I feel I must begin this with my own actual thoughts on the topic of Censorship, because todays angle from me isn’t entirely on the actual issue of ‘Censorship’ but the current situational ‘Censorship’ that we’re experiencing at this point (Late 2018). So, here goes…
… I don’t like it and I disagree with it on principle.
That’s not to say I think all subjects are fair game, nor that anyone can do anything – I mean, as long as Ride to Hell: Retribution exists, there’s definitely at least a marginal case for the topic at hand. But I’d rather SEE these things than not. I’d like to know who is a monumental douche-canoe and who isn’t. People complain about “Hate Speech” – call me weird and odd all you want but I’d rather those people get heard, if only because then we can go, “Oh, you’re an ASSHOLE! Right, gotcha, not sticking around, have fun.” Give them a platform and let common sense just thin out the herd. What’s that… Pewdiepie? Wait, he’s still a thing?! I thought it was Paul Logan these days… what… Logan Paul? What’s the difference? I just can’t tell these people apart anymore… wait… what?!
If I don’t like something… I don’t buy it. That or I just tear into it at the end of the year. And yes, sometimes I do play a game I know I’m going to hate partly because I do a worst list and also partly because I’m clearly a masochistic weirdo who laughed when he got his septum pierced. Twice.
Censorship isn’t, for me, about sanitising content – though that is a consequence of the action. Rather, it’s about the potential obfuscation of more prescient and troubling matters behind the scenes. Hide behind an iron-clad sheet of moral armour, or sink yourself into a crowd of millions of otherwise innocent bystanders, and it’s all the more difficult for whistle-blowers and other concerned parties to expose failings and take down those who need to be ousted. Censorship is marketed as protecting the masses – but in reality, it usually ends up protecting those in positions of power who are reluctant to relinquish it, and that’s usually because they’re not… doing… good… things…
There’s a nice deep start to kick things off here, eh?
Anyway, the current ‘Censorship’ Debate, as regards Sony and the PlayStation 4, to me isn’t smacking of censorious undertones at all. Oh, censorship is a consequence of their actions and believe me I have more than a few concerns about Sony’s leadership and current state of the PlayStation division going forward. But it’s easy to forget that censorship can equally be a side-effect of other problems, not a root cause. Left unchecked and untreated, that can absolutely become a breeding ground for problems, but by itself – it’s not immediately smacking me as an iron fist.
So what in the name of Silent Hills is going on here?
Well, I’ve come to a conclusion based on some research, some claims by developers and a dollop of good ol’ common sense and I think this sudden whiplash-inducing (and let’s be honest, highly hypocritical) U-Turn from Sony is more than likely caused… by Loot Crates.
Now now, I’m not going to talk about “Loot Crates”. I think we’re all well apprised of THAT situation at this point. But Loot Crates are, I fear, the catalyst that’s probably driven the PlayStation to make some fairly poor decisions to protect its brand.
Let’s be Crystal Clear on this front; moral panics in video games are nothing new.
We had them back in the early 70’s, with Arcade games like Gotcha! and their joysticks modelled to look like boobs (intentional or accidental is still debated 45 years later, I’m cynical enough to believe intent on this one… it was the 1970’s!). We’ve been through the Video Nasties and Devil-Worship panics of the 1980’s. We went through the Helen Lovejoy “Won’t Someone PLEASE Think Of The Children” panic of the 1990’s kicked off by the likes of Mortal Kombat and Doom. We went through the 2000’s and the GTA Panic, where people started to blame video games for mass shootings despite a dearth of evidence and otherwise falling crime statistics.
And yes, we’ve been through one already this decade too – the gender-equality and/or ethics issue of GamerGate, depending on which side you fell on. But that’s still quite raw so I still won’t be talking about that. Yet.
And no doubt as we broach 2020 and beyond, there’ll be another one. Call me pessimistic, but at this point, I’d probably put money on that.
But let’s reverse to the 1990’s. Mortal Kombat was the primary catalyst, and Doom was reflective of this too, of a move to more “believable” violence. Mortal Kombat’s graphical style, scanning in actual people and their poses who were then animated to beat the living hell out of each other and then pull a “Fatality” at the end, led to an at-the-time quite considerable moral panic. How realistic were video games going to get, and how far could they actually go?
What a quaint and naive time, eh?
In the UK, this still had to go through the BBFC at the time – we already had an age rating system because of course we did, so whilst we had our moral busybodies… they were somewhat toothless if the BBFC let it through. But no such thing existed in America for video games as I understand it, and Congress was considering implementing strict controls of video games to the FCC. Basically, the idea was to hand control of what was and wasn’t acceptable to what was, at the time, mocked as a hangover of the Reagan era in terms of its moral compass.
So the industry had a choice – submit to that role, or set up an independent body to rate content and enact some semblance of control over its content. The industry, at the time wisely, chose to create the ESA – which led to the creation of the ESRB. Which is why you’ve got those content warnings and ratings. Do they work? Probably not. But it is likely better than the alternative.
And that was enough for a very long time. It even weathered the constant pounding of the likes of Jack Thompson and even Anita Sarkeesian. The ESA wasn’t perfect, and neither was the ESRB, but ultimately it became the Maginot Line by which things had to pass before hitting the industry. Which time and time again, they couldn’t. The ESA was strong enough a presence and enough of a defence that even in the wake of two further Moral Panics, the industry largely weathered the storm.
… this is where we slip Loot Crates back into the fray.
Loot Crates have been an absolute disaster for the ESA and ESRB. Despite having actual ratings that in theory could and SHOULD have been utilised to remind companies that yes, this might be considered gambling in some places, the ESA – unsurprisingly I suppose now – took the side of the industry, of EA and Activision and WB Interactive. Loot Crates aren’t gambling, they said. No-one could possibly consider this gambling. You don’t know what you’re talking about. How can anyone think randomly-dispensed loot with no actual monetary value that you pay real money for could ever be called Gambling?
And now dozens of countries have investigations ongoing. Underage Gambling has risen almost 500% in the UK in two years. And some countries have already outright banned Loot Crates entirely, creating a schism that makes an even launch of a game across multiple regions all the more complicated.
Even though really, consumers were already downvoting and boycotting these games.
This has fundamentally weakened the strength of the ESA “Shield”, as it were.
Not just that it created a gap in the armour that political interference has been able to get through, because political nonsense is all toxic hot air so… it doesn’t take much of a gap… but that it now leaves the industry, at large, even more exposed to more current sociopolitical paradigm shifts now the structural integrity of the ESA has been struck a blow. It should be consumers who get the ultimate say – but the more you worry about a vocal minority, the more power that minority gets in having a say, which sometimes often goes against the current consumers interests.
This, finally getting back to Sony, is why the PlayStation is probably going into lockdown in terms of what it sees as “problematic content”. Sony, right now, has the most to lose; it’s the current generational market leader. Sony has to focus on the upcoming generational transition from Gen-8 to Gen-9 hardware, because it’s very easy to stuff this up and hand a generation to your competition from the word “Go”. Sony has both benefited from (PS1, PS2, PS4) and succumbed to (PS3, PSP, PS Vita) this in the past.
The PlayStation 4 has its problems – as I’ve said before, it’s been five years and it is well short of that 100 million units mark, which probably hasn’t pleased its shareholders – but to lose it all because the company is finally exposed to a proper moral panic? That’s… actually dangerous. Not least that Sony has had these problems in the past in terms of advertising, but more that the PlayStation itself has never really known anything but the ESA. It’s always had that barrier in the way, unlike Nintendo and even Microsoft, whose presence in this industry predate the ESA and ESRB.
The end result? Sony, perhaps only temporarily, goes into lockdown and tries hard to effectively keep away anything that could result in some kind of social media backlash on the scale of GamerGate. At least until the ESA Shield is patched up or they find a workable work-around.
And that is a perfectly reasonable response to have. It’s also the worst thing to do, like Paradoxical Undressing in regards to Hypothermia. The natural instinct from time to time actually only serves to make things worse, because you have to ask… is this what the wider market wants? And if not, then who are you trying to please?
In this case, Nintendo has suddenly become “the cool dad”. Censorship-free M-rated games? Waifu’s galore? Eroge tiddies? Sure. Just don’t tell mom and we’re good, okay?
Now, could this become a long-term issue for Sony? Sure. But I do understand there’s a real concern to protect the PlayStation brand, just as Nintendo is equally right to exploit that for their own personal gain as well. That’s marketing for you. You’re already seeing the natural rebalancing happening, even if it feels a little weird to see Nintendo embracing all the Waifu’s that it can physically get its hands on. And with Joker coming as Smash DLC, all the cute anime boys as well.
But they’re Japanese. Is… is that racist stereotyping or pointing out the obvious, I really can’t tell which is which anymore…
Take Steam – Valve grew too big and too fat and too greedy and now young upstart The Epic Store (it needs a punchier name, guys!) is promising more money and less censorious policies to developers. This happens naturally. All the time. Equal and opposite reactions. Competition eventually arrives to correct the current status quo. That’s just how things are. A shift in one direction will inevitably see someone else shift back in the other direction – an eternal tug-of-war.
So, Sony is starting to feel a little restrictive? Nintendo and/or Microsoft loosen their own belts for the occasion. Eventually, Sony will relent, and things will settle down and we’ll barely even remember any of this, just like everyone has forgotten the Wii U. And the Kinect. And the PS Network Hack. And the Red Ring of Death. And the whole Creepy Swapnote thing. You know. Kind of important events that we should probably care about and remember far more than we kind of actually do?
And I think the ESA will bounce back too. I think the Loot Crate thing was absolutely necessary for them. It reminds them that their role, to protect the industry, actually may at times necessitate saying “No” to its more egregious monetary excesses. The penalty for failing to do this is to fail to justify its existence, and the vast sums of money it raises from the industry (and for the industry) annually.
In the end… this isn’t actually that big of a deal.
And considering this is probably one of my longest posts in a good while… that’s… weird. You’d think I was exploding with splenetic bile but… no. More than 2000 words and all I can muster here is cool indifference with a side order of “be vigilant” and a tall, cold glass of “keep calm and carry on”.
The markets and events within them shift from time to time. We get genre shifts all the time, and yes, enjoy it whilst it lasts Epic Games and Fortnite for you, too, will eventually find yourself replaced by “the new hotness” when it turns up, just like you supplanted PUBG. We see a popularity shift every generation, one company’s top spot is taken by another down the road (Atari-Nintendo-Sega-Sony-Sony-Nintendo-Sony, in order from Gen-2, because Gen-1 was really odd). Studios rise and fall. And EA screws up and then makes a comeback somehow, and we honestly think this time it might have changed (I don’t think it ever will at this point).
It feels disconcerting and disorientating being in the middle of one of those little sudden shifts. You absolutely can feel the earth beneath your feet move in those cases and you can honestly think that this is some massive event that’s going to change the industry. But it’s not “The Big One”; because the industry is still somewhat standing. When it messes up and companies begin to quite literally collapse to worthless on the stock market – that’ll be “The Big One”. And that’s when we can sit up and take some notice and know that things need to change radically.
Until then, I think the industry should employ The Sucker Rule here. If it can’t work out which of its rivals is messing up the most right now, then the person messing up the most is probably themselves. Because your competition is never, ever, going to correct you.
Napoleon Bonaparte was once quoted as saying; “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
That’s console wars for you. And war… never changes…