When I lectured at a college in the UK we did a lot of hands-on broadcast engineering. In my lab I had a couple of high-power TV transmitters -- one VHF and one UHF -- while in another building we had a complete TV studio with associated telecine and recording equipment. I normally had no involvement with the baseband equipment operation but some of the research that went on there fell into my lap for tutoring when it involved mathematics. One of the pieces of work (which I cannot now find online) dealt with the effect of violence in TV content on the mind of the young.
For an early 1970s project it was ambitious, and the research and the statistics bogged down the work for quite a while. But the pattern that emerged quite clearly showed that there were links to viewing violence and acting on it later in life. Hundreds of offenders, convicted of violent behavior, indicated that again and again in their answers to questionnaires.
That research has been duplicated in different ways thousands of times since and, in fact, a Google search for “Effect of TV violence” brings up 433,000 sources. One particularly readable paper
, emanating from Canada, tracks the awareness that the growing child has at different ages. Some countries are so worried about the content being inappropriate in various programming that they have watershed rules. In the UK, for example, “adult” content (including the Doctor Who
anagram spinoff, Torchwood
) cannot be shown before 9 PM. In Canada, every program with sexual or violent content, very mild for my standards - parental guidance for the Food Network?
- must be pre-announced with a warning -- both audio and video -- of potential upsets. And those warnings are repeated coming out of every commercial break.
But those programs are not banned. Network television in the US is, by contrast, absurdly prudish, but they only bleep the audio channel but do not ban. On the video side the networks just do not go there for fear of the reaction, and subsequent fines, from the FCC.
Few people are immune or isolated from watching violence, one way or another; if we are warned about it we can avoid it if that is what we wish. But not allowing the material to be shown at all
? That’s Draconian and rather smacks of Big Brother. One man’s porn is another’s titillation; one man’s obscene is another’s artistic. “I know it when I see it” is a popular escape phrase to help someone else understand where you are coming from, but can there ever be a line defined that everyone can accept?
The obscenity laws in Britain prevented, for many years, the publication of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
although the book was freely available in France and Germany, so there were many copies in England. (If you haven’t read it, the first half is mostly a rant against the poor and working class -- and how they deserved their situation -- before getting into a rather sweetly written sexual arena with an affair between her ladyship and the horny gamekeeper, Mellors, in some considerable detail. Both attributed names to their sexual organs with Mellors dubbing his "John Thomas": slang that continues in England to this day, although few could tell you the origins.)
In 1959 Penguin Books decided it was an opportune time to test the obscenity laws. It printed 200,000 copies of the book in paperback and sent some copies to the Director of Public Prosecutions, urging him to prosecute them. He promptly did, and the jury trial in the Old Bailey in 1960 was one of the earliest media circuses that I remember. The jury determined
that on balance the overall value of the book was not defined by the sexual content. Penguin sold out of the 200,000 copies in days.
So, is censorship always bad? Or stupid? Or inviting even better business returns? Prohibition of alcohol in the US merely created millionaires ready to provide it. Sanctions against countries inevitably enrich the black market suppliers, often at the level of the country being sanctioned. Banning drugs just makes them more expensive… One could go on and on with common sense usually losing out to profits.
But there is one
area where I think we really do need to step in and show some guts. Some video games
Manhunt 2 was to have been released in the US in July 2007 but with ratings problems (Only Adult was issued at first) and a few tweaks it finally came out on October 31, 2007, with an M (for mature) rating. As Amazon
puts it, discounting the $39.99 price to $29.99, “Like the original Manhunt, Manhunt 2 isn't for the faint-hearted ( ESRB rating is M for Mature). Death scenes are particularly gruesome, gory and bloody. Improved AI and advanced graphics make the game seem more realistic. Coupled with an eery (sic) soundtrack and sensational audio effects, Manhunt 2 is a sure-fire sequel for fans in search for frenzied action, explosive gameplay, and pulse-tingling adventure.”
The tenor of the game is that two freaks, the remains of a dumb science experiment, are locked up in Dixmor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. They must murder their way out. But, don’t worry, the executions are at different quality levels, color coded: white for a hasty death, yellow for a violent one, and red for gruesome. Want to check out the trailers
? [Insert your favorite network parental advisory here.]
In the UK (with Ireland following soon after) any kind of rating was refused, effectively banning the game’s sale. Now, the developers, Rockstar Games, have won the chance to appeal the decision of the British Board of Film Classification. The ban has been applied twice, but if the BBFC don’t quickly react to the appeal ,Manhunt 2 could go on sale virtually immediately
, available to anyone over 18.
To their shame in three such civilized cities, Manhunt 2 was developed for the PS2 in London, for the Wii in Toronto, and for the PSP in Leeds (UK).
Ratings for games are meaningless, since there is no system possible to verify who is actually playing them, and if we accept that content really does affect the mind -- and I certainly do -- then, surely, gratuitous violence in the form of an individual performing the cold-blooded executions of others is a clear line that we simply cannot allow our children to cross. Everyday gratuitous violence? OK, maybe it provides fodder for recruitment into football teams and the Marines. But gratuitous executions? Enough, already! What’s the next thing to come? Gratuitous rape as well? Or am I getting so past it that I have missed that is already