hc9: Chris Chesher, Games studies and the Hot Coffee moral panic

Games studies and the Hot Coffee moral panic

Chris Chesher, August 2005

Computer games are on trial once again, after a sex scandal involving Carl Johnson, the central character in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA). At first, the game’s distributor, Rockstar Games, denied the charge that Carl could have sex with his girlfriend (after she invites him in for hot coffee ). Finally Rockstar had to admit that the bedroom door could in fact be unlocked with a virtual key downloadable over the Internet, and, yes, he could in fact do it. The punishment has been swift. In Australia, the game is now banned. In the US, the game’s classification has been upgraded to AO, and several States are introducing legislation to restrict games in some way. Even a politician such as the otherwise socially liberal Hilary Clinton has called for a public inquiry into this incident, and into the games industry more broadly.

Because reports of these scenes are taken out of context, the bans can seem reasonable enough. It is hard to argue for simulated sex or murderous rampages. However, if bans are supposedly based on community standards, they ignore and disrespect the values of millions of players who have already chosen to buy, play and enjoy these games. Many of these people would make very different readings of GTA:SA as intelligently conceived, self-consciously ironic, loaded with subversive humour and expressing political thought. They value this game for xtending the form beyond the conventional genres of fantasy, military and sports simulations, and for inverting the convention that the protagonist should be a hero who fights evil and upholds everything right and good. Many of them would ask why a new work of fiction in any medium should not explore contemporary experiences of ethnicity, class, popular culture and, yes, even sexuality. A complete ban on this game is a much harsher regulatory response than would apply to a work in any other media form. Games studies researchers need to take a leading role in offering alternatives to the growing inclination to try to settle the complex ethics around computer games by imposing bans and rigid regulations. There are wider ethical stakes, since repression closes down opportunities for communities to make sense of new media forms, and for games to deal with the full spectrum of contemporary experience. There is a real risk now that the current hysteria will result in legislation (and/or self-regulation) that will close down the range of themes that games are able to address. As most games researchers know, many games, including GTA:SA are emerging as platforms for social critique, and their regulation (even when it is couched in terms of defending the innocent) is nothing less than political censorship.

Games are increasingly complex, often compelling, sometimes powerfully affecting and even unsettling. This power offers ethical opportunities as well as risks, particularly if the energies that provocative games release can be diverted into critical engagement, rather than reactionary and self-serving moral condemnation and draconian legislation. Games are no less fictions – artifices deliberately shaped for particular effect – than other media. It is only the tragic politics of reaction and unfamiliarity with the form that is closing down opportunities for examining such games with the same respect, critical and ethical attention as Hamlet, Crime and Punishment and Taxi Driver. Of course, games should not be beyond criticism. Nor should the social value of games, or their risks, be overstated. On the contrary, they should be open to genuine critical attention, and not closed by vendettas backed by opportunistic politicians and questionable science. With increasingly sophisticated critical resources, Game Studies is offering ways of recognising the aesthetic and ethical implications of how simulations differ from narratives as a form of representation. For example, GTA:SA can be read as a form of social satire based on a very creative response to limitations shared by all computer games. Players often expect to have almost unlimited choices to explore a huge game world. However, they quickly realise that what they can do is actually quite limited. They can perform actions such as walking; running; stealing cars; driving; punching; shooting, and so on; and they can also trigger scripted missions. GTA: SA offers deviant behaviours as the standard actions, forcing players to act against norms of legal and socially acceptable behaviour. They must play anti-hero, with all the ethical ambiguities and perverse pleasures that this presents. Within the specific aesthetics of computer game simulations, GTA: SA is a very clever parody of the liberal myth of individual choice. Using the discourse of the computer game, the interactive dynamics constitute an argument that a working class black man like CJ, living in south central Los Angeles, actually has heavily constrained forms of power, even if the dominant belief system of his society claims that he lives in a land of opportunity for all. In such a simulation, where players have only the illusion of choice, the tension between promised freedom and actual constraint is manifest as a knowing black humour that permeates the game. The contentious sex game, which it seems that the distributors considered too hot for the original release, extends the parodic game simulation into the taboo area of sexuality. This feature is consistent with a game that also experiments with interactive representations of eating junk food until CJ vomits, exercising until CJ gets buffed, dancing until CJ becomes popular, going on dates until CJ gets hot coffee. Of course CJ also breaks many other taboos against violent behaviours such as invading homes, street racing, killing witnesses, robbing banks, and so on. The sex scenes themselves, which are almost always reported rather than shown and analysed with any care, are certainly provocative, but they cannot be written off as pornography. However, these more complex readings are not available to those who can’t see past their outrage.

Unfortunately, though, the current crisis is no laughing matter. The Hot Coffee scandal has produced a complex and chaotic event of a type that we have seen too many times before. The moves to smother this young media form at birth recall the cultural histories of other emerging media (particularly in the US, but also in Australia). Regulation of Hollywood cinema from 1934 to the 1970s, and comic books from 1955 stunted these media forms for a generation, following uncannily similar moral panics. As passions circulate around an emerging cultural form, they tend to accelerate almost independently of any agent. One group’s expression of outrage about the object actually enhances the value of that object to the other group by adding the mystique of what is forbidden. The intransigence of players and supporters feeds back to enhance the outrage even further. The feedback loop operates as a cybernetic libidinal economy that creates at least two flows of value: one invested in the object, and the other invested in opposing it. This dynamic, uncomfortable though it can often be, actually produces value for all parties in the debate. These forces of amplification and polarisation are not destined to reach mutual understanding, but to separate further those with investments in the game as a singular object from those invested in reacting to it, according to the processes of distinction and the social constitution of taste analysed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Such splits are not conflicts over the same ground. Contradictory attitudes to the object frame and reinforce particular identities and ideologies, outlining the boundaries of social fields: game fans, game developers, religiously faithful, community protectors and defenders of family and community values. The intensities of the game object – its images, narratives and interactive scenarios – help support simultaneous accumulations of cultural capital in those with an interest in the game and those with interests in opposing it. They become resources for programs of recruitment and affiliation. On the one hand, these controversies advertise the game and offer a stronger sense of identity for players. On the other, they provoke regulatory reactions of various forms from the state.

Games researchers can make at least two contributions to the regulatory crisis around computer games. First, they can build a critical aesthetic and ethical lexicon to explore the richness and complexity of games texts, player experiences and emerging communities around games. There are some excellent recent examples. Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You argues that far from dumbing down the population to some lowest common denominator, overall popular culture has in fact increased the sophistication of thought. James Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy relates the pleasure of games to how they provoke learning more effectively than conventional education. Mikolaj Dymek and Thomas Lennerfors’ recent paper at DiGRA, “Race, humour and interactive ethics in Grand Theft Auto III,” analyses the humour in GTA to contend that players don’t get pleasure from feeling superior by reaffirming stereotypes about race (the phthonic theory), but present players with disjunctions that draw attention to their own assumptions (the incongruity theory).

Second, games researchers can draw attention to the social and institutional contexts in which the regulatory political agendas are being forwarded. All positions in this debate are associated with interests. The most visible interests are those vested in the opposite poles of the debate. Both get the most benefit from accentuating the popular sense of crisis. On the one hand, games distributors alternate between provoking minor moral panics for their publicity value, and fighting the political and economic consequences of reactive regulation. On the other, moral entrepreneurs benefit by fuelling the anxieties of those that they claim to be protecting. Wider communities, including parents and kids, developers and players, tend to be excluded from these power plays. Their experiences with games are more complex, diverse and ambivalent, embedded in the wider processes of making sense of life today. Banning games, or imposing tight self-regulatory codes that restrict their content is not going to make the world any less complex or difficult. Quite the reverse. It will close down the capacity of this emerging media form to think through these complexities and challenges. Chris Chesher is Director of Arts Informatics (http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/departs/informatics) at the University of Sydney, a transdisciplinary digital cultures program. His recent work on games includes co-editing a special edition of Media International Australia (http://emsah.uq.edu.au/mia/issues/miacp110.html) with Brigid Costello (2003), papers at the Plaything (2003) and Interaction: Systems, Practice and Theory (http://research.it.uts.edu.au/creative/interaction/aw.php?papers=1) (2004) conferences, a public lecture at the National Library of Australia (2004), and an article in the online journal Scan (2003). He is currently co-editing an issue of Fibreculture Journal with Julian Kuecklich on the theme games networks, due for publication in early 2006.

Thanks to Tanya Krzywinska and the other Hardcore editors, as well as David Sutton, Mark Johnson and Cathy O’Callaghan for useful feedback in writing this piece.


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