A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

The War on Gaming; The morally justifiable invasion of our right to entertainment?

In Home Affairs, Ideology on November 16, 2009 at 8:14 pm

By Stephen Wan

The game release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2 is just the latest saga in the continuing battle between over-sensitive parents, horrified high ground moralists and a certain Labour MP versus the big business of entertainment, their legions of gamers, and now apparently facebook groups. Previous attempts to suppress certain games spring to mind, such as Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto, both of which were considered too violent to possibly be allowed to be sold in our shops (although they were eventually). What marks this particularly incident out is the immense popularity this game is projected to have – apparently, the most popular video game of all time.

So, why should we ban this game? The game is pretty damn violent – the developers themselves warn repeatedly of the upsetting nature of some scenes in the game. You don’t get many games where you’re meant to pretend to be Russians and start shooting some citizens in an airport. Keith Vaz, Labour MP, was particularly adamant that this game should be prevented at all costs from falling into the hands of the young; one certainly has to admire his dedication to the cause; recall his previous campaign to ban a game depicting schoolboy bullying. Of course, its not just the UK that’s been considering it – Germany, the EU and Venezuela are the main governments that spring to mind that have attempted to ban violent video games. Heck, Russia’s now decided to ban, or at least censor, the game; looks like the Russians are pretty pissed at constantly being the bad guys in American video games (which is fair enough really). Furthermore, studies show that people who play video games tend to be more anti-social, have heightened anxiety and increased levels of obesity. Also, current age restrictions don’t work – all too frequently, parents simply buy their children the violent game (I myself was one of those children). And then you get the copycat murders – Thailand had to ban ‘Grant Theft Auto’ after a video game style murder that occurred there. Any good government with a sense of responsibility towards its citizens would see that it would be better if people were prevented from playing this violent games.

Well, why should we allow this game to go ahead? If you advocate a form of negative liberty, that the government should really just leave us alone, then you’d know why; what right does the government have to tell me how to enjoy myself and how to spend my money? Also, we don’t want to damage the competitive gaming industry in the country, which is certainly what would happen if we were to apply a blanket ban on violent games. Current restrictions on who can purchase games, in the form of age certificates, are more than adequate to prevent unsuitable material falling into the hands of minors, and if parents choose to buy their children the games, it’s their choice. Besides, statistics that attempt to show increased anti-social behaviour are meaningless – is it not more likely that those who are anti-social would be more likely to play video games, not that video games cause anti-social behaviour?

There are interesting arguments to be had on both sides, both political and scientific. It seems unlikely that any real scientific evidence can be drawn up that really puts the case against video games; and even if so, video games have been shown to have positive effects such as improvements in problem-solving, recognition and reaction times.

What’s more fascinating is the question of negative versus positive liberty that is apparent here. Isaiah Berlin’s clarification is still and probably will always be relevant when it comes to the government.

Anyway, let’s look a little deeper into this problem of liberty. Isaiah Berlin’s work, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, separated out two definitions of liberty – Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of constraints; literally, the ability to do whatever you like (so long as you’re not stopping someone else doing so). Positive Liberty is ‘self-mastery’ or the ability to decide one’s own destiny.

What’s the difference? It might not be apparent at first, but the general idea is this. NL is the government leaving you mostly alone to do what you like, as long as you’re not harming other people. That’s pretty much what people like Mill and Bentham advocated. And they literally meant ‘physical’ harm – its too hard to determine other forms of ‘harm’. So, if your actions make people poor, or hungry, that’s alright really (some people may argue). PL is more that the government makes sure you live the best kind of life, one that is ‘fufilling’. An example might be the government’s plans to force teenagers to stay in some sort of education up to the age of 18; the teenagers are being forced to do something to give them a more fufilling life in the future, and to thus be more ‘free’.

There are innumerable problems with both theories of course. Negative Liberty as I implied earlier seems to allow all kinds of horrible things to happen, like social inequality, and people to essentially destroy themselves (abeit it being their choice to do so). Positive Liberty was criticised by Berlin because it all so often led to totalitarian states that seemed to know what was best for its citizens.

So, CoD:MW 2 – is it right that we let our citizens play some morally corrupting game? But by banning it, do we become fascists that impinge on the freedom that we hold so dear? I don’t know whether violent video games should be banned or not, but I’m fairly certain this debate is far, far from over. I’ll leave you to think about this; I’m off to buy this game and see what the fuss is all about.


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