Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Voluntary Game Labeling vs. Government Control 2

For me the most interesting aspect of the content control question is how the tension between expressive liberty and child safety is addressed in different places. Western nations are pretty similar in that they all consider both of these things to be desirable. We all want to be free to express our beliefs, whether political, artistic, or religious. And we all want our children to be able to grow up safe from harm.

But having acknowledged these similarities, there are also significant differences not only in how we define some of these terms but in the legal traditions and rules we apply to them. And I suspect there are a lot of people who don't know about some of those differences, which leads to faulty expectations, which makes it harder to have a productive discussion.

So here are a couple of points for discussion and some questions about them.

1. A lot of Americans wrongly believe that "freedom of speech" is some kind of global right. In fact, the U.S. is one of the very few places on Earth in which a right of citizens to criticize their government -- which, I think a good argument can be made, is what "freedom of speech" is really all about -- is protected by their fundamental document of law, the U.S. Constitution. Other nations, including the United Kingdom, have no such constitutional provision protecting a right to free expression. Yes, as a practical matter Britons and others do enjoy substantial freedom of expression, but it's not a constitutionally-protected right. Public sentiment aside, there is no legal impediment to the U.K. or other governments restricting some form of expression should they choose to do so.

So Americans first need to understand that the expressive liberties they enjoy are not equally protected in other places. Arguments defending "free speech" don't apply outside the U.S. border. If the British government wants to say that a particular game's representation of sex or violence or drug use or anything is impermissible, then it can -- there's no "First Amendment" preventing that government from restricting political or artistic or religious expression on whatever basis it chooses to apply.

I think we should be free to consider the ramifications of assigning that power of censorship to government versus expecting private entities (game publishers, retailers, parents) to self-censor as in the U.S.. I'm not making any judgement here; I can see value and danger in both approaches. I'm just saying it could be an interesting and worthwhile discussion.

2. "Child safety" is indeed one of those things that's turned into a convenient tool for politicians everywhere to do whatever they want. But are they entirely wrong? It's absolutely valid to want our kids to be able to grow up physically/mentally/emotionally healthy. That's an appropriate goal for all members of a society, including those with no children of their own, which may make it an appropriate concern of our political representatives.

But to what degree? When government officials and parents disagree about how to raise a child, who should win? Either way, what precedent is set for other disagreements between government and families?

Furthermore, how the heck do we decide what things put a child's physical/mental/emotional health at risk? Does a swat on the butt scar a child for life? Some people are convinced it does; others are equally certain it doesn't. Does the artistic depiction of violence cause emotional damage to a child? Some, looking at gore-filled violence done to images of humans, are sure it does; others point out that if this were true for all such depictions, anyone who saw Wile E. Coyote repeatedly falling off a cliff when chasing the Roadrunner would be a basket case. Do violent games "desensitize" children to violence, leading them to shoot schoolmates? Or do violent games provide a useful outlet for aggression so that it's reduced in real life?

If we have so much trouble answering these questions, how can we justify using "child safety" as a reason to censor video games, whether voluntarily in the U.S. or by law elsewhere? At the same time, isn't trying to protect children from inappropriate material a responsible act?

But what's "inappropriate?" Do we need scientific, peer-reviewed proof that some game element produces measurable damage of some kind to kids before we may fairly condemn it? Or should we be free to act on the suspicion of potential damage because the cost of being wrong is so high?

Which brings us back to the question of who gets to decide. Whose responsibility is it -- whose responsibility should it be -- to determine what games children should not be allowed to see? Parents? ISPs? Teachers? Game publishers? Government ministers or unelected bureaucrats? Retailers?

No comments:

Post a Comment