Some notes about the freedom of expression, games & critique

(I was first thinking to write a short essay with this title, but this turned to be loosely related thoughts about the topic.)

  • Freedom of expression has newer covered using expression to harm someones reputation and slander a person.
  • Freedom of expression is threatened if people are afraid to express their opinions, even if they don’t need to be afraid of a government prosecution.
  • While companies should have right to choose what publish (and sell), there are cases where this is not so. Monopolies (even de facto monopolies) or utilities are different when their choices can control what others can publish. For example, Comic Book Association was a in practice working as a censor even the US government was not giving them legal power to prevent certain kinds of expressions in comic books. That said, a website does not need to publish what they don’t want. It would be stretching the concept of censorship to call all editorial decisions not to publish (or edit something out) as censorship. However, there are plenty of cases where editorial rights can be used unethically.
  • A mob going after publication or reviewer when the mob disagree with the reviewer’s opinion (especially if someone in the mob threatens the reviewer) can be part of creating an atmosphere of fear that threatens the freedom of expression.
  • It should be natural that developers can create games as they like and critics can criticize the games as they like (as long as they don’t break laws). Also it is ok to disagree with a critique. However, spamming, threats, and name-calling are not productive forms to show the disagreement. Freedom of expression does not include name-calling (in many cases) or threats.
  • A review is an opinion. A good review provides well-argued point of view to a game. The review is not meant to be a product description. This is how reviews of literature, film, music or comics are by tradition. Game criticism is a young (compared to,especially, literature criticism). The language and approaches used are still developing.
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My experiences with censorship & media panics

I grew up with books and comics. Big part of comics available in Finland were translations of European comics such as Asterix, Yoko Tsuno, Spirou et fantasia, Blueberry, Tex Willer, Judge Dredd (and bit later Valerians, Canardo & Bilal, Tardi, Comes), but also US superhero comics.  At that time I was not even aware that US comics were influenced by comic code (the old EC comics pieces where published and available in Finland), but US comics got more interesting with Miller’s Daredevil and later with Vertigo’s pieces (when mainstream publishers started to abandon comic code).

I got into gaming when I got my first game console (don’t anymore remember what that was, but a friend got a Colecovision console). Later I got ZX Spectrum (and a friend had Commodore VIC-20 and bit later C-64 and Amiga). That time Nintendo’s Watch & Game was rather big. Many in my class have those and we traded machines when we got bored to that one game that was in. Authorizes or media were not interested during 80s and 90s console and computer games had rather low profile.

On the other hand, Washington Wives raised some media panic about heavy rock. Of course that was something I listened. Finnish tabloids repeated US stories, but in Finland that was rather low key. Mostly we had fun with those stories and all possible ways to connect bands such as W.A.S.P and KISS to Satanism.

I found also role-playing games via an advertisement in a sci-fi fanzine at early 80s. We played some time before Finnish tabloids started to reproduce US stories how role-playing games related to suicides, Satanism, occult etc. Role-playing games were not very big thing in Finland and those things were very annoying, but newer became something to be taken too seriously. Role-playing games were small thing. Those things were much more serous and annoying because many cases larpers needed to rent places and role-playing moral panics made that harder.

As a media nerd, I also got into horror & splatter film. Finland introduced video censorship law at 80s which meant that one cannot legally sell films on video that were R-18 (Film theatres could continue to show those). Video censorship meant that the most horror films were not available in Finland (many newer came to theatres). During that time we smuggled horror to Finland or bought them from some friend of friend. Finland was not the only country that censored film, but UK did that also. So it was somewhat hard to get uncut films (unless one owned NTSC video player and television) that had were not dubbed. Despite the law, it was not that hard to get Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, The Thing, Videodrome, Reanimator or The Day of the Dead etc. It was harder to get them in good quality.  Finland relaxed in film and video censorship laws at 2001. Lawmakers probably at that time even did not know that computer and videogames existed, sot games distribution was not controlled.

While access to horror films and comics got better, videogames got in spotlight when games where connected in school shootings and Jack Thompson started to attack on games by arguing that murder simulators are not protected speech. I would be devastating to games in US (and probably also elsewhere) if Thompson would have succeeded in selling his argument to US court.

Echoes on Thompson’s high profile litigation, moral panic on games and media effect claims have been constant companion throughout my time as a game researcher. Now moral panics are more annoying than ever: evaluators of funding applications has been rejecting application because game effects are not considered in application and so on (as this has been case all my career there we include always text pointing out the problems with media effect claims and cultural importance of games etc., but that has been too rarely enough to secure funding).

Then games got again in spotlight when some gamers were threatening game critics. And gamers got plenty of negative publicity.