Salvation vs. Condemnation: The Two Faces of Government

Upstanding gentleman by day. Marauding villain by night.

The private lives of politicians aside, it is no wonder that, much like the mysterious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the greatest conflict over the good and evil of games rages within government’s own walls. No question, government is a complex animal.

Sure, we all know about the crusade against the supposed corrupting power of games – the mass media have been fumbling over the “evils” of GTA for years (heck, you’d think they’d at least have their facts straight by now, i.e., you don’t get “points” for killing cops, and there is no rape). But, I digress. In fact, the real hypocrisy is delivered by the government itself.

For example, the Australian state of Victoria has extremely robust support for the economic well being of the indigenous game development sector. Among other perks, the state provides local developers with Sony and Microsoft sanctioned developer kits, they fly developers over to Los Angeles for E3 to show off their latest games at a dedicated booth, they sponsor a large-scale developers conference in Melbourne annually and so forth.

And yet, the Australian market is crippled by the fact that the Office of Film and Literature Classification (the government controlled content ratings board) will not allow any rating categories above “MA15+” to be assigned to a game. That is to say, any game not suitable for a 15 year old is outright banned from the country and cannot be legally purchased by anyone in Australia! This, despite the existence of “R18+” and “X18+” rating categories for films. From a cultural standpoint, it might seem Australian officials are unable to let go of the antiquated notion that games are toys for children and nothing more.

Further, censorship is not always about violence and sex. An Australian minister was pushing to have Project Gotham Racing 2 banned because he was afraid it would promote reckless driving on the streets of Sydney. Similarly, there is hard lobbying over Mark Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure for fear of a graffiti outburst on the streets of America.

China is another country heavily influenced by the Jekyll/Hyde potion. In fact, there is a known rivalry between the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Science and Technology, with each arm trying to exert control over the burgeoning national industry.

On the one hand, they are committing in excess of $100 million to the creation of games based on Chinese culture, mythology and folklore. On the other hand, they have declared that games are bad for children and installed strict regulations to limit playing time of MMOGs and restrict minors’ access to games that include violence. As stated by a Chinese culture minister, apparently player versus player or “player killing” (PK) is harmful to kids:

“Minors should not be allowed to play online games that have PK content, that allow players to increase the power of their own online game characters by killing other players … They are harmful to young people.”

Add that on top of the Chinese government’s draconian censorship policies (which banned a soccer videogame because Tibet had its own team) and overall inability to curb piracy (there are several “official” Xbox magazines published monthly, even though the console doesn’t legally ship into the country). China is one of the top destinations for pirated software, on a scale so vast that the distribution often involves organized crime rather than mere street hustlers with a CD-R. It is easy to see which side is winning this internal struggle.

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As an example closer to home, the state of Louisiana is fighting the same ideological battle. Just as Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco approved the state’s Digital Media Act to support game and new media production in the state via tax breaks and other incentives, Louisiana State Senator David Cain (R-Dry Creek) announced that he plans to introduce anti-game legislation in the 2006 session.

Back on the other side of the pond, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declares, with great pride, the innovative spirit and value of the English game development industry (rivaling film as a top export) as UK companies head to E3 to display their latest and greatest (just down the hall from the Aussies, of course). Simultaneously, culture minister Kim Howells bashes games as spawn of the devil, stating:

“I look at the video games my kids play… and I see no humanity at all, nothing that tries to highlight and underpin the finer virtues that are in people and society.”

Dare we ask what games Howells’ kids are permitted to play?

The Jekyll/Hyde pattern has presented itself, quite consistently, across the globe – from Canada to Korea, from Japan to New Zealand. One step forward, two steps back.

Part of this pattern is that the role of Dr. Jekyll is always played by the technology and economic development arm of government, while Mr. Hyde is played by the cultural arm. Well, from the industry’s point of view at least.

Clearly, games do drive business and advance technology. As purely technical products, there’s simply no end of excitement on the part of economic development reps to grow their game sector. Only a fool would look at the global games industry and fail to see the enormous cash-flow potential of this medium. On a trip to Northern Ireland, I wound up in a room full of government officials eager to learn how to foster game development as a means to resuscitate the country’s lagging economy. They are not alone.

And, in an odd way, this interest and support can provide the shot in the arm that industry needs to break out of its current stagnancy. That is, if the support is directed toward new entrepreneurial and innovative efforts, as opposed to facilitating the next EA or Ubisoft mega studio.

However, that’s all for naught if we can’t get over the cultural stigma held by the Hydes of government.

Why is it that the cultural and artistic merit of the game medium is so hard to accept? Are games simply too complex for digital immigrants to grok? Why can’t they see games for the powerful medium that they are? Is the word “game” honestly so damaging as to demean the entire creative output of the industry, to reduce it to an empty pastime? Or, are the politicos enacting an entirely different drama where the industry is their hapless whipping boy and the sincerity of their intentions to “save the children” need to be questioned altogether?

Games are an extension of social man and are in many ways a faithful model of our culture. As Marshall McLuhan noted, games give great insight into a people. Perhaps it is that the Hydes of government are simply uncomfortable with what games have to say about ourselves.

Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the
IGDA. His personal blog, Reality Panic, has way too many entries that would really piss off Mr. Hyde.

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