If you follow the Supreme Court (or video games for that matter) like I do; then you have probably seen the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned a California law which criminalized the sale of violent video games to minors. Found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf
For those of you who see the 19 page wall of text and feel an overwhelming sense of confusion, that’s what a Supreme Court opinion looks like. For those of you who fancy yourselves constitutionalists, and feel qualified to weigh in on such matters as Roe V. Wade, McCulloh v. Maryland, and US v. Nixon, and you are still unfamiliar with Supreme Court opinions. I urge you to restrain from weighing in on such matters until you familiarize yourself with such opinions.
But I digress. The reason I bring up this court case is because it is an issue that is very salient in my mind. The reasoning is two-fold. Firstly, it is of great importance to the video game industry, which is of great importance to me. Secondly, this decision impacts the political issue of censorship, which has always been an issue of contention in my mind. Censorship is in many ways more offensive than any piece of literature or art. Censorship is the act of preventing the dissemination of ideas. Pundits can sputter and guffaw, but by restricting people from accessing an intellectual work, simply put, you are preventing the spread of ideas and knowledge. For anyone who has drawn breath for more than a decade, one truth should probably have become clear in their mind: truth is bred by diversity and varied perspective. Human beings are unique. Unique in two fashions; first that humans possess a level of diversity found in few other species on earth, second that no two humans are identical. Even identical twins who share the same DNA at birth will in every case have traits, behaviors, and ideas that their kin do not share. The sheer diversity of our race is what engenders our intellect and success. From the multiplicity of people in our population, each person provides a unique perspective that forces those exposed to it to reexamine their own preconceptions. Many people avoid different perspectives to shield themselves from being forced to evaluate their beliefs and ideas on any other basis than that of the gospel truth. This simple fact is why censorship is so dangerous; it places blinders on our minds. Censorship eliminates options, alternatives, and opportunities. Censors control information and release it as they see fit, controlling and manipulating the minds of a culture, and in every case: hindering progress and understanding. As someone who tries to seek understanding wherever it may hide; being told by anyone that certain areas are off limits to my exploration: it is not only an affront to my intelligence, it is an affront to my judgment. And I don’t suffer such insult lightly.
I often invoke the Framers of the United States in argument. I don’t do so out of some misplaced and misunderstood sense of patriotism. I do so out of a strong understanding of what ideas were used as the framework for our country and government. Ideas that I identify strongly with as truths and understandings that are timeless.
Censorship plays a role in our foundation, that is impossible to avoid, and it plays an enormous part in our history. These United States of America were founded on the principles of self determination, republicanism, and liberty of the enlightenment. These principles were not discovered by our founders, make no mistake they did not sit down at a pub on night and over a pitcher of ale think up the idea of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. Far from it, these ideas and concepts were extrapolated from reading the works and writings of (in)famous European political thinkers. The reason I visit this is because of the one simple fact, most of these works were squelched as seditious. The writings upon which our country was founded were in heavily censored across Europe. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government were published anonymously so that he would not suffer blowback from his writing. Such works provided a perspective and understanding that disrupted the governmental and cultural mores of the time. They threatened established understandings, and for that these ideas were smothered, slandered, and hidden.
To say that our country was built around concepts that were both unpopular and heavily suppressed says something about These United States. Firstly, it says ‘we do things our way, fuck the rest’ (because that just how America does things). Secondly, it makes it clear that our country is founded on a basis of free and unrestricted expression of thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.
As if you needed further proof the First Amendment of the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Keeping in mind the legal, intellectual, and historical basis of a country that casts out censorship as a dangerous practice; we move onto the cultural and societal underpinnings of censorship.
One of the primary arguments in favor of censorship stems from our societies necessity to defend children’s innocence. Now this is a lofty and understandable goal. It’s born of a very real threat against the future of our society. A child that suffers severe emotional trauma has a stronger chance of developing undesirable behavior. As a communal society, the emotional and behavior state of children will be reflected as that generation matures. As a result, our society sees fits to dictate what information will be filtered through and ultimately reach our children. At first this would seem like a reasoned approach to the problem. Unfortunately, modern American society is nearest establishment to a direct democracy in existence in America. What that ultimately means is that the passions and urges of society will ultimately dictate the legislation of a societal problem. This should immediately be raising some flags. Our country was founded in republican ideals for explicit purposes, as Publius stated in the federalist papers,
“The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”
The Federalists were ever vigilant against the dangers of popular passion ruling a country. They acknowledged the duplicitous nature of liberty: that it breeds ideas that groups and factions are drawn to, and they are the first target of said groups and factions. The united passions of or population would ultimately determine what ideas are considered acceptable, and as stated before, it is often the unpopular ideas that are those most important. But why do so many people with such fickle an understanding of right and wrong have control the sanctions on information. So if the majority cannot be trusted to address the issue of childhood innocence; who then? Does the government appoint some sort of moral official? This official dictates the moral understandings of a generation and implements policies around that? Tyranny of one can be dangerous. So what possible alternative could there be? Who will care for our children?
What about Parents? Shouldn’t the direct guardians of a child be responsible for that child’s well-being and safety? If a parent had the faculty and ability to feed a child, but chose not to, they would be charged with negligence and child abuse. Should the same not be true for willful abandonment of their other parental duties? Is it not their job to evaluate and decide what sources of information a child has access to? If a parent is competent enough to raise a child, their judgment should be sound enough to filter the information that reaches their child. And as such there should be no fear having that child develop behavioral issues or other conditions society fears. But this does not seem to be an issue in America, it seems to be an ever increasing trend that parents don’t really want to ‘parent’ their children. I have had large amounts direct exposure to parents who are utterly unwilling to step up and fulfill their parental duties and roles. They would sooner pass the buck to someone else, have a stranger raise their child, and then complain and cry foul when their child emerges from adolescence a troubled and confused person. It sickens me to see these same parents turn around and clamor for federal and state level censorship.
I will digress momentarily to make something abundantly clear. Video games are quickly becoming one of the most important forms of art in the modern age. It taps into a near unlimited creative and artistic power, that is the power of control. One thing that can be said of nearly every major art form: literature, film, tv, fine art (drawing, sculpting, painting, photography), even architecture. All of these forms are passive. In almost every case the piece of art does not allow, or does not change according to, user input. Art already expresses and attracts a multitude of varying perspectives and opinion. Imagine if you will, that every time you went to the Uffizi that guests of the museum could mold their David. Change its proportions and intricacies, now not only would each viewer see a different view of the same work, but they would actually see different versions and mutations of the same work. The pure power of possibility is incredible. It is why video games are such an interesting topic of conversation to me, because every person can bring a different opinion or perspective to the table, not simple because they are people with varying interpretations of the same experience, but instead because they actually experienced something genuinely different.
That is why I make a point to fully play through games with divergent and branching narratives/gameplay. As an individual to be able to compare two different experiences of the same piece is a truly unique practice.
Simply put video games are an art form that is struggling desperately to be leveled with its artistic predecessors. Art has always been given staunch protection under the first amendment of the US Constitution as a form of self-expression. Censorship and the nature of close-minded people is subduing the advance of a truly unique form of expression and exploration. Returning back to the genesis of this article, the Supreme Court ruled that video games as an creative electronic medium were granted the same protections as other forms of art and expression. This was a resounding success. The Supreme Court has, perhaps inadvertently, leveled video games with its artistic predecessors. Not to mention they have defeated redundant and restrictive laws. It is worth noting that while it is not illegal to sell violent (or MA rated games) to minors, it is against the policies of every major distributor of electronic media. If someone were to legally purchase a MA video game, they would most certainly have to be of the proper age, and that is a testament to the power and domain of the private sector. A society can influence the private sector to construct the necessary barriers and filters, without burdening the entire country with unnecessary legislation. Finally, the Supreme Court succeeded in batting down a legislative piece of censorship and allowed for the continued open access of ideas and information.
Certainly a victory worth noting.