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Opinion: Why you should be angrier about NDAA than you were about SOPA

Opinion: Why you should be angrier about NDAA than you were about SOPA Exclusive

January 24, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield




[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield discusses the National Defense Authorization Act, which he says is far more dangerous than SOPA/PIPA ever were. This editorial was originally written for Game Developer's upcoming February issue.]

By now, everyone's aware of the U.S. House bill SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. And the related PIPA -- the Senate's PROTECT Intellectual Property Act. Internet denizens correctly rallied against these bills, which had vague, overly-broad language that would have given the U.S. Government and rights-holders the means to block certain web sites deemed to be "primarily dedicated" to copyright and trademark infringement.

These would have bypassed due process, and given the U.S. Government and giant media corporations the power to be judge, jury, and executioner over what U.S. internet users are allowed to access online.

A Greater Threat

The internet blacklist pretty much united everyone in game development against them (the ESA aside), and after a recent day of internet blackouts, voting on them has been postponed. But another, far more dangerous bill passed in late 2011 that could limit our freedom of expression in an even grander scope than SOPA/PIPA ever would.

No citizen voted for or against this law. Much like with SOPA, that opportunity was not afforded us. The article in question is the National Defense Authorization Act, and it is the greatest threat to intellectual and personal freedom in America.

NDAA is not new -- the bill has been in effect in various forms for almost 50 straight years. But the big deal is some new language that was added to Title X, Subtitle D of the bill, specifically sub-sections 1021-1022, which I encourage you to check out for yourself. (Alternately, you can read Salon.com's excellent article, “Three myths about the detention bill.”) This new language allows for a) the indefinite detention without trial of anyone, American or otherwise, who is perceived to support terrorism, and b) an expanded view of what the war on terrorism entails (which can now be continued until “the end of hostilities”).

The ability to imprison anyone without trial or appeal -- potentially indefinitely -- should make you angry enough. But before I lose my audience, let me get straight to how this relates to you. Think of a game like Counter-Strike. One team plays as the terrorists, one as the counter-terrorists. In this game, Valve allows players to take on the role of terrorists, and encourages them to win. Is this supporting terrorism? You and I understand the concepts of fiction and role play, and the power and intrigue of imagination. But does our government? Or more specifically, does the next demagogue with sagging poll numbers to prop up feel like understanding? We’ve seen how understanding lawyers and the media are when a kid goes to jail for murdering someone -- but oh, they’ve also played GTA before.

Laws have a very curious tendency of serving whomsoever has the authority to twist them, and governments worldwide have been in a mad race to remove freedoms in the name of national security. Under the new NDAA laws, Counter-Strike’s designers could absolutely be detained until such a time as the concept of “terrorism” no longer exists, which, as things are going, seems a long way off.

Here's an example from another angle. Tahadi Games has brought the Korean FPS Point Blank to the Middle East. Now, I think of the Middle East as the birthplace of much of ancient culture and religion, as well as a place where there are lots of thinking, reasoning humans like you and I. Others though, think of the Middle East as a hotbed of terrorism, and would swear up and down that giving Arabic-speaking countries access to an FPS is akin to training up a legion of terrorists. Politicians and pundits claimed that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York were aided by the perpetrators playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. So what of an FPS? If you sell your game in Arabic-speaking countries, are you at risk for detention in America? The incredibly vague law leaves that possibility wide open, should someone have played your game before committing some malicious act. And given how pervasive game playing is, wouldn’t they have, if you made a good one?

Could it happen here?

While these laws haven't yet been used to the effect described, they could, and that should definitely scare you. Former U.S. Marine Amir Mizra Hekmati was recently sentenced to death in Iran for aiding in the development of Kuma\War, which lets players engage in “real life” scenarios, both from the news and from potential military actions, including an episode titled “Assault on Iran.” The Iranian government says Kuma\War was funded by the CIA to help "manipulate public opinion in the Middle East," and promote pro-U.S. sentiment. Hekmati’s sentence has not been carried out yet, but Iran is pushing forward. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, says that "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."

And that is precisely the power that NDAA’s new language grants our own government. What if Hekmati had worked on a game like Kuma\War that showed what might happen if Iranian forces landed on U.S. shores? We could legally give him nearly the same treatment we're now decrying.

How many of our games allow players to see war from both sides, even if briefly? Quite a few, really. And while President Obama says that he definitely won't use this against Americans, even though he could, who's to say situations won't change? And even if he doesn't, what if the next president in line does?

If an official’s word alone were good enough to protect us, there wouldn’t be a need for laws in the first place. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to this now, as laws are being introduced, before it’s too late to get angry -- because it’s already been done.

It may seem like this couldn never happen to you, and that even if it did, someone would surely come to your aid, or raise a red flag. But that’s why this is so insidious: how will you prove that an injustice has been done when there is no possibility of trial or appeal? Even the McCarthy trials, though ridiculous and dangerous, were actual trials.

Freedom To Develop

As of 2011, video games are protected as free speech, but that only goes so far as the letter of the law, as SOPA, PIPA, and NDAA prove. When laws are so open ended, an official with an agenda could cause serious damage to our industry, and to America at large. With the outcry against SOPA and PIPA, we could be on our way to winning back the freedom of the internet—now let’s fight for our freedom of expression and humanity.

If we want to make games that address complex issues like war and military occupation, we need to fix NDAA. I urge you to write to your representatives, or do whatever else you can to fight it. The blackouts worked – we represent a large percentage of the technology mindshare of America, and that grants us a lot more power than we sometimes realize. Remember though; even if we fix NDAA and kill SOPA/PIPA, we only get back to square one. There's lots more work to be done to support our industry and our society's freedoms. But if we don't fix these problematic laws, we all lose. Every one of us.

(Thanks to Will Bunnett and Kris Graft for their contributions and consultation.)


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