Fortunately, here in the United States, gaming very rarely becomes a political issue—a serious political issue, at least. Periodically, you'll find talking heads on the cable news channels complaining about things that exist only in their imaginations (e.g. the alleged fully interactive sex scenes in Mass Effect), or claiming that violent games cause children to kill. But rarely does anyone propose an actual law that would keep us from playing the games we want to play.
The potential of actual game censorship was made even more remote by a recent Supreme Court decision. In last year's Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Court struck down a rather limited California law—it didn't censor games outright, but rather made it illegal to sell violent games to minors. Two justices defended the law—Clarence Thomas said that the First Amendment does not protect a right to speak directly to minors without their parents' consent, and Stephen Breyer pointed out the inconsistency of allowing regulations of pornographic images while preventing regulations of extreme violence. The other seven, however, found that states cannot regulate the sale of violent games to minors, much less censor them outright.
So, in America, games become political issues only when politicians want to score a few cheap points with concerned parents—just look at how little of an effect the controversies over Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto had. It's all bluster. The only way to kill a video game in America is to create a PR disaster for the developer and publisher. For example, popular outrage quickly snuffed out Six Days in Fallujah, a game about the still-ongoing Afghan War, without any government action at all.
The only gaming-related topic that American politicians actually fight over is how big of a tax break to give game companies to locate in their jurisdictions. As the New York Times reported last year, video game creation is arguably one of the most subsidized businesses in America, thanks to all the special breaks companies get—they can get tax favors for software development, for entertainment, and for online retailing. Even gory games like Dead Space 2 are partly the product of tax subsidies.
Unfortunately, many other developed nations don't have the speech protections that America has, to say nothing about the web of lavish subsidies. In Australia, for example, video game ratings are not optional, as they are in the U.S.—ratings are given out by the government, and unrated games cannot be sold. Under current law, the highest rating available for games is R15, which in practice means that if the government doesn't think a game is appropriate for a fifteen-year-old, the game can't be sold. Fortunately, an R18 rating for games is expected to go into effect in 2013, which will put games on a level playing field with movies.
Germany is another country that has kept strict controls on video games. In part, this is due to the unique problems it faces—for obvious reasons, it has banned most Nazi imagery. But it also bans games for more generic reasons; in fact, it keeps a list of media products that the government deems hazardous to youth. Doom was placed on this list in 1994, and only late last year was the ban lifted. In case you haven't tried it lately, Doom looks cartoonish rather than violent nowadays—the reason the ban was relaxed is that the game is more of a historical relic than a cutting-edge game that appeals to young people. Other games that have been targeted by the German government include Mortal Kombat, Manhunt, and Left 4 Dead 2. Sometimes, game makers can get away with a toned-down version of the game, rather than skipping German sales entirely. But there's no doubt that German gamers don't get the full experience that other gamers get.
South Korea and New Zealand have banned violent games as well. And those are just examples from the developed world—from countries that give their citizens some real constitutional protections. Other countries will ban games simply for making them look bad. Iran banned Battlefield 3 (even though the publisher wasn't even selling it there) because it depicted an invasion of Tehran. Similarly, China bans games that present it in a negative light, or that recognize Tibet as an independent country.
American gamers often get frustrated when opponents of violent games get on TV and shoot their mouths off. But in reality, they should feel very fortunate—in the U.S., game companies and their customers get the same free-speech protections that their opponents get. In other countries, gamers aren't so lucky.
Date: March 12, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*