Less *Bang Bang* for Your Buck

Much to the surprise of the folks over at GameDaily and trigger-happy GTA fans alike, sex workers are people too -- even when it comes to video games.

SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, recently issued a statement denouncing Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto for encouraging the mistreatment of prostitutes. "In the interest of furthering sex workers' human and civil rights to life and personal safety," the statement says, "we object to any media which represents sex workers as legitimate targets of violence, rape and murder."

While SWOP stresses their stance against censorship, they feel their boycott is warranted, given the circumstances, and call upon consumers to "vote with their dollars by refusing to purchase products which encourage the denigration and destruction of prostitutes." The statement goes on to suggest -- with the help of a David Walsh's "Video Game Violence and Public Policy" -- that players who act out against prostitutes in GTA are more likely to take out real-life aggression against them as well.

Whether or not GTA fans are actually running out to reenact their in-game rampages, a possibility that seems over-stressed both here and in other anti-game rhetoric, SWOP is making a valid point about the portrayal of sex workers in video games (Even if they have some of their details wrong; players can't rape and don't "accrue points" for murdering prostitutes.). Sex workers deserve to be seen as real people, not just disposable NPC's. However, as in the real world, where prostitutes are commonly regarded either as comic caricatures or pitiful victims, they're often looked at as non-persons.

To that extent though, games like GTA are merely reflecting the ideas of our larger culture. Even the impetus to sleep with a prostitute and then kill her, to reassert her supposed inadequacy with a bullet -- and to enjoy doing it -- is part of our socially-constructed view of proper and improper members of society. Do video games allow us a level of interactivity, of engagement and agency that other mediums lack? Sure, but they don't create new urges. And like all art forms, they have the right to portray respectful ideals or violent realities as they choose.

Of course, not everyone who shoots a hooker in GTA is thinking these issues through. Those impressionable players who aren't influenced in their actions by the in-game violence might well be influenced in their thinking. A virtual act, like killing prostitutes willy-nilly -- or just being able to do so -- can reinforce real-life stereotypes and preconceptions about sex workers.

Personally, having never shot, or even slept with a GTA prostitute, I've always found this element of the game amusing. I take the ridiculous violence as a satirical critique, or at least a comment, on our absurd attitudes toward sex workers, and the pop culture that reifies them -- of which, of course, GTA is the epitome. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way: not many of the players, and, as an understandable result, not the real-life sex workers themselves.


Comments on Less *Bang Bang* for Your Buck:

Rendakor says:

I honestly don't see the difference between a player shooting a hooker in GTA and a player shooting a police officer, or even just shooting a random civilian, so IMO this arguement is no more (or less) valid than every other "anti-video game violence" arguements out there. I'm of the opinion that games DON'T influence behavior, but thats another arguement.

I do agree that prostitues are treated as objects, typically of lust or sympathy, in today's society, and that's exactly what GTA is capitalizing on.

Posted Feb 20, 2006 9:59:35 PM | link

Elrana says:

"In the interest of furthering ' human and civil rights to life and personal safety,we object to any media which represents as legitimate targets of violence, rape and murder."

As I understand their concerns, the argument could be be used to squelch any negative speech.

Limiting free speech (even in games' design) is tempting but a can of worms. Right now, Europe is grand standing about the right to cartoon Prophets and, at the same time sentencing to jail a negationist historian.

On the good side, the World will be blend without our contradictions.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 7:07:46 AM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

I actually tend to agree with the sex workers in theory - no group should be a "legitimate target of violence, rape and murder." However, GTA's over-the-top violence and criminality is more satirical than I think its critics realize. Just listen to the often-hilarious radio stations for five minutes and you realize that rather than a testosterone-crazed power fantasy the designers are letting players have their cake and critiquing it, too.

My wife is not a gamer by any measure, but she became a brief, and passionate, fan of GTA: VICE CITY when she realized just how depraved she was allowed to be within the game. She took great delight in sleeping with prostitutes, killing them, and taking back her money not because she was attempting to earn points, or beat the game, but merely because she was amused that such socially abhorrent behavior was allowed and encouraged by a popular game. The value she got out of this minigame was purely pleasure at the breaching of boundaries, the encouragement of anarchy, and the ability to briefly indulge in anti-social behavior in a protected space: the same things that are encouraged by carnival and by theater in the past.

Ian Buruma has a lot of problems but his book "Behind the Mask" describes the difference in Japanese society behind one's private feelings and opinions "honne" and one's public persona "tatemae". He says that few Japanese confuse their public "play-acting" (seeking consensus and agreement, being a productive member of society) for reality, but few believe that their private opinions and feelings need to be acted out in public. This allows, in his opinion, Japan to have a pop culture where the extremes are much more extreme and anarchic than anything we have in the West, but at the same time there is an implied understanding that these entertainments are aimed at the "honne" and should not become "tatemae". Rife with generalizations, and somewhat problematic, the idea is still interesting and has an optimistic view of human nature, one that is the opposite of those who try to censor video games because they believe in a "monkey see, monkey do" dynamic.

It's probably not a good idea to drag David Irving into this. He broke the laws of Austria within its borders and is serving time for it. And the Danish cartoons broke a religious law, and the debate has been over how far a society should go to honor the laws of its populace's various religions, not over whether or not to force Sharia law on people who subscribe to Christian beliefs.

No laws have been broken by Rockstar Games, the makers of the GTA series.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 7:49:41 AM | link

John Bilodeau says:

If it offends the SWOP people then they should speak out about the game, joining the horde of people who find it in ridiculously bad taste. I don't think the call for a boycott is particularly out of line, if someone is a sex worker i can imagine they'd want to know about the game, and not buy it for their kids. The press release is pretty clear that the call for a ban is based on the organization's identification with concerned parents.

There is some difference between an adult's titillation through bracketed social deviance and parental control issues. Perhaps it is just the way I'm reading the SWOP statement, but it seems as though it is directed at the sex worker community, as all of their services are. In my mind it makes sense that they would want the people who visit their homepage to be made aware of the content and effect of games on their children.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 11:44:40 AM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

I agree entirely that there is a difference between parental control issues and bracketed social deviance. I think the reason video and computer gaming seems to step on toes in this area so much is because: a) there is no better - or more socially acceptable - place to engage in virtual social deviance than in gaming. Games involve active participation, and many games are based on killing and lawbreaking which are automatically deviant behaviors. b) However, I don't know of any games that attract a mass market that is exclusively adult. Games and gaming are still associated with underaged kids for the most part in the minds of the mainstream and so video games promise fulfilling social deviance on the one hand, while on the other the market demands that they seek out underage players in order to enjoy jumbo-sized financial success. It's something of a Catch-22, and has the potential to take away the transgressive enjoyment to be found in gaming unless there is some change in perception or in the marketplace.

I could be wrong here. Are there any examples of games that enjoy widespread success (ie, they are a top seller in their niche) that are marketed exclusively to adults?

Posted Feb 21, 2006 12:00:30 PM | link

Mozai says:

I think this issue is a good example of a rock-and-a-hard place. Let's start with the assumption that the SWOP base their grievances on: people imitate behaviour they see fictional characters perform. Before your knee jerks, just stay with me here. So, if impressionable young kids see disparaging images of sex workers, they're likely to treat sex workers with disrespect, derision, and possibly dismemberment. So sex workers should be portrayed in a more respectful manner.

So the media conspiracy agrees, gives them what they want, and we start seeing stuff like "Escorts Tycoon" and maybe a Playboy Mansion expansion pack for The Sims. Now sex workers get cast in a positive light, "monkey-see monkey-do," and get the respect they believe they're due.

What happens when little Junior, and impressionable kid in Salt Lake City, Utah, gets affected by these images (remember the assumption we started with) and tells his Mormon guidance counsellor "I want to manage an escort agency when I grow up." Then we'll be right back here, only we'll be reading an article about Concerned Parents And Teachers (CPAT) protesting that sex workers are depicted in a positive light and it's causing people to go out and patronize prostitutes.

So if we assume "monkey see, monkey do," the pendulum swings back and forth, and we won't have a resolution. If we're going to get out of this conundrum, we need to disprove "monkey see, monkey do," or find a third option.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 12:34:46 PM | link

PaulJ says:

Nice analysis, Mozai.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 1:16:55 PM | link

Naomi Clark says:

You can shoot prostitutes in GTA. You can shoot cops in GTA and a number of other games, and you can play a white mob boss trying to wipe out a bunch of Cubans and Haitians. All of this has generated complaints from one advocacy group or another, and all of it has met with derision from some groups of gamers, arguments about free speech from others, and a lot of (rather narrow) explanations about how GTA is an open-ended world where you can do anything.

The SWOP story, however, is the one that's being treated as the most ridiculous, most ludicrous, final straw of absurdity by a lot of gaming press. Really, the only notable -- if not surprising -- thing here is that many gamers don't know anything at all about the political issues surrounding sex work, and mostly just think prostitutes are yet another hilarious titillating piece of content for their entertainment.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 4:36:36 PM | link

StGabe says:

So if we assume "monkey see, monkey do," the pendulum swings back and forth, and we won't have a resolution.

That's quite a false dichotonomy. One can consistently treat sex workers as real people, ask that they be respected as such, and yet not approve of their lifestyle or see it as a good fit for a video game targetted to kids. WRT to "monkey see, monkey do", getting rid of games that depict sex workers as targets of violence doesn't imply creating Escort Tycoon -- you can have both games or neither. So there is no pendulum. If you don't want kids to emulate those with violent tendencies AND you don't want kids to emulate prostitutes and you think that given these games they will emulate those behaviors then you don't give them either game.

I think that SWOP has a right to decry the game. Just as police officers do. And just as Rockstar has a right to make it in the first place. If SWOP were calling for legislation to ban the game it would be a different manner. Trying to convince people to boycott something isn't an attempt to make that thing illegal but rather is an attempt to make it unprofitable.

In this case I agree with the rights of both sides and I'm glad that we have public discourse representing both sides of complicated issues like this.

Posted Feb 21, 2006 4:50:14 PM | link

Thabor says:

I think that SWOP has a right to decry the game. Just as police officers do. And just as Rockstar has a right to make it in the first place.

I agree. What I will not do is take seriously any group take a singles out their own subset as being somehow especially singled out when every single NPC is a potential target. It is particularly damaging to their cause for them to misrepresent what actually does happen (rape??).

I'm honestly perplexed why people feel that media like movies and computer games should protect special classifications of people any more than real life does. Portraying an occurance of violence isn't that same thing as promoting it. In the case of interactive media it is a matter of personal choice, which distances the event even further from an endorsement.

As far as sex work goes prevailing regliious/social attitudes and the (il)legal status of prostitution in many place does far more to enable the dehumanization of the people involved in it.


Posted Feb 21, 2006 6:25:55 PM | link

monkeysan says:

I think the real point here is not 'monkey-see monkey-do' issues, but, rather, the question of artistic responsibility. Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD. Blatantly singling out certain groups of people for cruel representation shows where that responsibility is failed.

Posted Feb 22, 2006 12:41:54 PM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

We can go on for days about responsibility (personally I find the idea of socially enforced responsibility kind of nauseating - but that's just me and I'm probably wrong) but I think the larger question this issue raises is: is there a place for games that encourage lawless and anarchic behavior?

I would argue that gaming is one of the few public forums left in Western culture where one can enjoy the pleasures of purely anarchic behavior - of riot - and it would be a shame to see this outlet taken away because of concerns over sending the wrong message to kids.

But the other part of this question is: is there a successful model of marketing games to adults? Has a game marketed solely to adults enjoyed anywhere near the success of World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto? Or must games be marketed to the under-18 crowd if they want to be financially viable?

Posted Feb 22, 2006 12:53:51 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

I think the real point here is not 'monkey-see monkey-do' issues, but, rather, the question of artistic responsibility.

It's not irresponsible if the imitation doesn't happen. If it can't hurt, then what's there to be responsible about? Granted, I hail from the school of "It can and does hurt," so I think there is an issue to be discussed here, but I'm too uncertain to really say anything.

Posted Feb 22, 2006 1:43:25 PM | link

says:

everyone in gta has the equal right to be shot. prostitutes are not special.

Posted Feb 22, 2006 3:40:55 PM | link

John Bilodeau says:

But the statement in the original entry is by, and for, sex workers. Special or not, the organization may want to make sure the people who visit their site are aware of the game and don't buy it for their kids.

On the issue of marketing, some of this list "Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked" is interesting, particularly:

"3. Children are the primary market for video games.

While most American kids do play video games, the center of the video game market has shifted older as the first generation of gamers continues to play into adulthood. Already 62 percent of the console market and 66 percent of the PC market is age 18 or older. The game industry caters to adult tastes. Meanwhile, a sizable number of parents ignore game ratings because they assume that games are for kids. One quarter of children ages 11 to 16 identify an M-Rated (Mature Content) game as among their favorites. Clearly, more should be done to restrict advertising and marketing that targets young consumers with mature content, and to educate parents about the media choices they are facing. But parents need to share some of the responsibility for making decisions about what is appropriate for their children. The news on this front is not all bad. The Federal Trade Commission has found that 83 percent of game purchases for underage consumers are made by parents or by parents and children together. "

from: http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html

And recent efforts by corporations to reach the adult gamer market (Disney for example: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/orl-disneygames0105dec01,0,710654.story )

However, i had a hard time finding any articles specifically about marketing strategies designed to avoid a child/teen audience... The only thing I was able to find was focus on enforcement of the ratings system at the retail level. The best treatment of these issues I found was on this Video Game Law Blog - http://www.davis.ca/community/blogs/video_games/default.aspx

Posted Feb 22, 2006 4:15:14 PM | link

says:

"Special or not, the organization may want to make sure the people who visit their site are aware of the game and don't buy it for their kids."

people could just read the box. theres already enough warnings.

Posted Feb 23, 2006 4:05:42 PM | link

says:

So what's your point, Miss Ruberg?

Posted Feb 24, 2006 3:31:11 AM | link

galiel says:

Even the impetus to sleep with a prostitute and then kill her, to reassert her supposed inadequacy with a bullet -- and to enjoy doing it -- is part of our socially-constructed view of proper and improper members of society. Do video games allow us a level of interactivity, of engagement and agency that other mediums lack? Sure, but they don't create new urges.

Apply your argument to Leni Riefenstahl's work and see it if sells in Poughkeepsie. The argument that entertainment (oh, excuse me, for the purposes of this particular argument it is "art") merely reflects, and does not influence social behavior is rather old and discredited - and would not go over well with either marketing's attempts to sell ads or with the creators of America's Army or other "serious" games. It also rather flies in the face of your later argument that this is "art". Few defenders of "Art" would support an argument that it has no social value and merely reflects existing ideas and norms. That sounds more like news reporting than original creation.

And like all art forms, they have the right to portray respectful ideals or violent realities as they choose.

And I would defend to the death their "right" to do so, just as I would defend to the death the right of Nazis to march through Skokie.

That isn't the real issue though, and surely you know it as well as everyone else in the industry who throws up that phony "rights vs censorship" smoke screen. It fits right up there with the phony "everyone said the same thing about comic books" argument. Just because Nazis have a right to march, doesn't mean it is right to march as a Nazi.

The issue is taking responsibility for the content one creates, and taking responsibility for the affects it has on the world one lives in. Responsibility being the sign of a mature art form. Responsibility being something this industry fights to avoid harder than the president.

I always find it amusing to juxtapose Powerpoint presentations about the wonderous effects of advergaming and in-game product placement and training games, with arguments that games don't affect culture, they merely mirror it - and juxtaposing arguments that "it's high art, and has the right to offend without having to answer to anyone" with arguments that "it's just a game, doesn't mean anything, shouldn't be taken so seriously". It is a wonder the industry can live with such cognitive dissonance.

It's not that complicated, really. It is merely grown-up for creators to take responsibility for what they create, that's all. If one makes gold, one has the right to bask in the glow. If one makes that which is flushed down the toilet, one should take responsibility for shit, and not try to pretend it is Duchamp's urinal.

At least the creators of reality-tv have Masterpiece Theater to hide behind, and the creators of teen slasher movies have Good Night, Good Luck to associate with.

What do we have to point to as a counterbalance to killing others and looting the corpses? A gray economy of virtual armor?

Why is this so difficult to understand? We have the most powerful, immersive, influential medium in history in our hands. Is it too much to ask that we stop masturbating with it and start to think about earning that label of "Art" which we assign to creations of enduring value which influence and lead culture towards its best instincts, rather than merely "reflecting" its worst?

Posted Feb 25, 2006 12:10:05 AM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

I think you're missing the point, here. I'm going to ignore the fact that you brought up Nazis (the second someone brings up Nazis in an argument, as far as I'm concerned the argument has just broadcast that it's very silly) and try to keep this focused on games and gaming.

You're right that "just because one can do something, that doesn't mean one has to" and I agree that that's an extremely important point. In fact, I think that it's one of the hallmarks of civilization - a society has the ability to do something, but it chooses not to. Wasn't that what the Cold War was all about, and that was a pretty civilized war as far as wars go.

But I'll also point out that discussing whether game designers (and in your argument: filmmakers and tv producers, too) are making "Art" is just bogus. Art isn't determined by its makers, it's determined by what lasts. People can aspire towards Art or to have lasting value, but they can't produce it on demand. For you to criticize the producers of pop culture for not living up to your standards is entirely your right, but don't pretend to be defending the bastions of Art because that's overreaching.

So to take the defense of Western civilization out of your argument (I'll happily do that for you at no extra charge) you're saying that you think game designers avoid responsibility and should exercise more discretion in their subject matter. That's pretty much the criticism that the forces of the cultural status quo have lobbed at every new art form or trend in entertainment from modernism, to post-modernism, to impressionism. I mean, if you want to sound like the London city fathers circe 1590 who thought the secular theater was a breeding ground whores, thieves and cutthroats, feel free, but that's sort of backwards thinking, isn't it? Because history has shown that the city fathers were flat out wrong. There were whores, thieves and cutthroats but they were more than balanced by Marlowe, Shakespeare and Kyd.

Some game designers are going to be lousy, some are going to wallow in what you see as filth, some will shoot for the stars and work in a way that you find brilliant. The marketplace and history will sort out which ones are making Art and which ones are making junk.

You ask: "Is it too much to ask that we stop masturbating with it and start to think about earning that label of "Art" which we assign to creations of enduring value which influence and lead culture towards its best instincts, rather than merely "reflecting" its worst?"

Who's to know which way they're going? Frankly, I think GRAND THEFT AUTO is a lasting product with value and an influence on our culture. It's right in there with TITUS ANDRONICUS, "The Loved Crazed Samurai" or UBU ROI - a celebration of antisocial tendencies, bloodshed, riot and anarchy. It's a place for the viewer/gamer to safely indulge in violating society's mores which is something that your capital "A" art has been doing for centuries.

If you want responsibility, then argue for a stronger rating system, or stricter enforcement of the ratings system. It will never be enforced more effectively than the movie ratings system, but at least it'll function in some manner. But to ask that people making games only focus on what you think is appropriate subject matter (because, let's face it, your idea of the ennoblement of man and mine are probably radically different) doesn't serve anyone but you.

Posted Feb 25, 2006 11:27:10 AM | link

galiel says:

If you want responsibility, then argue for a stronger rating system, or stricter enforcement of the ratings system. It will never be enforced more effectively than the movie ratings system, but at least it'll function in some manner.

The idea that responsibility comes from enforcement is not surprising in a developer culture that believes that civilized behavior among players comes from heavy-handed enforcement as well. It is a condescencing, "authoritative parenting" approach to society which has proven less than successful in molding and sustaining constructive behavior in large virtual worlds.

Personal responsibility is an internal, individual attribute. It is an act of will, and a mark of maturity and intellectual awareness. Calling for it among one's peers is not a call for censorship, it is a plea to grow the fuck up.

Ironically, it is those of us most passionate about the potential of this medium, most convinced of its validity as a creative artistic form, and most committed to pushing its boundaries, who are most disappointed with what is being done with it by those who use excuses to avoid taking responsibility for what they make.

The historical argument, incidentally, is logically fallacious; it confuses correlation with causation and engaged in selective memory. Just because some things opposed in the past turned out alright is not a prima face defense of everything that is opposed.

It is a silly sort of argument, one that implicitly admits that there is not sufficient merit in current game content to make a direct argument on those merits, rather an oblique merit-by-association is sought--since comic books are ok, and comic books were opposed, then, since current games are opposed, current games are ok. It is a flawed argument.

It it also intellectually dishonest in another way, conflating moralists who sought to censor or outlaw cinema, for example, with movie-makers who continue to exhort their peers to take responsibility for the content they create.

Calling for more positive roles for African Americans in Hollywood movies, for example, is not the same as dictacting content or censoring scripts. And, as it turns out, it is both possible to have hit films with black leads and can be quite profitable to boot--and would not have happened both the willingnes of some directors to break the mold AND the pressure that helped the studios relax the purse-strings and allow such films to be made. B

ut just try to make the same argument in the game industry, and the "Lieberman-Clinton-Censorship-Artistic-Freedom but It's-Just-A-Game" defense is thrown up as an impervious shield.

By pretending it is all about Lieberman and censorship, many developers conveniently avoid serious reflection about what they make, and avoid engaging with their peers in discussions about social impact--at the same time hypocritically selling that social impact to advertisers and political clients.

Clearly, games influence culture, so being conscious of how the games one creates influence culture is not an outragous position to take.

You seem to confuse the gratuitous with the pointed social critique, and make the culturally fashionable falure of discernment that thinks that being outrageous or gratuitous is itself proof of merit.

Great outrageous art distinguishes itself by subordinating outrage to message, and cheap trash distinguishes itself by being gratutious for its own sake, without any deep understanding.

This is not about me or any authority arbitrating what is or isn't art. This is not about "serving" me or anyone else. This is simply about the fact that we have a tool that has certain effects, and we can choose to use it consciously or carelessly, but we should not pretend that by using it carelessly, it has any less of an effect.

It seems trivially obvious to me that, if one uses a powerful tool, one should at use it thoughtfully and consciously (if "responsibly" sounds to grown up for you).

It's not that difficult, by the way. I just watched a special feature segment accompanying a feature film on DVD. The film had a dog in it that had special emotional significance to a character. The director decided that, rather than use a purebred purchased from a pet store for the role, they would use a mutt rescued from a shelter--just in case even a few people watching the film were captivated by the cute pup and motivated to go out and get their own.

Was it a big deal? No. Did it save the world? No. Did it destroy the "artistic freedom" or integrity of the film to make that small gesture of social responsibility? Of course not. Faced with an opportunity to make a conscious responsible choice, the director took it. That is really all I am arguing for--conscious choices rather than obliviousness and adolescent refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.

I really don't think it is too much to ask, or at least to have a conversation about it.

No one is arguing, as you pretend, that ALL games only have certain content or that ALL developers only make certain games. Rather, the argument is about including social responsibility among the many considerations that go into a game's design and implementation. Mere consideration of such issues as part of the overall process would be massive progress.

But I guess it's easier to play the wounded artiste, or to blame the money-counters, or to make speculative comparisons to how other creative media were received, than to think like a grown-up and take a stand.

Is it really so offensive and prudish to ask our fellow developers to wield power responsibly? On the contrary, the push-back is what seems childish and petulant and utterly unecessary (and incidentally counterproductive, since the market would expand quite a bit if resistence were diminished).

The "let me be free to create" argument is a phony one, anyway. There is plenty of content developers self-censor; the problem is that, for all too many developers, particularly in the U.S., their appropriateness filter is the filter of a 13-year old hormone-addled middle-class white boy, rather than a mature member of a diverse progressive society.

You won't see too many Brokeback Mountain moments in games, but you see plenty of Porky's. Defending that as a thoughtul artistic choice is amusing but hardly persuasive. I'm not arguing in favor of one over the other, just pointing out that developers already apply social filters, even though they pretend they do not.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 1:34:27 AM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

I think I'm confused here because you're calling for "responsibilty" which is extremely vague. Who determines what is or isn't responsible? To call for something specific - better treatment of women, more minority representation - is great. I'm actually surprised that doesn't seem to happen more often in gaming. But to ask for people to exercise responsibility is so vague that I just can't get a handle on it.

Your BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN reference makes me think that what you actually want is for games to celebrate a form of liberal humanism that values every individual equally and celebrates difference. I happen to believe those are swell things, too, but then aren't you really asking for games to be more liberal, more sensitive, and more multicultural? Those values don't automatically equal responsibility to everyone.

I do have to say that calling for a stronger and more strictly enforced content rating system is not paternalistic, it's smart. I have no problem with a game designer who wants to make a game that celebrates brutal rape, misogyny, racism or what have you. I don't think I'd want to play it, but I don't have a problem with it existing. What would be a problem is if people under 18 were playing it. I don't think the average 12 year old has the judgement or the understanding of social mores necessary to play GTA (a game I enjoy, but a game that undeniably celebrates misogyny, racism and rape). Once they're legally an adult then they can do what they want.

I'm assuming I'm just misreading your posts and that you, too, feel that an age-appropriate, enforceable ratings system is common sense. I can't imagine any sane adult feeling otherwise, but then again I do have a limited imagination.

It sounds like we just park our cars in different garages: I don't think an artist (I hate the term, but it's easier to use it) has any obligation to do anything except create. Some of them will create junk, some will create things that are vile, and some will create things that soar. But to ask them to do anything beyond that is, to my mind, an imposition.

On the other hand, calling for specific changes in an industry - better treatment of sex workers, more racial diversity, fewer celebrations of criminality - is absolutely a positive thing. I think we just disagree on the word "responsibility" which, to you, is a grand thing and, to me, sounds like a call for censorship.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 11:32:34 AM | link

galiel says:

A call for specific changes by definition stems from a value assumption, a moral stance. Why call for better treatment of sex workers vs. revokation of laws against slavery? Clearly, there is a set of social standards at work here--and an implicit acceptance of responsibility for the cultural and sociological effects of game content.

You can't have it both ways--and you seem to be contradicting yourself. In the same breath, you reject the idea that someone else should dictate morality, yet accept calls for specific changes that do just that. It makes no sense.

In order for a call for specific changes to be heard, game developers have to accept general responsibility for the content they create. Does that not make logical, sequential sense?

To me, accepting only certain specific calls smacks of moralizing and making arbitrary choices, while a general call for developers to consider the effects of their work is a positive thing.

For some, that may mean allowing straight but not same-sex marriages in their sims (pun intended). For another, it may mean encouraging positive portrayals of racial minorities. Ironically, it is you who seek to determine which specific calls are or aren't acceptable, while it is I who is willing to let individual developers and studios make those determinations--I merely call for a consciousness about them, rather than the current oblivion and denial of responsibility.

I find it surprising that anyone could consider the concept of personal responsibility to be censorious. It is the very antithesis of authoritarianism, it is a faith in the individual's ability to distinguish right from wrong according to their own invidiual moral compass.

Until folks called attention to the dearth of leading roles for African Americans in cinema, most folks were oblivious to it. It is not that all directors where white racists, rather that the issue rarely entered into their calculus. As proof, the very same Hollywood made steps to increase diversity, without having to fire all the "racists" and hire a new crop.

I don't think current game developers are bad people, just remarkably oblivious, and I simply seek to raise consciousness and stop this culture of denial, which serves no one - not even the culture of denial itself, since, if we don't take responsibility for what we create, there WILL be authoritarian constrictions on our content.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 1:16:43 PM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

Well put, although I think something that's causing an enormous amount of misunderstanding between us is what we mean by a "call for" this that or the other. What I am talking about is individuals or groups attempting to raise or lower awareness of issues by doing what, say, the sex workers in the original post are doing: issuing a press release, asking for the industry to change. I was absolutely not asking for some kind of legislation enforcing these things.

That said, I think asking for something as vague as "responsibility" is rife for misinterpretation, and that's been my problem with your position. I mean, every game designer is aware of their responsibilities...they are aware of their responsibility to their corporate parents, their responsibility to support their families by designing popular games that make them money so they can send their kids to a good school. Not the kind of responsibility you're talking about, but an example of the confusion your choice of words causes.

To ask people to demonstrate responsibility is so vague as to not really be asking them to do anything. To ask people to do something specific is the right of every consumer of popular culture. Not to force, but to ask or to attempt to organize public pressure to effect change. That's been my point all along. I think responsibility is a word that is so vague that it can refer to everything and, conversely, nothing.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 2:51:18 PM | link

galiel says:

Social responsibility is not vague at all, and the degree to which developers accept it is best judged by the games they produce, not solemn declarations that "every game designer is aware of their responsibilities".

Social responsibility, whether in the context of game development or any other commercial endeavor in any field, simply means incorporating awareness and consideration of the potential social and cultural impact of one's work into that work.

Judging by the product, I don't see evidence of a consciousness about social responsibility among most commercial game developers.

The "debate" about "the morals of creative freedom" scheduled for the upcoming GDC is a start, but, even in the way it is framed, I fear it is designed as yet another apologetics exercise which will simplistically demonize and pigeonhole anyone who questions our responsibility as developers as clueless "censors" from the outside world, and portray this as yet another prudish attack on a new medium. I hope I'm wrong.

Many promising manifestos were written by passionate young developers who, now that they are in actual positions of power and influence in this industry, seem content to please their corporate masters and shovel out the same ol' shit.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood and elswhere, folks like Spielberg and Clooney use their clout to make a difference with their art. We could do worse than to follow their example.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 4:44:29 PM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

Which is well and good. But I think the gaming industry would do well to keep the history of the comics industry in mind since it's arrived at a roughly equivalent point in its development as comics were in the 50's: enormous financial success and wide popularity.

Comics, aimed at young readers, were enormously profitable in the 50's and covered a variety of genres, with a large number of female and adult readers (especially GIs). Then came EC horror and crime comics, where the creators pushed the envelope and actually produced some great comics. Sure they were vulgar and tasteless, but they were also undeniably adult and had a real frission to them where it seemed like the sky was the limit and some inspired work was being done by people like Jack Cole and Bernie Krigstein.

But people got worried about such violent and racy material in a medium aimed ostensibly at children and comics were denounced by political and religious leaders as irresponsible and dangerous, there were Congressional hearings and the comics industry developed the Comics Code Authority. Their reasoning was: we have to police ourselves or someone from the outside is going to do it for us and that will be even worse. Unfortunately, the Comics Code wound up dumbing comics down to a lowest common denominator, and because they were "safe" and child-friendly the ascendency of the superhero began, which gradually strangled all the other comics genres. The industry became insular and its vast audience died out before it could be capitalized upon.

You can read the Draconian and rather silly Comics Code here:
http://www.onceuponadime.com/hist/comicscode.htm

Because they were so eager to police themselves rather than have some outside group censor them, comics cut themselves off from the wellspring of popular culture and wound up dying on the vine. Only in the last ten or so years are they actually moving forward, expanding beyond superheroes and making a play to rejoin the mainstream as an adult medium.

Industry self-regulation can be as bad as outside censorship, and somewhere between overzealous self-regulation and outside censorship lies, hopefully, a third way that gaming will discover.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 6:18:33 PM | link

galiel says:

And it is in that third way that we can all find common ground, beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric and knee-jerk defensiveness of both sides. (Incidentally, I never called for "industry self-regulation". You seem determined to ignore my consistent suggestion of individual, voluntary, mature responsibility, and try to make it something else, something artificially imposed. You sound like the one who doesn't trust developers to do the right thing on their own, not me. I just think awareness and consciousness needs to be raised, that's all--and I think a discussion among developers is the best place to have it, rather than as a defensive response to either customer or politial pressure. I never called for a code of conduct. You are fighting a straw herring here.)

We teach our children to be independently responsible, we expect citizens in a democracy to be individually responsible, it shouldn't be outrageous to suggest to our peers that we move from adolescence to mature social responsibility--and the evidence from other media suggest that we can do so without sacrificing either our creativity or our freedom. View "social responsibility" as another consideration, along with "profitability", "usability", "learnability", "scalability", "maintainability" and all the rest, and it becomes a creative challenge, not a constraint.

The mark of maturity is the ability to discern between what can be done, and what should be done. In fact, it is the very presence of great freedom coupled with great power that demands greater responsibility, in my opinion.

Posted Feb 26, 2006 6:44:53 PM | link

Grady Hendrix says:

Yes, but straw herrings taste better and are lower in fat.

Posted Feb 27, 2006 7:58:02 AM | link