With the ‘Hot Coffeegate’ scandal video game censorship has hit front page. Diversity in video games is under threat from such ‘notables’ as Hilary Clinton and the outspoken Jack Thompson, who happily disregards the fact that most of the nonsense he spouts has been disproven by numerous studies. Whilst I’d be the last person to promote ‘open slather’ for content distribution, and am a firm believer in censorship ratings, I think the current debate is way out of hand and fast becoming a dangerous threat to a facet of computing which is of importance to all of us.
Let’s face it, love them or hate them PC games provide an impetus for hardware development that is unmatched by any other form of programming which has the home market in mind. Thanks to PC gaming we have affordable high performance 3D graphics capability in the average PC. If we are to address issues of concern about the content of video games, it is in all our interests to ensure that any debate is conducted in a sensible and informed manner, and not allowed to become a kneejerk sensationalist quest for public popularity which threatens the existence of such a productive area of activity.
‘Hot Coffeegate’ erupted when popular title “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was found to contain ‘hidden’ content with explicit sexual overtones. Perhaps intentional, perhaps inadvertent, but code was left in the released product which was easily ‘unlocked’ with a tweak or two, and which clearly did not sit well with a MA15+ censorship rating. Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive made a blunder for sure! In the USA the game was ordered to be withdrawn from sale and the ‘hidden’ code removed from future copies. In Australia, where the government considers that parents do not monitor video game use well enough and do not allow an adult 18+ censorship rating to exist for videogames, the game has now been banned and is unlikely to return to sale given that Take 2 and Rockstar have openly acknowledged that it is aimed at a '17+' audience. In Japan, where there is currently a large debate underway about the monitoring and control of videogame sales to underage purchasers the debacle has added fuel to the flames.
All of that is well and good. Rules are rules, and if content transcedes what is allowable under censorship rating then that is a matter for concern and to be debated and attended to if necessary. But it is more recent moves in the debate which alarm.
“What about Sims 2? is the next cry. “There’s a nude ‘skin’ which shows the hidden bits when the characters get undressed!
Popular game “Sims 2 most certainly has a feature which provides a pixellated ‘fuzzy area’ over the ‘rude bits’ when the characters get undressed. There most certainly is a ‘hack’ which removes the fuzziness. But underneath that fuzziness the charcters sorta look like Ken and Barbie. They’ve got no ‘bits’ to look at! This a silly sensationalism run rampant. “Oh, but we should stop the evil ‘modders’ is the cry which results, “because they make shocking filth which people can use to turn it into pornography!
Oh wow again! The game ‘modding’ community is a very active and large group of people who put the skills they learn to productive use adding content and new storylines or locations to the games people purchase. They’re an important part of the field of activity, and a training ground where people can develop and hone their skills. If one small corner of that community is providing a ‘nude skin’ for a particular game title, that’s no reason to seek an end to the entire activity. That’d be like shutting down every family video outlet because you found one which was handing over X rated titles from under the counter!
Undue violence and gore in video games is of course a worthy topic of debate. But that debate MUST be conducted in a mature and considered fashion. There is no evidence whatsoever which conclusively demonstrates that video games corrupt young people and cause violent acts, much as you might hear claims to the contrary. In fact, the bulk of evidence suggests that video games do not cause violence. If it is considered that not enough parental guidance is given to kids playing video games then that is no reason to deny people across the board the video game content they want. Surely, instead, it is a reason for increased education about parental responsibility!
I’m not sure what’s ‘missing’ in your households, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Thompson, but I know damned well that when I watch my primary aged grandchildren playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ I can enjoy seeing them cackling away in merriment. When I ask them “Should you really do things like that to people? they’ll answer in a flash. “Of course not, granddad. It’s a game, not real. It’s like a comic or a cartoon!
There are many positive aspects of video game acticity, and of the industry which provides it. Let’s not put it at risk by blindly following the alarmist concerns of those seeking to further their public profiles. Let’s instead pay careful attention to people like Steven Johnson, author of “Everything bad is good for you, who has written an open letter to Hilary Clinton about the topic:
"Dear Sen. Clinton:
"I'm writing to commend you for calling for a $90-million study on the effects of video games on children, and in particular the courageous stand you have taken in recent weeks against the notorious "Grand Theft Auto" series.
"I'd like to draw your attention to another game whose nonstop violence and hostility has captured the attention of millions of kids — a game that instills aggressive thoughts in the minds of its players, some of whom have gone on to commit real-world acts of violence and sexual assault after playing.
"I'm talking, of course, about high school football.
"I know a congressional investigation into football won't play so well with those crucial swing voters, but it makes about as much sense as an investigation into the pressing issue that is Xbox and PlayStation 2.
"Your current concern is over explicit sex in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Yet there's not much to investigate, is there? It should get rated appropriately, and that's that. But there's more to your proposed study: You want to examine how video games shape children's values and cognitive development.
"Kids have always played games. A hundred years ago they were playing stickball and kick the can; now they're playing "World of Warcraft," "Halo 2" and "Madden 2005." And parents have to drag their kids away from the games to get them to do their algebra homework, but parents have been dragging kids away from whatever the kids were into since the dawn of civilization.
"So any sensible investigation into video games must ask the "compared to what" question. If the alternative to playing "Halo 2" is reading "The Portrait of a Lady," then of course "The Portrait of a Lady" is better for you. But it's not as though kids have been reading Henry James for 100 years and then suddenly dropped him for Pokemon.
"Another key question: Of all the games that kids play, which ones require the most mental exertion? Parents can play this at home: Try a few rounds of Monopoly or Go Fish with your kids, and see who wins. I suspect most families will find that it's a relatively even match. Then sit down and try to play "Halo 2" with the kids. You'll be lucky if you survive 10 minutes.
"The great secret of today's video games that has been lost in the moral panic over "Grand Theft Auto" is how difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives.
"In short, precisely the sorts of skills that they're going to need in the digital workplace of tomorrow.
"Consider this one fascinating trend among teenagers: They're spending less time watching professional sports and more time simulating those sports on Xbox or PlayStation. Now, which activity challenges the mind more — sitting around rooting for the Packers, or managing an entire football franchise through a season of "Madden 2005": calling plays, setting lineups, trading players and negotiating contracts? Which challenges the mind more — zoning out to the lives of fictional characters on a televised soap opera, or actively managing the lives of dozens of virtual characters in a game such as "The Sims"?
"On to the issue of aggression, and what causes it in kids, especially teenage boys. Congress should be interested in the facts: The last 10 years have seen the release of many popular violent games, including "Quake" and "Grand Theft Auto"; that period has also seen the most dramatic drop in violent crime in recent memory. According to Duke University's Child Well-Being Index, today's kids are less violent than kids have been at any time since the study began in 1975. Perhaps, Sen. Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that violent games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their natural aggression without acting it out in the real world.
"Many juvenile crimes — such as the carjacking that is so central to "Grand Theft Auto" — are conventionally described as "thrill-seeking" crimes. Isn't it possible that kids no longer need real-world environments to get those thrills, now that the games simulate them so vividly? The national carjacking rate has dropped substantially since "Grand Theft Auto" came out. Isn't it conceivable that the would-be carjackers are now getting their thrills on the screen instead of the street?
"Crime statistics are not the only sign that today's gaming generation is doing much better than the generation raised during the last cultural panic — over rock 'n' roll. Math SAT scores have never been higher; verbal scores have been climbing steadily for the last five years; nearly every indicator in the Department of Education study known as the Nation's Report Card is higher now than when the study was implemented in 1971.
"By almost every measure, the kids are all right.
"Of course, I admit that there's one charge against video games that is a slam dunk. Kids don't get physical exercise when they play a video game, and indeed the rise in obesity among younger people is a serious issue. But, of course, you don't get exercise from doing homework either."