Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Censor's decision on video game is pure puritanism

We live in a time when we are seeing the erosion of freedoms that were only recently won. The freedom to read and watch the things we want, whether for education, entertainment or information, is fundamental to a free society. Governments know that by controlling what we read, listen to and watch, they can more easily control our actions. This is the real reason why in so many Western nations governments established monopolistic state broadcasting organisations such as the BBC. It is also why they have always been very ready to engage in censorship.

Censorship has been used by governments since time immemorial as a tool to guard against public disorder or as a means to enforce official views of morality. In modern times censorship has waxed and waned, with the British Crown abandoning its historical licensing of the press in the late 17th Century and the newly-minted United States including press freedom in the Bill of Rights in 1789. Of course successive governments in those countries and others continued to use censorship to control what people could read in newspapers, books, magazines - and even what they could see on the stage - and censorship reached its zenith (or nadir, it you like) in the 20th Century under Fascism and Communism. Western countries also used the world wars as an excuse to introduce draconian censorship such as Woodrow Wilson's Sedition Act, which extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover speech and opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light. (Incidentally, the latter was seldom used by any government until the Obama administration, which used it on seven occasions to charge whistleblowers such as Bradley [Chelsea] Manning and Edward Snowden.)

After World War II we saw a relaxation of all forms of censorship, particularly for moral purposes. The unsuccessful prosecution of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act for the publication of Lady's Chatterley's Lover was the last use of that law to ban a mainstream work of fiction. Not that the prurient didn't still try to control what we were reading and watching, with prominent morals campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse in Britain and Patricia Bartlett in New Zealand continuing to push for much greater censorship. I remember when I was a child films such as A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris receiving very restrictive ratings from the New Zealand censors, and entertainment industry self-censoring almost any depiction of homosexual relationships or any other 'abnormal' sexual behaviour in films and on television. I can recall the first time a same-sex romantic kiss was shown on network television here and in the United States - on the TV show LA Law in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately we appear to be regressing into puritanism again. The latest example is the decision by New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to ban a Japanese video game that depicts sex with teenage girls and sexual violence. I should point out that the game is in the style of a cartoon, so it doesn't show real people being subject to anything. The censor pompously claims that "there is a strong likelihood of injury to the public good, including to adults from the trivialisation and normalisation of such behaviour". 

Really, Mr (or Ms) Censor? What do you think we are, imbeciles? Is this video really any more likely to lead to such behaviour in the real world than, say, Grand Theft Auto is likely to led to an outbreak of violent car thefts amongst nerdy college kids? Numerous recent studies (see examples herehere, here and here) have shown that the OFLC's claims are bunkum and far from causing "normalisation of such behaviour", those who play video games are actually less likely to display aggressive behaviour of any sort.

So what is the real reason for banning the game? It is that the censors (and those who lay the complaints that the censors act on) don't like the idea of people playing such games. They find the thought of it disgusting - the objectionable nature of it is entirely in their own minds. In a word, it is puritanism. H L Mencken said that puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy, and this aptly describes the attitude shown in this decision.

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