Censorship across the Pond: So what?

In the TN back channel, Ren recently asked: Exactly what's the problem Americans have with legislation restricting access to video games? There's an age rating on the box, so what's the big deal with enforcing it? The British have been doing it for ages, so what's the big deal?

Why are Americans different about this?

Fair question. Why are Americans skittish about State control over media in ways that some European nations aren't? (This apparently crops up a lot on the IGDA Sex SIG and its boards.

"In contrast to the system in the US, in the UK video games that are particularly realistic, or feature sex or violence, must be classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) under the Video Recordings Act of 1984. The Act provides that it is an offence to supply such a game to anyone below the age limit, punishable by a fine of up to £5000 or up to six months in prison. For those games not covered by the Act the UK games industry applies its own voluntary age rating system set up by the Video Standards Council (VSC) and run by the Entertainment Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) (more details about ELSPA). In the region of 90% of all titles released on to the market are exempt from legal classification." (See out-law)

Here was my pot-shot answer, at least on why the US is different than the UK:

We (I'm American, although ironically a dual citizen of the UK and US) have the same tensions between our cultural conservatives and liberal advocates as the British, but our history inflects a stronger dose of libertarianism. The Magna Carta notwithstanding, our history is based more strongly on sticking it to the Man. So, despite the wiretapping and general lunacy of this particular administration, we have a good history of rebellion, dissent and being suspicious of our government. "Big Brother" strikes a real chord here.

Also, the rugged individual ethic of the Western frontier pioneer that inflects American thinking translates into people taking responsibility for their actions rather than relying on government to do it. "Can-do" means do it yourself, not wait for the State. I recall having a conversation with an English friend about health care and why it wasn't universal in the US. She was shocked that I wasn't for it by default. Who could not endorse universal health care? But I was raised to think that I'd better look out for myself because I couldn't trust or depend on the State, and that (at least in my very Republican household) meant that others should look after themselves as well. In truth, we simply came from different socialization.

I'd also toss into the mix that there is some subconscious unease about media and blaming producers. We Americans generally do a horrible job at caring for our youth (see the Laissez Faire do-it-yourself ethic above). There are 1.5 million incidents of child abuse or molestation reported annually (one shudders to think of the actual number). Plus, we're not grand on health and education for youth right now. The enemy is us.

I'd argue that those factors create guilt over the way we treat children in general. Thus, when some external factor can be assigned blame, people tend to fairly leap out of their seats to agree, simply because it alleviates some of our collective guilt. The cause of problems is far more often an abusive known relative than some GTA game or stalker in Second Life, but who's going to face up to the fact that Uncle Fred is a pedophile?

Anyway, those are my two pence, written up in a chapter in the new Vorderer and Bryant edited volume on games:

Williams, D. (2006). A (Brief) Social History of Gaming. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Video Games: Motivations and Consequences of Use. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

The guilt and tension arguments aren't mine, although I buy them and have adapted them for games. The original ideas can be found in:
Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. New York: Basic Books.

Am I right or wrong? Are those the real cultural forces that keep our media restrictions in place, or is it something else? Or is it some accident of circumstance? How do other country's experiences compare? I'd love to hear from some Aussies in particular. My impression is that they react and legislate entirely differently.

Is it all just an outcome of our history--bizarre cultural path dependence that stretches from the Boston Tea Party to Ozzie Osborn, through GTA and on into the future virtual world?


Comments on Censorship across the Pond: So what?:

Samantha LeCraft says:

Dmitri, I think you've hit on some good points, but there's one large one you missed, which stands out particularly with this quote:

In contrast to the system in the US, in the UK video games that are particularly realistic, or feature sex or violence, must be classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) under the Video Recordings Act of 1984.

I know very little about British law, but that makes it sound as though they already have laws that regulate the ratings of movies. Part of the resistance in the US game industry is that no other media has their ratings enforced by law. In the US, movies are rated by the MPAA, which is a voluntary process, enforced by market realities -- some movie theaters won't show movies that don't have ratings, and many people are extra careful about seeing a movie that doesn't have a rating. Books are not regulated by law, nor music, magazines, comic books, etc. TV and radio using public airwaves have some restrictions on them, but TV ratings are, AFAIK, voluntary, and neither the parents nor the cable provider are fined if a child sees a program rated TV-MA.

So this isn't just an issue of the American resistance to government involvement, but also the fact that current politicians want to single out one medium and restrict it by law, while letting all other media self-regulate. If other media ratings were regulated by law, as it sounds may be the case in the UK, then I think a lot of people wouldn't have such a problem with the idea of game ratings being regulated by law.

As a side note, we have the issue of pornography, which is regulated by law, whether in print or on film. I, personally, do not have a problem subjecting games with pornographic material to the same standards, and I've yet to hear a convincing argument as to why that shouldn't be the case. However, I do not believe that violence in games should somehow be shoe-horned into that law, while violence in movies, music, books, and magazines remains untouched by the government.

The other, smaller point in regards to the resistance to government involvement is this: three days ago the Louisiana House unanimously passed a game censorship bill. Of all the things the Louisiana government could be working on right now -- say, maybe, reopening hospitals in New Orleans?? -- they choose to spend time writing a bill they have to know will be overturned in the courts, and which is in strange conflict with last year's bill, which offered a 10% to 15% state income tax credit to any game company setting up shop in Louisiana.

So all these things together -- being singled out from other entertainment mediums, feeling that the government has better things to do than pass laws to enforce ratings which already exist and which will overturned by the courts, and the tradition of feeling that no one should decide what my child sees besides me -- combine to a general resistance to the idea of government enforced ratings. But it's an election year, and censoring games is something politicians can talk about with fire and brimstone, to distract voters from the war, the destruction along the Gulf Coast, the price of gas, corruption in government, one in five children in the US living in poverty, US schools ranked poorly against the schools of other nations...

Posted May 19, 2006 6:25:20 PM | link

Daniel Speed says:

Living in the UK, I've never had issue with the regulations that prevent indecent material being shown on (terrestrial?) TV before the 9 pm "watershed". It gave adults an easier time deciding what their children should be able to watch.

I also had no issue with restrictions on films and games that were rated 18. If I wanted one, I could ask my parents to buy it for me.

The efficacy of those two systems is debatable, but to me, the principle seems sound - in order for a minor to get to see content that has been labelled mature, there is a mandate that the responsible adult should make a proactive choice to allow it.

On another level, I have to question if games that are outwardly violent are always bad - I happen to agree to a certain extent with what I understand Raph to have said, that often the violence is merely a part of a deeper mechanic that people are gaming against or attempting to "grok". My years of playing counterstrike weren't really about killing police or terrorists, but winning the map or round, and knowing more about what the other player was doing and going to do than they did. There was little to equal the feeling of sequentially outsmarting the members of the other team to grab victory from a near defeat.

Of course, it's easy to flip this again. There's games that as a knowledgeable gamer, I wouldn't give to minors to play, so I'm not saying that there's no need for a mature rating for games.

And again, if there's something I really dislike the idea of, it's kneejerk legislation brought about by people like Jack Thompson, and politicians who are out to buy votes from parents they incite outrage in by appealing to the confusion and fear present about how to raise a child in the world today.

I agree entirely with Samantha that this should not be approached with a focus on games and a pretense that they're the root of all evil for children, any more than films or any other mature content, or that legislation is any replacement for the need for good parenting.

Posted May 19, 2006 7:50:28 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Samantha wrote:

So this isn't just an issue of the American resistance to government involvement, but also the fact that current politicians want to single out one medium and restrict it by law, while letting all other media self-regulate. If other media ratings were regulated by law, as it sounds may be the case in the UK, then I think a lot of people wouldn't have such a problem with the idea of game ratings being regulated by law.

As a side note, we have the issue of pornography, which is regulated by law, whether in print or on film. I, personally, do not have a problem subjecting games with pornographic material to the same standards, and I've yet to hear a convincing argument as to why that shouldn't be the case. However, I do not believe that violence in games should somehow be shoe-horned into that law, while violence in movies, music, books, and magazines remains untouched by the government.

Both of those paragraphs seem to indicate that this is just a 'fairness' issue to opponents of the government sticking its hands into the mix. That may or may not be true for some people, but I know it's not for me.

At the risk of triteness, two wrongs don't make a right. Whether pornography is or isn't regulated in other media is irrelevant to the merits of regulating it in games. Likewise, an official rating scheme for games is odious whether or not movies or books have one. If movies had one too, that'd be one more thing to be opposed to, not a reason to accept the regulation of games. It's not about "fairness" between types of media to me.

--matt

Posted May 19, 2006 8:39:33 PM | link

Johnny Tremain says:

Why are Americans skittish about State control over media in ways that some European nations aren't?

We're also skittish about quartering Redcoats in our houses.

Posted May 19, 2006 11:21:32 PM | link

ChrisBateman says:

Enforcing age restrictions on media may be related to censorship, but looking at it in this way can be misleading. It is not about whether media can be acquired, but about what media is suitable for minors. I have never considered film certification in the UK to be censorship, for instance. Whereas I consider the savage editing of films for content in US broadcast TV to be a form of censorship which the US just doesn't seem to notice. True enough, ITV (one British TV station) may edit films broadcast before the watershed (the 9 pm agreed curfew for 'adult' content), but these films may be seen in full on other channels, and after the watershed.

I also have not forgotten that in the late 1980s US TV would not air an episode of thirtysomething which showed two gay men in bed together (talking). This was aired in the UK without issue. Other examples are there to be referenced too; I can see all manner of nudity on British TV which would be strictly verbotten in the US.

I actually find the idea of the UK having greater censorship than the US quite amusing! But there is plenty of room for debate, as it is a wooly and highly subjective area.

" 'Big Brother' strikes a real chord here."

It does here in Britain too; but we have a very different relationship with our government for numerous reasons too varied to discuss here.

Issues such as ID cards (currently relevant) produce great divides, with many people taking the conservative attitude of "I have nothing to hide", with the other half of people crying "erosion of personal freedoms". It's a lively battleground - and it is expressed both in the newspapers and even in the idle discussions in pubs and bars.

In Britain, I believe we have a great expectation that if government pushes too hard, we push back. The poll tax riots of the 1980s, and before that the strikes of the 1970s (albiet unsuccessful) are vivid examples in the national consciousness that we will not comply with government constraints that we cannot tolerate.

Since the protests against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and the Stonewall riots et al, the process of civil resistance in the US seems to have, well, evaporated. You talk of the Boston Tea Party - this spirit of resistence may persist in thought, but from an outside perspective it appears to have vanished in practice.

Of course, another problem is treating the US as one single country in terms of culture, when in fact it represents dozens of different cultures. The culture of New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Denver and so forth are all radically different. The UK is a smaller place, which perhaps shows a more coherent cultural pattern.

This is a fascinating area of investigation, and one that I cannot really offer much more than a fragmentary contribution.

Anyway, take my comments here as an attempt to supplement your snapshot of perspective with one of my own, not an attempt to foster argument.

Best wishes!

Posted May 20, 2006 6:41:45 AM | link

greglas says:

My relevant comments on the back-channel:

...the one thing I might add is that if you're a politician, it's great to make a show of passing tough new laws on issues that everyone is upset about but that affect no voters that might be upset with you. Undocumented aliens have been on the recieving end of this for a long time. Repeat criminal offenders get even tougher laws. With video games, I think the politicians are convinced they're targeting kids under the age of majority and pleasing their parents by doing it -- smart political strategy. (I think we all know people that, whatever the evidence says, will think that no one over the age of 16 plays video games or *should* play video games.)

Anyway, I think Ren requested some case law about all this -- Kevin Saunders, who was at State of Play one year and testified with Dmitri, wrote something that has a bunch about the iffy 1st am status. It is linked to here, along with Ernie Miller's responses to it.
http://research.yale.edu/lawmeme/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1247
However, I should add that the public perception of what "censorship" is in this country has only a vague relation to the black letter law of the 1st Am. If you want to know why people react in certain ways,
Dmitri's comments provide a better explanation, I think.

Posted May 20, 2006 11:45:09 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Mine from the backchannel:

An excellent and succinct account, Dmitri -- to me there is no question that some of the most important themes in American cultural history are 'rugged individualism' and (relatedly) libertarianism (in the sense of default suspicion about state institutions).

The ironic thing about the media and its history in the U.S., as I understand it, is that while it was always viewed with some suspicion (as an institution itself), muckraking of the traditional sort was nonetheless a powerful tool for mobilizing popular criticism of the state. Now, however, fear-mongering has replaced muckraking (almost exactly -- they, imho, occupy the same role in news outlets: the flashy video teaser, dramatic headline). It's the 'thing-you-need-to-know-because-you-may-be-in-danger-now-just-wait-till-eleven'. The long and short of it seems to be that Americans are willing to extend their suspicion of media over and above their suspicion of government.

The lack of mainstream outcry (really, it's just the news-of-the-day right now) over the phone-tapping and records handovers by telecoms to me represents a dramatic trumping of hard-core libertarian ideals. Whether this is because in the wake of 9/11 there has been a perfecting of a system of fear-mongering that serves the interests of the government and the press is difficult to say with certainty.

For that reason, I'm less inclined to take the next step and talk about 'collective guilt'. It's not quite concrete enough for me. I guess instead I would think about it as something like the 'path of least resistance.' It fits the fear-mongering media and governmental practice, and avoids the difficult work of asking harder questions. That is, in my opinion it exists because it is a 'good fit' with a bunch of already existing practices. Americans don't feel guilty about it, they just can't be bothered to think for themselves about it.

Or, maybe that's just my post-grading depression about the lack of critical thinking in this country talking. ;-)

Posted May 20, 2006 11:50:44 AM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

Thomas, I think it's about the history of individual vs. collective in America and Europe, the history of America emerging largely out of people who fled from the rigid collectivist ideologies of Europe and other continents (fascism and communism) and the way the Constitution and the law emerged to protect the rights of the individual.

I think Americans are right to distrust media as much as government -- but they themselves are to blame in part by not having the appetite for more diverse media, especialy when it comes to more sophisticated news coverage.

This liberal hand-wringing over wire-tapping actually getting a lot of media coverage is something that most people understandably shrug at. They don't see how it immediately affects them. They don't *care* if the government listens in on them. If the government says it does this to filter out talk by terrorists, they're willing to let them do this.

This doesn't even mean for them that they've let the slider move over too far to collectivism and invoking the collective's value, and rejected individualism. It means that they view terrorism and its results as so far removing both the individuals and collective's rights to life and security through violent acts, that they feel some amount of wire-tapping is justified. It hasn't affected them or their neigbhours adversely yet -- so they can't see it.

If you're going to bemoan people's indifference to the loss of their civil rights in this way, you need also to think about how their rights are lost by terrorism, too. This isn't at all a happy enterprise, having to find this balance -- and indeed it was forced upon us.

Posted May 20, 2006 2:15:57 PM | link

Merus says:

We have the same tensions between our cultural conservatives and liberal advocates as the British, but our history inflects a stronger dose of libertarianism. The Magna Carta notwithstanding, our history is based more strongly on sticking it to the Man. So, despite the wiretapping and general lunacy of this particular administration, we have a good history of rebellion, dissent and being suspicious of our government.

Now, I would say that Australia goes well beyond that - it is, after all, a country founded by criminals - and yet it too has a compulsory rating system, and one that's probably the most restrictive out of any in the world. So I'm not entirely sure you're on the money here.

Posted May 21, 2006 3:23:12 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

I hope this is not too contentious but as I spend quite a bit of time in the US and a lot of time with Americans in the UK I certainly notice a huge difference between what is considered acceptable mainstream viewing.

That is, when I watch US TV programming, in my personal opinion, often seems sanitized and safe. Whereas in the UK edgy themes are normal viewing, for example the new series The Line of Beauty (based on the Booker Prize short listed novel) which featured interracial gay sex in episode 1 and The League of Gentlemen which has so many dark themes in just about every moment that I hardly know where to start – and this was a comedy (both were on BBC 2 at a reasonable hour).

Whereas in the US I virtually never see difficult themes addressed on mainstream TV. Indeed I find some much TV disingenuous – ‘un-cut’ generally means extremely cut, I remember a show called Politically Incorrect, which was very PC indeed. Lastly I fid Fox just news astounding and have been staged by sometimes searching for news stores on the site to find no reference what so ever to items that seem to me to be of national importance.

Note, I’m not saying US TV is rubbish, there are genres where US TV creates amazing programming, these just tend to be in politically safe zones.

One irony of all this is that British are portrayed as a repressed nation but it seems to me that the average brit will be exposed to many more challenging themes on mainstream TV, almost always without any comment in the press, than I have ever seen on US TV. What’s more I get the comment from my US friends over here that they cannot believe what is on TV.

Second, and important to this debate is the role of state control. It seems to me that the state control of access to media by age is seen as censorship, thus by having it the UK has a censored media. While in the US there is the first amendment protecting what Americans are free to see. But it seems that this just leads, in the US to corporate censorship and in the UK to greater freedoms protection of minors is separated from access for adults.

So while I have seen talk about above keeping state actors out and leaving things to individual responsibility, this seems to assume that the state can /only/ act to reduce freedom and that people can, in fact, exercise individual responsibility. With bodies such as the BBFC in the UK one can find out who rules on things, how they rule, etc etc. with US corporations such as Walmart it seems that there is little transparency in conduct of something that it appears is acting as, in effect, a content regulator (directly through stocking and indirectly thought self censorship created through a climate of assumed norms).

Though I recognize that these are not inevitable consequences of the different state system. In the UK we have the BBC in the US there is the so-called Christian Right, these I think have a huge effect.

It would be interesting to know what the practical impact of regulatory regimes (of content and distribution) are on other countries – does Finland, for example, limit distribution of film and game content by law I wonder.

I need to look more at the examples that TNers have kindly passed over. But it would be interesting to examine the notion of theoretical freedoms under 1st amendment and actual freedoms that individual actors have given the social and economic constraints that they are under.

Posted May 21, 2006 9:13:08 AM | link

says:

Dmitri: "wiretapping and general lunacy of this particular administration"

The paradox of liberalism/libertarianism: when you abandon the useful fiction of universal norms or Right and Wrong as a means of social control, you get the State.

(I actually don't think it's a fiction, but that's now an oddball view. I'd rather base my argument on the 'if god didnt exist we'd invent him' idea.)

England (and indeed just about every other country in the world), has a true conservative tradition, a true ancient traditionalism, a core of commonly held assumptions about behavior that unified the culture and delivers those rights and wrongs that nobody really mistrusts or has to argue about. They don't come from anybody else, they come from history (or God or whatever). I guess the British are falling back on that now in regards to game regulation. Americans thought they had such a core, but it turns out it's only common and core to the descendents of NW European culture. Many other groups of increasing importance here had always been excluded by that culture or enslaved and killed by it. Understandably, they're not feeling all that communal. Reactionaries now attempt to impose it on the whole country ex post. Net result when discussing media regulation is this: we do not trust government to make decisions in the moral and ethical sphere, because we are not sure who will make the actual decisions. If I were African-American, how would I know that a game about my culture, that involved typical street scenes from my neighborhood, would get an appropriately mild rating? Or, as a white European guy, how do I know that a game depicting my peoples' 'heroic' conquest of [insert western territory here] would not be given a too-harsh label in response to criticism from descendents of the people my ancestors killed?

Whatever was wholesomely traditional about America seems to have died in 1970. Now all we have is an exhausted togetherness best depicted recently in the film Crash. Irony is the only dance left; to understand our hesitance to allow the State to regulate things, watch the Daily Show.

Posted May 21, 2006 9:37:23 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

by "you get the State" i mean, the State becomes the only available actor of social control, and then you have to think about what the State is going to do.

Posted May 21, 2006 9:39:20 AM | link

Daniel Speed says:

Ironically, I've always found it strange how the US defines itself in terms of moral values.

"Truth, Liberty, ..." would seem to be a far stronger unified core of commonly held assumptions than we have in the UK.

Posted May 21, 2006 7:38:50 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

One of the main problems -- or you can call it a "strength," if you're an advertiser -- we have in the US when it comes to moral issues, is that we are culturally confused when it comes to morals... and we like it that way. Many would call it hypocritical, but I think that implies too much self-knowledge and, possibly, has overtones of an agenda. At worst, our moral confusion might be termed, I think, "functionally inconsistent," and, at best, "flexible."

How to explain... Well, the psychological term for what happens when you hold two conflicting types of thoughts/emotions in mind at the same time is "cognitive dissonance."

Example: I want to make more money, and so I work longer hours... but that keeps me away from my family, and I want to be with them. And, specifically, I want to make more money so that I can make my family happy. But being away from them makes them unhappy. So when I am at work, I am not with my family, and vice versa. In either case, I have congitive dissonance and am... confused. Stressed. Freaked out.

Morally, America has had a culture like this since the days of the Puritans. The Puritans (which was, btw, a dirty word back in Merrie Olde) came here to be religously pure... and poor. City on a Hill and all that. And the first few generations managed that quite nicely. But then... cod. That's right. Cod. Some of the best cod fishing in the world is found off the coast of Massachusetts. The earliest wealth of the colonies was made in cod fishing. And that led to other areas of wealth. And so you have the beginnings of cultural/moral confusion which says these two things at the same time:

1. I must be godly and eschew the world.
2. I must make barrels of cash and be rich.

Those two conflicting goals lead to lots of cognitive dissonance, on both a personal and societal level.

How so on a societal level? Well, for example, personal choice and entrepreneurship are both great drivers of individual and group wealth. But both are also, essentially, proscribed by strict, conservative (in the classic sense of the word) religious doctrine. Deviating from the group norm in either your personal behavior or in adventuresome business practices is... ungodly. But innovation is, economic history has shown, incrediby good for business.

As are other things that the "godly" side of the "confustication equation" don't cotton to. Like sex. Sex, as we all know, sells. It has for a very, very long time. And here in the US we are more confused about sex than almost any other kind of moral issue, because there are "public" and obvious sexual issues, and "private" ones, and then "private in public" issues; and then issues of "decency" which isn't the same as "morality," and "obscenity" which isn't the same as "pornography," and "adultery," which isn't the same as "fornication," and "sodomy" which isn't...

You get the picture.

But, at the root, the confusion stems because we want to have our Mamon and our Mana both. And that requires lots of moral backpedaling.

Now... I said at the onset of this wee rant that this confusion is a "strength" if you're an advertier. Hunh? Yup. Confusion is good for the marketplace. Why? Because someone who is sure of what they want will only buy... it. Someone who is confused, will cover all the bases. And they'll buy stuff they don't even know why they're buying. Because buying things, especially in a market-driven, capitalist, heavily advertised economy, is one way to feel good, useful, in-touch, etc.

So, morally confused societies indulge in multiple sets of activities, in order to scratch both (or all) sides of the cognitive dissonance itch. We like our violence (movies, books, TV, games etc.), but we want to feel "protected" from our more violent urges, so we censor. But we want "freedom," so we don't want to be "too censored." So we censor stuff just for kids. Or just certain kinds of stuff.

Now, in Britain, as has been pointed out, there's actually quite a bit more "dark" stuf from a topical standpoint, and more nudity... but far less (imho) raucus violence when it comes to entertainment. Why? Because (again, imho) the Brits are less morally confused when it comes to entertainment. Not less inhibited or more sexual... just less confused. They have not, for example, equated "nudity" with "sex." Or "complexity of subject" with "problematic" and/or "liberal" and "moral" with "Christian" and/or "conservative."

So... we love our games. We want them violent. We'll keep them violent. And we'll keep hashing out these weird, nut-job laws in the courts and knocking them down. So that we can say, "We're trying to *do something* about these awful games." But then we'll go play them.

Because we're confused. We wanted to come here and be alone with God. Instead, we got rich. And we still want both. And (if you'll check the Big Book), you can't really have it both ways. So... confusion.

And sales.

Posted May 21, 2006 9:45:08 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Very Weberian, Andy (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). Of course, "eschew" isn't exactly right -- it is monks who eschew the world, in Weber's view. The Protestant Reformation (which, in one commentator's words, made everyone "his own priest") made this kind of rejection of the world by a few no longer theologically tenable.

So the point is that the puritans were not eschewing the world, but were applying themselves in it for the glory of god (to realize his will in the world). This is why rational business practices were a good "fit" with their ethic of applying themselves in this world, because it brought about business success when combined with their reinvestment of their profits (since enjoying material wealth was forbidden).

What you're suggesting, then (and tell me if I'm wrong), is that over time the strict puritan religious faith softened enough that it became possible to enjoy material wealth, and then the lingering asceticism and the bounty of America ended up continuously in conflict with one another.

I agree that this is a factor in understanding America's own brand of confusion (and, with all respect to the UK'ers here [and I think they would agree], they have there own confusion about class), but it really only accounts for a piece of it, when you consider how much of the US does not share that religious background (even though, yes, it did and does dominate culturally). Those of the Frankfurt school of thought (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas) would point to the ideology of consumption itself under late capitalism, when it was no longer a few who were wealthy (far above subsistence) but many, and consumption came to stand as the locus for constructing one's identity. It is then the contradiction not being accumulating wealth and religiously-inspired asceticism, but between that asceticism and the drive to consume (the latest iPod, the latest car) itself.

Posted May 22, 2006 9:42:09 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Ick. Last sentence should be:
It is then the contradiction not between accumulating wealth and religiously-inspired asceticism, but between that asceticism and the drive to consume (the latest iPod, the latest car) itself.

Posted May 22, 2006 9:44:30 AM | link

Michael Fatten says:

I'm not sure there is a contradiction anymore between religious ascetism and the drive to consume. Have you seen the size of many US churches nowadays? Or the "What Would Jesus Drive" viral advertising campaign a few years back?

Back to something mentioned early on- I think parents themselves are an obstacle to US ratings systems. Parents get very defensive when anyone tells them what is or is not appropriate for their children to consume. Even parents of the more socially dysfunctional and academically lackluster assure others that their child is able to handle mature content.

It is really a rather unfortunate reality of general American parenting- average parents do not make time to impart social values on their children, nor to regulate the education they recieve in school by 'debriefing' the children when they come home, and by and large do not evaluate the media content the children recieve. Yet they do not want anyone else to have a hand in doing any of those things because of the negative insinuation that their child might need help, or that their parenting efforts might be insufficient. It's one of the reasons that elementary educators over here tend not to last more than five years before moving out of education: they're required to be parents of all their students because of the parenting-vacuum many children have, but they're not being paid appropriately, nor are they given the authority to do so.

Of course there are exceptions, but a large swathe of American parents see video games as a free-time tonic- a purchased product that supervises and occupies their children for many hours of the day. If the US Government tried to enforce a ratings system on kids, many parents would work as hard as necessary to circumvent the enforcement to keep themselves certain that their child is developed enough to handle themselves.

Posted May 22, 2006 10:36:22 AM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Thomas, Habermas is considered part of the Frankfurt school? I thought you had to be an agry, disaffected Jewish emigre who simultaneously loathed the machine of American pop culture while embracing the country's freedoms and ability to kill Hitler. Hrm.

So far, I've learned that the British are less confused than we are, seemingly evidenced by the fact that they can allow more regulation yet feel more comfortable with dark and challenging materials. Perhaps they've simply had longer to work these issues out. We are indeed, a mess.

We get the tepid "Desperate Housewives" and (as Andy noted) a lot of hand wringing to go with it, while they have stronger access & content laws and produce much better smut like "Footballers Wives." Witness "Friends" vs. "Coupling," etc., etc. Seems like the Brits are getting the best of both worlds: responsibility dumped on parents yet less self-censorship and fewer chilling effects.

So now someone explain Australia to me. I've heard that the censorship there can be an outright ban on many games. Following the US/UK split, does that mean that they have gonzo programming on at all hours on TV?

In any case, Ted's right, and we should all just watch the Daily Show. Damn the need for the State. Viva Mr. Bungle! No, wait, that's no good either...

Posted May 22, 2006 2:24:44 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Nice pick-up, Thomas... I certainly don't think that all of the confusion stems from the contradiction you so ably and precisely define. Having grown up as a Methodist -- one of the largest denominations in the US, and one of the most prevalent in terms of political representation -- it has been amazing to me to see how the faith and teachhings of John Wesley have been flatly avoided and contradicted by the same types politics that make such a hue and cry about other articles of faith.

Speaking of articles, John Wesley's Sermon 87 speaks to the "Danger of Riches," and how (and why) they should be avoided. Full text here

Most appropriate excerpt, here:

* * * * * *

It is allowed, (1.) That we are to provide necessaries and conveniences for those of our own household: (2.) That men in business are to lay up as much as is necessary for the carrying on of that business: (3.) That we are to leave our children what will supply them with necessaries and conveniences after we have left the world: and (4.) That we are to provide things honest in the sight of all men, so as to "owe no man anything." But to lay up any more, when this is done, is what our Lord has flatly forbidden. When it is calmly and deliberately done, it is a clear proof of our desiring to be rich. And thus to lay up money is no more consistent with good conscience, than to throw it into the sea.

* * * * * * * *

My point isn't to get into a religious debate, but to point out (even more clearly) the heart of our economic and political confusion. Wesley, the founder of one of our most prolific, richest, most powerful and influential churches says, in no uncertain terms: you shouldn't be rich. Period. Don't do it. It's bad. For you, for the community, for everybody.

And yet... and yet... we have all kinds of laws (to say nothing of cultural leanings) that encourage and glorify the acquisition of personal wealth.

Confusion.

And when it comes to ahving non-confusing laws, "more" and "less" are unhelpful adjectives. Certain groups here in the US like to yell for "smaller" government. OK. Get rid of the nearest fire station, county hospital, library, public school and police stations next to your house; that will make the government smaller. "Small" or "big" government aren't operative terms in many cases; "good" vs. "bad," and "useful" vs. "useless" and "efficient" vs. "inefficient" are much more helpful.

And that may be the difference between US and British law on this subject; the Brits may have "fewer" or "more" laws (bigger or smaller government) on censorship... I don't know the quantity. But they may be, frankly, more efficient or useful. Which leads to less confusion.

As has been pointed out, movie ratings are voluntary. There are no book ratings. So... video games are more important to children than books and movies? Confusing. More confusing laws are not better. And fewer good laws are not better. What is needed is consistency, based on clear goals, clearly stated.

Which we will not get anytime soon in the US. Because clarity will lead to less profit and require somone to be responsible (parents, teachers, publishers, politicians). As long as things are unclear, we can blame everyone else.

Another source of confusion in the US comes from our neat history of gender role transformation and economic buying power as a form of empowerment. But that's a rant for another day.

Posted May 22, 2006 3:25:46 PM | link

bryan-mitchell young says:

The issue of comparing the US and the UK is quite complex and it is interesting to see it come up here around the issue of videogame laws. In addition to the fact that in the US no other form of media is regulated by the government, we also have the issue that many people think that films in the US ARE regulated by the government and are often shocked and do not beleive it when they are told that no, the MPAA is not a government body and that film ratings are self-regulated. If you pay attention every time videogame laws are brought up on someplace like slashdot, there will always be at least one person from the USA who will claim that it is ok to have laws against videogames since they have them against films.

There is also the issue that 90% of what politicians do is not to actually get anything accomplished except make them look good. Someone will propose one of these bills and come out saying how pro-family and concerned they are about protecting the children. They will probably throw in some lie about how you can go to a store and buy JFK Assasination simulators or that oldy but goody: rape in GTA. So if you oppose the bill it is framed in the rhetoric of "why do you hate children?" and "another Columbine." The politician likely knows that the bill won't get passed, or if it will it will be ruled unconstitutional, but they do it anyway so that they get their name in the papers as beeing "tough on crime" and "looking out for your children."

Culturally, while we do have that notion of the frontier and rugged individualism, at the same time we have the puritains who may have came to North America to escape religious persecution, it wasn't in search of universal religious freedom. It was freedom to practice THEIR religion and if you didn't you were going to Hell. So the US has this notion of "the lord helps those who help themselves" because many of the founders were shunned by the governments where they came from and if they wanted to make sence of how it was possible that they were so good and pure and yet so outcast and looked down upon, they had to embrace the notion of suffering and hard work as good for the soul.

Regarding the content of US and UK television, there is also the issue of the BBC which doesn't have to worry about ratings, unlike the US channels. Also, I've no idea what the broadcasting laws in the UK are, but there is this notion that a channel has a licence that states they will broadcast things appropriate according to community standards. Together with the very conservative religious groups, the networks play it safe. The squeeky wheel gets the grease so these very angry groups with "family" in their title complain and flood the fcc with complains and threaten to boycott advertisers if they continue to advertise on "family-unfriendly" shows. 90% of people in the US may not care, but that 10% makes enough noise and the networks back down and put on yet another cop or lawyer show.

Posted May 23, 2006 10:47:58 AM | link

Juan Incognito says:

The ability and right of the state to censor cultural material seems to be largely accepted in many countries, like Australia, and my own county, New Zealand. Maybe the state is seen as not just a guardian of the physical safety but also the morality of the nation.

The NZ Censor is not required to rate games, however if the game is likely to need a rating (say like Vice City) a private person can ask that the game be rated. Which happens quite rarely. In practice most retailers follow the Australian rating system, so if a game is R15 then they will not sell it to anyone under that age, and will often require ID to be provided (at least we did when I used to work in a games store while at college).

The statutory provisions for censorship in NZ have a two routes to censorship, the first being an objective list of obejectionable material such as necrophilia, child abuse, the second being a subjective "public injury" test. This latter test includes the phrase "injurious to the public good". What does this really mean at any one given moment in time? I think that it allows the Office of the Censor to reflect the previaling social climate, so if going through a conservative, religious period perhaps blasphemous works could be censored. Currently the prevailing opinion is quite liberal and so far as I can tell little material actually gets censored through this test. However this liberalism has the potential to change quite radically without any statutory amendment.

Posted May 24, 2006 12:16:46 AM | link

Dirk Scheuring says:

Thomas, Habermas is considered part of the Frankfurt school? I thought you had to be an agry, disaffected Jewish emigre who simultaneously loathed the machine of American pop culture while embracing the country's freedoms and ability to kill Hitler. Hrm.

It's called "negative dialectics", and yes, it's not limited to the example you gave, but can be applied more generally.

Posted May 24, 2006 3:32:53 AM | link