up in smoke

Many moons ago at High School, some ‘rites of passage’ were discussed as though they were constitutional duties. One of these – “to visit Amsterdam” – euphemistically described getting blotted over a long weekend chasing more dragons than St George. That teenage dream may soon be denied to future youngsters from this year, now that the Dutch have confirmed their decision to restrict access to cannabis cafés to residents only.

My youth had no 18-30 holidays, no RailPass jaunt across the continent or the like. I was most certainly not the kind of person who would wake up on a ferry bobbing its way from Zeebrugge on a Monday morning. As such – and I was not alone with this – talk of the magic world of drugs and electropop seemed beyond tempting. Some of us heard stories about older brothers and friend’s friends who could smuggle half an Oxo cube sized resin block through the usual channels, but a whole city where it could be smoked in public? Through the looking glass  – and on the sofa, giggling, eating cake…

That the Dutch are closing down the tourist trade is probably met by parents of a certain age in this country with as much nostalgia as relief. Thousands of young people – mostly British and American – and as many stag do’s chose the Netherlands for a release from the stifling attitude against drugs in their native lands. Indeed with a regime whose attitude towards drugs is as schizophrenic as the alleged counter-effects of taking substances, Britain has always appeared to be the wrinkled grandfather looking with disdain at the youngster over the water – a grandfather who would, nonetheless, occasionally drink more whisky than he ought to when the missus wasn’t looking.

Proving that I am settling into middle age, I can see the arguments for tightening the restrictions. Alas, it does have something of the “pulling up the ladder” about it, enjoying our days in the sun and now stopping future generations from doing so, but that argument takes us down the route of tuition fees/free education and we don’t want that conversational cul-de-sac quite now…That all said, I am saddened to see another conservative move in a formerly liberal part of the world. This move once again shadows and colours the arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis in this country, the debate shunted away by the Morality Police as though Dutch considerations can be used as a facsimile in a British context. Even if people of a certain age these days no longer partake in naughty cigarettes, denying the argument to be open for future generations seems just as irresponsible as having a drug liberalism free-for-all. Nobody born today has a say in the continued legalisation of alcohol or tobacco, after all.

Each generation bemoans the passing of their youth. Our parents did so, and so do we. Where once “doing” Amsterdam was part of a teenager’s calendar, now sits an empty box into which many things, or none, can be pencilled in its place. Maybe nostalgia is getting in the way as much as the smoke – for every group of lads on the bant in the red light district there are hundreds more skiing, visiting South Asia or risking their lives in New Zealand with….well, Kiwis….The passing into history of the “Dutch experience” may be marked by those unable to try it in the first place, or too old to remember what happened there clearly. Regardless, shutting down the shops for outsiders marks another turn in the long, long, long argument for and against drug policy in the UK. When the UK faces the realities of recreational drug-use amongst its own people will be the next turn. Until then….pass the biscuits, and woah, this keyboard is like so fuzzy….

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