Monday, February 11, 2008

A Few Questions

N'gai Croal wrote a thoughtful column for Level Up about the controversy over Mass Effect.

A controversy over explicit sexual portrayals that simply weren't in the game, it should be noted.

N'Gai has an interesting angle, though, and it's about the lack of defense coming from BioWare itself. Here's an excerpt:
...we can't help but feel as though something is wrong when the loudest and most visible voices in defense of Mass Effect were journalists and suits. If this were a painting, a novel, a play, a movie or a television show being made by an artist or artists as successful in their medium as BioWare has been in videogames, it's hard to imagine that a gallery owner, a book editor, a theater producer or a studio exec would be at the forefront of setting the record straight about their work.

There's a bit of an ostrich mentality in this industry when it comes to controversy--Microsoft, as best as we can tell, issued not a single statement refuting Lawrence's claims--and it's understandable given the low cultural profile that videogames occupy compared to other media, which makes it easy for critics and politicians to turn game makers into political pinatas when it suits their purpose. But
as much as we've criticized people in the media for continually infantilizing videogames, we would be remiss if we did not point out that the relative silence of the creators--the ones who have the deepest understanding of what videogames are, how they function and what they can become--aids and abets this infantilization. In order to sit at the grown-ups table, culturally speaking, developers are going to have to act like adults. And that means not letting other people do their fighting for them.

I don't know if I entirely agree with his conclusion, but N'Gai's writing is provocative, and it made me think of other questions that emerge from what he wrote.

Most particularly, what exactly are we defending, and why?

This sounds like an extremely simple question, but it's awkward, because for different games, the answer seems to change.

An example: if Mass Effect really did have more sexually explicit scenes, I think almost all of us would defend it on the basis of art.

Other games, though, have essentially zero redeeming value as art (hello, Postal). Those games would be defended on the basis of free speech.

Does it make sense, though, to have different defenses for different games? Should we have different defenses? And should we defend all games?

I'm not pretending that I have the answers to these questions. I just think it's interesting to ask them.

Here's an example. It's very easy for me to defend a tasteful, passionate scene in Mass Effect which is the result of relationship that develops over time. It's very difficult for me to defend a gameplay mechanic in the Grand Theft Auto series where you can beat a hooker to death with a baseball bat to get your money back after being "serviced."

It's even more difficult (impossible, really) for me to defend the Postal series, which (to me) is just fried hatred on a stick.

So how do we defend sexism, and racism, and homophobia in games?

Well, we don't. I think it's possible to defend the right of content creators to create content which we find distasteful or reprehensible on Constitutional grounds without defending the content itself. In other words, in situations like this, we are defending the First Amendment, not the content.

Like I said in a previous column, though, the First Amendment is not a free pass to be a dickhead. So I think the creators of Grand Theft Auto, while they should be defended on First Amendment grounds, should be criticized on Asshole grounds.

Postal, too. I think it's entirely fair to say "we are defending you and you are a complete asshole."

It's not a game we're defending. It's the principle of free speech, which is the foundation of the Constitution and any functioning democracy. And I think the people who are foaming at the mouth about video games don't understand this distinction because we don't make it clearly enough.

Yes, there's the Miller Test (the Supreme Court's three-part criteria for determining whether content is obscene) and the possibility that if video game content were found obscene, it would no longer have First Amendment protection. The Miller Test is so difficult to satisfy, though, that it's highly unlikely that any game capable of finding a publisher would ever fail the Miller Test. Because of that, I think that uniformly using a First Amendment defense is entirely reasonable.

Again, though, defending content is not the same thing as approving that content. We need to make that clear.

Clarification is useful in the other direction, too.

Let's look at the primary example. Here's the money shot for every critic of video games: they're marketed to and played by children.

Okay, that's an entirely fair objection, on its face.

Except--what is the face of that question, exactly? How do these people define "children?"

Surprisingly, that's not as simple as it sounds. I typed "define: children" into Google and came up with the following definitions:
--"an individual who has not yet reached puberty"
--persons under 16 years of age.
--persons under 14 years of age.

I'm sure I could have found dozens more if I'd kept looking, but clearly, there's no single definition of what age range "children" actually constitute.

It matters, though, because of the impact that words can have. For example, a far more supportable claim would be "violent games are marketed to teenagers," and I think that's an entirely legitimate area for discussion. But if you use the word "teenager," doesn't that conjure up an entirely different emotional response than using the word "children?" It resizes the issue, doesn't it?

That's why the definition matters, and that's why we need to ask "the other side" just what the hell it is they're talking about.

It also matters when "children" buying violent video games becomes a hot topic. "M" rated games are only supposed to be purchased by people who are 17 or older, and I think almost all of us agree that it's entirely reasonable for games to have ratings and purchase restrictions that are based on content and age.

The latest government survey says that 42% of "children" were able to walk into a store and buy an M-rated game. They specify, though, that the kids they used as shoppers were all aged 13-16.

In other words, every kid in that purchase group is a teenager.

Do you respond differently in an emotional sense when it's more accurately described? I do. It's an entirely different discussion if it's accurately framed.

I'm not saying we shouldn't care if 13-year olds can buy Grand Theft Auto. We should. We do. But using the word "children" expands the emotional content of the issue exponentially, and unfairly.

The ESA would really, really help itself if they committed themselves to doing a larger survey than the government, and with far greater clarity in terms of data breakdown. Have data for 15-16 year olds and 13-14 year olds split out. Include 11-12 year olds. Hell, include 9-10 year olds.

To forestall any objections, share your methodology before you conduct the study with the most reasonable organization you can find from the "other" side (the PTA, perhaps). Allow them to have a representative present when these product buys are attempted. And be advised on building proper methodology by recognized experts in sociology.

Look, having accurate, more complete data isn't going to hurt the gaming industry. It's going to allow them to respond appropriately to what the data tells them.

N'Gai mentioned in his column that the gaming industry has an "ostrich mentality" when it comes to controversy. It certainly does when it comes to this issue, at least in terms of data. In other ways, though, the ESA has done better in the last year, particularly in terms of partnering with the PTA and politicians at the national level.

There's only one way to approach this strategically, and it's easy to understand. Let's say that half the country is comfortable with video games, and the other half is absolutely outraged. The first thing you do is find the most reasonable 5% out of the outraged 50% and find out what they're concerned about. If they have a factual misunderstanding about what's going on, help them understand. If they have legitimate issues, address them.

I think the partnership with the PTA and politicians in terms of public service announcements would qualify as this kind of strategy.

Just keep working through the outrage, 5% at a time. Correct factual inaccuracies, address legitimate issues, and keep chipping away. At some point, when the legitimate issues have been addressed (and procedures are in place for monitoring on an ongoing basis), the only people still outraged will be those who are totally out of touch. And all the groups you've partnered with to get to this point will defend you against the fringe.

If you make a legitimate and honest effort, sweat equity will go a long way.

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