Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Great Censorship Dilemma

My, what big teeth you have!
One thing that regularly bugs me is the when a game (or other entertainment media) is censored in a way that degrades the overall experience of the selected media.  Movies do this, music on the radio does this, TV does this, and video games do it too.  For the wayward youth, censorship is a real bummer.  It's a road block to everything those boring adults don't want them to see.  But with some entertainment, the content loses something when it gets edited.  Various companies are making inroads into bridging the gap, but at what cost?  How far is too far?  Should the entertainment industries be playing parent?

Censoring violent content is nothing new in video games.  Back in 1993, when the first Mortal Kombat was released in arcades, there was quite the furor over the realism in-game.  When MK1 came to the home consoles, Nintendo forced a palette swap, turning blood into sweat.  This was irreversible, and there were some in the gaming community that felt like this diluted the experience.  I mean, come on.  When you're playing Mortal Kombat, you're playing it because of how over the top and ridiculous some aspects of the game really are.  Even now, I feel that the fatalities in MK9 are far more grotesque than the fatalities in MK1.  Jon Stewart touched on that in the video I embedded in my violent video game rant.  Sonya might need some ice, I dunno...

Don't look at me, I'm just thinking of the children...
Not only that, but look at games like MadWorld on the Wii.  This game has tons of blood, even more foul language, and even lewder caricatures of ethnic cultures.  What if, when you slice up a guy, rainbows shot out instead of blood?  It would seem more comical that grotesque, but it would also dilute the experience intended.  With any narrative, story, novel, or movie, the director and/or author has a specific vision in mind.  What if Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment omitted the two chapters in which Raskolnikov murdered the pawnbroker?  C&P would be about a regular beggar slowly going insane.  The reader would lose the connection to Raskolnikov's gritty decent into madness.  The book simply would not be the same.  What if The Passion of the Christ removed the flogging, and just showed Jesus dying on the cross after being condemned?  It would lose a very important part of the movie.  Not to mention such an omission would dilute the historical accuracy, but that's another story.  That said, both examples are definitely not elementary school material, but they necessitate grisly bits of information to establish a connection to the reader/viewer.
You gotta be &#$%ing kidding me...

In video games, we're starting to see a lot more of this type of thing.  In Gears of War 3, which just came out a few weeks ago, foul language is replaced by radio static.  This is an insanely good step in the right direction.  Even in the first Gears game, you could turn off the "giblets," having enemies turn into hunks of meat when they died.  What a lot of people don't realize, and I didn't until reading about it on kotaku, is that including dialogue and visual censors requires more resources both during gameplay and stored on the disc.  For audio editing, game developers have to record the same audio track twice.  This can mean doubling the space allocated for dialogue, depending on the level of four letter words in the narrative.  These two audio tracks need to be buffered at the same time, and the computer/console needs to check if one of these parental control flags is enabled.  From a technological standpoint, this usually means cutting back on texture detail, shortening the game, and reallocating resources that could be used elsewhere.  A particular scene might have to be completely reworked to accommodate the changes necessary.  When it comes to artistic vision, sometimes that can destroy a work outright.

Personally, I take the artistic vision approach.  If you're not into that sort of entertainment, don't consume it.  But why should your personal convictions supersede my own?  If you are going to do that, where can I insert my personal convictions into your life?  It's only fair, if you ask me.  This also falls into the "who's the real parent?" argument, too.  For as often as I hear the term "nanny state" being thrown around like an epithet, you'd think there would be less calls for regulation.  Where are parents when the child buys a violent game? No retailer I can think of would sell and M-rated game to a kid, at least not officially.

It's very easy to point fingers and play the blame game when someone gets a hold of something that they shouldn't.  Parents get bent out of shape, Someone calls their senator, and I'm having flashbacks to when Dan Rather had to talk about the stuff on the evening news.  So what has the industry done about it? As it turns out, plenty.  Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all have parental controls on their latest consoles.  PC add-on platforms like xFire and Raptr track hours logged on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even all time basis.  Many online games offer parental controls to restrict access to specific times of the day, or restrict the total hours per day/week/month.  Not only that, but the gaming industry, as a whole, monitors itself and assigns ratings to every game published.  It's been this way since the mid-90's, and the ESRB has taken steps very similar to what the MPAA did decades ago.  Back then, such a task required a major group effort: getting all the studios on board, chastising theaters that did not honor the self-imposed regulations, and getting parents aware of the ratings.  In the end, it was a smashing success.  Parents were able to gain an understanding of what content was placed in movies.  And now, a parent can place strict ratings regulations on the content their children are exposed to.

The ESRB does this, and even takes it a step further.  They released a free ratings search app on the iTunes and Android app markets.  With this little piece of work, anyone can see, at length, any remotely objectionable material that they might encounter in-game.  coarse dialogue, references to illicit substances, types and levels of violence, and even a brief synopsis of the game's plot.  The ESRB has been doing this for every game it rated since July 2008.  There's already a significant library to work with, and every new game gets the same level of scrutiny.  I've included QR codes to download these apps below:

qrcode                   qrcode
ESRB Ratings Search App (iPhone)                            ESRB Ratings Search App (Android)
While working at GameStop, I work with quite a few parent/child groups that come in, where the kid wants a Call of Duty game and the parent wants nothing to do with it.  Now, I've been playing Mortal Kombat since I was in 3rd grade, so I can sympathize with the tykes.  I don't blame 'em for wanting to experience all the gore in its hideous beauty.  But at the same time, I remember when the Child's Play movie scared me s***less.  There really does need to be a balance in this sort of stuff.  And honestly, I can tell when a kid is mature enough to handle the mature games.  I'll let the parent know what they should expect. I'll give them the run-down.  If there's an extensive rating detail on the esrb app, I'll pull it up on my phone and let the parent read it.  Parents cannot shield their kids forever, and they shouldn't expect to be able to do so.  But there's gotta be something to be said about keeping censorship to a minimum.

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