The current furor over the banning of Manhunt 2 (whether explicit in the case of Australia and Ireland, or implicit in the AO rating provided by the ESRB or the non-rating from the BBFC) has resulted in heated debates about the nature of censorship, the potency of the ESRB and other industry-run ratings agencies, and the legitimacy of video gaming as art. Often the comparison between films, where graphic depictions of sadistic violence are treated with major releases and million dollar ad campaigns, and video games, where a pixellated ass can delay a game’s release by weeks, boils down to complaints of unfair treatment by unknowledgeable and largely fearful populace.
This “parents just don’t understand” philosophy is hardly new. As new forms of art emerge, various groups crawl out of the woodwork to decry the society-destroying influence of comic books, heavy metal, gangsta rap, and television. Of all the current forms of entertainment, movies provide the closest analogue to video gaming: both are multibillion dollar industries, the budget for producing a new, AAA title is in the millions on average, both have the capability to tell deep, meaningful stories or simply be enjoyable time-wasters. Both media even have internal, studio-run agencies (the MPAA in the case of films and the ESRB in the case of games) that are designed to regulate content so the government doesn’t have to. So what, if anything, does the history of film and film regulation have to tell us about the troubles gamers and game companies face today? Well before the ESRB, before Jack Thompson, before Tipper Gore, even before the MPAA itself, there was…
THE HAYS CODE
(cue dramatic music)
(For players at home, see if you can count the similarities between the movie industry as described and the games industry today. For health reasons, making a drinking game out of this is not advisable.)
Back around 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that movies were not protected free speech, stating , “...the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit ... not to be regarded.. , as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.
” The Court also said “[Films] may be used for evil
" and therefore "We cannot regard [the censorship of movies] as beyond the power of government
” (This tact has been tried unsuccessfully a few times relating to video games). In the wake of this decision, towns and cities began forming censorship boards to determine what people could and could not see. Toss in a few sensationalized scandals (standard Sex, Drugs, and Jazz Music stuff) and Hollywood became the symbol of all that is wrong with the world today. To avoid what many saw as inevitable federal regulation, the movie studios formed the precursor to the MPAA, the Motion Pictures Producers And Distributors Association (MPPDA) as a way to self-regulate the seeming torrents of smut oozing from theatre screens around the country. (Swap a few acronyms and change “sex scandal” to “school shooting” for the video gaming version).
For the first 8 years of the MPPDA’s existence, it took a more tepid, “Please don’t show a booby” approach to censorship, but in 1930 a more rigid Production Code, sometimes called the Hays Code (after the head of the MPPDA Will H. Hays) was enacted. Among the guidelines of the code included 3 “General Principles”:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Along with these, there were more specific examples of what can and can’t (mostly can’t) be shown in film, including nudity, sex, lustful kissing, mixed race couples, homosexuality and STD’s (lumped together as “sex perversion”), gratuitous murder, swearing, drug use, and the catch-all “vulgarity.”
The formation of the Catholic (eventually National) Legion of Decency (presumably with a floating, cross-shaped fortress with lots of round tables in front of large screens) in 1934 brought the awesome boycotting power of millions of god-warriors to theatres around the country. And so, facing pressure from outside groups like the CLOD and various PTA and women’s groups, the code was enforced until 1967 when MGM Studios, a member of what was now called the MPAA, released the film Blow Up without a Production Code approval. Enforcement became impossible, so the MPAA went from a restrictive organization to a ratings one, no longer requiring decency standards for films and paving the way for future rating systems on television and video games.
Culturally, the United States of 1930’s bears some striking resemblance to how many people see American culture today. In his article More Sinned Against than Sinning: The Fabrications of "Pre-Code Cinema"
, film professor Richard Maltby states:
“There is little evidence that there was any widespread concern among moviegoers about the moral quality of the entertainment they consumed in the early 1930s. There is, however, a good deal of evidence of concern about moviegoing in the period, although the groups and people most vociferously complaining about the moral viciousness of Hollywood were not themselves part of the audience. Contrary to the mythology of “Pre-Code cinema”, the early 1930s was in fact a period of increasing moral conservatism in American culture, in which the movie industry, along with other institutions of representation, failed to keep pace with a growing demand for a “return to decency” in American life. The protests about movies by women's organizations and Parent-Teacher Associations was a moral panic expressing class and cultural anxieties at a time of social, economic and political uncertainty; movie content was the site of this moral panic, rather than the cause of it.”
So what does all this mean, besides a semi-interesting anecdote about pre-WW2 movies and a little bit of dot-connecting? This fight has been fought, and won, before. Granted some of the circumstances are different, the biggest one being that delivery mechanism for games is owned wholly by producers of games, namely Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. One of the biggest contributors to the destruction of the original Production Code was the breakup of the studio-owned theatres and the growing popularity of “arthouse” cinemas. Unless an analogous, third-party console outside the realm of the ESRB is developed (or the console manufacturers realize the majority of the users of their systems are well over the age of 18 and figure out the world won’t end if they release an AO game, a more likely and frankly better solution), this will remain a significant obstacle. However, don’t lose heart, comrades. It may be a long fight, but it is a fight we are willing to stick to and win.
Suck it Hays!
(unless noted, quotes cribbed from Wikipedia, but research done elsewhere) read