Political Milestone

Videogames are no longer a soft target for conservative polemic.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

There was a time, not too long ago, when any politician looking for a quick headline in the right-wing press could rely on a manufactured stink about a violent videogame to do the business. A few inaccurate descriptions of the game in question, peppered with fiery condemnation from politicians and wildly uninformed statements from various victims' organisations or individuals who have never actually seen the game, was a guaranteed hit with the audience - and the backlash from the industry and the young people who form most of their vocal consumers was sufficiently small as to be unimportant.

Some politicians and news journalists are under the impression that times haven't changed - that games remain a soft target, with just about everyone that matters being willing to believe any old nonsense about this evil force that is corrupting the nation's youth. Every couple of months, some news source will attempt to make a scandal out of a new game, and each time, they manage to find a politician so desperate for public exposure that they're willing to spout off about a topic they know nothing about in the hope of earning a soundbite on TV or a quote in a tabloid newspaper.

This isn't new. Countless gamers have complained about exactly this over the years. I've written about this phenomenon in columns before, bemoaning the mainstream press' willingness to view games as an easy target for negative stories during slow times for news - and especially during the "silly season" that ensues in the press during the summer, when political news tends to dry up.

What is new, however, is the completely resounding rejection of the comments made by British defence secretary Liam Fox regarding EA's forthcoming modern-day reboot of its Medal of Honor franchise. The game allows you to play both as Coalition forces and as the Taliban in its Afghanistan-themed multiplayer levels - Fox, no doubt sensing a handy headline, slammed this as "un-British" and effectively called for a ban on the game, stating that retailers should refuse to stock the game in order to show their support for our armed forces.

Fox probably expected that this was a pretty safe comment to make. It would earn a few headlines, get panels of self-styled experts on daytime chat shows nodding gravely, and play well to the Conservative heartlands. It was a fire-and-forget statement - hardly one that would come back to bite him in the backside.

Except that that's precisely what it did. Unsurprisingly, gamers were angry about his statement, and vented forth on social networks and forums. EA was also nonplussed, issuing a statement correcting factual errors in Fox' comments (for a start, you can't actually kill British soldiers in the game since, er, there aren't any British soldiers in the game), while industry bodies queued up to condemn Fox' demands for censorship.

So far, so normal - but then something rather unusual happened. The story broke free of the specialist games press and started making waves across the political blogs and websites. The readership of these sites has exploded in the past few years, and despite the scoffing of some more traditional journalists, the influence of the larger blog sites is well-understood both at Westminster, and across the UK media industry.

Once the political blogs had picked up the backlash, then, it was only a matter of time before the mainstream media did the same - and indeed, the tone of the coverage shifted dramatically, from nodding at Fox' condemnation to slamming it as an example of a minister who's uninformed, out of touch and worse, one with deeply "un-British" attitudes to censorship.

Suddenly, Liam Fox' jab at videogames is starting to look quite costly. Across social media outlets and on major blogs, his own record is dissected - from his regular praise for Henry Kissinger to his hawkish outlook on war, the hypocrisy of a man so comfortable with real people being shot being so outraged by pixels and 3D models being shot is a source of both mirth and anger to audiences far, far beyond those who regularly play videogames.

Worse again, the man's own colleagues have distanced themselves from him. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees the videogame ratings system as part of its brief, was dismissive of Fox' comments, and its statement seemed rightfully peeved that the defence secretary had completely ignored the existence of the rating system. His words, the DCMS was at pains to point out, were a "personal view", which is Westminster new-speak for "bloody stupid and off-message".

And so we have the spectacle of a British defence secretary, the man at whose desk the buck for all of our military engagements stops, being forced to clarify and defend his comments about a videogame. It's not the biggest political scandal of the week, not by a long shot, but it's an extraordinary milestone for the relationship between videogames and society in the UK. Politicians and media outlets have been looking more favourably upon videogames for some time - but never before has a minister been so comprehensively slapped down across such a broad sphere of public opinion for a cheap attack on the medium.

Electronic Arts, of course, will be nothing short of delighted. Fox has just earned it the kind of coverage that money genuinely can't buy. Don't feel sorry for the company being attacked over the decision to include the Taliban in the game - it is quite blatantly a controversy-courting move, deliberately designed to provoke outrage among right-wing, conservative commentators.

I'll be the first to argue that videogames have every right to tackle controversial modern-day issues, just as every other creative medium does, and would never demand that EA's game should be banned or censored - but equally, I'm under no illusion that the Taliban force in the game is a creative statement, rather than a deliberate ploy to generate headlines.

It's childish, cheap and frankly in poor taste, but they're entitled to do that. It falls to people like Liam Fox to have the common sense not to get riled up and start shouting about censorship over things like this. Sadly, our defence secretary seems to lack this common sense - but I suspect that in the wake of his drubbing over the past week, others in Westminster may now think long and hard before allowing themselves to be goaded into uninformed, censorious statements on a medium they barely understand

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