A.K.A. Why the 'Daily Mail' is insane.

This piece has been inspired by some of the recent (thankfully short-lived) media rubbish about the consequences that violent computer games have on young people. The recent game in question was 'manhunt', a game in which the objective is to kill people in absurdly nasty ways, getting more points for more disturbing slaughter. It was claimed that Warren Leblanc (17) (link to BBC story) was influenced by the game when he attacked a younger boy with a knife and a hammer. The subsequent brief campaign by elements of the right wing media to bans video games was led by the Daily Mail and other uninformed individuals, the forum threads that the Mail opened on their website were so overwhelmed with comments opposing this ban that the paper had to shut them down (click here for some right wing vitriol). Apparently they were experiencing technical problems; such as the Mail being out of touch with the world and ignorant of real people's lives perhaps?

A number of things seem obvious to me when I consider the subject of censorship in computer games, although I shall argue my case here. Firstly, banning computer games will not stop terrible murders from happening. The next point is that there is an intellectual hierarchy at work with a very divisive and creatively conservative. The third is that the implication of banning such games would eventually be detrimental to society. Finally, there are certain groups are ignoring their own responsibilities within society, but they are then the first to cry 'foul' and blame films, TV, computer games etc at the first sign of something going wrong.

Banning violent computer games is pointless.

Violence isn't a factor in many computer games; in games where it is present, only very few depict violent acts of the type shown in 'Manhunt'. The main reason why we can dismiss the idea that these games cause murders is that murder has existed since pre-biblical times. Should we ban the bible on the basis that it promotes vengeance and violent death to certain people? This argument has existed for a very long time, because of this some people seem to think that the argument has lost weight or merit over the years. Not to my mind. Should Agatha Christie books have been banned because they depict conspiracies to murder for gain? What about Shakespeare plays, plenty of murder and criminal activity there?

Of course none of these materials should be banned or censored. Would the censorship of any or all material depicting criminal acts prevent crimes from occurring? This seems unlikely. The banning of such materials may prevent some crimes, but what happens when the government makes it a crime to be Jewish or a crime to speak your mind? Indeed, those whom are sufficiently mentally unbalanced to the extent that they are likely to be influenced to commit crimes such as murder by a video game are probably going to break the law eventually anyway. A better way to deal with these people is to recognise those with such learning difficulties and working actively to ease their transition into society through education, rather than simply banning things they might be influenced by and hoping nothing bad happens.

Ultimately this argument revolves around the idea that although some crimes might be prevented by censorship, the detrimental effects on society in terms of freedom of speech and expression would be much greater than any benefits. Besides, there are other ways to prevent crime which don't revolve around putting restrains on artistic freedom. Providing jobs, housing and healthcare for all would be a good start along the road of building a safer society in terms of crime figures.

There is an intellectual elitism in censorship.

The existence of this intellectual elitism is, in my mind, so plain that I am often surprised it isn't raised more often in debate about this subject. Consider as an example the differences in censorship and age ratings between film and books. Censorship of books is one of the few things that most agree on in this country, the general consensus is that books should not be censored at all. There are also no age-ratings on books or government guidelines pertaining to the sale of books to youngsters. Films, on the other hand, are censored heavily. Acts of sexuality, violence and drug taking will result in a film being rated '15' or '18', mild drug and sex references will result in a '12A' certificate. A child of 10 years of age is prevented, by law, from watching a film with excessive acts of violence, sex or drug use. This makes sense, I have no problem with stopping children from being unnecessarily exposed to such things that they wont understand and will be scared by. Take 'The Exorcist' as an example, a film that depicts a small girl being possessed by an evil spirit, contains some horrifying images. This was a film that received a bizarre level of attention upon its release in the 1970s, being banned and declared as one of the most despicable things ever made. It may or may not be a surprise to you that to discover that 'The Exorcist' is based on a novel, a novel that wasn't censored and that anyone of any age can legally buy a copy of. Why is this?

The standard response might revolve around films (and TV) being more accessible to youth than books, but when I was 16 I was certainly up to reading a novel like the one 'The Exorcist' is based on (not illegal) or seeing the film itself (illegal). I suspect the a dark undercurrent of intellectual elitism provides the real answer. Kids are assumed to be too dumb or not intelligent enough to read, while any kids can be influenced by an image. But many children are intelligent enough to read sexually explicit or terrible violent literature. Why is nothing done about this? Because if someone is intelligent enough to be able to read then perhaps they are too intelligent to be a criminal. After all, it is the intelligentsia that make the rules on censorship, and no one could ever complain about a child being able to read adult books at a young age, indeed such a feat is considered a sign of good parenting.

A classic example of this is in the scheduling of TV and films on the BBC. The film 'Blue Velvet' (an incredibly violent piece) was shown uncut on BBC 2 at a time when things like the 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark' (a rather good action film containing very little violence or swearing) were being cut on BBC 1 (reference). The official explanation was that viewers of BBC 2 are looking for a more artistic experience and so it was acceptable to show it uncut. Reading between the lines: the viewers of BBC 2 are more intelligent and so are permitted to see an uncut violent film while viewers of BBC 1 dumb and so cannot be allowed to watch Harrison Ford shoot some natives.

Censorship can only be detrimental to society.

I contend that the prevention of the spreading and dissemination of ideas can only ever be a bad thing. The society in which we live is one which is meant to be based around freedom of speech, politics, thought, religion and scientific endeavour. The history of the Human world (in terms of positive developments) is the history of the exchange of ideas and the protest against tyrannical laws. I fully believe that these principles of freedom of speech are some of the most important things we hold dear, to deny this freedom to anyone (regardless of how unfavourable their opinion may be) it to begin to tear our society down from the inside.

Now I like to think that I'm not too much of a liberal idealist, I understand that there are people who preach death to others, there are those who influence young and impressionable minds to go and commit terrible crimes and there are those who preach religious and racial hatred. All these people are despicable; I argue that they way to deal with these people is to take away the flock to which they preach. Without a long line of down-trodden Palestinians there will be no-one willing to become a suicide bomber. Without the destruction of the industrial heartlands there will be less people turning to crime to make a living, without the government's ludicrous anti-immigration laws there will be no vacuum of opinion for the BNP to exploit with their fascist vitriol.

Censorship of these malicious groups is an easy answer; an answer which could become a disaster for our society in the future. Once one group is censored it isn't too great a step to censor anyone who disagrees with the status quo, the government, or the guy with the most money to influence the halls of power. A more difficult answer, but one which is essential in the long term if our society is to avoid future turmoil, is a series of sweeping social changes that deal with these groups by taking away any ears to listen to them.

Where does the blame for 'moral' censorship lie?

In the case of censorship of individuals or groups preaching hatred or racism, the arguments above are valid. In terms of artistic or 'moral' censorship, i.e. where we started our debate, we must consider things differently. In the case of the video game 'Manhunt', the argument ran that the graphic depiction of violence was influencing children. Firstly is needs to be pointed out that the game, and others like it, have age ratings. The specific case that made the newspapers was about a boy who was 17 years old, Manhunt's rating was 18. How did this child get a copy of this game? Why was he playing it? Where were his parents while all this was going on? It's no surprise to me that the people who often are the first to cause a massive fuss about 'evil' games or films are parents' groups, is this a conscious decision to deflect blame off parents before the story gets going? Parents are always painted as victims in these matters, and often are; but I ask once more: where were this child's parents while he was playing a game that he was underage for? Why didn't this child have a developed sense of the difference between fantasy and reality (which if he did he would surely not have thought sneaking up behind people and killing them was something one does in polite society)?

Now it has been suggested that parents constitute a rather easy target when it comes to fingering the blame. Interesting that this is an opinion never ever apparent in the papers or even given by a government minister. Maybe that's something to do with votes and sales, after all, sad teenagers playing computer games don't vote and don't read the printed news; they're the real easy targets. What qualification does anyone have to get in order to be a parent anyway? None at all. How do we know that people are good parents? We don't, we have no way of knowing if the majority of the parents in the world are terrible people when it comes to their child's socialisation into our civilisation. The media would much rather pin the blame on whoever the easy target of the day is, video nasties in the early 80s (think 'Evil Dead' or 'Henry: Portrait of a serial killer'), 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' in the 60s or video games in the modern age, rather than looking more deeply into the social background of the problem.

If parents don't want their kids looking at certain materials, then do something about it! Don't ignore your kids until something terrible happens and then try to pin the blame on the rest of the world! We can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, if parents spent more time teaching this to their kids instead of sitting them in front of the TV and worrying about almost non-existent paedophiles snatching their kids off the streets then maybe people might be a little bit safer in this country.

Dean Wright, August 2004.