Politics of Control Revisited: What Has Changed?

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered their decision on Brown v. EMA (formerly Schwarzenegger v. EMA), a case arguing the strict regulation of mature-rated game titles in California. The 7-2 decision to overturn the California law in favor of the game industry was hardly an upset to perhaps anyone but Senator Yee, but I would ask a larger question: what, if anything, has changed?

This law is simply the latest of a series in which California politicians have unsuccessfully attempted to criminalize the sale of mature videogames to minors. We can rest comfortably in the knowledge that it will be a few years at best before another legislator (or even a familiar one) makes a similar attempt. There will always be a new Senator Yee, a new Senator Lieberman, a new would-be Jack Thompson and (yes) a new president making games the butt of every political speech. That the U.S. Supreme Court has sided in favor of the game industry does little if anything for gaming as a subculture, which continues in the eyes of many lawmakers to be a group comprised of a swarm of entitled, ultraviolent man-children enslaved to some apocalyptic, electronic beast. In short, the decision on Brown v. EMA treats a solitary symptom instead of the disease.

Yep. That’s the one.

Moreover, it’s a symptom that more directly affects capitalism than actual consumers. For all the posturing of the EMA, ECA and other groups that the criminalization of selling M-rated titles to minors would be tantamount to an infringement on freedom of speech, the real objection, of course, is that it hurts industry. To be clear, I am happy with the decision, noting as I did late last year that legislators’ unfounded fears create a culture of regulation many adults should rightly find uncomfortable. However, I see little in the aftermath to embolden gamers themselves. We may chuckle at subversive headlines like these but only for the kernel of truth that they represent.

This past December, when presenting my “Politics of Control” article for the Civic Paths research group at USC Annenberg, I honed in on particular phrases and imagery I saw being repeated across various campaigns and action groups. Of particular interest to us was the VGVN, an organization run by the ECA, which asked consumers to send Senator Leland Yee their broken controllers bearing the phrase “You can’t control me”. Charming though such an overture toward a rhetoric of control is, we were quickly and sagely reminded by Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture, Fans, Gamers and Bloggers) that for everything this phrase might try to be, it still sounded like the petulant adolescent shouting at a parent. In other words, it was one more thing that just made Senator Lee’s case for him.

This all relates to my more recent article on the electronic imperialism of E3. By all means, game developers should be free to design whatever games they wish, but their continued obsession with military fetishization, white middle-class male chauvinism, and sexual objectification causes me to wonder if we aren’t simply squandering that precious freedom of so-called speech. It’s not the messages that I object to, mind you but the redundancy of them. Even in the worst of Hollywood’s recession-fearing dry spells, you’ll get a handful of films that are neither misogynistic destruction porn nor banal middle-class children’s cartoons. For games, on the other hand, those seem to be the only two options even in the best of economic times.

Set before you are the world’s sins, which you can bathe yourself in, like fine perfume. As bodies are torn. As flesh-and-blood soldiers die, searching for meaning, failing to find before them the visions they once gave themselves to. So they turn to contempt. At sixty dollars a unit. This is modern warfare. One big spectacle. A videogame more popular than Moses. But not to worry. As the Air Force tells us: It’s not science fiction … It’s what we do everyday. The images come to us, almost imperceptibly. They meet us in our bewilderment, coolly, sexily, as though their arrival were not of our own creation, our very own and very inhospitable imago humani, so we name them Fate, Destiny, Necessity. Images all, nearly divine, by whom we believe ourselves to have been seized, and with whom we seek intimacy. And we gaze upon them, ravished (Joshua Casteel, “Call of Duty: Gaming and Reality in Modern Warfare”, The Point, Is. 3, Fall 2010).

Ah, but don’t we have our exceptions? Portal 2? Journey? Maybe the solution, then, is volume. Sturgeon’s Law dictates that if free capitalism provides for a larger market, the ratio of exceptional to unexceptional will remain constant, but the quantity of exceptional titles overall will improve. In that respect, allowing game developers and retailers to avoid prosecution for the sale of Modern Warfare 2 to the 12-year-old children that I monitor must surely if indirectly lead to titles where women are more than window dressing and messages are more complex than “nondescript Arabs from fictional countries are bad.” It’s rather symbiotic in that respect. Shouldn’t it suffice?

No. I don’t think so. I don’t believe this is how it has to be.

I’m pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, though I’m unsure how it will affect private corporations in my home state. Retailers here might feel that they may as well keep their policies in force as they are, anticipating the next time that a litigious senator wants to make a political football out of someone’s hobby. In the meantime, I think we imperil ourselves by baiting lawmakers so openly as we do. As much as we don’t want to trample on the potential for meaning in any burgeoning medium, the bulk of what is currently being said is rather uninspiring. In the wake of this decision, it still seems clear to me that the game industry needs to grow up. A 7-2 court ruling means very little at this juncture because nothing has changed.


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