All opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other organizations.
In a recent discussion, the topic was broached regarding violence in video games and opinions regarding whether acts against specific minorities or otherwise marginalized groups should be allowed. The argument being that such acts perpetuate a mentality that promotes or rewards such behavior and as such, should be banned from sale or distribution.
While I in no way condone acts of violence to ANYONE let alone against marginalized groups, I do have to say that I stand by the idea that it should not be up to the judiciary of the government to enact laws making them the sole arbiters or what is decent or appropriate for sale or consumption.
In July 2005, in an attempt to protect minors from the dangerous impact of certain video games, the State of Illinois enacted Public Act 94-0135, the Illinois Sexually Explicit Video Game Law, which was comprised of the Violent Video Game Law (VVGL) and the Sexually Explicit Video Game Law (SEVGL).
The day after enactment, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, facially challenging the constitutionality of both the VVGL and the SEVGL. The plaintiffs are associations representing video game manufacturers and retailers. The defendants are the Governor of Illinois, the Illinois Attorney General, and the State’s Attorney for Cook County (collectively, “the State”). The plaintiffs are all participants in the video game industry’s ratings system-the Entertainment Software Rating Board (“ESRB”), which rates games on the basis of the maturity/age for which the game is appropriate. At the outset of the litigation the plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction and the defendants moved to dismiss. The motion to dismiss was denied.
In addition to the detailed rating system, the ESRB’s Advertising Review Council (ARC) has developed a list of Principles and Guidelines designed to provide responsible advertising practices by the video game industry. ARC is also responsible for responding to concerns or complaints raised by consumers regarding the marketing of video games. Would these self-imposed “controls” insulate the industry from legislative action designed to protect minors from sexually explicit depictions?
The district court stayed consideration of the motion for a preliminary injunction and held a three-day trial. Relevant to the SEVGL, during the trial, the State introduced screen shots from three games: (1) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, (2) Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, and (3) The Guy Game: Uncut and Uncensored. Parts of these games feature various images that the State alleges are covered by the law, ranging from digital drawings of exposed breasts to digital animations of sex acts.
The plaintiffs introduced the game God of War, a game which takes place in ancient Greece and roughly tracks Homeric themes, as evidence of a benign game which was unconstitutionally criminalized by the law. In God of War, a single scene depicts two bare-chested women in Ancient Greece. The plaintiffs allege that the scene featuring the bare-chested women is critical to the game as it marks the point at which the character rejects the temptations of the physical realm to focus on his mission.”
At the conclusion of the trial, the district court issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law and the State of Illinois filed an appeal.
Companies that DO expect global distribution still willingly censor or re-make content that might not be appropriate on a per-region basis (skeletons, decapitation, violence, nudity) but that is mostly to not isolate their demographic and reach a broader audience and thus higher sales.
Race and Social Inequality
Most companies are not willing to take any kind of significant risk though, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as racism; however, some do take a bold stance to break down social stigma and feature otherwise marginalized groups.
By discussing such topics and depicting the user in such a manner, we actually do the opposite of re-enforcing it, we instead put the player in the shoes of the character. They get to see how it feels to be on the receiving end of such hatred
The question again though is whether or not the state or government should be allowed to censor content that it finds has no redeeming qualities. If taken out of context, the story of Lincoln Clay in Mafia III could easily be misconstrued as displaying negative values but the reality is the story is actually finely crafted and nuanced, as any good story should be, and based on the beliefs of the region at the time. Taking any kind of closer look reveals the depth of the narrative.
As an industry we already have a manner of self-regulating via the ESRB/PEGI and other such organizations world-wide that have proven effective at informing and educating the public about any content in titles that might be considered not suitable for minors. Despite that, major corporations and distributers have routinely blocked brick-and-mortar sales of mature content; however thanks in part to the the rise of digital distribution, game makers are less likely to be held financially hostage by companies with conservative social policies and if they are, still have other viable means of distribution.
As elected officials, we do grant our government a certain measure of power, however we do not give them the ability to act as mediator and gate keeper for any kind of content that a judge deems “utterly without redeeming social importance.”