Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Orwell and the Xbox

By C.T. Hutt

I suppose it was inevitable that my personal politics would eventually dominate one of our discussions here at Press Pause to Reflect. Still, I find descending from the lofty and comfortable towers of intellectual discourse on the arts to the mire of politics to be a sobering decent indeed. A matter has come to my attention that I feel must be addressed. While I take no pleasure in this task, I feel that it would be a greater disservice to the gaming community at large were I to remain silent. Today I would like to reflect on the impact of censorship in video games and its implications.

There is nothing more crippling to art, nor to the community that surrounds it, than censorship. To have the twisted and inconsistent morality of a few people applied to our entire society through sclerotic institutions such as the FCC is surely oppressive enough. But as our technology outpaces itself with each subsequent year a very disturbing trend has emerged which threatens not only the artistic medium that we love but the very root of our cultural heritage. The very same corporations which deliver us our beloved video games have taken it upon themselves to impose a set of moral restrictions on us wholly outside the law. I truly cannot stress enough how dangerous this concept is. A non-government body with a monopoly on a given means of communication is dictating to people what is, and what isn’t acceptable to say or write. That is more than an irritation; it is a recipe for corporate control over our personal lives.

This issue came to my attention after reading an article on Penny-Arcade. Apparently, Microsoft’s Orwellian “decency policy” on language control is not content to simply censor commonly recognized swear words but has also taken it upon itself to dissect the ever expanding lexicon of modern slang and cherry pick words or phrases that it finds to be offensive, or even potentially offensive. This list of banned words or phrases is not available to the general public so we are simply forced to accept the premise that the Microsoft corporation, an organization that has been sued by businesses, NGO’s, and even the United States Government for its multiple violations of privacy laws, fair business laws, and legal misrepresentation, has our best interests at heart.

The Xbox Live Code of conduct appears to be designed with the noble intention of providing a safe and fair gaming environment to gamers. I can hardly fault them for this goal, but the fact remains that it is simply not their place to legislate morality to the world. Who is to say where that type of censorship ends? Microsoft just recently announced its intention to merge with web-searcher Yahoo. How long before we are punished for what we type in the search bar in the privacy of our homes? How long before our real names, rather than just our game handles, start appearing on banned lists?

No one elected the people who are making these decisions and there is no functional oversight to moderate their behavior. Make no mistake, if we, the community that made gaming what it is today, make no move to resist these policies they will continue to grow. I urge you as a writer, a gamer, and an ardent believer in a free and democratic society to take action. Write your congressional representatives in the House and Senate (they really do read what you send in), send a letter to Microsoft, and light up the blogs and forums and chat rooms with your dissent. Do your part for the gaming medium and the community we’ve built around it.
Thank you.

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