American Morals for All: an Outsider's Perspective

Dana Massey | 20 Sep 2005 08:05
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Gamers generally appear to be a very liberal group. Whenever Washington comes calling, waving the censorship stick, gamers throw a fit and gaming companies resist as best they can. Sadly, in the age of sensationalism, resistance really is futile, as journalists smear the story across the pages of major papers and beam it into our homes through CNN. There seems to be very little the American-centric game industry can do, especially when leading Democrats - supposedly the more liberal of the American political parties - lead the charge.

For those of us who are not American, these developments are scary. As outsiders, we have little power to effect change, but know that as the target market for many of the games we enjoy, changes in America mean changes for the entire world. Videogame censorship has become a hot-button issue on the American political landscape, and those of us who play or build American games from outside their borders need to brace for impact. The fear of lawsuits, recalls and the loss of Mr. Walton's stamp of approval in the United States could soon impose a foreign political moral code on gamers worldwide.

Videogames are an international commodity, and unlike some other forms of entertainment, our industry is not regional. Newspapers in the UK are vastly different from papers in the USA or Canada; different common standards apply. On page three of one particularly famous British paper, readers can find topless or scantily clad women on a daily basis. In the United States or Canada, if a national newspaper - or even a regional one - even attempted such a stunt, they would be crucified and quite likely face litigation. The ethics of the subject are debatable, but the fact remains that the differences, even in countries that share a language, are quite large. In the newspaper medium, these kinds of differences are easy to overcome, while in games, things become much more complicated. The lack of regional diversity in the gaming industry ensures that games, for the most part (the Asian market being the exception) must conform to a single higher standard, and for good or ill, the largest market - the United States - sets that moral standard.

As it stands, the average videogame already contains a very North American stance when it comes to sex. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the Hot Coffee scandal proved that, when a third party modification that unlocked hidden sexual content raised an uproar and cost Take Two and Rockstar millions of dollars. The consensus seems to be that Rockstar made a mistake when they left in the animations and content allowing these third party modders to unlock the game's content. Is that content truly wrong?

Even if it had been available in the game, I personally do not see any issue with its inclusion in an already mature game. To me, I have seen much worse in Hollywood films, and those use real people to perform simulated sex acts. Yet, animated and - no offense to the artists at Rockstar - not terribly realistic looking (and clothed) toons will corrupt the world's youth? Of all the things I can do in Grand Theft Auto, I would be much less upset if I caught my child copying that than - for example - robbing a train or conducting a drive-by. Do I think Grand Theft Auto is appropriate for children? No. Would I want my children copying anything they see in that game? Obviously not. I just cannot believe that a simulated sex act between two animated and half-clothed characters is the most morally reprehensible part of the game.

It will be a very long time before we again see sex in a mainstream videogame. A certain crusading censor, whose name shall not be mentioned, has already turned his eye to the blurred nudity of the androgynous Sims 2 characters. If he had his way, a thirty year old gamer in Britain who can see breasts in his daily newspaper would be unable to see blurred flesh of naughty-bit-less animated toons in the privacy of his own home. Quite simply, the losses suffered by the creators of Grand Theft Auto were so great that no other gaming company would sanely flaunt these taboos any time soon. In fact, Rockstar, who probably could not produce a children's game at this point without being crucified in the press, may well be the only company who - from an economic point of view - should continue to push the envelope. They lost millions in the Hot Coffee scandal, but they also became a household name. Those who are not so easily offended (the people who played their games in the first place) are probably even more likely to seek out their next release. However, they are the exception, not the rule. Recent developments reinforce the imposition of American moral standards, for good or ill, upon the global gaming population.

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