Film essays · Video Games

The 21st Century fight for freedom of speech and expression.

creative expression pic.

It was a significant Christmas/ New Year season for this thing we call artistic expression. Over the months of December and January we’ve seen a petition succeed in getting Grand Theft Auto V withdrawn from certain outlets in Australia and New Zealand; The Interview have its initial release cancelled due to terrorist threats from a group linked with North Korea; Hatred get pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation from its service users in an unprecedented act from Valve; and of course, the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in response to an offensive printed cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

Two of these I have previously touched on – the second in another article I wrote at the time. The third received least mainstream attention out of the four, due no doubt to the much smaller scale of its publisher. The last has been written about, spoken about, dissected and argued over at length over the past month and hardly needs my input to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

Together, though, all of these situations form an interesting narrative of where art, and the artists producing it, stand going forward into the rest of this century. On the one hand you may argue recent events show greater attempts at control and inhibition; a subsequent lack of freedom to say what one truly feels needs to be said. But conversely I think the reactions to all of them are what the future will focus on – what it will see, is an outcry in defense of things like decision-making and the right to hold your own individual thoughts and opinions. What some perspective will show is, in fact, a victory for the sides that came under attack in these instances.

That’s not to say it didn’t come with a high price. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, their freedom of expression came at the terrible, unjustified price of eleven lives. Yet if those same journalists who were murdered could be given the choice, I’m not sure they would’ve changed anything about what led to their deaths – to do so with such foreknowledge, would have been to say this sort of violence actually works. Whether or not you agreed with their decisions or their opinions, you must realise that for them to have then changed their opinion on threat of death, if they had been given the option, would not have been a victory for anything but fear.

It all sounds so absurd. You can’t force someone to change an opinion to suit your own – sure, you can try fooling them into it using propaganda, and if you must do so that’s certainly the classier method, but there is a good reason this hasn’t led to lasting success for those groups or governments that have relied on it. Sooner or later, people wise up to it. Sooner or later they begin to see behind the curtain. At that point they will arrive at an important choice; whether to form (and act on) an opinion of their own, or stay quiet for (perhaps) the sake of their lives, at the expense of all that makes them a unique individual.

However, I’m jumping ahead of myself there. And I don’t want this post to bear too much of a condemnatory tone, as the best way to fight the forces you disagree with is not through empty threats or angry, isolated statements, but rather with balanced, persuasive arguments and (ideally) evidence to back them up. Such conviction is what drives me to use my free time to do this kind of thing, after all.

Let’s start at the beginning – of December, that is, when the first of these newsworthy topics emerged.

December 3rd/4th: Target AU, K-mart and a major retailer in New Zealand pull Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves because it is apparently “not a product our customers want us to sell”. This was due to a petition started on 29th November and clearly written by people who had never played the game but were keen to sensationalise its contents to suit their own ends. By 3rd December, this petition had 40,000 signatures. On 4th December, Target AU withdrew the game from its shelves as requested, though precisely why they were doing so remained unclear. If it was to protect the ‘little boys’ whom the petition claimed this game was having such a bad influence on, then they should not have been marketing a clearly 18-rated game towards that demographic in the first place.

Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market...
Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market…

In their subsequent statement in response to the petition, Target AU seemed to imply they were making this decision to satisfy their customers following “extensive community and customer concern about the game”. However, this petition did not actually represent the majority view of their customers, and there was no indication given that Target had widened the net to take other views into account.

Moreover the woman who started the petition did so after seeing clips of the game on YouTube. One does not need to look too closely at it to get a sense of the offence caused by said ‘YouTube clips’ (we can’t account for the possible bad taste of the gamer who posted them, nor can we really know whether they were in bad taste or if the petition is simply exaggerating, and forgive me for being cynical but I’d place my bets on the latter). It claims in the opening paragraph that “the incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points”, going on to say “GTA V literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women”, while it “links sexual arousal and violence”.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty horrific game. Maybe I’d sign a petition too if such a game was really being marketed towards boys. The trouble is, that description is not representative of Grand Theft Auto V in the slightest. While it is possible to kill people (men and women) in the game, this alone is not its overall ‘incentive’. Furthermore I’m confused by the use of the term ‘sexual violence’. True, you can choose to sleep with prostitutes. True you have the capability to commit violence against them if you really wish (just as you can do so against most other people in the game world).

However, this is not encouraged or seen as mandatory in order ‘to proceed’, and the two acts are not directly linked at all. It is possible to have sex (though the act is never explicitly shown) and commit violence but to commit ‘sexual violence’? It sounds like you’re making up your own narrative there.

GTA V’s ‘health point’ system, if that primitive term is what we’re using, isn’t linked to killing or violence in the game, nor is there any special reward for treating women as the petition describes, and in fact there is much more violence committed against men than women in the overall plot.

Also I must clarify, if further clarification is needed, that in my own experience of a very enjoyable play through of Grand Theft Auto V, at no point did I myself feel outwardly violent, or abusive towards women, and certainly not sexually aroused by such things – nor did the game ever intentionally try to spark these connections in the mind of its player. If other gamers have these experiences while playing then I’d daresay they have certain underlying issues that have nothing to do with the game itself and should probably seek help, or at least have a (presumably) much-needed conversation with someone they trust. And as an actual player and consumer of this product, frankly I feel more qualified than the petition’s author, who is neither of those, to determine its potential qualities and the effects it can have on other gamers.

Basically I’m trying to highlight that this petition is blatantly misrepresentative of the game, and this kind of thing is especially important to me because it itself is representative of a larger consensus that video games serve no better purpose than playthings for little children and adolescent boys. Furthermore it tries again to link violence in video games with violence in real life (for which there is literally no evidence in support). This is all summed up in one seemingly authoritative yet grossly misleading statement from the petition; “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women”.

You may be one who also finds the content of GTA V to be crude and offensive. You may find the very idea of what it lets you do through your own free will to be abhorrent. That’s your opinion, and it’s fine. You don’t have to buy the game or expose yourself to it if you have no wish to do so. However, when you then see a petition like this you may feel excited by the fact that other people agree with you, and more than that; they are claiming this game is a great burden and possible danger to your sons and daughters. Future generations are at stake and it requires action! And when it’s put to you like this, your inclination of not liking this game, or any game in general, could be only one small step away from subsequently branding them all evil and thinking you need to ‘protect’ future generations from their influence.

See how easily people can get caught up in something because it was presented to them in a convincing way? But make no mistake: this petition is based on no evidence, therefore should not have been successful, and the only way it got so much support was through fear-mongering in its use of sensationalised wording.

...don't you agree?
…don’t you agree?

In normal circumstances sales figures would tell a retailer whether or not customers are happy with a particular product. After all, if you don’t like a product, you don’t buy it, and by not buying it you are not supporting it, and this is ultimately the deciding factor for any business when it comes to the decision-making process of which products they should continue selling. I realise that high sales figures don’t necessarily correlate with the best products (as someone who still loses sleep over the fact that the general public contributed to Transformers: Age of Extinction becoming 2014’s highest grossing film, it hurts me as much as anyone), but it is still the right of the consumer to decide for themselves what they give their money to. In this case the consumer’s decision was taken out of their hands, and that’s the main problem.

Having said that, this decision – even more curious considering it came over a year after GTA V’s original release on PS3 – by these few retailers on the other side of the world will have no lasting impact on the game’s success in the long run. Grand Theft Auto V is still the bestselling entertainment product of all time, and that will be its legacy. What’s important here is the principle of the matter – what it could mean for smaller publishers and studios who don’t have the kind of commercial success behind them that the GTA series has. Which brings me to our second case study…

December 15th: A video game called Hatred, developed by the appropriately named Destructive Creations, is pulled from Steam Greenlight after briefly appearing on the service. Now, for those who are not PC gamers, this will need a little explanation; Steam Greenlight is a service through which gamers can help choose which games are added to Steam (hence being given the ‘green light’). Steam itself is a digital distribution service – basically somewhere gamers can go to download current releases. So Greenlight is kind of like a preview service to the real thing, partly to gauge how a game may be received but mainly just to check that it actually works gameplay-wise.

Developed by a company called Valve, Steam is very much a service for the users. However, on this occasion, Hatred was pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation with its users. So the users, who usually decide which games to approve, were for some reason (which remained unclear) not allowed to make the decision for themselves this time around. This was a pretty unprecedented move by Valve, as far as I know.

Further context gives us a hint as to what they may have been thinking. Hatred is, after all, a pretty unprecedented game itself, at least as far as its content is concerned. In it you play as a merciless serial killer who goes on a ‘genocide crusade’ for no reason other than that he passionately hates humanity. Sounds tasteless, I know, and probably not a game I’ll be investing my time in at any point soon, but I’d still argue that it is important for games to be able to touch on these kinds of things without people suddenly concluding that gamers “can’t handle it”.

Hatred pic 1.

Psychopaths have been portrayed in movies for many years, so why are games seen as inferior in the topics they’re permitted to tackle? You could argue it’s different because a game actually puts you directly in control of a character rather than observing from a distance, but I think this makes games more effective, not less, at tackling taboo issues. The idea that one is going to turn into a serial killer purely from playing this game is rather absurd, considering how unattractive the experience is, and someone who has the capacity to genuinely enjoy killing other people will have, as I said before, other issues that will be present regardless of the media they’re exposed to.

If anything, allowing one to experience the effects of such things first-hand, in the direct shoes of a character, is more likely to put you off ever wanting to try it in real life, providing it’s done effectively courtesy of good game development (as a side note, there is actually closer evidence to suggest this kind of thing than there is for the ‘video games cause violence’ argument).

Think of rape, for example. Yeah you may cringe at my mentioning it and you might not like even thinking about it, but that taboo right there is precisely why so many rapists get away with their crime, and predominantly why so many people are disgusted when video games even dare suggest approaching it. To tackle the issue, to show the horrible impact it can have on a woman, or indeed a man, is a very good thing if it helps to educate those who perhaps don’t appreciate the awful psychological effects it can lead to in a person’s life. Video games have the potential to explore this in even greater detail than films ever could, if they’re given the freedom to do so, precisely because they do put you directly in the shoes of a character.

I firmly believe video games must be given this liberty, to achieve these kinds of effects and truly take their place alongside books and films as a respected artistic medium. Yet despite being at a development stage where they do have the capacity to tackle such topics, they’re being creatively stifled by a mainstream society that still thinks any game which doesn’t appeal to children or teenage boys is somehow inappropriate. For as long as that mode of thinking persists, publishers and developers are going to be much less confident in their creative freedoms.

Curiously, on December 16th, only a day after Hatred was removed from Steam by Valve, it reappeared with a personal apology from Gabe Newell (co-founder and managing director of Valve). Was he not involved in the original decision? What were their reasons for taking it down in the first place? Such questions remain unanswered, leaving us to fill in the rather obvious blanks, and the game was subsequently approved to Steam on December 29th. As far as its sales figures go, time will tell on that one. But whatever the reaction from the industry, the least this game will do is get people talking about issues they could easily have gone without talking about, and I think that can only be a good thing in the long run.

You're up, Kim Jong...
You’re up, Kim Jong…

December 16th/17th: Sony pulls American ‘action comedy’ film The Interview from theatrical distribution before it’s even released. Another somewhat unprecedented move that I have already covered, though there is some helpful further context I could set…

In June 2014, the North Korean government, having gotten wind of the film’s production, threatened ‘merciless action’ if the film’s distributor (Columbia Pictures) went ahead with the release. Thus release was delayed from the original date of October 10th to December 25th, while the film was apparently edited to make it more ‘acceptable’ to North Korea (this itself, if true, was an absurd concession, though the planned Christmas day release was perhaps a sign that certain powers sought to maximise profits from their headline-making film). In November, Sony’s computer systems were hacked by a group believed to have ties to North Korea, the “Guardians of Peace” (GoP), who branded the film a “movie of terrorism”.

On December 16th, the GoP threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that dared show the film. No evidence existed to suggest they even had the means of carrying out said attacks, though the threat alone was enough for a number of North American cinema chains to cancel screenings ‘in the interest of safety’ on December 17th. Sony it seems had ‘no choice’ but to cancel the film’s release – after all, they would have been left with a pretty farcical situation if they had went ahead with it but cinemas refused to actually screen it.

Despite initially saying it had no plans to release the film, Sony has since done so digitally and opened the film in a limited run in selected cinemas. It has consequently become Sony’s most successful digital release, earning $40 million in digital rentals alone. While they may still ultimately lose out on the money they could have gained with a full theatrical run, there’s no question that The Interview’s unorthodox publicity has played a large part in boosting sales for what is actually, from all accounts, a rather average movie. So ultimately, we could justifiably ask: who’s the real victor in this situation?

The film has also, somewhat abruptly, arrived on UK shores (literally; it opened theatrically today). I inevitably feel inclined to see it myself for a review, at which point I will give my final thoughts on what it potentially means for a film industry in which an average movie can become the most talked about of the year, while something like The Babadook goes largely under the radar. In that sense there is an injustice here.

In another sense, though, it was incredibly encouraging to see prominent public figures, including President Barack Obama, stand up for the right to make such a movie as this, even though it does contain offensive content from North Korea’s point of view. While we could question whether someone like Obama was speaking up more because the precious pride of his country was at stake (it was, after all, a little humiliating that North Korea was essentially holding their film industry at ransom), this vocal support for ‘freedom of expression’ was nonetheless a heartening reminder of how highly regarded movies have become in modern culture. They can now offend entire countries and be defended for their right to do so.

To be ‘offended’ in this way is perhaps not quite the great injustice some make it out to be – in fact usually we can learn a lot from sensing it within ourselves – and even if it was, this again represented a simple case of “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”. We know ultimately, of course, North Korea didn’t want the film to be shown only because it could harm the god-like status their leader holds, thanks to the intense propaganda created by their government. Is showing this status to be potentially false an ‘offence’? From some within North Korea, it certainly is. Does this make it wrong for a movie like The Interview to contain such provocative suggestions?

Whether you think it wrong or not is beside the point; being permitted to make this distinction for ourselves in the first place is the real point. And it is the very idea of this kind of conversation happening at all that North Korea found inherently offensive, which represents the real problem. This leads on nicely to my final case, which actually bears a few striking similarities to this one.

Now before I continue, perhaps it is best that I preface the following with a caution. I know some of you reading this may feel stronger about the Charlie Hebdo situation than you felt about the previous cases. I am no exception.

Not only would I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right of freedom to print the offensive Muhammad cartoon that led to this tragedy, I also unequivocally think it was the right thing to do artistically, for similar reasons as I have detailed above relating to how North Korea views its god-like leader. The situations are largely similar; the main difference here is that we live among Muslims in our own country. It can be a little more difficult when those voicing their offence are somewhat closer to home.

But when it comes to how we view religion there exists another taboo, both inside and out, that says their own respective god-like figure should somehow be immune to the critique and (dare I say) satiric mockery that we would apply to most other things deemed more ‘acceptable’ targets. This is largely due, I think, to the negative arguments, insults and bitterness that already exist in interactions between certain groups and their subsequent need to become vigorously defensive over their own beliefs – some of which dictate that all others must be wrong. If Charlie Hebdo has shown us anything, it is that this current climate has to change (and ‘Je suis Charlie’ may just be the spark that triggers it) – because these murders ‘in the name of…’ are exemplary of how dangerous it can be.

I’m not saying you need to simply ‘get used to it’ or that you have to like opposing views to your own. The same rules apply to the likes of a Charlie Hebdo magazine as in any other situation; if you find it offensive, you’re under no obligation to give it your support or your attention. But you must accept that other people will, and other people do, and this is within their freedom of choice to do so. You have no right, for as long as you are human like the rest of us, to take that away from them. You’re welcome to give them reasons why they shouldn’t support something or give it their attention, but when you start using unnecessarily dramatic language and picking things out of thin air to pass of as ‘facts’ in support of your own biased argument (as was the case in the above GTA V petition), you are being dishonest not only with that other person, but with yourself. I understand it’s tempting to do this kind of thing when you feel passionate about a particular subject, but in relaxing it a little more, it’s not unthinkable you could actually learn something new from those you would otherwise consider your opponents.

This train of thought all stems from an incident on January 7th at 11.30am: two masked gunmen, armed with assault rifles, force their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They fire 50 shots while shouting “Allah Akbar” (Arabic for ‘God is the greatest’), killing 11 people and injuring 11 others.

On January 11th, about two million people including more than 40 world leaders gather in Paris for a rally of national unity – a further 3.7 million people joined in demonstrations across France. The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ became a common slogan to show solidarity and support for those involved in the tragedy and communicate one clear message: our freedom of expression is worth defending in principle, even when we don’t necessarily agree on how to use it.

The remaining Charlie Hebdo staff team has continued weekly publications; issue No. 1178 sold out a print run of seven million copies in 6 languages. This is in contrast to its typical French-only 60,000 run. Again this is exemplary of the aggressor’s tactics backfiring on them; in the modern era, with the news coverage that a story of this kind receives, a tragic story inevitably turns into profitable publicity. Sentiment is a powerful marketing tool, after all.

Many more people have witnessed the Muhammad cartoon now than would ever have been the case otherwise. Those who killed in his name have only succeeded in degrading it further, rather than instilling the fear they sought to create. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo has become a kind of martyr for free speech; in the end it seems quite the opposite of the death knell for ‘freedom of expression’ that some have made it out to be.

Yet in their first issue after the attack the remaining team didn’t call for any reaction except forgiveness, alongside a tearful cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover. No, this wasn’t a stubborn sign that they wouldn’t back down; it was a sign of solidarity, not against Islam, but with it (albeit in their signature satiric style, which looks likely to remain intact going forward). For all the criticism that has gone their way since this incident happened, I think it was the classiest response they could’ve given. Not one of fear, but of forgiveness, humour and even an offer of friendship, from a team that have lost many of their own closest friends.

But I don’t find their ‘humour’ funny, you may respond. And here’s a little secret: neither did I. The cover that provoked this whole situation isn’t exactly hilarious, or even well drawn (perhaps that was the problem). Heck, like most of you I had no idea this magazine even existed until a few weeks ago. I didn’t care before all of this happened and I’m not suddenly rushing to buy a subscription now. They can go back to their own niche market when all of this has subsided and none of you have to endorse them or pay them any more attention. Ironically, I think religious extremism has already done enough of that in this case.

Whether their style is to your own personal taste or not is, again, beside the real point. This entire post covers my best attempts to explain why, and moreover, what that real point actually is. But perhaps one final ironic comparison will help, both to punctuate what I’ve been trying to illustrate and to eradicate any suspicion of bias you may have of me.

You see, I’m far from the only one to have realised the ignorance of that GTA V petition. It was exemplary of how much you can distort the image of something when you take certain parts of it out of context. And there were some hilarious tongue-in-cheek responses to it, as many other people started coming up with absurd petitions of their own to highlight the faults of the original (satire once again proving it’s the best mode of cutting through that mythical curtain).

None of them highlighted this to better effect than this petition to ‘withdraw the Holy Bible from shelves’, which uses much of the same language as the GTA V version (and incidentally has 62,000 supporters to GTA V’s 48,000). Like its GTA counterpart, it takes the Bible completely out of context, portraying it in a way that seems more bloody, more violent and more abusive to women than GTA V could ever be. And you know what? When you decide to play by these rules, that’s exactly what the Bible becomes; a bloody, violent, misogynistic text.

If you’re a Christian yourself, you can probably recall a point when you’ve been left frustrated by others labelling the Bible in this way. Gamers who’ve played and know GTA V well, will feel a similar way when people put the kind of ignorant labels on video games that this GTA V petition did. If you can understand that thanks to such a tongue-in-cheek illustration, then we likely find ourselves on the same page in relation to everything else I’ve talked about here. Or maybe not, and that’s fine too.

Conversations are fine, and many opinions have been changed because of them. But one must understand that for someone else to have a different opinion to you is also fine, and changing it accordingly should be their choice to do so. If they do that because you’ve won them round with a persuasive case, that’s great; certainly a better victory than if you’d done so through deception.

I think most of us would agree on that. But if, perhaps, you’re one who thinks you already have all the right answers to which you must only ‘win others round’ using the occasional scare tactic, word trickery or verbal abuse, I’m afraid you may be left frustrated, even disappointed, by the direction society is heading in.

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