Volumes have already been written regarding the recent clash between several conservative pundits and the gaming community over ‘objectionable’ material in BioWare’s newest addition to the RPG genre, Mass Effect. What the conservative pundits found abhorrent was that the game offers the option for the main character to develop a romantic involvement with a bi-sexual member of another species which culminates in a 40 second love scene somewhere around the 30 hour mark of game play. Yet another editorial in defense of the game would likely serve little to no purpose. (A forthcoming review of Mass Effect will hopefully provide all the defense the game needs from misinformed critics.) In this instance, my reason for setting finger to keyboard is to focus briefly on the detrimental effects of the rapidly escalating, conservatively rooted, child protection fetish.
For the two of you out there who do not know how this controversy began, here is what happened:
On January 11th, 2008, in an article entitled Sex in Video Game Makes Waves Through Industry the conservative news outlet Cybercast News Service reported that according to pro-family analysts (I love these terms of theirs. How could you disagree with a “pro-family” analyst? What are you from San Francisco?): “Mass Effect is marketed to young kids and presents a moral danger to them…” The article goes on to quote one Cathy Ruse of the ultra conservative Family Research Council. In an attempt to simply document the chronology of this festival of irrationality, I offer the quotes from Ruse without comment (for now):
“There are cultural implications for feeding porn to kids in this way… when you do this, you’re teaching them a distorted lesson about human sexuality and human dignity. These are lessons that they will take with them into adulthood and ultimately society.”
“When you expose children, whose brains and personalities are still developing, to degrading and harmful material, you’ve got to believe that’s going to have an effect on the way that they view themselves, others, and the world. It is profoundly naive to suggest that feeding children graphic sexual material is going to have no effect on their psyche. That’s just stupid to think that.”
Inspired by the above mentioned article, conservative commentator/blogger Kevin McCullough published an outraged article of his own on townhall.com entitled The ‘Sex Box’ Race for President.” Due to the widespread outcry on the part of the gaming community in response to some of the assertions in McCullough’s article, it has since been taken down from townhall. As a matter of fact, at this point, finding the article in its entirety proves to be virtually impossible. Still, I offer a couple of quotes from McCullough that are representative of the general tone of the piece:
“It’s called “Mass Effect” and it allows its players… to engage in the most realistic sex acts ever conceived. One can custom design the shape, form, bodies, race, hair style, breast size of the images they wish to “engage” and then watch in crystal clear, LCD, 54 inch screen, HD clarity as the video game “persons” hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of.”
And a little later in the article:
“…And because of the digital chip age in which we live – “Mass Effect” can be customized to sodomize whatever, whoever, however, the game player wishes.”
Soon after the article hit the ether, McCullough’s inbox became flooded with e-mails from outraged gamers. Many of them were no doubt written by insipid youths with poor vocabularies who found it easier to insult rather than argue in a cogent manner. But no doubt there were many e mails that lucidly pointed out the absurdity of McCullough’s assertions. This in turn prompted the following response from the pundit on January 15th, 2008: Life Lessons: GAMERs “Rights” to Lesbo-Alien Sex!
In particular, McCullough’s point # 4 proceeds thusly:
“They (the angry gamers who wrote him) also took outrageous umbrage to the claims I made in the column that the game is marketed to teen-age boys. (Though many of those giving me feedback happened to be under the age of 17/18.) The common argument is that because the game is marked “M” that means that no kid under 17/18 (depending on your state) would be allowed access to it. Asinine thinking through and through though. Simply like the fact that movie theaters are this night allowing children underage to purchase tickets, refusing to ask for ID, these games are being sold over the counter by the major chain stores with no enforcement of the age limit suggestions posted on the games themselves. The Gamers act as though the packaging itself is all the responsibility that needs to be taken. Of course they themselves probably started hiding their collection of Hustler Magazine under their beds when they were eleven and have thus a good idea of how the “letter of the law” differs from the “intent.” Thus the explanation of why they were so sore with me for pointing out the obvious. The silly “M” label stands for, and accomplishes precious little.
(I know how this sounds and likely how it makes you feel but please be patient, remember we are holding off on comments.)
On January 16th, after his ‘response’ did little to quell the anger of the mighty ‘Gamer’ McCullough published a milder piece titled: “Gaming “M” ratings follow-up.”
In it, he grudgingly admits to the following:
“As my callers had pointed out, the ratings enforcement – particularly by nationwide chains had dropped some forty percent between 2000 and 2005. In 2000, 85% of minors attempting to purchase “M” rated video games were successful in doing so. In 2005, that number had been sharply reduced to 42%. In other words 58% of the time children were now unable to purchase “M” rated games. Despite my own feelings about removing “M” rated games from easy access points all together (National retailers), I have to admit – it appears the enforcement of the rating system has taken a decided turn toward improvement.”
But in an obvious face-saving move adds:
“I still do concur with my original position that the objectionable content in Mass Effect is still offensive, and should be kept out of the hands of those under age.”
The story should have ended here. However…
Undeterred by the possibility of incurring similar wrath from the ‘gaming giant,’ on January 21, 2008, a Fox News segment “The Live Desk with Martha MacCallum” discussed Mass Effect with the heading “‘SE’XBOX? New video game shows full digital nudity and sex.” According to Wikipedia, a four member panel slammed Mass Effect as ‘Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas,’ doubted the ability of parents to keep their children from playing inappropriate games, and suggested that the game’s raters (ESRB) ‘should have their heads examined’ for not giving it an Adults Only rating, and asked what had happened to Atari (1977), Pinball and Pac-Man (1980).” (Please note these years. The idea of the ‘rosy past’ will be germane in what’s to follow.
As we can plainly see, the underlying theme of the rhetoric issuing from the detractors of Mass Effect is that the game is smut and smut hurts children. Understandably, the gaming community responded by pointing out the obvious fallacy in this strain of thought by refuting the first portion of the argument. “Mass Effect is NOT smut!” we screamed at the top of our lungs. And indeed we were right to do so, since anyone who has played the game or has seen the cut scene that started this whole mess, would know that McCullough’s assertions about rampant sodomy are pure nonsense and as such barely warrant serious commentary.
Thus, on one hand the gamer outcry has concentrated on how ‘Mass Effect is not smut’ and on the other, as McCullough himself notes, we have vehemently argued that the enforcement of the M rating is indeed working. I mean we actually got the man to apologize and renounce his statement that: “The silly “M” label stands for, and accomplishes precious little.” And so, We the Gamers of the United States of America called this a victory and went back to our button mashing.
However, I would argue that our two points (1. Mass Effect is not smut and 2. the enforcement of the “M” rating is working) are at conflict with each other. By arguing that the “M” rating is working, we are implicitly assenting to the idea that Mass Effect, and other games like it, warrant rating/censorship and that they do indeed depict content (and ultimately ideas) that would be best obscured from the minds of those fragile members of our society we deem not “M”ature enough: children. It is precisely this contradiction that even leaves room for someone like McCullough to end his apology with a phrase that undoes that very apology: “I still do concur with my original position that the objectionable content in Mass Effect is still offensive, and should be kept out of the hands of those under age.” With this phrase we are back to square one: Mass Effect is smut and smut hurts children.
What I want to take issue with is the fact that nowhere in the battle of words did the defenders of Mass Effect concentrate on taking on the second portion of the above argument: ‘smut hurts children.’
Using children as an excuse for ideologically motivated stances is nothing new. Politicians, religious leaders, man and women of power have been doing it for a very long time. As a matter of fact, on a macro level, we can trace the desire to protect our young to biology. (Although that evolutionary desire undoubtedly ties with physical harm: ‘I don’t want my offspring to be eaten by a tiger.’) However, transferring this desire to the realm of morality is a whole another can of worms… an ugly, rusty can, with sharp jagged edges, full of guilt-ridden, self-righteous, zealous worms.
The application of morality, and especially the normatives that stem from the fire and brimstone branch of the Judeo-Christian tradition, pervert the perfectly natural impulse of protecting ones young (from tigers) into an impulse of insulating ones young (from ideas). At the risk of sounding obvious, I will say that this is a bad thing.
“Save the children” is an easy but incredibly dangerous cry. Typically, it emanates purely from the selfish psychological and emotional needs of the parent and ultimately causes the actual child at hand more harm than good. It prevents the child from facing reality in its adulthood, armed with reason. In fact, growth towards reason is what defines our passage into adulthood. But the conservative agenda of censorship pushes towards the infantilization of this country. Conservative proponents of censorship, reduce the consumers of aesthetic and artistic output to a child like condition. They condescend to us as if we were all children. The explicit exaltation of innocence as a preeminent virtue (children must not be aware of even the concept of blue alien love) debilitates the adult drive towards reason.
The conservative pundits, who have trashed Mass Effect, equate innocence with ignorance of certain ideas. Ignorance keeps people in the dark. And people in the dark are easily manipulated. (usually with fear) In this way, infantilization becomes a tool of exercising power over a pliable populace. I would argue that this system, in turn, is a byproduct of the fact that neo-con ideals are rooted in a highly paternalistic and authoritarian worldview. Think of the idolization of Reagan as a benevolent, wise, father-figure who knows best. The conservatives would like to frame us all as ‘children’ of Reagan. Children who have not yet graduated to the age of reason, who can not be trusted to make their own decisions and who are better of taking the word of authority on faith. Like religion. And like religion their ideology is at odds with reason. Sentiments expressed by Ms. Ruse, and cited earlier in this article, are a perfect example.
Ideas like: we must not expose children “whose brains and personalities are still developing” to certain concepts, stunt the growth towards reason. The nostalgic allusions to the primitive, ‘harmless,’ games of yore, in the Fox News piece, reverse it. Pac-Man? Pinball? It’s their way of pining for a “simpler” time. A time when we left it all to Beaver, father knew best, and mom had that stove that turns into an ironing board. You know, a time when we were kids, with no adult thoughts to trouble us. A time that, I might add, never actually existed and was always a construct of a feeble mind with patriarchal and authoritarian tendencies. (For a more scholarly and in depth look at the idea of infantilization as it pertains to gender, race and censorship, I refer you to Lauren Berlant’s excellent work, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. For something slightly less academic take a look at this) But you do not have to be a scholar to read a phrase like:
“…we ARE allowed to censor smut in this nation, and it has been defined already by the Supreme Court. (Thus why we are not Europe with our “blue” channel running on broadcast television nightly.)” — McCullough.
…and see that it actually advocates and exalts the infantilization of America. A move that ultimately is nothing but a push for the suspension of reason as a modus operandi for a civilized nation.
Can we really be surprised that they attacked Mass Effect: a game that centers on making difficult, grown up, choices; a game that advocates diversity and harmony among different races; a game that teaches responsibility? What child would not benefit from exposure to these ideas? Do children not benefit from exposure to Brothers Grimm fairytales and Yertle the Turtle alike? These are classic works of great literally and social value, that touch on purely adult themes couched in the guise of children’s stories. The Grimms have introduced generations of children to difficult concepts like death, often in a very dark and mature fashion. Dr. Seuss tackles complex issues like environmentalism and authoritarianism.
As children, we learn from these sources and are better adults for it. In this sense, I am actually in agreement with Ms. Ruse when she says that children take the lessons of their childhood “into adulthood and ultimately society.” I simply don’t believe that there are some lessons that we should shield our precious little kids from.
The point that has to be stressed most urgently in response to those like Mr. McCullough is not that the “M” rating is working in keeping the adult and child appropriate material neatly segregated, but that there is nothing in Mass Effect that an underage person should be protected from and much that is beneficial to the development of a young mind.
Children who are treated like children, grow up to be adults who act like children. Children who are treated like adults, grow up to be adults who act like adults. And a nation that treats itself like a child regresses and devolves even as is skips and hops to its ultimate intellectual demise.