If you happen to play video games, odds are you’ve heard of the Target Australia Grand Theft Auto 5 debacle. After being presented with a 40,000 signature petition accusing the game of encouraging violence against women, Target Australia pulled its copies of the game from store shelves.
For many gamers that lived through Jack Thompson’s moral panic-mongering of the 90’s, seeing such an effort succeed was a nightmare. To these people (and to me), Target’s decision amounted to censorship. But to others, it was a triumph of justice that “repugnant misogynistic garbage” was removed from store shelves. Those supporting Target’s decision claimed that it wasn’t censorship – just natural market forces at work.
I think that’s bullshit.
There is an insidious campaign going on right now to try and strip the word censorship of its true meaning. The best evidence I can present of this is a recent video by Bob Chipman (aka Moviebob), a content creator for the Escapist. Near the start of his video, Chipman displays the dictionary/technical definition of censorship:
He then goes on to say that there is sometimes a difference between dictionary/technical definitions and “common parlance” – aka how people talk in real life. In this, he is correct. For example, people rarely use the word “irony” correctly in conversation.
However, Moviebob is wrong when he claims that censorship’s technical definition and use in parlance are not the same (2:01-2:38). It is clear (especially considering GamerGate’s response to the whole Target/Kmart Australia debacle) that there are large groups of people using the technical definition of the word in parlance. Moviebob tries to put down these individuals by saying that “technical definitions are only used in debate clubs”, but this is little more than a cheap deflection.
Ultimately dictionary definitions exist for a reason: to establish a common ground for language. If we are supposed to throw out our dictionaries whenever we talk to other people, conversation has no purpose. Let me put it this way: for all you know, I don’t acknowledge the definitions of the words I’ve been using, and have actually been writing a lengthy fanfic about Gundam Deathscythe fucking a porpoise.
But that would be stupid.
Even if we’re supposed to buy the argument that technical definitions are for “debate clubs,” I would certainly call the current conversation over censorship a debate: so why not insist on “debate-club” language? And perhaps more importantly: what source does Moviebob have to back up his claims that “most people refer to censorship in the context of government censorship”? I certainly wasn’t asked.
This doesn’t mean that everything Moviebob says is without merit. I agree with his proposition that telling a game developer that you find something offensive/stupid isn’t censorship (4:20-4:44): that’s just giving feedback/criticism. As an example, I love the game Unepic (a Metroidvania RPG with some really clever, if frustrating systems). But if I had been given the opportunity to test Unepic, I would have advised the developer to throw out a segment where the PC has to have sex with three goblin women: it was stupid and ultimately contributed nothing to the game. That’s not me trying to censor the developer: that’s me saying “Dude, I don’t think it works.”
However, I find Moviebob’s assertion that there’s no right to be heard (4:45-5:01) horrific. A fundamental part of free speech is having a place to actually speak. There are arguably limits to this: I think most people would agree that keeping the Westboro Baptist Church away from funerals is a public service. But for the majority of the time, the WBC is allowed to protest in public (and frequently has). It’s true that there’s no right to be LISTENED to, but having a place to speak? Yeah, that’s a cornerstone of free speech. You can argue that owners of private websites have the right to control discussions on those sites – indeed, most people are willing to accept forums that have limits to their free speech, like preventing people from posting racial slurs or Neo-Nazi propaganda. But along with this acceptance from the public comes the expectation that if a discussion doesn’t violate a forum’s rules, it will be permitted.
That didn’t happen. The attempts to suppress the discussions surrounding GamerGate only made it explode. I’ll be the first to admit that I think part of GamerGate’s origins was a group of individuals stirring shit because they wanted to embarrass a developer they didn’t like. But the other half was the fact that the relationship between Grayson and Quinn was unethical, and keeping people from talking about it only pissed them off. I wrote about this back in August as a tweet to Jim Sterling, and my attitude hasn’t changed much since then. If anything, it’s grown more pro-GamerGate due to the reveal of GameJournoPros mailing list. When there’s a bunch of conspiring/bullying going on in an email list between popular site owners/higher-ups to limit the public’s ability to talk about a topic – yeah, that sounds like censorship to me. Hell, that sounds like the spitting image of government censorship – people with the power to dictate the flow of discourse stamping seals of approval or disapproval on various subjects. All that’s missing is a Star Chamber or Ministry of Truth.
Some people are not going to like me saying this (and bollocks to them), but I think Jim makes some decent points. I agree with Jim when he says what’s being immediately censored isn’t GTA 5 – it’s Target’s shelves, and even that was an act of self-censorship. But where Sterling fails is by underselling the threat of censorship by availability – not banning something, but preventing it from being sold in as many places as possible: a process which inevitably results in developers self-censoring their games.
If you couldn’t tell by the joke about Gundams (or, you know, the subtitle of this blog) I watch a lot of anime. I also enjoy playing VNs – visual novels, which are anime style choose-your-own-adventure books in videogame form. And uncensored VNs are largely unavailable in America, due to the fact that they tend to feature graphic depictions of sex.
In America, these games would get “Adults-only” ratings: and major retailers (including online retailers like Steam) refuse to stock any game with an Adults-only tag. In addition, console makers prevent Adults-only games from being released on their systems. The result is that AO games are never made/released in America – why bother, when you can’t sell them? The only option for game developers is to self-censor their works to get a lower content rating. This happens to some VNs: they’re called “All-Ages” versions. To my knowledge, there have only been two big Western games that garnered AO ratings: GTA San Andreas (whose rating was revised from Mature to AO during the Hot Coffee scandal) and Manhunt 2 (which received it before it could be released). In both cases, the developers had to modify their games before they could be sold (or sold again, in the case of San Andreas).
Understand though: this wasn’t CENSORSHIP. Nobody pressured these artists to change their works, honest! /s
This is ultimately what really makes me furious about the Target decision. No, scenes aren’t being cut from GTA 5, and the game is still available in the majority of the country. But just because it’s a smaller, less drastic version of censorship by availability doesn’t mean that it’s any less galling. We now see that in Australia, if you release a game that’s offensive to a small group of people, your game runs the risk of not being sold. That’s not “natural market forces” – the game was selling just fine before the petitioners showed up.
Take-Two president Carl Slatoff puts it best:
“It’s one thing for a person to not want to buy a piece of content, which is completely understandable. And that’s really the solution. If you don’t like it; if it’s offensive to you, then you don’t buy it,” he said. “But for a person or a group of people to try to make that decision for millions of people … we have 34 million people who have bought Grand Theft Auto V. If these folks had their way, none of those people would be able to buy Grand Theft Auto.”
These petitioners have managed to shove GTA 5 off the shelves of two major retailers. The financial impact this will have on Rockstar/Take-Two is negligible: the game has already passed off the vast majority of copies it was going to sell. But what effect will this have on future games released in Australia? How many developers are going to be tempted to self-censor for the sake of their financial well-being? And even if this chilling effect on creative freedom turns out to have little effect, isn’t its very existence a form of censorship?
More importantly, why is art once again coming under the threat of censorship? Oh wait, it’s the same tired Jack Thompson/soccer mom rhetoric of the 90s: “Games subtly influence people to do bad things!” You know, the same bullshit we spent years refuting. Only this time, pundits in the games industry are lining up to defend the argument or even making it themselves (see 4:40-5:00 of Moviebob’s Target video). Because now, the argument isn’t “Games contribute to violence!”, but “Games contribute to misogyny!”
It’s a much more attractive message, because you can’t deny that the industry sometimes has issues with women. But it’s still bullshit. I didn’t survive the 90’s to see it happen again, and I’ll take the “risks” of controversial art over being treated like I’m an man-child about to start hating women because I played the wrong video games.
Target Australia’s decision isn’t a corporation bowing to the will of the public. Call it what it is: fanning the flames of moral panic, and complicity in the censorship of videogames.