The Importance of Protecting Freedom of Speech and Expression in Video Games.

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The freedom to speak your mind and express yourself is something that a lot of people take for granted, presumably due to living in the west where we can say what we will without fear of retaliations to our well-being but there have been instances where freedom of speech hasn’t been enough to defend against the eternally upset, the entitled beggars, the forever offended. One notable example would be David Irving who was jailed for expressing his stance on the Holocaust in Austria, despite him making those remarks about it in 1989. People have all said foolish things now and again, but isn’t it rather unbecoming of a democratic society where we have a charter for human rights to punish someone for merely expressing an opinion? You may be wondering what this has to do with video games, but I am simply addressing how slight our rights can actually be. Is it even possible to even have rights if they can be taken away from you with little objection if you have a contrary stance that society cannot abide? Moving onwards, I would like to express my disdain for the way that video game companies have become beset by various groups who’ve taken exception to particular video games which had some “objectionable” content within.

Censorship in the video game industry is nothing new. I can remember a title such as Thrill Kill not being suitable for public consumption due to the graphic nature of what was being shown on screen. One would think that we’ve moved on from those days and games can be all they can be, regardless of content, regardless of theme but alas! We aren’t quite were we want to be at this point since some puritanical souls will not abide anything that offends their sensibilities or even worse; controversy chasers taking up causes to feel better about themselves. Speaking out and putting forth your opinion is all well and good, but one must be wary of falling into the trap of claiming to be on the right side of the morality paradigm, since morality itself is relative to the individual, not an absolute unless you cling to the tenets of an ideology like Marxism or belong to a religious order. There are some people who reject both absolutism and relativism and cohere to a relative absolute absolute. I would count myself among their number.

What does this have to do with video gaming? It has everything to do with it. Our actions and how we conduct ourselves shapes the very world around us. How a group of game developers shape their own unique game is usually based in a place where ideas are freely exchanged, thrown back and forth in order for the full realization and potential of a game’s world, themes, user-interface, plot, graphics, artistic focus can be fully actualized. It must also be stated that the society and culture of where a group of developers resides usually dictate the type of game that they want to or are able to make and that there is an absurd amount of work needed to make a game that is palatable to the masses; a lot more so if unforeseen obstacles get in the way of making said game.

Of course, there are exceptions to this with such game franchises like the Call of Duty series with it’s annual releases raising the ire of various gamers for saturating the market with the same game engine with little to no variation, reused textures and becoming formulaic. The opposite is also true when it comes to games being subject to development hell such as the Last Guardian, Duke Nukem Forever and the forever delayed Final Fantasy XIII Versus. Each game that has been mentioned previously each have their own unique, artistic merits. Even Duke Nukem Forever has it’s merits, despite the faulty execution by the numerous studios that were involved in that omnishambles of a project. What is essential is to be mindful of the thematic messages that are spread throughout a game and that responsibility is not shirked, especially the thematic messages that are put forward regardless of whether they are debatable or not. Those types of messages are the most fun, as thematic messages  are singularly most important in a product’s own identity.

For the medium to be taken seriously as an artistic outlet akin to film or literature, there has to be the freedom for a group (as making a game is rarely a solo effort) to express themselves, free from insincere assertions of their character and inflammatory headlines. One could argue that would mean that they wouldn’t be subject to criticism for the thematic messages they express, but that is simply not true, as a game can be judged on various aspects such as gameplay, plot, sound, themes, user interface, just as a film can be judged by it’s camerawork, how well directed it is, how the cast performs, how well-written a script is, how a theme is properly expressed etc . The tonality or semiotics that are expressed through this fledgling medium can then be discussed and how it may be redeemable to a game or detract from it. After reading about Namco responding quickly to a grievance being aired about the word for Allah being present in the Saudi Arabia level for Tekken Tag Tournament 2, it is rather perturbing to see a growing school of whining become more prevalent. Perhaps, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan who was gently mocking art by stating , “Art is anything you can get away with.” was more correct than anyone ever could’ve possibly imagined.

Religions have had issues with video gaming when it comes into conflict with their own belief systems. The above example is the latest controversy to follow hot on the heels of the popular multi-player Favela map controversy for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. What caused such an uproar? A picture frame which contained the words “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty.” in a toilet. This was brought to the limelight by a Youtube user claiming to represent the “Islamic Gaming Community” who used a sniper scope to examine a picture frame.

Here is the video for your own perusal.

I cannot claim to be knowledgeable about Islam, but there are some clear problems here when it comes to these lines of arguments. These type of arguments prey upon emotive means to manipulate a person to come across to their way of thinking. An appeal to emotion is at oftentimes fallacious and an under-handed method to undermine or cloud rational thought and logic. Let me just ask a couple of questions in regards to these particular incidents. How is it unacceptable for Modern Warfare 2 to contain the word Allah but nothing is said about the context or the content of the game? The Call of Duty series is borderline jingoistic with it’s glorification of violence, nauseating patriotism and a plot so obnoxious, it’d make Michael Bay roll his eyes. Yet, that isn’t what we’re talking about here is it? We’re talking about a three year old game which had a picture frame being examined with a magnified scope on a sniper rifle in a toilet that doesn’t even exist. It’s the same with the Tekken Tag game. How can it be unacceptable for the word “Allah” to appear in a game, yet there is little to no outrage over content of a game where avatars pummel each other until one of them is victorious? If the games are misrepresenting the values of Islam, then where is the outcry against the violence that is prevalent within those games from the religion of peace? Wouldn’t it be more conspicuous by it’s absence that there is no mention or reference to Islam in a country where Islam is a prominent part of Saudi Arabian culture since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocratic monarchy with a high Muslim population which banned Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for it’s perceived negative portrayal of Arabs?

Onto the content that caused an uproar and changes to the games previously mentioned; I sincerely doubt that any offense was meant to be caused by the development teams of Infinity Ward and Namco with the intention of antagonizing Muslims or mocking their beliefs. It’s my belief that the offensive picture frame may have been simply been a reused texture that they used from their game libraries and I base this on Activision being forced to apologize, possibly due to events that have happened recently. Therefore, it’s more likely that nobody set out or went out of their way to offend “The Islamic Game Community”. Three years too late to start being angry now, but better late than never I presume.  The Tekken Tag incident can simply be put down to a cultural misunderstanding or a mishap on the part of the artist who had probably been using Islamic culture as a muse to draw inspiration from, who saw some Arabic writing and decided to choose that particular symbol that represented Allah, as I sincerely doubt that many people in the Japanese game industry are experts of Arabic calligraphy. So is it outside of the realm of possibility that it’s more likely that it was simply a misunderstanding on the part of Namco to have included the offending texture? I think not. Should they change it? I don’t believe so and here’s why.

Let us also not pretend for one moment that Islam is the only group of people that are bringing up contentious things in video games. There have been moments in time where Christianity have taken umbrage with video games that do not correlate with their tenets or offended them in some way. There is that one instance in 2006 when the Church of England were appalled by the way that Manchester Cathedral was depicted in the launch PS3 game Resistance: Fall of Man. Not only did they demand an apology for any offense caused by Sony for using it in a  level for their seminal Sci-Fi shooter, they wished to enforce “Sacred Digital Guidelines” which will be described in the following text.

  1. Respect our sacred spaces as places of prayer, worship, peace, learning and heritage.
  2. Do not assume that sacred space interiors are copyright free.
  3. Get permission from the faith leaders who are responsible for the building interiors you want to clone.
  4. Support the work of those engaged in resisting the culture of gun crime and those involved in promoting the work of conflict resolution.

The Church of England not only wished that Sony would agree to these demands but that all game developers must agree to these guidelines if they are to use assets pertaining to real cathedrals or churches. To top it all off, they also demanded that Resistance be pulled from shop shelves and that Sony offer a “donation” to their cause. The utter audacity; the absolute nerve for a group of people to think themselves entitled to this amount of kowtowing is insidious in nature. Not only does it prove that certain groups of people will push for as much as they can get but it also sets an uncomfortable precedent for an erosion of the rights of freedom of speech and expression for the video game industry. If it were to escalate to such a ludicrous degree for all games to be subjected to a rigorous political correctness exam, any claim of a prospective video game having artistic merit will no doubt be sullied by a severe conflict of interest whereby each of the semiotics that are present within the game have been sanitized and state-approved.  How can art flourish in such a stifling climate that is receptive to each group, regardless of the merit of their claims?

Could you imagine if books and film were subject to this sort of treatment from various groups? Oh wait. They already have. In literature, there have been instances in which books have been outright banned for reasons ranging from political dissent, obscenity and anthropomorphized animals having the same complexity of humans. Films have also been subject to this level of censorship from the various watchdogs or organizations of their time.  If one were to look at the positive side of all this; this could mean that gaming has evolved to the extent of almost becoming a legitimate artistic platform. While I don’t particularly think that we’ve reached that level yet (but we are getting there!) ; it is strangely heartening to me to hear of such a level of disdain against gaming in general. I am glad that people are getting all in a kerfuffle over things that do not matter in the greater scheme of things because it allows us to learn from another person’s perspective and it directly challenges us on our own ideas and sometimes our own preconceptions of what is right or truthful. As the noted English political philosopher, John Stewart Mills once said and I quote:

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

So it has come to this. I fear I have only scratched the surface of such a small section of what is an incredibly complex issue. I haven’t even tackled the other controversies that have afflicted such games like Sony’s fun platformer Little Big Planet, or Capcom’s Zach & Wiki  for the Wii console which had references to Allah in them. Nor did I tackle the RE 5 controversy for being allegedly racist towards black people or the Tomb Raider hubbub over an attempted rape scene.  I also haven’t explored in much depth, the past censorship on the part of Nintendo Of America to make their consoles more palatable to families that they intended to market to, nor have I even touched upon the rejection of the Binding of Issac by Nintendo for it’s “questionable religious content”. Such is the complexity of juggling so many controversies, I fear that I’ve reached my limit on what I can cover in this time frame. However, I will post my final opinion on how the freedom of speech and expression is tantamount and important above all things when it comes to artistic integrity.

Let us first bring up this “offended” state of mind and show an unflattering light towards its flaws. What does it mean to be offended? A texture or a sound pertaining to a certain religion is no cause for offense and neither is using a religious landmark to flesh out a real-life place from my perspective. However, is there an acceptable time to be offended by something contentious? I think so. I get offended by war. I get offended when a religious authority claims to be the one and only quintessential truth in this world and the only path to spiritual happiness is through them. I get offended by the smug, heartless bankers that rob our nations of it’s wealth, causing our economies to suffer and by extension; the people that live inside of our collective nations.

I’m sick of politicians continually misleading us into believing that all things are going well, even though it’s palpably clear that this isn’t true.  But what does it matter if I am offended by these things? Is it only because these are actually serious issues that it has any real relevance or applicability to the world we live in and to other people? I am offended by fanboys, by bad jokes, and vapid pop music in general, but does that mean that I have the right to be offended and demand that the world changes for my benefit? Of course not! It’s incongruous to become combative or offended by every little contentious thing that doesn’t agree with your world view. You’re offended? So bloody what? While there are bigger issues in the world that are needing to be addressed, we entertain such incredulity and it demands to be challenged head on in order for gaming to advance to a stage where it can sit comfortably besides literature and film in terms of artistic merit.

I’ll sign off on this and leave you a little video which I personally believe speaks volumes to the controversy chasers and their ilk. Also, thank you to all the readers that have actually been able to reach the end of this article and didn’t fall asleep. I didn’t mean to work myself up into a lather but I will leave you all with one final thought. It’s a common misconception that the freedom of speech is where you can say what you will and be heard, but there’s a more important protection to this. It is also the right for the audience to hear and be receptive to the words that are spoken because if you silence an opinion that doesn’t agree with your own sentiments; not only are you discarding that opinion, you are making yourself a prisoner from listening and challenging your own preconceptions of what is right and what is true.

And that couldn’t be more offensive.

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Depressed gamer who likes to play slow games.

2 Comments to The Importance of Protecting Freedom of Speech and Expression in Video Games.
    • CaptNfantasy
    • When i was a child, i had no ability to say what i wanted whenever i wanted. There were rules for everything. I wasnt able to control what i ate, when i ate, my bed times, my schedule, my clothes… nothing. I basically had no rights. But somehow, amazingly, that time of my life was FILLED with wonder, amazement, joy, and freedom of spirit. Im uninterested in things like “freedoms” or “rights” or “opinions”. These are adult concepts that are used to win arguments or defend oneself or to control others when you dont have a very good reason to begin with besides control over another persons life or thoughts. The answer to freedom of speech arguments is not to allow anything to be spoken, its for people to be a bit more wise in what they choose to say, and also to be aware of how their personal bias may be effecting their opinions. But that takes too much work, so lets just argue over and over until the end of time with half the people saying “im offended” and the other half saying if something offends you that you are anti-art, anti-freedom, or closeminded. Yeah lets do what the human race does best… to never learn, and just spin in circles generation after generation.

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