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Activism is Freedom, Too

Campaigns for retailers to drop games or advertisers to pull marketing are a valid part of a free, healthy society

Earlier this year, a small number of articles questioning the validity of the "gamer" identity and decrying the toxicity with which it has become associated provoked a strong and aggressive response from a minority of consumers. One aspect of that response was a commercial attack on the publications in which the articles appeared; campaigners contacted advertisers on those sites to express their ire and demand that the advertisers withhold their business until such time as apologies were issued or the offending writers removed from their positions.

Last month, the re-release of Grand Theft Auto V on new-generation consoles provoked a strong and aggressive response from a minority of consumers in Australia. They also chose a commercial line of attack to express their grievances, petitioning retailer Target to remove the game from its shelves. This retailer acquiesced to their demands, dropping the game from its outlets in the country.

I don't agree with the objectives of either of these campaigns, as it happens. I think they're both ill-informed, desperately unfair to their targets, massively overreaching in their objectives and bear a strong whiff of fanaticism and prejudice rather than any kind of logic or evidence. I'm not trying to make the case that they're equivalent to one another; all the other awful stuff that came about under the banner of the "gamer revolt" puts a pretty clear stretch of blue water between them and a group of admittedly ignorant people whose primary concern is media violence. I'm simply pointing out that the tactics in play, in these specific cases, are exactly the same; both groups sought to use consumer pressure to deprive a perceived enemy of a commercial platform.

According to Take-Two president Karl Slatoff, this "really just flies in the face of everything that free society is based on". One can only guess that Take-Two president Karl Slatoff, who went on to make some comments about the insignificance of Australia that have probably earned him a pretty hefty block-booking of his diary for media training in the coming months, hasn't spent much of his life pondering the basis of free society. His statement could not be further from the truth; in fact, this kind of action is precisely the basis of a free society in any market economy.

"The application of consumer pressure is not censorship, nor is it somehow playing dirty. It is market freedom in action, the ability of consumers to use their combined purchasing power to give themselves a voice"

As uncomfortable (and even outright angry) as I may feel with the objectives and reasoning of either of these campaigns, I can't disagree with their tactics for precisely this reason; the application of consumer pressure is not censorship, nor is it somehow playing dirty. It is market freedom in action, the ability of consumers to use their combined purchasing power to give themselves a voice and push corporations into listening to them. Market societies depend on the flow of information between consumers and providers; price discovery through supply and demand, one of the basic building blocks of economics, is one of the ways that information flows, but direct action and demands by consumers are other important ways in which the market mediates the desires of consumers and of the companies who serve them.

So, in the case of the attempt to get advertisers to withdraw support from sites like Gamasutra, the activists' objective was to convince advertisers that continuing to support the "offending" sites would be commercially damaging to them - more commercially damaging than losing the marketing impact of those sites. This attempt failed; Intel was the only major company to withdraw a campaign, and within days it recognised this as a major miscalculation (and a total misunderstanding of its market) and began to backpedal with a desperation and ferocity not dissimilar to Wile E Coyote realising that he's run off the edge of a cliff and into thin air. In the case of the GTA V campaign, activists placed commercial pressure on Target to drop the game; in this case, they were successful in convincing the retailer that bowing to activist pressure was a more commercially sensible move than continuing to stock the game.

In both cases, the decision lies with the company under pressure - the advertisers, the retailer. Claiming that the activists placing pressure on the company are damaging "free society" or whatever is utter nonsense; they are exercising a basic and incredibly important right to organise themselves into a group in order to pursue their aims and express their views. All truly democratic societies recognise and uphold this right as being one of the absolute minimum requirements for the very existence of a free society and a political sphere.

Isn't this censorship, though? No, it is not. As Brendan Sinclair pointed out in his piece on this topic earlier in the week, the games industry faces enough examples of genuine censorship - including the insidious nature of America's AO rating - that we should be able to distinguish between true censorship and consumer rights in action. Censorship involves the placing of restrictions on the type of content that can be created or distributed, and it really only applies to "de jure" conditions - legal restrictions created by a government which bans certain kinds of content and creates penalties for those who create or distribute it. Even though something like America's AO system creates a "de facto" environment not dissimilar to censorship, it's not really censorship. You're welcome to make an AO-rated game and can happily sell it to anyone you want without risking punishment; it's just that you may struggle to make any money from it, since you can't force retailers to stock something they don't want to sell.

"Far too much of the response to the GTAV / Target story has focused on attacking the campaigners or the retailer, which is counter-productive and childish"

Similarly, the cries of "censorship!" when a controversial newspaper columnist loses their job for saying something speechlessly awful, or when a TV presenter gets the sack for using racist language on air, or even when someone's forum account is suspended for a misogynistic rant, are nothing more than juvenile whinging. "Censorship" would see someone going to jail for these things; what's happening here is merely that people are exercising a right every bit as fundamental as freedom of speech, namely the freedom not to listen - and the freedom not to provide a platform for things with which we disagree. Nobody is "censoring" GTA V, one of the most commercially successful and widely-played games of recent years; Target is simply exercising its freedom to decide what to stock and what not to stock, influenced by the strongly-expressed desires of its customers.

Annoyed by this? Of course you are. I am, too; not by the tactics but by the ignorance which underlies them. Yet this is what the free trade in ideas and viewpoints demands. If a group of people whom you consider ignorant and ill-informed organise themselves to push for something with which you disagree, you have every right to organise with other like-minded people and counteract them. In the case of the Gamasutra advertising campaign, this is exactly what happened; a much larger counter-movement made it clear that they strongly disagreed with the decision made by Intel and with the message promoted by the anti-media activists, the debate ran its course and the campaign failed. In the case of Target, the only counter-push seems to have come from Take-Two itself, and Target judged its vocal customers to be more commercially relevant. Fair enough. It won't put a dent in Take-Two's bottom line, or in the future of the GTA franchise, and perhaps Australia's gamers will be more organised and aware next time a movement like this gets some momentum behind it.

That's how a free society works; it may be infuriating at times ("why oh why does anyone listen to these morons?" say the people on both sides of any argument), but it's by far the best system for running a society that we've ever happened upon. Don't get mad at the fact that people are campaigning for something you don't like; organise, engage and find a platform from which to state your own case. Far too much of the response to the GTAV / Target story has focused on attacking the campaigners or the retailer, which is counter-productive and childish. Don't hate the players OR the game; just learn to play it better. Don't react to setbacks by wailing and howling about poorly-understood concepts of "freedom" or "censorship"; stand up and defend the things you love with passion, reason and courtesy, and recognise that it's the existence of the debate itself, not its outcome, that determines whether we're truly free and uncensored.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.