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Persuasive Games: Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan

October 4, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[In his latest regular Gamasutra column, game designer and writer Ian Bogost uses the Medal of Honor censorship controversy as a lens to focus light on the issue of whether the game industry -- soon to defend its rights in the Supreme Court -- truly exercises the free speech it may soon lose.]

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from the State of California, as the latter attempts to prohibit the sale of certain games to minors. The issue has remained a nail-biter for the industry and its advocates, who see the proposal as an attack on the First Amendment rights of game makers.

Despite its importance to American life, many citizens misunderstand the First Amendment. It is not meant as an anything-goes license to say whatever you want in any context without consequence. Rather, it is meant primarily to protect citizens from government reprisals if the former wish to mount criticisms or advance unpopular ideas against the latter.

Unpopular ideas, it should be noted, have often been central to American civic reform. Many of the issues we now take for granted, both as rights won and as formative moments in our political history, have been made possible by citizens' unfettered rights to unpopular political speech.

This tradition continues today all across the political spectrum, as debates about issues like gay marriage and health care clearly reveal.

Commercial speech is subject to slightly more limited freedom, although the history of free speech legislation in the U.S. has often included debates about such a distinction. In this regard, it's worth pondering how well video games have pursued the social and political speech the First Amendment exists to protect.

As November's Supreme Court date approaches, there is perhaps no more ironic example of video game speech gone awry than Electronic Arts's decision to cave to public pressure and remove the Taliban from its forthcoming edition of Medal of Honor.

The game has courted controversy for months now. In a departure from its heritage as a game glorifying World War II era combat, the latest edition of the long-running series takes up the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Purportedly developed in consultation with U.S. Tier 1 Special Operations Forces, the game promises that players "will step into the boots of these warriors and apply their unique skill sets to a new enemy in the most unforgiving and hostile battlefield conditions of present day Afghanistan."

It's a promising idea for a video game. After all, warfare has changed considerably since the mid-twentieth century, and the game-playing public might benefit from an experience of modern warfare drawn from the pages of the news rather than the pages of fantasy novels.

Certainly other media have taken up this goal. The recent documentary film Restrepo, for example, chronicles a terrifying year of unforgiving impasse in Afghanistan's dangerous Korangal Valley, which is sometimes called "the deadliest place on earth" by American troops.

Like Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and David Simon & Ed Burns's Generation Kill, Restrepo eschews geopolitical context in favor of the raw experience of modern war. In fact, that's really the main point of the film: despite home-front rhetoric about the political justifications for extended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the modern soldier's experience is neither rooted in nor justified by political accomplishment. In a strange and perversely poetic inversion, it is little more than an exercise in terror -- for terrorist and for liberator alike.

For its efforts, Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. A small cultural victory, to be sure, but a poignant one too in light of the incredible pointlessness of the American occupation of the Korangal Valley. On April 14, 2010 the U.S. closed its outpost there, admitting that no military nor political progress had been made there during the four years it had been in operation.

Restrepo is hardly the most controversial of recent art about a contemporary political issue. It's tame, in fact, compared with the long history of filmic button-pushing. Movies have mostly stirred controversy through depictions of sex and perversion (a subject about which video games haven't gotten to first base), but war has had its share of filmic contentiousness too.

Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter, for example, won the Oscar for Best Picture despite stirring up considerable debate about the historical accuracy of its depiction of Vietcong atrocity. More recently, Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 earned public ire for its take on the Bush administration's handling of the "war on terror."

Among the latter film's controversies were accusations of commercial censorship, as Moore had accused Disney's Miramax division of refusing to distribute the film for fear of political retribution in the state of Florida, where Jeb Bush served as governor at the time. (As it happens, Disney sold Miramax this year -- for $100 million less than it spent to buy social gaming studio Playdom.)

Despite ruffling feathers, these two films serve as relatively modest specimens of art made to spur public debate in the ways the First Amendment is supposed to facilitate. They represent resolve and intention on the part of their creators, who hoped to advance potentially unpopular positions as a matter of speech, not just as a matter of marketing. And as works made for private gain, they advocate for the amalgamation of public and commercial speech, for they draw the public interest out of the accident of industrial production and distribution.


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