The saga of Rockstar's latest controversial videogame, Canis Canem Edit (or "Bully" to readers in North America), has been well-reported. The game has the unusual distinction of being a poster child for two opposed causes; on one hand, advocates of censorship and the eternally morally outraged present the game as an example of the depravity to which the videogames industry has stooped, while on the other hand, the industry itself and advocates of creative freedom point to it as a perfect example of the blind and ignorant hyperbole to which the self-styled "moral majority" has stooped.
This dichotomy has come about for one simple reason - namely that in their over-zealous pursuit of videogames as the latest scapegoat for society's ills, advocates of censorship or control managed to make a lot of noise about Bully before actually finding out the facts about the game. Extensive campaigns protesting the release of the game were coordinated before anyone had actually seen anything other than a few screenshots, and speculation about the nature of its content was presented widely as being fact. If this speculation had turned out to be true, Bully would unquestionably have been one of the most shocking and unpleasant games ever made - featuring, as its critics were fond of wildly claiming, a level of cruelty and violence directed towards minors previously unseen in the interactive medium.
Unfortunately for the campaigners against Bully, that actually isn't what the game turns out to be like at all. Instead, Bully is a surprisingly intelligent, entertaining and indeed nostalgic game which, although it certainly incorporates a certain level of violence, is ultimately no worse than the likes of Grange Hill or any number of other stylised representations of school days. In direct contradiction of the claims of campaigners, the game actually punishes you for acting in an irresponsible or, indeed, bullying manner, and while it's certainly not the chronicle of academic life that teachers or politicians might want to see, nor is it the seeds of society's downfall encapsulated on a DVD and waiting to be implanted into fragile young minds. Those seeking portents of impending apocalypse will have to look elsewhere.
None of this matters to the most fervent critics of videogames, of course, because few of them are of a mind to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Even faced with a resounding courtroom defeat in Florida, where he had attempted to get the game banned, increasingly shrill lawyer Jack Thompson continued to pontificate against the game - going so far as to compare the court's deliberations to the misleading of weapons inspectors in rogue states.
The gutter press is, of course, not known for worrying too much about whether they're reporting the truth or not (after all, as Karl Pilkington once wisely observed, you can prove anything with facts) - and in a particularly shocking example of their willingness to carry right ahead in the face of factual adversity, a British tabloid (the Daily Star) last week published a full-page article condemning Bully, including a screenshot which had been edited to show an act of violence which isn't even possible in the game. To add insult to injury, it wasn't even a good edit - it showed the main character of the game swinging a baseball bat... At himself. A picture caption claimed that this showed a boy beating up a smaller boy with a baseball bat - suggesting that whoever does the PhotoShop work on the Star's lying pictures needs a quick lesson in perspective, and the differences between "smaller" and "further away".
However, while the loony fringe of anti-games campaigning - from Thompson to the tabloids - seems unperturbed at being proved wrong, and perfectly prepared to continue spewing bile regardless, some of their fair-weather allies emerge from this ordeal looking rather worse for wear. Various perfectly respectable anti-bullying agencies, and even some politicians who should really have known better (and, admittedly, some who have never shown any sign of "knowing better" on pretty much any issue, such as the continually astonishingly ignorant British MP Keith Vaz), joined the crusade against Bully without doing their homework - and with the game now turning out to be so utterly inoffensive, now have a significant amount of egg on their faces as a result.
However, worst of all out of this sorry lot - and perhaps most inexcusable of all - is British retailer Currys, which this week took the astonishing decision to publicly refuse to stock the game, a clear bending to tabloid will in the face of perfectly clear facts about the product. This kind of spineless pandering to the tabloid mentality is rife among US retailers, of course - and as such, US readers accustomed to the behaviour of chains such as Wal-Mart will probably not even raise an eyebrow at Currys' decision, just as UK observers find the debate in the US over the enforcement of age ratings to be such a non-issue. However, in the UK, retailers do not customarily pander to tabloid outrage, and Currys' decision to do so is a disgustingly simpering attempt to hop onto a PR bandwagon which, we hope, is rolling inexorably over a cliff.
There are a few possible scenarios which arise from Currys' decision. The first is that the firm gets the PR it wants from the decision, appeals to the narrow cross-section of middle England which is prepared to get its hackles up over lunch about videogames they've never even seen, and loses only a tiny amount of revenue from lost sales of the game. In this instance, we start to slide down a slippery slope towards the US situation, where retailers routinely refuse to stock anything that the newspapers, or the moral moronity, might have a whinge about. This is not a situation we'd like to see mirrored in Britain.
Another scenario, however, is that people who are sick and tired of this treatment of the videogames medium decide to take matters into their own hands, rather than simply rolling their eyes at the media's ignorant reporting or at the antics of ludicrous characters such as Keith Vaz and Jack Thompson.
Currys is a major home electronics retailer. They sell videogame consoles, televisions, speaker systems, cables, and a host of other related devices - and with HDTV being rolled out at increasing pace in Britain, they will be expecting a bumper Christmas as people, many of them gamers, walk through the doors of the store to upgrade their home entertainment systems. Wouldn't it be quite a message to send, if a significant proportion of gamers were to decide to boycott the Currys chain - and to let them know that their appalling behaviour over Canis Canem Edit was the reason for this boycott?
After all, there are many places to buy high definition TV sets and so on; and only one of them has chosen to take the side of the tabloids over this issue, when simply doing their job and stocking the product without such judgments would have been perfectly acceptable. As a member of the games industry, or simply as a gamer, this is certainly worth bearing in mind if you find yourself pondering a home entertainment system upgrade in the next few months. When our opponents have reached the point of lying about products to push their agenda forward, perhaps it's time to make our voices as consumers heard.