Monday, March 27, 2006


I'm officially filing
(as in "writing a blog post") a complaint against Penny Arcade's characterization of the Video Game Voters Network from Monday, March 20.

I can't really say Tycho's got it all wrong, just that he's filtering it skewed. Which could be for the purpose of keeping to the persona crafted in his posts -- still, a few things deserve to be addressed. Keep in mind this is not an attack on those fine upstanding gentlemen or their fantastic comickal art.

"I understand the idea behind it - the network, I mean. But I don't think there's actually a monolithic "gamer" voting block that receives their signal from the mothership and then behaves according to some agreed upon protocol."

I'm not sure why such an idea would need to be refuted, especially in a cautious manner (e.g., "But I don't think . . . "). Of course there's not a monolithic "gamer" voting block. But it would be stupid to form an organization based around blocking certain video game legislation and call it "Cod Lover Voters Network" or "A Specific Type of Video Gamer Voters Network."

Such an obvious mischaracterization seems to imply that, in fact, Tycho does not understand the idea behind it. I'm willing to discard this seeming naivete about how issue groups like these function as poetic license.

Second, there's this: "[T]he people who would be most grievously affected by gaming legislation aren't of voting age."

Sure, because it couldn't be about a serious censorship attempt, only about carding minors. Why should adults care?

About a week ago I covered the Lieberman-created CAMRA proposal. This study will be conducted by the Center for Disease Control. Think about that. If that doesn't make a point about how some of our legislators view video games, then I'm not sure what would.

Or consider this from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich: "For the same reason we don't allow kids to buy pornography, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy cigarettes, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy alcohol, we shouldn't allow them to go to stores and buy video games."

Third, I'm willing to buy how difficult it would be to motivate gamers to come together on these issues. But I'm not willing to just leave it at that. Who cares if gamers end up agreeing? The point is to at least let them know what's on the table. To extend the pizza metaphor -- at least let them know you're fucking ordering pizza.

The last paragraph is what really touched a nerve:

"I think the threat to adult gamers is usually described as a "chilling effect" that will constrict the themes of even mature entertainment, the self-censorship of games to secure a more desirable (i.e., marketable) rating. The First Amendment is often hauled out in these instances, as though concessions to the marketplace amount to the tromp of the jackboot, but to the best of my knowledge the "Right To Be Sold In Wal-Mart" is not enumerated in the constitution."

Well, that chilling effect happens all the time. It's why NC-17 movies never come to your neighborhood. Sure, maybe you don't miss them. You can always buy the special DVD cut. But that effect exists. The same thing happens in music. And it's been happening in video games since they arrived on the scene (the Nintendo Mortal Kombat no blood version). Talk to developers and ask them if they ever feel restricted in their content, even when they're making games geared toward adults.

There is usually a modicum of media self-censorship in order to adhere to a general social acceptability. The trick is to look for tipping points, where the censorship begins affecting decisions for all consumers of a medium.

The legislation is designed solely to create such a chilling effect. It has nothing to do with selling M-rated games to minors. They are looking to push through censorship using market pressure created by legislation. And that is also known as a block to freedom of expression.

These laws do not keep children from playing violent games, which is ostensibly their purpose. All they do is make it a crime to sell such a game to a child. A parent could still purchase the game for their child (or brother, sister, uncle, etc.). A child could play at a friend's house. The bills are designed solely to restrict the types of games sold because the risk of defending against accusations of wrongdoing are too great.

Remember, a store doesn't have to carry these games. If Wal-Mart wants to reject a title, that's their business. But the bill makes it so that stores willing to carry mature games must now change their business practices in order to comply. What about fake IDs? Will that require new training? Will they need to turn over their surveillance tapes to a government agency? The pressure to restrict the titles carried could grow.

Look, the same lawmakers pop up again and again with the same old legislation in a new wrapper. They tried to claim that the ESRB's rating system is insufficient; It isn't. Then they decided to attack it from a "for the children" place of faux-outrage.

Lieberman is an old pro at this trick. When he pushed the PMRC into the spotlight it was the same pattern: Attempt to legislate morality by playing up the "danger to children" angle.

There is nothing currently preventing a parent who feels their child has been harmed by a video game they bought from seeking damages from a retailer or the developer. They are free to raise such charges. But such cases are difficult because the evidence simply isn't there.

Jack Thompson knows this because he's lost a few of those cases. So the legislation is also designed to make it easier to use "the video game made me do it" defense, by legitimizing the idea that certain games are harmful without the necessary scientific backing. And Lieberman and Clinton have listened very closely to Mr. Thompson. They're more than willing to push this as far as it will go.

It was disappointing to read such a dismissal. The guys at Penny Arcade have a lot of pull. While it was nice of them to provide a link, Tycho's take was bound to influence quite a few. I'm sure the thought of rocking a vote or something sparks up the anti-authoritarian in many people, but it's not as if the PA fellows are strangers to political actions.

Their Child's Play charity is itself a political act, not to mention one of profound advocacy. They might couch it in, "We just want to give games to sick children," and think nothing else of it, but even a statement such as that is political. Then you add to that their donation in Jack Thompson's name and you can't really make the charge that being political is somehow out of their realm.

If Tycho doesn't want to join the monolithic horde that votes Borg-like, then that's his choice. I just wish he hadn't completely misrepresented what's actually at stake.

One other reason these bills are bad news:

They result in unnecessary expenses for states when they are overturned. Taxpayers foot the bill. Enjoy.

Take note:

If I had to pick a substantial reason to question the Video Game Voters Network, it would be that they are obviously set up by the ESA (Entertainment Software Association). Which means that by educating yourself about video game legislation you are in actuality giving the nod to a corporate protection scheme.


Josh said...

There are times that the PA guys seem to act a little too cool for their own good.

This would be one of those times. It's a lot more important for gamers to get their footing against the political pressure than worry about being seen as "joiners"

Patrick Dugan said...

I'm currently working on a title which would almost definelty get an "E" rating, but after this project I immediately want to dive into all manner of licentious procedurality and content. My hope is that online distribution methods would allow minors to side-step any of these restraints, but the fact is that we shouldn't have to go underground.

We make art, dammit! Not all of it might be good art, very little in fact, but we still have a right to freedom of speech. Fortunately, all of the persons hearing on relevant bills have been, for the most part, sane, and 1st amendment rights have been protected.

The only way this issue is going to abate is if figure out how to do socially challening gameplay, where violent conflict isn't the a priori verb-set.