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

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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.