One of my favourite podcasts, The Partially Examined Life, features a gang of postgraduate dropouts discussing philosophy in erudite and entertaining fashion, and occasionally swearing. Unfortunately, Apple disapproves of ‘bad words’, and so forces me to look at a bright red ‘EXPLICIT’ tag next to every episode in iTunes. (There’s no way to turn this off in the podcast list, like there is in the music library.) Only mildly less aesthetically and intellectually offensive is the fact that some non-sweary podcasts are labelled with a black ‘CLEAN’ tag. And so my virtual environment is gaily defaced for the putative benefit of putative children, even though I don’t have any children, and generally keep my computer as far away from them as is practically possible.
I don’t have anything against children, you understand: I used to be one myself, and my friends’ offspring are charming. But something is screwed about a society in which the sensual experience of culture for fully grown adults is pre-emptively harmed for the alleged moral protection of juveniles, or where juveniles are invoked for splenetic attacks on artworks the professionally offended don’t understand.
Take the case of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of people and boasted about having learned “target acquisition”, using “holographic sights”, in games such as Modern Warfare. Yet another public outcry ensued demanding that such games be banned. (There was no equal public outcry demanding that the vicious scribblings of the columnist known as Melanie Phillips be banned, though Breivik cites them extensively in his insane manifesto.) Our very own Keith Vaz MP, long an enthusiastic spreader of fear and hatred about videogames, tabled an early day motion (EDM) in Parliament demanding powers to “restrict ultra-violent content”, and for the government to provide “closer scrutiny of aggressive firstperson shooter videogames”. (Presumably Vaz is happy with defensive firstperson shooters, or any kind of ultra-sadistic thirdperson game.) That is, he now wants to make this kind of entertainment illegal for adults, because of the actions of one unpredictable psychopath, and, of course, millions of imagined children for whom it is already illegal to play such games anyway. (Vaz was not swayed by people pointing out that there are plans to improve enforcement under the new PEGI regime.)
Post facto censorship is one thing, and culturally debilitating enough: consider the cuts the BBFC demanded to the already mild violence of the film of The Hunger Games before it would grant a 12A certificate, rendering the supposedly shocking teen-murder-fest only subliminally painful, and preventing any adult in the UK from watching the real version. But perhaps the more insidious danger of the general climate of cringing cultural deference to (imagined or real) children is that of pre-emptive self-censorship. In a fascinating recent interview, for example, David Doak of Free Radical explained that this was what was forced on his studio after Ubisoft took over the publishing of Haze. Doak had it in mind to make the Apocalypse Now of videogames. “We wanted to do this thing about the horrors of war,” Doak said, “and Ubisoft were saying: ‘Yeah go for it, something really horrific – but it’s got to get a 15 rating.’” So, Apocalypse Never.
Keith Vaz tabled another EDM late last year after the release of Modern Warfare 3, which prompted an excellent amendment from Tom Watson that ended: “whilst the content of videogames may be unsettling or upsetting to some, adults should be free to choose their own entertainment in the absence of legal issues or material which raises a risk of harm”. But the spectre looms now of adults who want adult entertainment having effectively to sign a formal register declaring their interest in it. It’s for the sake of the putative children, again, that some are now calling for Internet service providers to install ‘filters’ so that children might be ‘protected’ from evil things online. This will compel all adults who don’t want to trust someone else to decide what they can’t see to check an ‘opt-in’ box that implicitly declares to a private corporation, ‘Yes, I watch porn and gamble a lot’, even if you don’t.
As I write, Max Payne 3 (rated 18) has just been released, and offers a scabrous hope: whatever else you think about Rockstar, after all, it is one of the least self-censoring studios around. And, indeed, the writer of the New York Times’ review of Max Payne 3 hurried embarrassedly past the slo-mo gunnery and instead lavished praise on the environment and the writing. One of the best things about the game, he said, was that your attackers’ threats and insults are all in extremely and authentically ‘obscene’ Portuguese. Excellent. And it doesn’t show up with a big red ‘EXPLICIT’ tag in your PlayStation.
Adults should stand up for art that pushes the boundaries of ‘taste and decency’ without being infantilised by warning labels or obligations to declare an insatiable appetite for gigaviolence or smut. It’s a battle that has long been won in literature, but seems to need to be fought all over again in the electronic era. Personally, I can’t wait for someone in a videogame to call me a cunt.
Illustration: Martin Davies