Friday, October 12, 2012

Violence, sex and censorship in media

Most countries have censorship to protect their youth in one form or the other. Most likely young adults find their access to some products of the entertaintment industry somewhat limited because age restrictions have been put in effect, preventing them from entering the cinema or buying something controversial. As a rule of thumb, America censores for sex, and Europe censores for violence. You can shoot someone to bloody pieces in the US and still get it at age 13, but let one character say "fuck" at some point, and the game's rated "R" with a warning label (I'm exaggerating). In Europe, it's the other way around. You may swear and hint at sex (or be rather specific about it), but show a drop of blood, and the game is off the shelves (exaggerating again). Now, in Germany, everything is done just a littlebit more thorough. This does not only include fighting wars or controlling speed limits, but also the censorship to protect the youth. Since censorship had something of a bad taste after World War II (the Nazis and all), the government tried not to make any laws and to let the industry sort it out themselves. That worked pretty well, since they founded their own organisations, much like the American Comic Code Authority. The FSK and USK (Voluntary/Independent Self Control, respectively) test games and movies and rate them for audiences, and everyone needs to comply with that. 

For example, this logo tells you that only adults may buy the stuff in question. Comes in red, for better recognition.

Now, as I understand it, the other countries have basically the same things, like the "R" rating in the USA. As I mentioned, we're a littlebit more thorough. What if there is a game so vile and violent that a child could be severely damaged just be spotting the box in the electronic market? Don't laugh now, that premise is policy in Germany for decades now. In that case, you have an agency in place, the "Federal Inspecting Authority For Media Liable To Corrupt The Young" (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien). They can put a game on the index, and a game on the index may not be advertised, at all. That includes just selling it where youths can see it. Now, if you don't want to seperate a part of your store (and who wants that, it costs money), you can't sell the game, which equals a near ban for the product in question. In the humble beginnings of the video game market, this fate hit nearly all 3D-Shooters. Quake and Doom were both indexed, for example, as was Duke Nukem 3D, and Castle Wolfenstein was found so dangerous that all copies are confiscated until this day. 

Because even today, images like these are a real danger to democracy.
As a completely unrelated sidenote, did you know that the protagonist of Castle Wolfenstein is the grandfather of Commander Keen? - Anyway, since the publishers didn't want to lose the German market with its millions of customers entirely, they needed to do something about it. What they did was to reduce violence in the games to make them suitable for the German censors. This did by far not only extend to 3D shooters. As an example, Command&Conquer was altered so that you didn't fight humans anymore - they rewrote the whole game to the point where all fighting was done by Cyborgs. They changed dialogue, graphics and sounds. Yeah, for Command&Conquer. Only then did it get a clearance for folks age 16 and up to be purchased. In Half-Life, all soldiers were similarily exchanged for robots; humans dying (like the scientists) did sit on the floor and shake their head sadly before disappearing, a feature that even included Counter-Strike. 

Never met that guy before? Then you didn`t play the German version.

After this rather long introduction in the German video game market I'm finally getting to the point. Why is this such a big problem? You can't argue for ridiculous violence, can you? And isn't the protection of the young a noble and important goal? Oh yes, it is. The problem starts where I, as an adult, am not able to purchase a game that is perfectly legal because the laws effectively prevent anyone from selling it. When I go on Steam, I can only buy violence reduced versions of the game. Since a retailer must make 100% sure that I am older than 18 before selling me the original version, which is a rather high bar if you are working in the mail order business, there is no real market for these. But reducing the violence often alters the game experience to a point where the game itself becomes undesirable. It's not because I'm a lunatic who thrives on mindless gore. I'd never play Postal, for example. But how can you play a game like Bulletstorm when there is no blood and body dismemberment? What significance does war bear anymore if you fight it with cyborgs? The storytelling collapses in itself with such reductions, because violence is not used as a means for selling copies - not exclusively, at least. Oftentimes its needed to advance the story. Can you imagine Liam Neeson in "Taken" with a violence reduced version? 

You can't be badass without breaking some eggs and bones.
Such censoring diminishes the artistic worth of a product. Granted, a good deal of these products doesn't have much artistic value to begin with, but if I play something like "Max Payne" and have the violence reduced, there simply is no point to the experience anymore. When I watch "Starship Troopers" without the violence, the message of the movie starts to fade. Ironically, as it is so often the case with censorship, some unintended effects reverse the intention. Take Command&Conquer again, for example. In the attempt to make the game suitable for younger audiences by reducing the human aspect from war, it becomes an emotionless experience that has no real consequences. The German backstory of the game talks of designated "battle zones" to which all participants keep and where no civilians live (the civilians in the game are defined as "Farmbots"). Not, if war has no consequences other than destroying some equipment I can easily replace, why shouldn't I wage it at all? If I assume the young audience to be easily distorted into bad world views, I have to assume that they jump to such a conclusion as well. Same goes for 3D Shooters. If there is no effect other than the enemy simply disappearing, why not shoot people? Seems to be a rather painless affair. One would wish that people thought these things through a bit better. To finally conclude the circle and assign some blame on the other side of the Great Pond, the uptight approach of the US media towards the subject of sex doesn't exactly help, neither. It's a natural thing, and your children will try it out. Doesn't hurt to give them some information and context. Just saying.

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