Censorship in Games – Producers Roundtable (Part 2/2)

This article is the part two of censorship in games. We recommend that you read the part one before proceeding, in case you haven’t checked it already.

Censorship in games is a topic that’s been debated for long. What wasn’t accepted years ago might be common place today. We asked who should take responsibility in video games censorship. Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do? Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play?

The following producers give answers to these questions:

Harvard Bonin, Producer at Sony
Peter O’Brien, Bizarre Creations
Ben Gunstone, Production Director at Stainless Games
Frank Rogan, Producer at Gas Powered Games


Let’s get real. Is this not about the almighty dollar? Or pound? Or yen?

Seriously, game companies are just that…companies. They are in business to provide $$$ to shareholders or owners.

If racy, sadistic, murderous games make money then they will continue to be made. Game companies (or any media company) will make them until they don’t. They…err…”we“…will push the boundaries if there is a niche that will pay cash money for our work. If the games didn’t make money, we wouldn’t make them.

So the real question is “Who leads society”? Do we as entertainment makers lead them – or do the consumers that buy them? Is this a chicken or the egg issue?

Apparently we, as game makers, need external governing bodies to regulate us. Or do gamers need to regulate themselves? Yes, gamers need to have personal responsibility to make proper choices on what they do and do not buy. Still, does that remove our own responsibility?

Or, is it our responsibility to push the boundaries?

The dollar/pond question is an interesting one from the POV that the most common motivation for any entertainment is to earn money. This leads to common production content which is why when wizards are cool everyone makes a wizard movie/show; when global disaster is cool, everyone makes a disaster movie. Even Heroes was created to compete with Lost… a lot of character, a little sci-fi… shake and stir.

Its no coincidence that documentaries are popular again because they have become sensational as well as meaningful; its also no coincidence that political movies from Hollywood starring George Clooney or Brad Pitt are heralded way above their merit.

And so we, as an industry are the same. BMXXX proves sex doesn’t sell in games (if at all) if its gratuitous and patronising. And violence doesn’t sell unless there is some new mechanic or story that warrants and informed audiences attention. Think about GTA; forget the over zealous content for a second and think of the fact that Rockstar where the first company to deliver popular genre culture (gangsters) to a 3D game, in a sandbox environment which that was familiar to all (city) to a common audience (Playstation generation).

There are leaders of society, but this lead is more of a Black Swan; at which point society sets the trend; media and government then follows until the next Black Swan.

What society allows is a story to be told where previously it was too sensitive an issue. Black Swans result in tolerance and knowledge. Its important to understand where we are going, not where we have been.


Well, this may be a day late and dollar short (milestones, ya’ know), but I’ll toss my opinions out.

The important first step is to define some terms.

Censorship isn’t always censorship, if you catch my drift. I think this is particularly important, because many Americans casually use the term “censorship” to refer to *any* restriction that limits, or even appears to limit, speech, whether federal, state or local laws, or commercial practices. John Q. Public levels the “censorship” claim right and left, whether or not it’s correct or even warranted. Moreover, there’s a perception among the creators of media — filmmakers, musicians, game developers — that if for any reason, you are unable to market your wares in the manner you desire, you are being “censored.” Censored by … who? Doesn’t matter. “They” won’t let me sell my movie/album/game. The result of such a diluted meaning is predictable — misunderstandings and misplaced anger.

Apart from a few common-sense restrictions (the common “yelling fire in the movie theater” example, and various libel/slander laws), there is no censorship in the United States. I like that last part so much, I’ll repeat it — there is no censorship in the United States.

* Movie ratings? The MPAA is an independent trade association funded (voluntarily!) by major film distributors.

* Game ratings? The ESRB is an independent trade association funded (voluntarily!) by major game publishers.

* “This album contains explicit lyrics?” Those stickers come courtesy of the music labels, not “The Man.”

* How about porn? Besides kiddie porn laws, there are no restrictions on the creation of porn, but there are various local restrictions on the display of obscenity, which is not considered protected speech (placing it essentially in the same legal square as yelling fire in a movie theater). This probably comes closest to a definition of censorship, but the laws are so loosely structured, and not globally defined, that there’s no effective restriction. Even the Supreme Court famously decided NOT to attempt to define obscenity, and instead left it up to “reasonable man” standards at the local level.

* The FCC fines Howard Stern? Until he moved to Sirius, Stern’s show was broadcast over the licensed airwave spectrum. Licensed from whom, you ask? From you and me. The broadcast spectrum is considered to be owned by the federal government, and the FCC is a government agency that reports to the president. Occasionally, we, the people, get to elect a president and a Congress to (ahem) represent our best interests, so at least in theory, the FCC is beholden to the will of the people. But aren’t the fines for Howard Stern and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction really a form of censorship? Not really. It’s largely a breach of contract issue — the FCC awards a license to monopolize a portion of the broadcast spectrum in exchange for broadcasters meeting certain criteria. No one is being *forced* into the radio and television business, just as you are not forced to rent a crappy office space to run your business. That’s really it, actually — the FCC is essentially a glorified landlord.

Mind you, in the UK, there really IS censorship. Just as the Sex Pistols ran afoul of the BBC (a state-owned monopoly), Manhunt was nailed by the Obscene Publications Act. God save the Queen. We mean it, man. And there’s no future in England’s dreaming. No future, nooooo fuuuuuture…

Sorry. I digress.

So, if we’re not talking about censorship in the U.S., what the hell *are* we talking about?

Essentially, we’re living with a system created as a response to a threat, that has morphed into a situation where uptight buyers are afraid of an uptight audience.

The threat: Before 1968, there were no film ratings. There was an unwritten code among film producers about the appropriateness of imagery. But you didn’t shop for a weekend flick for the kids by looking for a G-rating. Jack Valenti, the press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, and Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal Studios, set up the MPAA as a means for Hollywood to self-regulate with a defined ratings system. The threat was, if Hollywood didn’t start rating itself, Congress would. And nobody wanted that. To Valenti and the MPAA, the threat that Congress or state/local governments might feel obliged to step in and attempt to regulate movies was the sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over everyone’s head.

It wasn’t long before the MPAA turned its lobbying attention to theater owners, which knuckled under the pressure to accept and enforce the rating systems. With the advent of VHS and DVD sales, retailers also accepted the ratings system — Target and Wal-Mart won’t stock film products rated NC-17, out of a desire to maintain their perception as a wholesome retailer of quality product. In the minds of Target and Wal-Mart buyers, they aren’t censoring anyone or limiting anyone’s artistic freedom. They just don’t want the bad stuff on their shelves, so Mom doesn’t get flustered. Retailers have decided that, in their stores, Mom would simply prefer not having to explain to her 8-year-old what XXX stands for while she’s shopping for diapers and shampoo.

In the game business, the ESRB is nearly an exact duplicate of the MPAA, in terms of its mission and its effect on the games business. Under the same pressure as the film studios in the 60s, game publishers in the 90s crafted essentially an identical response. And retailers reacted in turn exactly the same way as they did for films. No game is sold without a rating, and AO = NC-17.

In other words, no one’s stopping you from making the game you want to make. But the customers — the retailers — aren’t always buying what you’re selling.

This isn’t censorship. This is merely a commonly accepted business practice.

Imagine all the coffee houses in the country set up an independent roasting board that placed a specific rating on each type of coffee. “This cup rated MJ for Mocha Java.” Now imagine all the coffee houses independently decided that French Roast was too dark and spicy for most people, so they all stopped buying French Roast altogether. French Roast isn’t illegal. It’s just that Starbucks doesn’t choose to carry it. Keep rolling with the coffee analogy — imagine that angry Roastmasters started bickering that Starbucks’ decision “limits their artistic freedom” as roasters of coffee beans. And another group started shouting about how “Starbucks is just a tool of the Man.”

Asinine, right?

It isn’t censorship. It’s just a bad business model. We need to stop using the C-word before it loses all meaning in the discussion, and focus energies on crafting an effective business model that works for all parties.

We asked if there any more comments from the producers, and closing the discussion turned out to be really difficult – there were more new questions than answers. Ben continued by saying about the bottom line:


Is the world a better place with [AO rated] Manhunt 2 unable to be played by the public….no idea really.

I’d like to think so but hey thats rather subjective isnt it…

Hmmm isn’t that part of the issue anyway?

GameProducer.net What do you readers think?

The discussion continues at the GameProducer.net forums – feel free to share your view on this matter, and read more comments from other developers and readers.

The opinions expressed by these producers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, plans or positions of the companies where they work at.

Juuso Hietalahti