Technology: Should Google censor a dogfighting game?
If you believe violent video games should be censored because they dehumanize people, you've got your work cut out for you. For starters, the Supreme Court is decidedly not on your side; see, for example, the decisions in Brown v Entertainment Merchants Assn., which struck down a California law banning the sale of excessively violent games to minors, or in United States v Stevens, which struck down a federal law against the sale of videos depicting cruelty to animals.
Nevertheless, activists have taken to the virtual streets hoping to persuade Google to remove Kage Games' virtual dogfighting game, KG Dogfighting, from its Android Market for smartphone apps. Change.org is one of the groups supporting the effort; an online petition there has attracted more than 41,000 signatories. According to the site:
This app makes a game out of dog fighting -- celebrating cruelty against animals and contributing to the attitude that there's nothing wrong with using animals in bloodsports. This type of media fuels animal abuse and breed specific legislation, which costs innocent dogs their lives...
Dog fighting is a felony across all 50 states. "KG Dogfighting" promotes violence and creates a virtual community for a very real crime. Like many sites, Android Market's policies don't specifically address animal cruelty, but do state: "Android Market should not be used for unlawful purposes or for promotion of dangerous and illegal activities."
Kage Games' description of the $4.99 app includes a long and often cheeky response, including such observations as "Perhaps one day we will make gerbil wars or betta fish wars for people who can't understand fantasy role play games" and "Just because something is illegal in real life in certain countries, does not mean it is illegal to make a song, movie or video game about it."
True enough. The Times' editorial board has long defended offensive forms of expression under the theory that the 1st Amendment is meaningless if it doesn't apply to speech that irritates and inflames. The issue is whether the speech itself harms people, and I don't believe that playing violent video games dehumanizes people. I say this as someone who is extremely offended by some of the content out there in first-person shooter games; see, if you can bear to watch it, this sampling from God of War III, The Punisher and several other video games (courtesy of Common Sense Media). Warning: It's not suitable for children.
And it's fine for retailers to decide not to offer offensive products, provided that they apply that filter consistently and not for anticompetitive reasons. Unlike Apple, though, Google has decided not to exert editorial control over its Android Marketplace. As Kage Games puts it:
There are hundreds of games on the Google Android market as well as any other popular game platform which, if acted out in real life, would be illegal. What makes the Google Android platform special is that it gives the freedom and responsibility to the individual users to decide what to put on their phones as opposed to the phone carriers and app stores making value judgments on our behalf.
I agree. The focus of the protest against KG Dogfighting -- or any other game that crosses some activists' line -- should be on the game developer. There's a real difference between illegal speech (the proverbial shout of "Fire!" in a crowded theater) and cruel or inhumane fantasies. Service providers such as Google can certainly help matters by enabling parental controls that let mom and dad block content they don't want junior to see. Google does just that; Kage Games tagged the dogfighting game "High Maturity," the most restrictive rating, making it unavailable under all but the most permissive of set-ups. (Granted, the default setting for Android smartphones is the most permissive, but that's another issue.)
The company claims that it is "incorporating suggestions from both our supporters and our detractors in an effort to create a more socially conscious app that provides a net benefit to dogs as well as humans." That sounds like self-serving palaver, but it may just be a sign of the protests producing the right result: not censorship but give-and-take in the marketplace of ideas.
Read editorial writer Carla Hall's rebuttal: Dogfighting video game deserves to die
-- Jon Healey