Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hatred (your e-mail)

Thoughtful e-mails from you guys, as always. I'm offering these, unedited, because they reflect a variety of reactions/responses.

First, from C. Lee:
You're right to point out that we as a society can swallow a great deal of violence so long as we're provided a reason, however thin, and it's legitimate to point out how open to abuse this is.

However, this is surely a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. The distinction between violence committed for a reason and senseless violence is arguably a bedrock principle of any civilization. When we erase that distinction -- if we shrug like Pilate and say "What is truth?" -- then we may as well be living in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

That line is thin and hazy, but it's not one we can afford to be cynical about. Surely that line is what lies at the heart of the Senate intelligence report: Were the CIA's actions justified? If that line goes, then there's no reason to argue about the issue; if senseless violence is OK, then it just wouldn't matter whether torture occurred.

Steam is a publisher, and publishers are free to accept or decline material as they see fit. They don't have to offer a reason: "We regret that the enclosed material does not suit our needs." The people howling about censorship are being deliberately obtuse. As someone pointed out on Neogaf, your supermarket is not engaging in censorship because they don't carry the brand of milk you like. The developers of the game were free to distribute it on their own, just like every other game Steam declines to carry.

And if it's censorship people are worried about, well, we're about to reap the whirlwind now that Steam has reinstated the game. There's a presidential election coming up, and the likely Democratic candidate made a considerable nuisance of herself when it came to violence in games 15 years ago along with Lieberman and the like. Does anyone seriously believe Hillary Clinton wouldn't seize on this issue? And who could blame her if she did? I certainly wouldn't want to try to defend this game. 

Video games will have proven that they can't police themselves -- "little Johnny can download a genocide simulator to his PC!" The GOP candidate will likely condemn games as well to keep up. And so a self-appointed group of Congressional censors will take things in hand. Worried about censorship? We haven't seen anything yet.

As far as I'm concerned, Gabe Newell shrugged his shoulders and said "What is truth?" I think that far from avoiding a trap, he's rushed the entire industry into one.

Next, from Meg McReynolds: 
Keep in mind, too, there are differences between actual censorship and “choosing not to publish/buy/fund”. Censorship is a governmental function. There are parts of games that, at least in the US, are censored, yes – there are some depictions of children, for example, that if you put them in a game (or create them at all, really), it is considered a criminal act and you could be arrested.  There are other “standards” that are followed, but typically, those don’t rise to actual censorship. Those are a function of the market, “community standards”, the risk assessment of the publisher/producer. There are many things I could put in a game (or write, etc.) that would not get wide distribution necessarily, but I could create the game and put it out there by myself and not get arrested/governmentally sanctioned/etc. No one may buy it, play it, like it, let me advertise it anywhere, and it may be decried from all corners, but none of that is censorship. You can have a TV show and you say racist things on it, so the station takes the show off the air. That’s not censorship; that’s consequences for actions. Just because you legally can say racist things doesn’t mean you have to be provided a large platform to do so.

Now, there may be concerning implications of large distribution platforms declining to carry something. Just because it’s not the government doing the suppressing doesn’t mean it’s better (or worse, or a good idea or a bad idea). Sony pulling the opening/distribution of The Interview is not censorship; it is, however, deeply concerning. 

This is a common theme with art. There are many things out there that I find very troubling – torture pron is a great example. I also don’t like explicit depictions of war. I would be perfectly happy if the pron stopped getting published, but I see value in at least some explicit war movies, even if I don’t personally like them or want to see them. And maybe there’s value in the pron – who decides? Who decides where “pron” ends and mere violence begins? I don’t want the war movies to lose wide distribution because some people have problems with them, or think it’s not nice to show war. Art can be challenging, and should be sometimes. Maybe people didn’t like when Saving Private Ryan was on regular TV, but I see real value in wide exposure there.

I don’t have good answers here, either. I am happy when things I don’t like that are legal stop getting support/go out of fashion/don’t make money – I’m glad there seem to be fewer torture movies out there, for example. I’m frequently ok when the consequence for being racist on TV is that you lose your large platform to do so. But I worry that we may move too far away from things that are hard or ugly or sad, that distribution of potentially valuable expressions will become too small to have the impact they deserve. Where to draw the line? I’m not sure, and I’m reevaluating all the time.

I thought about what I wrote this morning, and realized a kind of philosophical distinction that gets made when it comes to content control in games: it's generally agreed that children need to be "protected". At a philosophical level, most people would agree with that statement. The devil, though, is in the details. What age limits define "children"? What are we protecting them from? How should that work, exactly?

A sweet spot for a large part of the population, I believe, is that we protect children and let adults see anything they want, because the value of unrestricted content, as a society, outweighs any possible negative consequences. 

Even then, though, we don't really do that. Viewing certain kinds of content can get an adult sent to prison. "Censor nothing" is very appealing at the whiteboard, but man, it gets very complicated very quickly. It's almost hopelessly unwieldy at the policy level. 

This seems to be one of the societal questions where there are no "best" answers, only 'bad" and "even worse" options.

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