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Mon, 24 Mar 2008

Tabloid Emotions: UK Games Censorship

The Soft Target

After almost a decade of watching with thinly-concealed smugness as America's conservatives tore into the videogames industry, confident that Britain's more liberal society would protect the medium on these shores, the worm has finally turned. The alarm bells are ringing, and an unpleasant awakening is upon us - Britain now faces exactly the same kind of backlash against games that has blighted the United States for years.

It is not, as yet, at the kind of fever pitch which anti-videogames sentiments have reached on occasion in the USA. Britain fundamentally lacks the sort of high profile youth crimes, such as school shootings, which have focused attention in the United States - and when high profile cases do come along, the UK seems more willing to condemn the failures in society which have caused them, rather than trying to pin everything on an easy scapegoat like videogames.

However, the atmosphere around games is shifting slowly and unpleasantly, and nowhere is that to be seen more clearly than in Westminster, the administrative heart of the United Kingdom. Here, there's a certain measure of desperation in the air. Gordon Brown has transpired to be a deeply unlikeable and unpopular Prime Minister, and his Labour government faces the possibility of a humiliating defeat in the next general election if a slide in popularity cannot be halted promptly. Every straw in sight is being grasped at, and videogames, it seems, are well within arms reach.

A "hard line" on videogames certainly seems to be one of the options on the table for Brown's strategists, who know that the government needs some kind of answer to questions of law and order, and especially regarding youth crime.

The government's problem is that telling the truth - that Britain's crime figures have been falling steadily for some time, and that we're safer now than we've been for a long, long time - doesn't seem to work. A vicious campaign of lies, half-truths and insinuations on the part of the UK's vile tabloid newspapers (and, shamefully, some of our broadsheets too) has convinced the population that UK society is in meltdown. Faced with a population who believe that they're in danger of being stabbed by a feral youth at any minute, the government can't simply tell them to stop being so bloody stupid; it is forced into a position of Being Seen To Do Something.

The something in question, I increasingly fear, will be the imposition of restrictions, regulations and censures on the videogames industry. This will come as part of a wider package of measures against the creative industries. The BBFC, which has moved with the times and now reflects Britain's largely liberal views on media, has also been slammed in the right-wing press in recent weeks for allowing the release of movies formerly classed as "video nasties" in the 1980s, and it seems eminently likely that government will move to grant itself a veto over the BBFC's decisions.

Admittedly, thus far much of the noise in Parliament on this front has been made by Keith Vaz, an MP whose contributions to the videogames debate are so frequent and so consistently ignorant and uninformed that even his fellow parliamentarians have become sick of him. His shocking and utterly false assertion this week that games are available in which the player can rape women was challenged by Ed Vaizey MP, while his ongoing promotion of the tragic Stefan Pakeerah murder case as an example of videogame inspired violence (both the police and the court system having ruled out any possible link) has been dismissed by the minister responsible, Margaret Hodge.

Vaz' one-man quest against the videogames industry continues, however - and indeed, it seems that it's not entirely a one-man quest any more. While the headlines were stolen by Vaz' statements to the House, it transpires today that Gordon Brown himself is to meet Stefan Pakeerah's mother to discuss the question of violent videogames.

A triumph for Vaz, then, and a sad defeat for any modicum of common sense. While Giselle Pakeerah's loss is truly tragic and saddening, her claim that her son's murder was inspired by Rockstar's Manhunt is patently and provably false. It was her son, not his killer, who owned the game. The game doesn't even feature the type of murder weapon used in the killing - and moreover, the killer was clearly inspired not by playing a game, but by the debt he owed to a drug-related gang.

Giselle Pakeerah, in her grief, has been coldly and cruelly manipulated, becoming a tragic champion in the battle against a medium that had nothing whatsoever to do with her son's murder. Who, after all, is going to argue with a grieving mother? What possible response can Gordon Brown have to her statements - however ill-informed they may be - than to nod sympathetically?

Moreover, I suspect that Brown - and those who have set up this meeting, Keith Vaz himself undoubtedly among them - knows this perfectly well. Gordon Brown doesn't want to be advised on his media policy by Giselle Pakeerah. He wants to meet her so that when he announces his already well-laid plans in this regard, he appears to have consulted the grieving mother - which will play well for the tabloid press who are hounding him to Do Something about the country's allegedly rising crime levels.

It's a desperately worrying time for anyone with an interest in freedom of expression, but more so for anyone involved in the creative industries in the United Kingdom. One point of light at the end of the tunnel may be the Byron Report, which is due out in the coming weeks. I suspect that the report's author, Tanya Byron, is not likely to be a willing patsy for the Labour government's preferred policies. This report, with any luck, will actually set the facts straight. Whether that will be enough to get videogames off the hook as Labour desperately seeks to rebuild its public image, however, remains to be seen.

(gamesindustry.biz)

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