Tweet of the Day: The Soul of the Censor
Anita Sarkeesian is not a modern day Frederic Wertham and her videos are not a current version of Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham agenda was simple, to prove that media had a direct impact on the behavior of minors, an argument made many times before and after him:
What the effects will be, and how deep-seated, is not so easy to determine. And here Dr. Wertham is not very helpful. When he tells us of children who have been found hanging, with a comic-book nearby opened to a picture of a hanging, one can readily share his alarm. The fact that these children were probably seriously disturbed before they ever read a comic book, and the fact that fantasies of hanging are in any case common among children, does not relieve one of the feeling that comic books may have provided the immediate stimulus that led to these deaths. Even if there were no children who actually hanged themselves, is it conceivable that comic books which play so directly and so graphically on their deepest anxieties should be without evil consequences? On the other hand, when Dr. Wertham tells us of children who have injured themselves trying to fly because they have read Superman or Captain Marvel, one becomes skeptical. Children always want to fly and are always likely to try it. The elimination of Superman will not eliminate this sort of incident. Like many other children, I made my own attempt to fly after seeing Peter Pan; as I recall, I didn’t really expect it to work, but I thought: who knows?
The fear of censorship led to the establishment of the Comic Book Code and the end of the so called “Crime Comic.” The same thing happened in the movie industry with the Hayes Code, and it still survives in the music industry, and the gaming industry. So, it is easy to believe that Ms. Sarkeesian is following on Wertham’s well worn path by pointing out some of the failings of the industry.
But there is a difference between critique and censorship. Just like there is no direct correlation between any given a particular piece of art and a violent act, there is no correlation between well structured criticism and censorship. At no point has Ms. Sarkeesian called for the censorship of games, only pointed out troubling trends in them. In fact, she has called for the opposite, for opening games to other experiences, for developers to move on from tired tropes, to acknowledge that their audience is wider than they previously thought. This is not the typical scapegoating of the politicians looking for easy solutions to complex social problems or the panicked response by industry. This is not the insertion of politics in an area free of politics, since no area of our lives is free of politics. If video games are art, then this is a long overdue criticism of said art.
There are two ironies connected to the whole thing. The first one is that the tendency when such codes pass their shelf life is for content creators to go extreme. It lead to the Dark/Dork Age of comics where simply punching somebody in the face was not enough, you had to eviscerate them. Same in movies with and video games. If you want to show that you are, “mature,” then you splatter sex and gore all over the page/screen. But as Jim Sterling reminds us doing that is the height of immaturity. The second irony is the response by Sarkeesian’s critics has been so low brow, so horrid, that it might lead many to believe that, yes, video games are a bad influence on the youth. The truth is that this torrent of hateful misogyny springs forth not from the influence of games on their audience but in the natural trend of fans to self-identify as a group.
The truth is that art does have an impact in our lives. How much? That is the question. Criticism forces content creators to step up to the plate and own their work. Censorship stifles their ability to express themselves. Knowing the difference will save us a lot of headaches.