27 July, 2005
Yeah, the “Hot Coffee” issue has been making the rounds. I’ve specifically avoided talking about it because everyone else has posted about it and I’m sure everyone is tired of reading about it. But, I wanted to discuss something related to this: free speech. Specifically how free speech should apply to video games.
I think it’s important to think about the practical side of free speech. People talk a lot about the theoretical side of this issue, talking about freedom and liberty. But, in reality, free speech is about defending the right for people to say unpopular things. After all, we don’t need protection for people who say popular things. We give them TV shows and columns so they can keep saying the popular things that people agree with. :) We need to protect unpopular speech because that is often the speech we need to hear.
I think this is an important issue, because this concept really speaks to the heart of what free speech is. This is what we are really upholding in the U.S. Bill of Rights, the right to say unpopular things. This is valuable to our society because it was founded multiculturalism and a variety of ideas. Opposing viewpoints give us new perspectives, and sometimes we find out that the unpopular speech of a previous time becomes the undeniable truth of our times. For example, there were a number of people that hated Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, but now they’re words of inspiration for us. I think the best quote is the one that summarizes Voltaire’s philosophy as, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Unfortunately, society doesn’t have the best record of supporting free speech when it comes to unpopular speech. Everyone has something that makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the words of racists spreading hate who use the free speech laws to preach their hate in public. So, when people try to squelch one group or another, sometimes good people stand by and let it happen because it “stops hate” or especially because it “protects children”. While these are admirable goals in themselves, we generally agree that having useful and meaningful discussion as provided by freedom of speech is more important.
There’s the parallel phenomenon of older generations not understanding younger generations and new media that they embrace. The older generations look at the younger generations and despair. This has been happening since history has been recorded. The older generations are particularly frightened of new media. Every new media with the power to influence people has been demonized by those with power. You can find people of influence and power ranting against the evils of the printing press or live plays, usually indicating that these things bring moral ruin to society. Usually, if you look closely you will see that these advances redistribute power away from those that had it before. The printing press allowed easy printing of the Bible, which allowed for translations into the languages of the masses and took away an air of mystery from the church. Plays allowed playwrights to use their abilities to write entertainment that was easily accessible to the masses, and that influenced popular opinion. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” indeed.
In more recent times we’ve seen the demonization of movies, television, and “rock music”. Movies are an obvious extension of plays, allowing an even wider audience to be influenced. Television is, again, a mass communication medium that allows easy distribution of ideas. Although it is interesting to note that television is often demonized not because it offers scary, new ideas but because it reinforces the old ones. And finally we have the ever popular “rock music”, encouraging young ladies into compromising positions, making innocent boys into disrespectful hoodlums, and bringing general chaos to society. Every living generation has had to deal with the previous generation demonizing the new music while defending the old music. Our society can’t even learn from this obvious lesson.
But, most important for us in the current entertainment industry is the demonizing of comic books, role-playing games, and video games. Comic books are an interesting medium because they have a wonderful history and are often misunderstood. During the 1950′s the older generation decried the lack of morality in the younger generation and looked at comic books as a source of problem. This lead industry imposing the Comics Code Authority upon itself in order to avoid government legislation. This organization limited the content of comics to morally acceptable fare, eliminating the dark and seedy side of comics. Unfortunately, this merely had the effect of limiting the expression of comics and stunting it as an expressive medium. It was only many years later that the medium was able to deal with deeper topics and produce some wonderful creative stories.
Role-playing games have also been blamed for many ills of youth. During the 80′s, parents were taken up by the “Satanic Scare” in which Satanists were behind all ills in the world. Of course, their source of dark power was a role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons. I’m sure most people reading this know what D&D is, but needless to say it was a dangerous game; it encouraged creativity, problem solving, and a healthy disrespect for the rules. I’m sure one can see how the older generation would be threatened and the younger generation would be instantly attracted.
Finally, we come to video games. Now we have politicians and legal advisors clamoring to decry something they understand so little about. Again we have a medium which encourages creativity, problem solving, an interest in bending the rules, along with a way to convey meaningful messages to a wide audience. This is the double-whammy in the eyes of the older generation. Surely this medium is corrupting children and leading them astray?
Of course, one of the things about comics, role-playing games, and video games is that they aren’t always for children. Japan, a culture that never had the Comics Code Authority, has a thriving comics industry that sells to multiple markets. In addition to simple tales for children, you have more complex tales of romance, mystery, horror, and intrigue. Yes, you even have comics dealing with sexuality in Japan! Further, according to the ESA, the average game player is 30 years old. Thirty! If a 30-year-old isn’t able to handle a bit of consensual sex in his violent game, I don’t think it’s the developer’s fault. But, to paraphrase Scott McCloud, as long as these media are seen as intended for children then moral enforcers will continue to be able to bring charges of obscenity against them.
So, what does this mean for free speech? Well, even if a new medium like video games is threatening to and unpopular with the older generations, particularly those in positions of power, we need to give it the same protection as we give other speech. As a society, we need to recognize that video games aren’t just for children, we need to recognize that adults play these games. We need to recognize that even though video games aren’t necessarily a well-established medium with meaningful works of art, that video games can convey a message and a meaning. This means that video games should be protected as free speech. And, this is one of the reasons why video game developers make such a big deal about being “art”, because it’s easy to understand that art is protected speech.
As I said in a comment on Damion’s blog, I do take a certain comfort in the attacks made against video games by the establishment. This fight against video games shows that the older generation view video games as a threat, just as they have for other important media in history. If it is a threat, then it has real potential and can be truly meaningful in influencing people. This is great comfort to me, knowing that I’m spending my life on something that will undoubtedly be truly worthwhile in the future.