Freedom of expression abandoned: how gamers are losing the violent game debate


Well, here we are again. Another horrible, senseless tragedy has come to pass, and entertainment media – violent video games in particular – are under the spotlight as a possible contributing factor. This isn’t just some bit of sensationalist journalism either: one recent poll puts 44% of the country behind regulating violent video games and media, while last year a poll showed most Americans agree that violence in media contributes to a more violent society, by a 52 to 34% margin. Between sizable numbers showing support for game regulation and the fact that attempts at video game censorship have taken place in the past, you’d think we – gamers, game journalists, and game developers in America – would be making a stand for free expression and freedom of speech. For the most part, we’re not. And this failure will probably come back to haunt us in the future.

Don’t get me wrong – the gaming media and developers haven’t been ignoring this issue. Really, they couldn’t ignore it if they tried – hence we have reports of Vice President Biden meeting with leaders in the game industry to have a nice little chat about what they can do to lend a helping hand. The whole meeting has been given a positive spin for gamers: Biden declared himself to be agnostic on the question of whether violent games or media play much of a role in real-world violence and cultural decay, and aside from the president calling for yet another study about the link between violence and video games, we’re really not seeing any initiatives spearheaded to censor or obnoxiously regulate video game development at the moment. So it doesn’t look like there’s much to worry about right now, does it? It’s not as if there’s any legislative plans for censorship coming down the pipe, at least not as of this writing.

Thought provoking commentary in games wasn't invented by Bioshock, you know.

Thought provoking commentary by games wasn’t invented by Bioshock, you know.

But gamers, gaming journalists and game developers don’t just have to worry about censorship and invasive regulation this month. They have to worry about it in three months, a year from now, and longer – and the way this question has been handled is only going to make it harder to defend freedom of speech generally, and video games in particular, if this fight ends up being repeated in the future. Ground zero of this debate took place at the task force meeting of industry leaders with Vice President Biden – and that just so happens to be where all the mistakes were made.

We Call Games Art. So Where Were The Artists?

When it comes to the question of whether games can be works of art – whether they are, in fact, legitimate vehicles for speech and expression – I have to admit, I lose interest in the conversation because to me the answer is obvious: yes, they are. I didn’t need to be awed by Bioshock or dazzled by Mass Effect to realize any of this – it was apparent to me back in the days of Ultima 5, watching a world turned upside-down by corrupted ideals, oppression masquerading as progress, and more.  The fact that Roger Ebert and other critics may disagree has never seemed like much of a worry to me – for me the relevant question is whether games are in fact art, not whether some well-known critic or intellectual is willing to admit as much. Given the number of gaming journalists who carry this particular torch, I’ve long thought that at the very least gamers themselves recognized the value of sanctity of free expression in video games.

Yet when the spectre of regulation and even censorship is hanging in the air, who does the Vice President’s task force meet up with? As far as gaming goes, the list is almost exclusively business managers, and the context presents games as products and toys – and little beyond that. For all the lip-service so many gamers and gaming journalists give to the idea of games being serious vehicles of expression, as works of art, the thought seems to go out the window the moment the discussion starts turning to questions of legislation and policy. No, once we start dealing with the possibility that laws will be passed that regulate or even censor video games, that’s where it’s important to have the CEOs of major publishing companies or distribution centers front and center. If the actual artists – the content creators, the script-writers, the game designers – want some input, well, maybe they can pass a word to one of the CEOs.

Defending freedom of expression has never meant defending just what you liked or approved of. Case in point.

Defending freedom of expression has never meant defending just what you liked or approved of. Case in point.

I don’t want to sell those business leaders short, by the way. The fact that someone is in a managerial position at a company doesn’t mean that they have no interest in free speech rights, or can’t defend the idea of games as art and expression. But it does lend the impression that what we’re considering regulating aren’t ideas and thoughts so much as they are products, and little else. And it’s a lot harder to justify the freedom to create a mere product or toy as opposed to an idea, or a concept, or a statement.

The Politicians Don’t Think Our Speech Is Troublesome? Then We’re Safe!

One of the supposed ‘good signs’ from that task force came when the Vice President mentioned that he was agnostic about what impact violent games had on real world violence and culture. This was presented as a good thing, and in a practical sense it was – after all, it was a signal that the video game industry wasn’t being targeted. But the context of the discussion is all wrong: it suggests that the only thing that was standing between video game developers and additional regulation, even censorship, was a politician’s opinion on whether or not such games could not somehow be linked to the destructive, willful acts of individuals. It wasn’t the first amendment or the respect for freedom of speech and expression that was doing the heavy lifting in this conversation. In fact, that consideration seemed to have gone unmentioned altogether in the meeting.

Freedom of expression considerations shouldn’t be an afterthought in these discussions, nor a justification of last resort. They should be front and center principles, at least for those who take such rights seriously. Instead, industry leaders and gamers alike are fighting a kind of proxy war – choosing to rely on sociological and psychological research about what effects, if any, these games have on violence in society. Superficially, this makes sense – from a public relations standpoint, it’s better to argue that your product doesn’t have any ill effects than to ignore or even grant the possibility that those effects take place, but ultimately aren’t your fault.

There’s a place for pragmatic argument, certainly. But there’s also a place for principle – and so far in this conversation, principle is being ignored. And without that principle being affirmed – without it being said that even if some lunatic is inspired to do something horrible due to their twisted focus on some act portrayed in a work of fiction, freedom of speech and expression should not be infringed upon – the result is that the principle is quietly sacrificed, in exchange for tacit admission that whether game developers should be allowed to create games hinges on the perception of elected officials judging whether such creations express the right ideas.

Let’s Pretend Science Can Settle This!

Now, I think the sacrifice of principle for pragmatism, the treating of video games almost exclusively as products rather than as means of expression and speech… those are pretty major mistakes that make this last issue seem petty in comparison. But after seeing so much back and forth over sociological and psychological research in this area – complete with declarations that the science has either decisively spoken, or at least will decisively speak in the future, the following needs to be said, and said often.

These studies are incapable of decisively determining the impact of violent media on society generally, or – for the most part – humans individually. Human minds are subject to far too many influences, with our having far too much to learn about our magnificently complicated brains, to expect a clear and decisive answer to these questions. Sociology and psychology are soft sciences, and have some built-in limitations as a result.

He can answer questions about headcrabs and theoretical physics. The impact of violent games on culture? Not so much.

He can give definite answers about headcrabs and physics. The impact of violent games on culture? Not so much.

That’s not to say that these fields can’t give us quite a lot of information – but the fact of the matter is, if some research were able to decisively settle the question of the impact of violent media on society and individuals in at all a satisfying way, the question would already be settled. Instead what we have is a long history of studies and an even longer list of criticisms, counter-studies, complaints about inadequate methodology and more. Keep in mind that the problems which pop up in fields of ‘harder science’ are considerable to say the least. The expectation that we’re just one more study away from being able to decisively determine the impact of violent media and images on the average human psyche or society at large – to say nothing of the abnormal human psyches that are more likely to be the real problems – is to go beyond optimism and simply be naive.

The potential for confusion that this sort of over-reliance generates is made all the more depressing by the fact that it shouldn’t be viewed as necessary to begin with. If the goal is the safeguarding of freedom of expression, then we are engaged in the defense of a principle – and if the principle is worth defending regardless of the insane acts of a violent minority, then the scientific findings are ultimately moot on this point. The short version of this, if we value the principle of free speech, then we shouldn’t be allowing it to be held hostage by the acts of psychotics, or even the sane yet twisted.

If We Value Freedom of Speech, We Can’t Mince Words

The real lesson here is straightforward. If we really, truly consider games to be legitimate vehicles of expression, works of art and conscience, then we need to change how we discuss these topics when controversy rises. When video games are discussed, we should insist that the views and protections of artists and creators matter just as much, even more, than those of business leaders. When we defend games against legislation, we should do so on principle first and foremost, rather than by avoiding the difficulties of defending such principles by hoping the favor of politicians will suffice, or praying that the latest bits of sociological research end up providing us with beneficial conclusions.

But most of all, we should insist that the fate of game developers and content creators not be determined by what inspiration a violent lunatic may have drawn on before going on a rampage.

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Victor Grunn has been a gamer since the days of single-button joysticks and the Atari 800XL. When not lamenting the loss of the Ultima series or setting people on fire in Team Fortress 2, he's an aspiring indie game developer and freelance writer.

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