174: Crossing Boundaries

Crossing Boundaries

It's hard enough for controversial games to make it onto store shelves in their country of origin, but what happens when the publisher aims for an international release? Mathew McCurley tackles the problem of local censorship in a global industry.

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I'm glad you acknowledged that people can get up to interesting things with video games when they decide to talk about something besides sex & violence. I also agree that the varying international standards on these two issues make it so a game featuring either can be a nightmare.

But where there's a will, there's a way, and expecting people to get creative can hardly be considered a bad thing. Shakespeare had to deal with ridiculous censorship all the time, he improved his metaphors and analogies. Germany, due to its ban on violence, now produces the best interactive fiction and adventure games. A hostile environment for art is capable of pushing artists to be more creative rather than just dryly feed people the same message in the same manner.

As the article is quick to point out, censorship isn't just about sex, violence, and drugs. Themes of all sorts (sexual, religious, political) are fair game to the censors. While it's possible to have an interesting topic without being controversial, it's hard to deny that many topics are interesting because they are controversial. If we get into the habit of removing every potentially-offensive bit from our games, we won't have much left to play with.

The threat of censorship is probably the worst threat to the dream of games as art. Art has always been edgy, touchy, making us question and think. While Hollywood has us laughing at imaginary demons, true art forces us to look at the real demons -- the same ones that will do everything they can to censor the message.

Censorship has always been a part of lives, but globalization does a lot to open our eyes to what it's like to be on the other side of the black bar. What seems harmless to us may be a cardinal sin in another country, while the things that make us blush may be par for the course in those same countries. It quickly becomes clear that there are no clear-cut rules for staying on the safe side of the censor -- the only way to win is not to play.

Perhaps one day we will realize the futility of censorship, but until then, we will be forced to conform to the standards of others -- even in the media we ourselves choose to enjoy.

I think it needs to be said that "globalization" as a concept is bullshit, its just an excuse for corporations to justify their attempts to circumvent local laws for their own imperial objectives aka exploitive to make bigger profits. In one word: Greed. Just in case I give off the impression that I am talking stupid, it is possible I may be, its just my impression from reading such comments in history like "The sun never sets on the British Empire." and if I recall correctly, a great deal of having a empire has to do with trade ... so for me, globalization is just another word for imperialism, only this time used by multinationals.

What does my silly little opinion have to do with this games? I think that watering down your game design so you hit world wide appeal is bull chips too, that if that is a symptom of greed, I want nothing to do with the kinds of games it produces. For this consumer of games I want to see artistic vision game trump the corporate distribution game, because I am not entertained by the greed game.

Because of that, I have turned away from distribution models that support censorship of artistic vision. To that end, most of the games I purchase now I get from online, mainly Steam, though they too have their issues with allowing independent games on to their platform.

If a country wants to ban certain games, that is their problem that they need to change, it should not force the game to change. Circumvent your censors and their brick and mortar patsies with downloads, if you can - poor Chinese gamers =(.

Interesting article. living in Australia this issue is a big one for me. here, unlike Germany and to some degree the US, the classification guidelines are not culturally based. in-fact it is simply an out-dated act that still recognizes video games as being just for kids. the Act hasn't been updated since its introduction in the mid-ninties so it is hugely out of touch with the modern gaming audience. over 75% of which are adults.
this means that if a game is rated higher than MA15+ (restricted to 15 years or over) it is outright banned, because there is no R18+ rating available for games. and the only way to change this situation is with a unanimous vote from the Govenors General: a group of stubborn old politicians, equally out of touch with modern gamers.

if this situation changes Australia would be up to par with the rest of the world in terms of acceptable content, with a similar classification system to the UK.\
Australia's 'Games are for kids' mentality towards media censorship differs from, say Germany's which (to my knowledge) recognises the diversity of the gaming audience, but culturally they are very sensitive to violence et cetera since World War II, so they restrict this content heavily out of respect and sensitivity.
Similarly the US, a nation founded by violent puritans and which continues to be governed on selectively biblical principals. Therefore whilst violence and guns are OK, in fact they are constitutionally protected. sex and nudity are deemed filth and are exorcised by the ESRB. (unless its in a music video, then its just put on Saturday Morning Television).
and finally China is communist, and so by the very nature of totalitarianism, the state imposes tight control over what game content is allowed, as well as all other information and entertainment mediums.

I think though that because these censors are so diverse companies need to find a way around them. Creative vision should not be sacrificed to appease bureaucrats. the painfully obvious route is the internet. in most regions this is still completely uncensored (unless KRudd and the Australian Government get their way). gamers old enough to play would-be restricted games are also old enough to own credit cards. so take your marketplace online. either mail-ordering boxed games, or offering downloads. This avenue should be even more lucrative for independent game developers perhaps without the infrastructure to distribute a game to globally to retail outlets regardless of censorship.
and if this trend grows, hopefully the various classification boards will feel the pressure from the local retailers and change their habits.

(ps. sorry, I may have gotten a bit carried away, this turned into a very long post. for the short version, read the first 2 words)

This may be a long reply to this thread (sorry).

I also am from Australia and I would like to point out that the censorship is actually more harmful to children. This may sound backwards but from what I can see the current censorship laws are backwards.

Australia's solution is remove content which is harmful to children. This means that games are made, deemed 18+ and are banned, the most harmful content is removed and it is rereleased.

This doesnt stop the game from being aimed at an adult audience. It just means that the most harmful parts are removed and this adult game is repackaged with a teenage friendly 15+ stamp attached to it. On top of this there are a number of parents which let 12-14 year olds play 15+ games and so there are children who are 13 are playing games based around an adult audience.

www.youngmedia.org.au had a pdf of a letter sent out during one of the campains to bring in the 18+ rating (there have been a fair few) in which they stated how harmful violence, etc is to children but dont see the picture that children can find and download these games from overseas sources without any problems.

Now if the 18+ sticker was slapped on the game a) it is harder for children to buy as the game cannot be sold to minors and b) any parent looking into the games that children play/download/buy/borrow from friends can see that this game is SUPPOSED to be 18+ rather than seeing a 15+ sticker on the packaging, reducing exposure to unwanted content.

My views on the effects of this content on children is rather more lax as I have played games since I was very young and consider myself a very non-violent, well-adjusted person (and I am currently 23 so dont need to worry about children at the moment), but I think that allowing parents to see the true content of a game is far more benificial than having it rereleased as a 15+ title when none of the true content of the game is deleted, just the one or two major offending situations.

I honestly have to say, the BBFC is generally a good classification board. Ok, its not perfect, there was that whole Manhunt business (although in that case, I'm wary of joining the 'support manhunt' side unless I play the game). When 'Hot Coffee' hit the USA, the BBFC basically said 'meh - modifications to access material are irrelevant'.

And on top of that, there has only been one case of the 'blame games' syndrome that I can recall - A kid murdered another kid and his (ignorant) mother banned manhunt for it. But frankly, it didn't get far, even with the vague support of the Leicester MP.

Good Article.
I live in Germany, and think, that many ppl - or just the core of the hardcore gamers - here just don't care about these laws. The internet is still uncensored, so you can still be informed about new game releases, and due to germany being in central europe, surrounded by countries that could ship the "banned" software, it's always possible to get the stuff right from the neighbours.
You may say, that the system is totally pointless, and yes- it is, since it is (quote: Gummy) made by "a group of stubborn old politicians" that are paranoid.

Games don't hurt anybody, of course, kids can't play everything, and it may be the seller's decicion (like in the US) to "ban" things, but it shouldn't be the state's.

totally ridicolous is, that what's "banned" in the US can be sold to teenagers (16) in germany, and converse.

I boycot the german system and dion't buy anymore games with the new, huge USK-logo. id doesn't kill me, but it's the beginning of the end and in the last years the laws about games always became worse.

I've also been at the games convention, and when talking about games with the ppl there, we were also talking about Gears of War etc. The laws don't really work.

Due to the location, it may be a problem in australia, but in germany, these laws are just a joke.

I also think, that it increases the software "Piracy" in germany, since you can only get the full versions from the internet or, if you're willing to pay more, like me, from austria of the UK (sometimes US, depends on the dollar course :D). And every PC-Playing, 12-yr old boy knows how to use bittorrent, and he will play games without any control.

So I could say the law just exists for the politicians who made it to feel good... Sometimes i think, that these ppl just want to ban everything they don't understand.

I'll put myself down as the third Australian participant in this thread. :)

The problem with the OFLC is not just that there's no 18+ rating, nor any prospect of getting one (unless Michael Atkinson has a major attitude change or stops being Attorney-General of South Australia), it's also so damned inconsistent. The same censorship board that jumped all over Fallout 3 for its portrayal of drug use didn't seem to have any problem with GTA IV for pretty much the same thing. Or the realistic portrayal of drink-driving. Or... I'm sure everyone can see where I'm going with this one.

The point is, simply having an 18+ rating isn't a magical fix by itself - a classification board that is capable of consistently applying ratings is also required, and I have no faith in the OFLC's ability to do that.

Indie developers are already taking advantage of the freedoms (From both censorship boards and the demands of publishers) that an online distribution model offers.
Here for example, in regards to the violence issue: http://paragamer.com/overgrowth-interview-with-wolfire
Fourth question down.

Interesting article, and even more interesting observations from the commenters. It seems this forum has a larger international presence than I had suspected.

Somian:
Sometimes i think, that these ppl just want to ban everything they don't understand.

I believe you hit the nail on the head right there. It's something they don't understand, so instead of actually taking the time to learn about it, understand it, and get to know the issues surrounding it, they simply try to get rid of it. It's lazy and unprofessional, but since they're the ones in control of the situation, there's not a lot anyone can do to stop them.

It pains me to see censorship, since one might think living in a free country (I'm in USA, by the way) we wouldn't have to deal with the government sticking its nose in our business. However, as time passes, it seems censorship is growing in its influence rather than decreasing. I've seen many games push boundaries, but I've seen even more talk about what game developers were going to do, and then in the end turn out another one of those "neutral" games that pushes no boundaries, sells moderately, and makes the company enough money to just repeat the cycle.

The long term solution is of course to get the laws changed, but even if all the gamers interested in the issue tried to do so, it would pale in comparison to the support that a single weeping mother could garner if she simply sticks the blame on the video game her 14-year-old son played, that SHE likely bought him.

On the other hand, the message that every gamer could send is to boycott any company that indulges in cutting out content simply to be able to sell the game in more markets. If it happens, we should refuse to buy the game. Retailers would feel the sting first, but if it happened enough, the publishers would end up with significant backlash from those retailers, and their own investors. If gamers could have the backing of these companies when presenting a case to whatever local advisory board exists, I believe they'd be far more inclined to pay attention, and perhaps less taken in by shock (or schlock) campaigning by those who favor harsher control.

I hate to admit the influence that money and greed has on people, but so long as it exists, we should try to take advantage of the fact.

I think that getting ratings people who actually know games should be a huge priority.

The current ratings boards are absolutely uninformed, and why should the gaming industry be burdened with such an inadequate organization?

Doug:
And on top of that, there has only been one case of the 'blame games' syndrome that I can recall - A kid murdered another kid and his (ignorant) mother banned manhunt for it. But frankly, it didn't get far, even with the vague support of the Leicester MP.

I think the British gaming community is safe as long as the best moral exemplar the anti side can wheel out is someone who resigned from the Cabinet for taking backhanders. Of course political corruption is nothing next to the evil of murdering a cluster of polygons.

theveryrealDarktalon:

Doug:
And on top of that, there has only been one case of the 'blame games' syndrome that I can recall - A kid murdered another kid and his (ignorant) mother banned manhunt for it. But frankly, it didn't get far, even with the vague support of the Leicester MP.

I think the British gaming community is safe as long as the best moral exemplar the anti side can wheel out is someone who resigned from the Cabinet for taking backhanders. Of course political corruption is nothing next to the evil of murdering a cluster of polygons.

He did? Hooray! Never liked that guy, heh. Still, that government comissioned report was pretty clear: Yes, games can have negative affects on kids if you don't monitor it, but the best way to counter it is to sit down and play the game with them - i.e. Be a parent like your meant to be!

He didn't get as far as the Cabinet is the only thing I was mistaken on, but the "Political career" section of his Wikipedia page reads as a litany of dodginess.

On the subject of parenting, I agree both with you and the government report. It's very easy for parents to blame games (or films, TV or any other media) for the consequences of their own lack of involvement in their children's lives.

The "videogames is for kids" mentality I think is the one of the main culprits for the state of censorship at the moment. There was that case of the woman who bought her grandson who was 14 at the time, GTA: San Andreas and then decided to sue Rockstar and Take 2 for the Hot Coffee incident, even though her grandson never got to play it. What is the point of censorship if people are going to ignore it and blame the publisher and/or developer when it turns out that the mature game contains mature themes/scenes/language? Luckily I live in the UK so I don't really have to deal wit that sort of thing. However, if developers are editing content so that they can safely release it in more countries, won't we be missing out?

For once, I have something nice to say about the state of censorship in America: The ESRB is not a government agency and can neither censor nor ban games, it only rates them. It is paid for by video game companies and costs taxpayers nary a penny, the burden falling (ultimately) on those who buy ESRB-rated games. It is sad to see how so many other countries give their governments so much control over what they can play. I mean, come on! Hearts of Iron 2 is missing content because historically accurate German flags are verboten in Europe.

Now, if only we Americans can get the FCC to lay off the censorship and go back to doing it's real job: making sure the radio waves don't crash into each other.

Yea, I'm thankful the US, for the moment at least, is still the final bastion of free speech and expression in the world. Everywhere else is a nanny-state that wants to ban and censor anything thats remotely unpleasant.

 

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