Gamers generally appear to be a very liberal group. Whenever Washington comes calling, waving the censorship stick, gamers throw a fit and gaming companies resist as best they can. Sadly, in the age of sensationalism, resistance really is futile, as journalists smear the story across the pages of major papers and beam it into our homes through CNN. There seems to be very little the American-centric game industry can do, especially when leading Democrats – supposedly the more liberal of the American political parties – lead the charge.
For those of us who are not American, these developments are scary. As outsiders, we have little power to effect change, but know that as the target market for many of the games we enjoy, changes in America mean changes for the entire world. Videogame censorship has become a hot-button issue on the American political landscape, and those of us who play or build American games from outside their borders need to brace for impact. The fear of lawsuits, recalls and the loss of Mr. Walton’s stamp of approval in the United States could soon impose a foreign political moral code on gamers worldwide.
Videogames are an international commodity, and unlike some other forms of entertainment, our industry is not regional. Newspapers in the UK are vastly different from papers in the USA or Canada; different common standards apply. On page three of one particularly famous British paper, readers can find topless or scantily clad women on a daily basis. In the United States or Canada, if a national newspaper – or even a regional one – even attempted such a stunt, they would be crucified and quite likely face litigation. The ethics of the subject are debatable, but the fact remains that the differences, even in countries that share a language, are quite large. In the newspaper medium, these kinds of differences are easy to overcome, while in games, things become much more complicated. The lack of regional diversity in the gaming industry ensures that games, for the most part (the Asian market being the exception) must conform to a single higher standard, and for good or ill, the largest market – the United States – sets that moral standard.
As it stands, the average videogame already contains a very North American stance when it comes to sex. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the Hot Coffee scandal proved that, when a third party modification that unlocked hidden sexual content raised an uproar and cost Take Two and Rockstar millions of dollars. The consensus seems to be that Rockstar made a mistake when they left in the animations and content allowing these third party modders to unlock the game’s content. Is that content truly wrong?
Even if it had been available in the game, I personally do not see any issue with its inclusion in an already mature game. To me, I have seen much worse in Hollywood films, and those use real people to perform simulated sex acts. Yet, animated and – no offense to the artists at Rockstar – not terribly realistic looking (and clothed) toons will corrupt the world’s youth? Of all the things I can do in Grand Theft Auto, I would be much less upset if I caught my child copying that than – for example – robbing a train or conducting a drive-by. Do I think Grand Theft Auto is appropriate for children? No. Would I want my children copying anything they see in that game? Obviously not. I just cannot believe that a simulated sex act between two animated and half-clothed characters is the most morally reprehensible part of the game.
It will be a very long time before we again see sex in a mainstream videogame. A certain crusading censor, whose name shall not be mentioned, has already turned his eye to the blurred nudity of the androgynous Sims 2 characters. If he had his way, a thirty year old gamer in Britain who can see breasts in his daily newspaper would be unable to see blurred flesh of naughty-bit-less animated toons in the privacy of his own home. Quite simply, the losses suffered by the creators of Grand Theft Auto were so great that no other gaming company would sanely flaunt these taboos any time soon. In fact, Rockstar, who probably could not produce a children’s game at this point without being crucified in the press, may well be the only company who – from an economic point of view – should continue to push the envelope. They lost millions in the Hot Coffee scandal, but they also became a household name. Those who are not so easily offended (the people who played their games in the first place) are probably even more likely to seek out their next release. However, they are the exception, not the rule. Recent developments reinforce the imposition of American moral standards, for good or ill, upon the global gaming population.
The solution already exists in other industries. In film, nations have their own regional selection. In Canada, the government helps fund and ensure a Canadian film industry thrives. We enjoy the big Hollywood blockbusters, but we also have a steady stream of smaller, but Canadian shows and movies to enjoy. In these, we are not beholden to anyone’s rules but our own – the way it should be. Similar film industries exist all over the world, in every major country. To me, this is an acceptable balance. It ensures regional diversity, does not close the door to foreign content and removes the unfair onus from a foreign power to consider the global impact, rather than the national, of their decisions.
This system is not without flaws, however. When governments get involved, a game would have to personify more than a national moral code, but also national content. If I were to produce a football game in such an environment, it would have to be about the CFL, not the NFL. A war game would take place during the War of 1812, not the Punic Wars. This kind of limited scope, serves to promote the national identity and justifies government involvement, but also largely limits the appeal of the product. That said, while not ideal, it is one of the few solutions to a particularly sticky problem.
Let us step back from the debate and look at this from another perspective. Let us pretend for a moment that China, not the United States, was the global leader and trendsetter for Western gaming content. Suddenly, based on the recent decisions by their government to ban PvP content for those under eighteen and put three hour limits of consecutive game time, the games you enjoyed were changed. Americans, not beholden to those decisions, find themselves unable to subscribe to their games of choice because the company could not accept accounts created by minors or it automatically logged players out after three hours. An extreme example, but it puts this debate in perspective.
In the end, it is the right of Americans to dictate their own internal policies, and as much as the rest of the world may not like it, they cannot possibly consider all the global implications of each move. Even still, what Americans decide to do concerning regulations on game content has a far-reaching global impact. Regardless of whether such global responsibilities are a fair burden, they are real and cannot be ignored.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.