Gaming and the Politics of Control

Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.

It’s election day here in the States, and also the first day of the hearing for Schwarzenegger v. EMA, the United States Supreme Court case which will potentially decide the legal status of video game regulation in the country. Much of the game industry and blogosphere has come out against the bill at the heart of the case, which industry spokesmen say will not just regulate sale of games in stores but effectively censor game content.

It’s been an interesting year for software consumers, politically; early 2010 saw the rise in prominence of Gamers4Croydan, an Australian political action group aimed at loosening censorship restrictions on games in the country. The group lost steam soon after Attorney General Michael Atkinson resigned from his position, but the move for an R18+ rating continues. Here in the United States, the Video Game Voters Network (VGVN), sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, has also risen to noteworthiness in the weeks leading up to today’s SCOTUS arguments.

The contention for both Gamers4Croydan and the VGVN, seen in all their existing rhetoric, is that in order to control right to access, gamers themselves must take control of the political machine seeking to regulate them. For the most part, electronic media has followed the model of the movie industry in providing self-governance, but despite game sale regulation being more effective than R-rated movies and explicit music, our medium continues to be singled out as exceptional in some way (“ESRB Success in Chart Form”, GamePolitics, 16 September 2010). And, perhaps, the interactive nature of games is to blame for federal trepidation, but it also informs the way various communities, like the aforementioned action groups, instill consumer activism. This is made explicit in the iconography for both Gamers4Croydan and VGVN, which frequently uses the symbol of the controller– funnily enough, at a time when Kinect is promising a hands-free revolution.

“Control” is an interesting choice of term, one which comes up I would say more often than any other when used to describe game regulation. It isn’t the word you would conventionally use in media censorship– a government body “controls” funding, “controls” imports, “controls” exhibition, but it doesn’t “control” the viewer. The very slogan of the recent VGVN initiative, which sent old controllers to State Senator Leland Yee inscribed with the phrase “I believe in the First Amendment,” is “You Can’t Control Me.” At the core of all this rhetoric, I seem to get the distinct impression that these politicized gamers are talking about their specific encounter with interactive, and attempting to respond in the same way they would in a game: agency.

At the moment, I am playing Fable III. As a newcomer to the series, it’s an uneven experience, but I find that it’s doing something terribly interesting with its cultural linkages, as all the imagery of revolution is something both French and American audiences will find very, very familiar. Odd as it may sound, I feel that it plays upon certain unifying patriotic roots. I quite appreciate it for that, though the entire experience has its massive ups and downs.

One such downward point is the conversion of allies. I would hazard to say that if I could really gain supporters to a cause by hugging and dancing with strangers, politics as a whole would be a lot cuddlier. It’s the same as in a relationship meter in The Sims or Harvest Moon; friendship just isn’t quantifiable, nor is something like political allegiance a guarantee of friendship. Most of Fable III‘s gathering of points to build up my leadership abilities can come as much from hacking and slashing at foes as from saving children. Furthermore, for a game that is presumably about teaching me the skills of a general or a head of state, I seem to be spending much of these early chapters doing whatever someone else tells me.

Nevertheless, when the game denies me even the agency of following its (quite literal) golden path, I get bothered, as I do in any other game when my avatar is suddenly moving on her own. Losing physical control –ah, there’s that word again– is tantamount to being forced out of the game entirely. It isn’t simply that control has been ripped from my hands into someone else’s; it’s now the mechanism itself, the invisible machine, that dictates my content to me.

Simon Parkin, writing candidly for Boing Boing, wrote earlier this year that in J-RPGs (but it works more broadly for all games) “You’re predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going” (“Maps”, Boing Boing, 28 July 2010). He goes on to say,

Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. […] I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. [Games] counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break.

Not only do games frequently show us an idealized world (Parkin calls them “sort of like heaven”) but they often offer us simple, knowable solutions. Shoot enough gnomes and you can gain followers. Gain enough followers and you can topple governments. But far from the illusionist problem-solving of movies, where things just work out right for the hero whether or not we really know how it happened, in games that power is in the user’s hands: the controller.

It’s not a fantasy totally unique to gaming (or novelty “women remotes” and movies like Click would not exist) but it’s certainly quite prevalent in these recent politicized gaming organizations. Yet signalling a wish for control is just the first step of many toward dictating change in something as vast and difficult to access as politics.

As a Californian, I feel somewhat closer to the Schwarzenegger v. EMA case than some of my out-of-state friends. We’ve been dealing with this law in one form or another for years, after all. Case in point, while at a Target the other day to buy a game on clearance (The Saboteur, actually), the cashier asked to see my ID. I joked that I couldn’t look that young to him, but he answered that it didn’t matter. His computer physically would not allow him to complete the sale unless he ran it.

Having moderated for children’s games, I’m all for keeping age-inappropriate content out of kids’ hands. So at the time, I didn’t really mind having my ID run. But what if I’d planned to pay in cash? What if I wanted to keep my purchase private– it’s my property, and I’m a tax-paying adult citizen. What does Target or my state government do with the information collected off my card? The experience got me thinking not just about the invisible mechanisms in that box beneath my TV but the larger, unknowably complex apparatus surrounding my every purchase. It suddenly seemed scary. And I really wanted to have better control over it.

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