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Interactivity and politics: Why games have more potential to be part of political discussion than other media

Games are a medium with a great number of depictions of violence. They are also placed under disproportionate levels of scrutiny compared to other media. One fallacy is the persistence of the stereotype that children are the core audience of games, which is statistically inaccurate. Secondly, there is the idea that interactivity creates a higher level of sympathy or possibility of psychological desensitisation to immoral acts.

The Australian Classification Board (ACB) required that a certain weapon be removed from Saints Row IV because it involved a depiction of sexual assault. In its media release, the ACB indicated that it refused classification to that version of the game because it included ‘interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context’. The act portrayed in the game was undeniably sexual assault and did violate Australia’s established laws regarding decency. However, the fact that the ACB lists the interactivity element as one adding to the justification of refusing classification tells of a predisposition against interactive media.

The idea that ‘playing’ as the character committing these acts makes one more likely to be affected by it on a psychological level lacks empirical evidence and can be attributed to an understanding of the medium that is essentially mind over matter. That is, the player’s control over a player character is imaginary. Policy makers have allowed the marketing of games, as placing gamers in control, to influence their decision-making. In games, the animations are predetermined and speech pre-recorded. The absurd reality is that it is legal to watch footage of the same sequence online while holding a controller in one’s hands and pressing the buttons, which is essentially the same experience as playing the game. The only missing element is the (entirely self-aware) experience of choosing which pre-programmed act the game depicts. Choosing which violent movie to press the play button on is no different, and neither is acting in a fictionally violent film. Those who hold this bias towards games think that interactivity is what motivates their increased scrutiny towards games. Interactivity is not the mental basis for these decisions; the idea of the medium as being for children is. The political landscape is prejudicial about games not because they can be played, but, unconsciously, because of the traditional image of children sitting on the floor being warped by the horror.

There is an unfortunate cognitive dissonance between this and the fact that games with adult content can and are subject to laws about their content. Politicians forget that the rules about violent games, like those about cigarettes, alcohol and violent films, usually fall to parents and guardians to uphold. In an environment in which this personal responsibility is often de-emphasised in favour of more exciting things, it is easy to see how the scapegoat is perpetuated.

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