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Acceptable censorship?

Why are people so outraged about retailers pulling Grand Theft Auto V when the industry condones far more damaging censorship as a matter of routine?

Last week, two Australian retailers pulled Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves in response to a petition decrying sexual violence in the game. What I found interesting about the situation wasn't so much the news itself as the curiously strong reaction it drew, lighting up Twitter feeds and comments sections, including ours. The first story on the situation drew nearly 100 comments, the second pulled in about 50.

Compare that to the zero comments that greeted last month's news that Indian obscenity laws would prevent Dragon Age: Inquisition from releasing in the country. So what's the difference? Why are people so upset about two retailers choosing not to stock the poster child for controversy-courting games, but evidently apathetic about a billion people being denied the option to play another game held in almost universally high regard for vaguely defined obscenities? (Interesting side note: Grand Theft Auto V is readily available in India.) For an industry so vocal about even the faintest shadow of censorship, we're pretty damn complacent when it comes to the genuine article.

"As far as censorship goes, this may be the least harmful, least effective strain of it you can find."

Yes, Grand Theft Auto V is a hyperviolent game, and its removal from some retailers is censorship of a form. Not the government-mandated, legally binding form of censorship, or the sort of censorship that will actually keep interested people from finding and buying the game, but it is a private institution removing one route of access to a title because it objects to the content within. And yes, Target Australia and K-Mart Australia are well within their rights to do that. As far as censorship goes, this may be the least harmful, least effective strain of it you can find.

Compare that to the situation with Dragon Age: Inquisition in India, or the industry-approved censorship that has shaped the console and mobile markets for years. Apple in particular has been heavy-handed with what sort of games it allows on the iPhone and iPad, deciding that people who use its products shouldn't have access to educational games about female masturbation, games that use nudity to help get across a worthy message, games based on current events, or titles that criticize sweatshop production methods and smartphone makers like Apple in particular.

"We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate," Apple says in its App Store Review Guidelines. "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App."

And if that weren't enough to show how little Apple values freedom of speech, just a few lines later in the guidelines, the company is nakedly threatening those who run afoul of its policies--those whose speech it has already silenced--to stay silent.

"If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to," Apple says. "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps."

"How many of the people furious about the Grand Theft Auto V situation own iPhones? How many developers see the company's behavior for what it is and then support the platform anyway?"

My problem isn't so much that Apple won't let these games on its virtual shelves. Like Target Australia and K-Mart Australia, Apple is a private company and can choose what products it will offer through its store. My problem is that this is accepted by the industry as a whole. How many of the people furious about the Grand Theft Auto V situation own iPhones? How many developers see the company's behavior for what it is and then support the platform anyway? How much of the principled outrage we have seen this week doesn't apply to Apple? How much is rationalized by thoughts like, "But it's a really cool phone..." or "But it's such a large potential audience..."?

And then there's the censorship the North American scene has been built on for 20 years. I don't want to disparage the Entertainment Software Rating Board too sharply, as it offers a valuable, practical service to parents in doling out ratings. However, it is also the cornerstone in a carefully constructed system that has put the power of censorship in the hands of the group running a technically voluntary rating system.

In the wake of 1993's Congressional hearings into video game violence, the Interactive Digital Software Association (which would change its name to the Entertainment Software Association we have today) founded the ESRB to provide a much-needed industry-wide ratings system. That initial system had five categories, with the most objectionable content receiving an AO for Adults Only rating.

In theory, creators could still make whatever games they wanted; they just had to warn customers as to the content. In practice, the rating was a sham. Virtually every major retailer had a policy against carrying AO-rated or unrated games. And even if they didn't, platform holders like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all forbade third-party partners from releasing AO games on their platforms.

The ESRB has assigned well over 38,000 ratings in the past 20 years, but its database only contains 41 AO entries. And of those, the only one to enjoy any sort of commercial success was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was an M-rated title before the "Hot Coffee" sex minigame was found hidden in the code and the ESRB changed its mind.

And let's be honest; the San Andreas re-rating was absurd. It was an inaccessible minigame with pantomimed sex between two characters who remained clothed the entire time, in a game that used violence and language to push metaphorical buttons as frequently as the players were pushing literal ones. So yes, there's a line that can't be crossed for a game to remain M for Marketable, but good luck trying to figure out exactly where that is. The new release of Grand Theft Auto V, with its first-person point-of-view prostitution scenes, would seem to be every bit as lurid or objectionable as the Hot Coffee-equipped San Andreas, yet there it is, proudly sporting its financially friendly M for Mature.

"It's surprising that such an obviously creative industry would collectively exhibit such a paucity of imagination in these matters."

Target and K-Mart pulling Grand Theft Auto V from sale did not prevent Take-Two from making the game. It does not prevent interested people from purchasing and playing the game. Take-Two has said the recent flap has had no effect on its business, not even to push Australian gamers to download the game instead of finding it at another retailer.

Compare that to Apple's App Store guidelines or the AO rating, which prevent developers from making games for entire segments of the industry. Admittedly, these problems could become less of a concern over time. Digital distribution is making it ever-so-slightly more viable to sell games with the kind of content that would draw an AO rating, and one would hope Apple could come around on games as a medium capable of substance and not just diversion.

It's surprising that such an obviously creative industry would collectively exhibit such a paucity of imagination in these matters. We aren't worried about all the ideas that never get explored because of the ways the App Store and the current ratings system operate, but we're terrified that Grand Theft Auto V and Rockstar could have their free speech impaired somehow because one group of people found their games objectionable, and another group of people agreed and decided to stop selling them in response.

Rather than work to overturn the ban on AO games or change Apple's mind, to carve out the slightest possibility of commercial viability for outsiders making truly different experiences--the people whose free speech is the least assured or supported in the current system--we are energized to stand up for one of the most financially successful games of all time. If money is a form of free speech (and in the US, it literally is), then Grand Theft Auto V does not need our vigorous defense. It has all the soapboxes and megaphones it will ever need. Instead, our anger and our outrage is better directed at reforming a system to allow voices for those who have none.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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