God bless—Odin bless?—the politically correct Swedes, who are currently working on what might become that country’s ugliest export since Tor Johnson.
As the shouting match over the role and depiction of gender and sexuality in video games that’s part of “Gamergate” fires up the blogosphere, Sweden’s “government-funded innovation agency” Vinnova are, along with the country’s video game association, developing a ratings system to track “sexist” content in games. Given our own country’s history of slapping “voluntary” ratings (read: implemented under threat of government regulation) on everything from movies to comic books to record albums to TV shows to…video games, it probably won’t be long before a “Rated S for Sexism” designation starts getting debated or enacted right here in the Land of the Free.
The rating scheme’s project manager, reports The Local, “said it was unclear at this stage if all video games produced in Sweden would be given a label, or if companies developing games that promoted equality would be given some kind of certification to use for their own marketing purposes.” Sure, the manager grants, video games can be a “form of cultural expression” but “they can be so much more than this… Video games can help us to create more diverse workplaces and can even change the way we think about things.”
Here’s a thought experiment: What if he were talking about novels and poetry instead? Or opera, ballet, and fine-art painting? Or even Sweden’s own August Strindberg, who believed that “Woman…is useful only as an ovary and womb?”. You know, the classy sorts of stuff that we educated types consume with our critical faculties rather than the junk culture that the masses gobble down like the Chocolate Wonderfall at Golden Corral?
My guess is that most people—with the exception of the touchy undergrads at my alma mater Rutgers calling for “trigger warnings” before reading The Great Gatsby—would run screaming from the idea of a “government-funded innovation agency” goading writers, composers, and poets into using their art to help “create more diverse workplaces.”
Yet when it comes to pop culture, especially lucrative low-brow fare like video games, there remains a much-higher tolerance for censorship, ratings, and other means of restricting or improving “dangerous” forms of expression. In her excellent 2002 book Is Art Good for Us?, communications professor Joli Jensen explains some of the reasons for this. She argues that in most societies, a “guardian class” of political and social leaders assumes what she calls “an instrumental view” of culture. In this understanding, art is like a medicine or a toxin, transforming its audience for good or ill. If you read “bad” books or listen to “bad” music, you’ll become a bad person. Responsible guardians tend to make distinctions between art (good) and media (bad, or at least suspect) and try to police the latter for the good of society.
This basic equation underwrote fear of comic books in the 1950s, when the left-wing psychiatrist Fredric Wertham fretted that the popularity of a hyper-masculine Wonder Woman would turn girls into lesbians (she was an Amazon, after all!) and scenes of domestic bliss involving Bruce Wayne and his young ward “Dick” Grayson (the scare quotes are in Wertham’s classic Seduction of the Innocent) would limpen the wrists of adolescent boys. As a result of Wertham’s mendacious hyperventilating before Congress, the Comics Code was born and entire genres of comics were killed off. It took decades for comics to recover and emerge as an adult art form.
The same logic was at work in the 1986 report on pornography put together by Attorney General Edwin Meese, which claimed a causal relationship between the consumption of pornography and assaults against women. “The evidence says,” explains the report, “that the images that people are exposed to bear a causal relationship to their behavior.” The result? A massive campaign against dirty movies and skin mags by federal and state-level law enforcement that chilled speech while having no obvious effect on crimes against women.
In fact—and flatly contradicting the Meese Report and a slew of similar arguments about violence in TV and movies causing mayhem in the real world—sex crimes and violent crimes have all declined precipitously as popular culture has only gotten increasingly explicit, sexual, and gory.
Jensen can help explain that, too. Whether high or low, “culture” doesn’t affect us the way many of us worry about. It’s not garbage in, garbage out. The instrumental view of culture has it wrong, she argues, and should be replaced with what she calls an “expressive view.” Culture—the production and consumption of art, music, video games, you name it—“is a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world.” While Jensen is all for debating about “what is a good or bad aesthetic experience and what is good or bad cultural expression,” she stresses “it’s important that we fundamentally respect the tastes and choices of people who are choosing forms different than our own.” In the often-ugly Gamergate discussions over the depiction and role of women both in particular games and in the gaming industry itself, mutual respect is often at a minimum (death threats and calls for violence against people certainly are despicable). But the fights going on now are precisely one of the ways that relatively new cultural forms grow and change as their audiences grow and change.
Yet there’s always a temptation to shut down conversation, especially for people who think they can control the means of cultural production through coercive means. It was a huge scandal back in 2000 when Salon discovered that the federal drug czar’s office under Bill Clinton leaned on network shows such as ER and Beverly Hills 90210 to fill “their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on a complex government advertising subsidy.” It got so bad, Salon reported, that “government officials and their contractors began approving, and in some cases altering, the scripts of shows before they were aired to conform with the government’s anti-drug messages.”
Besides the mendacity of it all, such a scheme misses the obvious truth that “the audience has a mind of its own.” Which brings us back to Sweden’s proposed ratings system and top-down noodging of video game makers to “change the way we think about things” in a proper progressive direction. At least the Swedish plan is public knowledge. But it’s just as unlikely to have any effect on gender relations or how people play video games as a drug-czar-approved episode of Beverly Hills 90210 kept kids from becoming crackheads.