortable doing, a stance which might put me on the opposite side of the room to Harriet Harman. (If there’s any view I hold which puts me with Harman, I might have to consider medication). As user generated content websites prove, there’s only so much of a moral crusade pressure groups can inflict across cyberspace to defeat the great Porn Demon – humans will always feel sexual urges and some will feel comfortable in sharing their acts amongst an audience. The all encompassing “opt in” will do nothing to stop shadier/un-registered parts of the industry from exploiting the vulnerable or abused, it will only make the Morality Police feel better about themselves. That rush of self-congratulation might soon fade if the “opt in” accidentally blocks ordinary material (as some mobile phone blocks incorporate Facebook and Twitter) or accidentally ignores potentially arousing images (such as tabloid newspaper’s favoured roll call of flashed knickers, bikini beach shots and the like).

“Opt in” adult content will not make the Internet cleaner, or teenagers less likely to share dirty photos through text messages or BBM/MSN. Whilst it’s easier to deny freedom of thought than it is to research why sexual content is so popular to view/share/experience, the State is much more comfortable getting its groove on, and for that, we’re all left drowning in a deeply unsatisfactory wet-patch.

joke in search of a punchline

The internet likes its memes and tropes – giving kittens the language of human toddlers, putting ‘first’ at the bottom of newspaper comment columns, adapting kanji into emoticons (they’re so HIPSTER o(^-^)o)


As anyone who has analysed humour will testify, jokes are fragile creatures. Kenneth Williams would implore the importance of the punchline (“taaag, it’s all in the taaaag”); Danny Baker, Stephen Fry and Dave Gorman have all investigated how much like a fragile plant is the humble one-liner (“Dig it up to examine its roots the plant will die..”). Throw a penny into that particular pond and you’d never hear the splash – the ‘net will merrily permit its users to duplicate, replicate and murder every quip at the moment of birth. Such is humour – the joke you heard at the comedy club is the one you’ve just told at your office canteen, out into the world like so many butterflies. The important thing is the hit, the pay-off, the freshness and unexpected nature of which ensures the impact is never lost: the internet tends to dip the butterfly wings in varnish before setting them free. Up, up and…..run over by a mobility scooter.

“So Gazza turned up with a roast chicken and a fishing rod!” is one such pay-off which is deeper in the red than most Greek bank accounts. It may spew out from mainstream panel shows like baby sick, on-line communities have long since ruled (in that weird group-think Wikipedia excels in) that there’s more chance of getting a giggle from saying “Your mum!” and running off down the road. There was inherent surrealism, and thus humour, from the tragi-comic image at the time; it’s long since gone the way of most fads. Look out “#winning”, they’re coming for you next.

Like millions of people around the world, I watched the film Downfall in stunned silence – never knowing such an emotional film was to be hijacked by the Internet’s Culture and Humour Committee for a constant series of parodies which would define the phrase ‘diminishing return’. The infamous bunker scene, in which the ailing Hitler begins to realise the figures on his map have more life than the troops they represent, is the thousand-and-then-some duplicated subtitled meme sensation. Want Hitler to comment on your team’s latest signing, the latest film flop or a political scandal? Use Downfall, and watch Hitler garble your own subtitled outrage for much lulz and re-tweets.

Except, in reality, this doesn’t happen. Or it should not happen, at least as much, so successfully, because the Bunker parody is tired and old and unfunny. It has been misused, failing the basic test of humour. The tag, that vital element of a joke, has been flattened and squashed, with all the flavour of supermarket tortelloni. 



The Labour MP Tom Harris has been shunted out of his “Twitter tsar” role (whatever the heck that was) for posting a Downfall parody video related to the ongoing Scottish independence saga. Teh Grauniad calls him a “Twitter expert” which over eggs the pudding somewhat, though he is one of the few Labour MPs (or indeed any MP) who seems to naturally understand the microblogging service. Labour poster boy Chuka Umunna is one of the most high profile users who gives the impression of only typing what he’s told, not once engaging in discussions with people outside an acceptable check-list of contacts. Harris broke through the central party’s behaviour bubble to act like ordinary members of the public expected him to; insofar as ordinary people use Twitter, Harris behaved like one of them. To say he was “expert” is a bit much, to give him a formal role obviously too much as his colleagues continually failed to do more than type out press released. To sack him over a Downfall parody? No, I see no logic either.

The video he posted, as with so many of their kind, was dull, not the funniest, not particularly harmful to anyone’s cause. It was a bit of silly, Internet based japery. The sensitivity police have claimed another victim. However, even with that said, Harris probably could have said as much as he wanted to do with a blog, a series of tweets or even an interview – the video he posted was one of far, far too many polluting memes which damage the message and remove credibility. His sacking is an over reaction from a knee-jerk leadership. His video was a flinch from a dying corpse.

On-line humour has killed off old jokes harmlessly before (“I can see Russia from my…..Oh…”). It should see to the Downfall parodies as soon as it can – couple of gunshots and set it on fire. 

porn anyone can edit

With social media merrily building extensions and BBQ pits to its walled gardens, other sites of this world web of ours appear to be struggling to attract enough people to pick their own fruit. Remember Wikipedia? Encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and formerly one of the great phenomenons of the Internet, now sadly diminished.

Amongst the noise generated by Facebook and Google+ (and if you think the Facebook fandago has died down, wait until the Timeline format is launched), a loud and occasionally chaotic controversy has played out, developed and died on the great Wiki policy pages. If the media decide to take a look, it could  blow open another hole in the debate about internet freedom and censorship.

Behind all the Wiki articles on sporting events, capital cities and electoral statistics, an army of editors and administrators busy themselves on the site’s version of message boards. Here the various, numerous, often contradictory and highly muddled ”rules” are bashed out using the infamous “consensus model”, which usually means nobody agreeing on anything and the editing policy carrying on regardless for another six months. Diplomatic discussions around the tables of middle-sized companies have nothing on the Wiki model, especially now so few editors are taking on the roles of admins leaving a small set of middle management (the so-called “marzipan layer”) to fix the rules of their own ends.

Out of nowhere, 13 year old editor admitted he had joined the Wikipedia project on Pornography, a group which exists to co-ordinate the editing of articles related to pornographic material. An editor created a policy discussion asking if, under Florida law where the Wikipedia servers are based, this was something to legislate against. The debate flourished into a bewildering half-page analysis of policy, philosophy and social norms across both sides of the Atlantic.

Much of the votes opposing a ban on underage editors contributing to the Porn project used recognisably libertarian opinions; Wikipedia is not censored, nor should it act in loco parentis. We tend to see the Internet generally, and sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia specifically, as places where inappropriate material  might just be round the corner. If the editor really is 13, and genuinely wants to assist in editing articles related to Pornography, what stops could be installed which would not encourage other site owners to close down undesirable quarters ‘for the sake of the children’ ?

There is the issue of responsibility running through this which comes from stepping back from auto-response reactions relating to allowing users of the ‘net to run free like the 60s really had changed the world. Porn (the imagery) and porn (the concept) are separate issues; discuss the latter with your children and make sure they don’t search Internet History without someone over their shoulder. It would be a PR disaster for Wiki to be associated with adult material, even if the project itself is designed to educate and inform people about everything from the Vietnam War to the vulva (needless to say, perhaps, but one of those links is NWS).

Wiki does not have the mindset, amongst its users, to block material or build high walls around contentious subjects. On the whole Wiki is a centre-left/liberal organisation, and one which considers it a virtue if mature editors wish to contribute to difficult, minority interest content. The policy debate this single 13-year old started chipped at the core of the Wiki body. It’s not as though the project contains sexually arousing content, as such, with articles on anti-pornography movements and sexual objectifications under the umbrella terms of the project. The articles relating to lesbianism lacks any moving images on girl-on-girl action, and if you clicked on auto-fellatio expecting a treat you’ll leave disappointed.

Wiki retains the potential it always had as an ambitious, well-meaning project, even though the fleeting regular editors and increased administrative regime has left it looking exhausted and out-dated. The lack of a social-media companion tool alongside Wiki leaves the site appearing cold and unappealing. Debates on how to exclude and block editors, however responsible the wider debate may be, can do only more damage. Ultimately we are dealing here with something keyboard diplomats cannot legislate for – parental responsibility. Wikipedia could attract trouble it did not expect if an issue like this is mishandled.

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

Mortal Outrage

My relationship with computer games – as I resolutely continue to call them – can best be described as ‘sporadic’. The CV reads like a potted history of a person who shouldn’t be considered a geek at all; following most of the 80s staring at the blessed blue screen with boxes of cassettes and floppy disks, months turning into years with the final “upgrade” in the form of an infrared ‘gun’ with the size and weight of a dead cat.

I moved onto a Master System (it saw its last days covered by the contents of a knocked-over bottle of Bass Shandy), SNES (pretty much ditto if I recall), before ending the games console ‘thing’ with a first generation PlayStation with only a copy of Gran Turismo for company. Consequently my reaction to modern games consoles resembles that of Grandpa Simpson resenting having to kneel on the floor to fathom out the arbitrary button combinations which have replaced the one jolt of an old joystick.

During High School, twin phenomenons Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter swept through the playgrounds in frenzied swaps of cheats, special moves and cries of Hadoukan. Like a badly aimed fireball, they wooshed over my head. I was completely unable to learn how particular combinations of buttons enabled one character to high-kick another to death. Having barely moved on from motor racing games, it’s little wonder one-on-one urban fistfights passed me by. One standout memory from a family holiday in Spain – and if you don’t know me by know, this should help – is from an arcade near the hotel with one British lad getting all the attention for turning successive Street Fighter characters to pulp with me directly beside on my own playing a Tetris-knock-off…

If memory serves – and even if it doesn’t, it’s not too difficult to invent – British tabloids fed off controversial aspects of Mortal Kombat and the copycat games of the horizontal scrap genre. No matter that “extreme gore” (© Daily Mail) looked like a carton of tomato juice squeezed too hard, “blood” is blood! Inevitably protests and parental anger covered the newspaper letters pages – this is pre-internet, folks, bear with me – which nudged the industry to introduce cinema style age ratings for games. Professional commentators sniffed and sneered at Britain’s multi-million pound games design industry, preferring to use the ‘violence’ as examples of how progressing from Pong was proof of whatever phrase we used in the 1990s to describe Broken Britain.

(Similarly, moving on from 240p in the pound was akin to introducing pears to your anus.)

How the Outraged of RedTops will react to the new Mortal Kombat – numbered 9 and out next year – is anyone’s guess. For absolute lack of doubt, here’s one selected highlight in print form, as a taster before the video at the end of this blog…

During “X-ray moves”, the camera will zoom in to show an inside view of the character who is being attacked while bones and organs are broken or ruptured.

Got that? Yup, cinema’s torture porn, a fetish on its last (broken) legs despite ]
another Final Destination, appears to be influencing the games market still. Games violence and the censorship issue has been ongoing for years, from Leisure Suit Larry to Red Dead Redemption. The cinema age ratings have helped quell the issue whilst not solving the core problem, which personally speaking is the balance of industry involvement verses parental control. Parents do not have 24-hour watch on their children, nor should they. Games designers have little involvement in this issue at all, for the ability to cut open an foe’s head like a wet Cos should not be regarded as permission to practice on the winging brat from two doors down. Hell-bent on promoting fear – encouraged by the kneejerk attitude to ‘anti social behaviour’ turning everyone into curtain twitching CCTV subscribers – tabloid newspapers love violent games for the very intent to highlight them as irresponsible. Call me wet and libertarian if you must, I just cannot hold Mr Games Company responsible for the 8 year old playing an 18-certificate game in which poker games are rudely interrupted through the introduction of Mr Grenade.

The newly released MK looks to have smashed its moral compass into the battered face of its first-draft characters. If parents know about the content of the game and make a decision based on that knowledge, applause to them; if their children acquire the game through whatever means and don’t feel the need to carry out copycat attacks in the Post Office, all hail maturity and reasoned behaviour. If the tabloid press decide the sight of brutal death as a ‘game’ is somehow more abhorrent than the cartoon-like fighting scenes in James Bond or contrived traps of Saw, more fool the lot of them.

Censorship by whichever industry, film or television or computer games, runs counter to the maturity and independence which all national institutions should treat the consumers who happen also to be citizens. One example of a child stabbing another with a fork is not evidence for the wholesale ban of cutlery (there is a letter in today’s i suggesting Theresa May had better ban wooden-legs and pillow cases to dissuade others using them for bombs). This new MK is violent and gruesome, whilst also being exaggerated and self-aware. Its violence should be obvious from its name and reputation. I fear, through experience of living through the civil liberty sapping ‘war on terror’, that its release will be swamped by waves of moral indignation. Such moves should be finished off without a second glance.