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The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet
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The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet

November 25, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[After Barack Obama's U.S. election victory, does his brave new world means we never have to worry about game censorship again? IGDA co-founder and designer Ernest Adams looks at what his administration might mean for games and 'moral panic'.]

The American election is finally over, and a new era has begun in American politics. The Republicans, who so arrogantly talked of establishing a "permanent majority" in Congress only four years ago, have been reduced to a distinct minority.

Their party is in disarray, and a significant number of them, mostly the moderate intelligentsia such as General Colin Powell, jumped ship to endorse Barack Obama. So what does it mean for video games?

I grew up in the era of the space race and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, when science, the arts, and education generally were respected. Engineers were not derided as nerds; they were the heroes who were taking us to the moon and bringing us the wonders of solid-state electronics.

Gradually, however, that faded. We got to the moon and then punted. In the 1970s, Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, and soaring inflation drove it all from the public mind.

People got fed up and elected a populist faux-cowboy, Ronald Reagan, who knew little about science and cared even less. Reagan moved his party sharply to the right and gave socially conservative evangelical Christians a major role to play -- some of whom were actively hostile to science.

At the same time, video games appeared and were a roaring success. There was bound to be trouble. This new form of entertainment, which apparently turned children into twitching zombies, scared the life out of a lot of folks. The moral panic began in the early '80s, and we began to hear the first calls for censorship.

I got into the game industry in 1989. Five years later, with the help of Dave Walker and a number of other good folks, I founded the International Game Developers' Association (then called the Computer Game Developers' Association). We did it partly as a reaction to Congressional investigations into video games.

Congress was in full freak-out mode over Mortal Kombat. With its extreme violence and gory, sadistic "finishing moves," MK dialed public anxiety about games up to stratospheric levels -- possibly even higher than Grand Theft Auto has more recently. Our creative freedom was under attack.

The IGDA was established to give a voice to the individual game developer, to fight our corner against censorship. Personally, I don't care for Mortal Kombat and I don't care for Grand Theft Auto, in spite of its obvious brilliance both technically and as satire.

But I do care very deeply for the rights of game developers to express themselves, and that is a principle that transcends the excesses of any particular title. This medium can never reach its full potential so long as we must conform to the demands of those who seek to place limits on it.

So now Obama's soon to take office. Since Ronald Reagan I've had to wait 28 years for a president who was proud of his education and didn't have to pretend to be dumber than he really was to get elected. (Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, but he never talked about it.)

I despise Know-Nothing populists. I'm delighted to see a professor of constitutional law and former editor of the Harvard Law Review in the White House.

Obama is also technically savvy, a BlackBerry user who made brilliant use of the Internet to run a game-changing campaign.

He represents just the sort of leader I like, and with solid, near-filibuster-proof backing in Congress, he can go a long way to undoing the damage that George W. Bush has done to America in the last eight years.

Obama's not a liberal by my standards (he's opposed to gun control and claims to support the death penalty), but he certainly respects the Constitution.

Unfortunately I don't think his election means that video games are now safe.


Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Comments


Chris Remo
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I don't agree that liberal politicians target video games in legislation as an easy target that curries favor with social conservatives. If such moves had that kind of bipartisan support, these laws would pass more often than they do.



That kind of legislative move is in fact one of the frustrating things about liberal politics -- the tendency to want to save people from the free market. (That same frustrating tendency exists in conservative politics when it comes to religion or related issues.) Regulation of consumer products perceived as unsafe or socially destructive tends to come more often from the left, and I don't think it has anything to do with appealing to the other side. (The third page of this piece seems to allude to this dichotomy which makes the second-page mention a little strange?)



There have certainly been conservative politicians who have supported video game legislation, but they are vastly outnumbered by their liberal counterparts. If that represents a way to gain favor with social conservatives -- who have their own laundry list of things to curtail that they probably care about a lot more than video games -- it's a pretty baffling way to do it.

Jake Romigh
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I support the kind of article to get people interested in game politics, but what I could not support is the alienation of the audience with blatant insults and political bias. (Not that I disagree with some of the opinion in this article!) It is good to see you are very passionate about the subject but articles full of bias and border on libel just don't seem professional.

Antonio Musumeci
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"but he certainly respects the Constitution."



Are you serious? He will swear an oath to defend the Constitution and he will go on to break that oath time and time again, just like Bush and Clinton and just about every other president except perhaps William Henry Harrison. Obama claimed not long ago that the Warren Court didn't go far enough in ignoring or reinterpreting the Constitution to institute economic equality and "justice." He's a supporter of the unconstitutional drug war, unconstitutional bailouts, unconstitutional make work programs, unconstitutional foreign policy, unconstitutional socialized healthcare systems, unconstitutional monetary systems, unconstitutional searches, unconstitutional restrictions on speech, unconstitutional "service" programs, etc. Please explain to me how this differs in anything but degrees from past presidents or John McCain's platform? Please explain to me how all those unconstitutional stances show respect for the document he will be swearing to uphold and defend?

E Zachary Knight
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I am glad to hear such a prominent member of the games industry speak on this issue.



I agree that there is still an air of uncertainty when it comes to games and an Obama administration. I also think that it will not be something that will garner much attention for the next few years. But the threat is still there.



Before the election, I sent a letter asking each of the candidates for federal office representing Oklahoma about their position on game and technology related issues and I received no replies. That tells me that these topics are not something on the forfront of their minds.



I would like to point out that the Video Game Voter Network is not the only consumer advocacy group available. There is also the Entertainment Consumers Association. www.theeca.com

Gregory Austin
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I agree with Jake. This article is completely unprofessional.



The insults are especially childish and read like something you would expect to come across in a random Internet forum.

Alan Youngblood
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Great article, it's nice to have a little (recent) historical perspective.



To the concerns of others in the community that worry about the bias of this article I'll give you a free lesson from my studies as a Communication Media Major: The media are biased. People are biased, people create the media, thus the media are biased. It's not rocket-science. We should strive more for balance than lack of bias, which I would say this article is pretty fair about.



The last thing I would like to say is a question: wouldn't now be a great time to be proactive and get politicians (on any side) off our backs for things they should not regulate (ie: censorship)? I say yes. I have mixed feelings about some things like GTA as well. One caveat is that the 1st amendment protects the freedom to express even if that expression is bigoted, uninformed, or well, just stupid. It should not protect those expressions to the extent where they cause harm to another person in the U.S. or express the intent to do so. That being said, I do not like things like the KKK or NeoNazis in the states, but they have every right to do everything those people might do that does not harm other people or in other ways infringe on other peoples rights.



I think the best way to go about being proactive on this issue is education of the general public. I think that game developers should get out PSA's, hold info sessions, do whatever they must to educate people on what's bad and good about our industry, and furthermore get parents to do their job. Unfortunately, there's a really low barrier to entry to parenthood and a lot of people become parents without knowing the first thing about how to do it. We should be encouraging of parents to learn about the games their children play, or play with them (That seems like a good parenting thing anyways) and let the parents be the filter, not the government. All those economic, war, and other problems are things that the Federal Gov't should deal with, not the lives of individuals. I'm not forcing a libertarian agenda here, it's just really clear that the Feds lack the ability to govern the country and work together with the world if we let them run our personal lives.

Mark Harris
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Did I mistakenly link to the NY Times editorial page?



I was hoping for an informed article about the current game legislation landscape, but all I found was a blatantly biased rant. This was a total waste of time. There is no new information regarding game legislation initiatives, status or results of pending cases/legislation, etc.



Ernest, I respect you and your views on the industry, but this was just ugly.

Mark Androvich
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I expected a well-reasoned, thought-provoking commentary from Gamasutra. What I got was a childish political rant that had more to do with insulting people who disagree with the writer's liberal political views than with the issue of game censorship.



Obama's not a liberal? There is no "left wing" in the US by European standards? Bush left us in shambles? How is this relevant to the issue of game censorship?



The fact is, the most prominent critics of videogames have long been Democrats. The most recent anti-game legislation in California, where I reside, was introduced by a Democrat. Instead of discussing how misguided these proposals are, and how the game industry should react to them, Adams tries to explain the political motives (triangulation) of Democrats rather than taking Leland Yee, Clinton and Lieberman to task, and then suggests a "wait-and-see" approach to the president-elect he so obviously admires. So, basically, after three pages of insults against conservatives, he reaches no conclusion.



I expected more from Gamasutra. This "editorial" is more appropriate for a political blog than a respected news site.

michael franchina
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Antonio i couldnt have said it better myself.

Tom Newman
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I often email my national and state representatives letting them know I am an adult gamer who wants my righs protected.



I say it like this: When I was a child, I watched Disney movies, read Dr.Seuss, and played kid's games. When I was a teenager I watched adventure films, read sci-fi, played Dungeons and Dragons, and many "family" friendly videogames. As an adult, I watch R-rated crime/horror films, read contemporary "adult" fiction, and play "Mature" videogames.



When GTAIV came out, I forget exactly what Obama said, but he basically said that there are games for kids and games for adults and parents need to be responsible enough to differentiate - which is what WE have been saying all along.

Anthony Charles
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Much of the criticism of this editorial is warranted, but there is a great deal of merit in the author's main thesis. Many young semi-informed people have been blinded by Obama's hype. His campaign's platform was very centrist, and alot of the ideals his supporters advocate (withdrawal from Iraq, gay marriage, etc.) are not shared by the president elect. These same people would assume with a knee jerk that Obama possesses a progressive view on electronic gaming. As the author points out, his position on the medium has not been fleshed out. Based on the the socially conservative positions he espoused during the campaign, it cannot be assumed that he would be "good" for the industry. The length the article goes in educating the site's readership on this truth justifies its posting.



But, like the other commentors, I was put off by the blatant and abbrasive bias. Also, he didn't need to spend paragraphs summarizing any moderately informed person already knew.

Bart Stewart
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Nothing new here. Ernest once screamed at me nearly 20 years ago (in the GAMDEV forum on the old CompuServe) for being a libertarian (which I'm not), as that was insufficiently radical for him.



So he's certainly consistent.



More seriously, his political beliefs are shared by many game developers and, IMO, by the Gamasutra editorial staff (though perhaps to a less virulent degree). Given the results of the recent elections, we might even conclude that most Americans today hold similar political beliefs.



Accordingly, Ernest's views on the intersection of political action and computer game development are worth seeing in print. Like them or not, his comments are an accurate reflection of the attitudes of many in the game development industry. Thus they're a useful barometer for how the game industry as a whole is likely to behave toward elected officials who say anything about computer games, as well as to actual policy-makers.



If some game developers feel that such a one-sided and abusive approach to political engagement is not in their industry's best interests, then that raises a simple question: what are you going to do about it?

Bryan Suchenski
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I, too, was surprised by the political bent of the article, but to be honest, I'm much more annoyed by false objectivity than I am by opinions. The article elaborates on political points more than needed to get across its basic point, but by doing so the author is putting his bias out there, instead of hiding behind an artificial air of detachment.



It made for an interesting read, and isn't that why you're all here in the first place?

Sean Parton
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There are a lot of assumptions and biases in this article, but I don't think it was such a disservice of Gamasutra to post this. There still is a fair bit of insight in this article that I wasn't previously aware of, being from a different country, and, admittedly, not very active in politics.



That said, despite it's length, this may have better been labeled as a "opinion" article, as it seems more in line with opinion than accepted fact.

Maurício Gomes
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In fact I like the article, and no part of it was useless, you all are forgetting that the world is not the US, the world do not need to know who are republicans and who are democrats, and his explanation is good, and also his viewpoint is shared by many people that I know in various parts of the world, specially the more caustic opinion toward Sarah Palin (in a local magazine they made the following in the cover: Sarah Palin using a american flag bikini while wielding her gun, no montage here, this photo exists, then the headline is written: "The America", a viewpoint that many share with that magazine)



So stop bashing that guy like that, to me he is completly right even in his way to write, but I am not saying that you stop bashing him because I agree with him, but because he bashing (with arguments) someone else is not wrong.



And Gamasutra is owned by a private company, they can publish whatever they want.

Mike Lopez
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All political bickering aside (and my party is way better than yours is bickering), I agree with Alan Youngblood's comment above that the key to main stream acceptance lies in education. In fact I believe it is the responsibility of our industry to educate the masses and as an industry we have done a piss poor job of doing so thus far.



Whenever I get baited into debates on video game violence most adults are surprised when I tell them cartoons were once boycotted and attacked by parents and politicians worried kids might opt to drop anvils on each others heads. 100% of the morally indignant debaters are surprised when I tell them the average game player is in his mid-30s.



The industry has a responsibility to educate the masses about the attempted censorship of other new media mediums from history (cartoons, movies, books, etc.) and about the reality of the modern game player demographics. For us to expect parents and politicians to figure it out on their own is a sure fire recipe for another decade or more of hassles.

Mike Lopez
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I meant to say the average male or female gamer is in their mid-30s but that brings up another point that gender is another perception bias we need to overcome with education. Certainly the success of the Wii is changing the demographics towards truly mainstream and the industry needs to communicate the current status and trends of demographics to the masses.

Anton Maslennikov
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I was also quite surprised at the political bends in the article, not so much because they were there but because they were not sugar coated and edited for relivance. There are some good points in the article here, but I had to wade through a lot of fluff to get to them.



I wanted to mention the lectures by Lawrence G. Walters at GDC 07 & 08 as a great resource for anyone interested in a more professional discussion on this subject.

David Tarris
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Wow, truly, an article full of nothing but infantile political commentary couldn't be further from what I want to see when I come to a site like Gamasutra. Though I've come to expect this sort of grandiose didacticism from the self-appointed "guru of games", I would have expected better from Gamasutra than to run politically charged rhetoric on their site. Last I checked, this site was all about bringing together game developers to further the art, not driving them apart with petty politics.

Gregory Austin
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Helder:



If you do a google search on it, you'll find out that the photo you refer to is a fake.

Bill Redd
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WTF? Wow... Extremely inappropriate for this site. If some of this rant was against Obama or liberals I doubt they would have run with it. Or it would be attacked as racist or hate speech. I thought we could all move on from this trash.



Up until 2 minutes ago I really respected and admired Ernest Adams. Crap, I've bought every book he ever wrote! Dude, you won chill out now! Cheez...

Robert Zamber
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Where is this: "blatant and abrasive bias"? Are some of you people on crack? In case some of you are, and or missed it: 99% of the old boys network (republicans)..... ARE FUCKING RETARDS!



retard

verb |riˈtärd| [ trans. ]

delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment.



By the very definition: Regan, GWB Sr, and jr, John McBush, Sara P, D. Rumsfield, D Cheney, the whole fucking crew.... ARE RETARDS!



Not out of "bias": but because they have had the ball long enough, on their side of the court, and couldn't do nothing with it! Not because they are republicans either; but simply because they have NOT, as an intelligent species, cultivated the capacities of their intellect like many Americans, rendering themselves... well... retarded. They are simply not fit to lead a nation: let alone the "one" that has promised equality to all of whom inhabit it, and till this day, has not lived up to its promise. esp in the realms of healthcare, economics, and education.



What could be more beneficial, and important to nation, than a healthy, informed, and educated society that use their creative capacities to create wealth? Why do conservatives have such a negative disposition towards extending health and education to all americans? Are you retarded? What good is a nation of stupid sick people who cant play games or even understand the medium for that matter? In addition to this: if people are spending all his/her money on health care and education, its less money they have to spend in our industry, and nurture others like it. Education and health are essential to life in any society. With out these, its like planting a garden in a desert with no sun.



Obama is quite the opposite: he is hip, intelligent, educated, cool, diplomatic, and unexpectedly, tech-savvy. FINALLY, some-one, who has the intellectual capacity, to at least, understand our very complex and misunderstood industry.

Elliot Rock
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I enjoyed the article.



I am not from the US so I don't have any US patriotism and like to see articles that rip to shreds any notion of a democracy, free, healthy US.



Obama is just another figure head of a country that loves dropping bombs and killing children. Democrats just have better PR about it. Must admit the Brand Terrorism was done exceptional well by President Cheney.



As to the state of video game censorship in US, I think the reality of games being canned in market panic does a better job of stopping games even getting to the censors.



We need opinionated voices in the industry, well Obama make a difference? I hope so but I don't think so!

Liz Canacari-Rose
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Any bias aside, the points were made pretty clear to me and a history of how we got here was pretty laid out as well. We don't know exactly where Obama stands on the issue of games, but he's got more pressing issues at the moment.



It's when he feels satisfied with the other issues that we will see his view on games. If he focuses more on parental obligations of watching what their children come into contact with, then the scalding focus won't be on us as an industry. However, providing more education to the masses would certainly help. Maybe updating the ESRB slightly with color coding could help out in this education, we all know the difference between regular theater trailers and "red band" trailers right? It could be as easy as that. Something to draw the parent's eye, either that or we have to build attention grabbing gut-punches and face-slappers into box art...



My two cents on the timing of this article and any perceived bias it contains: I think the election is still too fresh. Like salt in an open wound for some, depending on the perception reader.



Ernest, Thank you for another unique outlook on the political state of the game industry. :)



~Liz-C

Chris Chiu
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Not being an american, I think this article is great and depicts truth pretty well.



I think americans are "too close" to the subject matter to make any rational comment on this article. Sometimes things are more rational when seen from a few steps away.

Phil OConnor
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Just out of curiosity, do you get paid a fee to express your political opinions Ernie?

Gregory Austin
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Chris Chiu:



I think Helder's example of the magazine running cover articles based on false information suggests that other nations aren't always getting accurate facts.



We may be emotionally involved, but we're more likely to be familiar with all the facts, rather than just sensationalist headlines.



Either way, I'm objecting to the name-calling. Attacking someone's positions or associations is perfectly fine. Attacking their mental capacity or integrity (without concrete proof) is completely a different matter.



I reacted exactly the same way to an article claiming that Obama is a terrorist with a Messiah Complex (which I've had the displeasure of seeing before).

Anthony Charles
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Zamber, you must be a troll.



My definition of retard: "someone who cites the definition of a word in its verb form when trying to explain its use as a noun or adjective."



Also, despite your trust in Obama as a president, apparently derived from how "hip and cool" he is, it is debatable that he will be good for the industry.

Maurício Gomes
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Again: I did not bought the magazine, so I do not know what was written inside, but the headlines are something that we believe here... Why? Well, because the USA meddled in our affairs for 30 years and is a rarity to see a person that is more than 30 years old and do not has a single missing friend that probably is now in the botton of the ocean, probably below where the USS Forrestal once sailed, when we see you united states people (remember, I am american too, Brazil is in America), fighting each other just because someone critiziced each other right wing party (as the article said, both parties are right wing) we think that this is just stupid, this is how you do not notice that outside your country, while you think that claiming that you president is a terrorist is horrible, while you think that recession is horrible, people die of thousands because of your country.



Just to know what I am talking about:

http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB118/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Brazilian_coup_d'état

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Condor



Now read that, and before critizicing harshly someone because what they said about your party, remember that your party (both for those wondering) is perceived elsewhere as utterly evil.



Btw: Various surveys happened about what the world wanted as US President (before his election for those wondering that the data is biased to please the current guy), the result was more or less in overall that 85% of the people wanted Obama as president, specially because talks of McCain and Sarah when they support things like the links that I posted above.

Aaron Lutz
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I don't necessarily like to get involved in political arguments, generally. And while I could defend Mr. Adams article against the equally balanced opinions of the commenters, I do have this to say. The Designer's Notebook is Ernest Adams long list of opinion articles. Everything from Bad Game Designer, No Twinkies to his various articles on the state of gaming, game design, and where the industry is as a whole, they are all his opinions. Every man and woman is entitled to their opinions. As such, attacking Mr. Adams for his opinions, or Gamasutra for posting his opinions, is unnecessary and rude, to be blunt. If you don't agree, try to present your opinion clearly and unbiased (good luck - everything anyone says is biased one way or another), or shut the hell up. Flaming, trolling, name-calling... this isn't the right place for those. Go post on your blog if you want to do that.



That said, thanks to those above who did have something intelligent and relevant to say on the topic add hand. Your valued input and commentary is what lends credit to this website. Regardless of whether or not you agreed with Mr. Adams opinion, thanks for the contribution.

Aaron Lutz
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Er, that was supposed to be "biased" not "balanced in sentence 2... and "at hand" instead of "add hand"... sheesh.

Bob Smithson
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I don't have a problem with the author spouting his opinions in his article. I also agree with the commenter who prefers honest opinion to false objectivity. However, the downside for the author is that those who disagree with his interpretations of people and events--and in fact find them laughable--will necessarily disagree with the conclusions that he draws from them. The ironic thing is that in this case, what he ultimately has to say doesn't have anything to do with his Abbie Hoffman routine at the beginning. He could have dispensed with his first two pages of vaudeville buskery, said what very little he actually has to say, and then shut up. But then people whose head size exceeds their understanding rarely display that kind of forebearance.

Bob Smithson
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P.S. Mr. Zamber, the appropriate nominative definition of "retard" in my book is "one who assumes that leftism, or the goals of leftism, represent progress, development and accomplishment."

Shane Whelan
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http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mi
nd.html

Mike Lopez
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Apparently one of Obama's media advisers is a WoW player so hopefully that will bode well for our industry and keep the censorship Nazis at bay.



http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3522252/B
arack-Obama-adviser-is-Warcraft-gamer.html

Dave Mark
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Censorship of video games won't matter when the liberal tax policy on corporations and small businesses shuts down studios left and right. Our industry has enough problems keeping studios afloat without having what's left of their profits skimmed off.



Very poor column, Ernest. No Twinkee.

Ernest Adams
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Yup, it's biased all right. I never gave the pro-censorship position a fair hearing. :)



Funny, nobody seems to be complaining about that bias, though. I guess bias is only bad when you disagree with it.



I'm an essayist, not a reporter. The Designer's Notebook is a feature column, not news. Your local journalism school can explain the difference to you.



If you want news, go watch Fox. I understand that it's Fair and Balanced™.

Robert Zamber
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Why do people assume you are a liberal, just for recognizing simple facts? People have good reason to feel they way they do about the republican party. Their actions have been nothing short of EVIL! They created a war to profit... and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been MURDERED! MURDERED! This is not biased, this is a result of their policies and actions while in control of capitol hill. Obama has not even taken office yet... what the fuck are you PUSSIES so scared of! What the fuck could be worse than what has already happened? Your worried about a "liberal lefty" raising taxes for rich people: without acknowledging what has already been done by a party of vampires who have sucked the economic life out of the world!!!? "TRICKLE DOWN" DOES NOT WORK! Its not an economic plan... its a fucking THEORY! A THEORY... not a plan. Put into practice by fucking "Drug-Lord, vampire, Regan. These people are not heroes... their the fucking villains!



You know what... fuck this... this is pointless... most of you are fucking brained washed. Go back to developing another piece of shit GTA.

Robert Zamber
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And one more thing: maybe if some of you developed some products with integrity-- this would not be such an issue. When games like GTA and others like it are made... marketing knows exactly what its doing! They are not trying to achieve "artistic expression": their exploiting young people, who don't know any better, selling them crap, to make a billion dollars. And some of you are scared because you may be challenged to do something better!

Tawna Evans
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Support for Obama's policies and believing he will accomplish them is an opinion. Calling Sarah Palin stupid is also an opinion, and it is probably unneccessary for this site. Claiming that democrats have been actively creating video game regulation laws (that have failed in the courts) is fact. This one fact is the most important thing mentioned in this article, and is good reason to be on guard about the possibility of more video game regulation, now that a Democrat is President.

Brandon Van Every
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Gosh I've read all the comments so far. A serious request for Gamasutra's consideration: could we have a "Report to Moderator" button when people start swearing? I don't personally care about the foul language, but it is a sign of unprofessionalism and that the train is wrecking. Although, I suppose we could leave each person to crucify their own reputations in their own way. Sometimes I think we risk it even by responding; perhaps some mud troughs are better avoided.



I've realized what the article reminds me of. All the election hoopla, hinging on every move of every candidate! Like lapel pins, wardrobes, and that sort of thing. The media doesn't really know what's going on, so it manufactures air space for us to consume, lest it lose relevance. Ernest is guilty of this. I believe he did it, however, in the service of an important principle. That we shouldn't go to sleep on these issues just because the world probably has bigger fish to fry right now. You never know when politicians will get frustrated trying to deal with banks and jobs, and turn their energy to easier targets, like video games and cigarettes.


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