GDC 2009: The new face of game censorship

Free-speech lawyer says political correctness is the new enemy of the game industry, implores publishers to become more proactive about stifled expression.

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SAN FRANCISCO--When it comes to restrictive legislation, the gaming industry has had some significant wins. Antigaming laws passed by states such as California, Minnesota, Illinois, and Louisiana have all been deemed unconstitutional and eventually abandoned. And while other states such as New York and Utah continue down the same path, it seems the game industry has history (and more importantly, legal precedent) on its side. But Lawrence Walters--an attorney from free-speech and constitutional-rights specialist firm Weston, Garrou, Walters, and Mooney--says that while the industry may have the upper hand against its critics from the "family values" right, there's a new enemy that could further ignite the game censorship debate.

The thought police could be just around the corner.
The thought police could be just around the corner.

Walters--in his 2009 Game Developers Conference session titled "Silencing The Censors"--identified political correctness as the new battleground on which critics of games will base their future censorship arguments. Walters said the industry should take this new threat as seriously as those who have called for the prohibition of games due to violence, sex, or drug use during the past decade.

"We are in a culture war here," Walters said. "Like it or not, the video game industry is on the frontline of a war between the family values groups on one hand and the civil libertarians on the other hand. We didn't ask for this--we're just trying to entertain people with a product the public seem to want."

"Just when the decency police and moral values group have been all but defeated in the courts--both of law and public opinion--a new threat has emerged from our left flank: political correctness," he continued. "The leftist thought police are now wanting to impose their view of propriety on modern cultural discourse. We're now seeing objections to racial slurs and sexist video game content that feminists and minority groups take offense to. Now without taking a position on the propriety on that content in modern video games, this trend is just as damaging to free expression rights."

Walters pointed out legislation pending in New York that aims to prohibit sales to minors of games that have various degrees of profanity, racist stereotypes, derogatory language, and/or actions toward a specific group of persons as setting a dangerous precedent.

"Think about that for a minute. Would we ever in a million years tolerate the government passing a law that movies cannot have profanity, racial jokes, or derogatory language? That would eliminate practically every movie made," he said.

"Now we can debate all day long whether racist stereotypes or derogatory language is even appropriate in video games, but that's for us to debate, and not for the government to decide," Walters said. "If this law passes, I think it will open the door for some very dangerous forms of thought control the likes of which we haven't seen in this country."

Walters says the best way for the game industry to combat its opponents is by becoming more proactive and not just by responding to laws that have already been passed.

"It needs to reveal its enemies for who they are--radicals on the left and on the right--and marginalize them. They need to speak with a cohesive and united voice on issues related to censorship and video game violence," he said.

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