Uzbek, Other Video Game Bans Straddle Cultural Divides

Posted June 16th, 2017 at 11:30 am (UTC-4)
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FILE - A gamer plays 'Call of Duty: Black Ops"' in Los Angeles, California. (Reuters)

FILE – A gamer plays ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ in Los Angeles, California. (Reuters)

Uzbekistan recently joined a long list of countries that ban video games for one reason or another. And while some games will get banned no matter the argument, an industry expert says a delicate balance is needed to satisfy local market expectations without sacrificing artistic expression.

Video games may be a product of Western society, but they have become part of popular culture, not just in the West. And as cultural mosaics, they often get banned – even in Germany, Ireland, and Australia, not to mention Uzbekistan, Iran, China, North Korea – countries that run the gamut from the conservative to the totalitarian.

“All creative media, including games, are carriers of culture regardless of how intentional that might be,” said Kate Edwards, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) in an email interview with Techtonics. IGDA is a nonprofit professional association representing thousands of video game developers worldwide.

“They carry certain perspectives, assumptions and biases about history, politics, cultures, faiths, and so forth,” she added. “And as such, they can become targets of backlash when these sensitive topics aren’t handled appropriately.”

Not a year goes by without “at least one incident of game content being flagged or banned because it contains something that conflicts with local cultural values and/or expectations,” she said. Typically, the main objections are sex, violence, and profanity.

FILE - People stand near 'Sims 4' game characters on a wall during the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, in Los Angeles, California June 11, 2014. (Reuters)

FILE – People stand near ‘Sims 4’ game characters on a wall during E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, in Los Angeles, California, June 11, 2014. (Reuters)

Uzbekistan’s recent ban of more than 30 games, including The Sims, an innocuous life simulation game, and the more infamous Grand Theft Auto, cites violence, pornography, distorting values and social and political destabilization. The list of banned games is long and includes popular titles like Mass Effect, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, to name a few.

Some of these titles are combat games. Others are decidedly violent, albeit to varying degrees. But Mass Effect, for example, was banned in Singapore for same-sex scenarios. And the same is probably true with Uzbekistan’s ban of The Sims 4.

“Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, such an allowance would be frowned upon,” said Edwards.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia banned Nintendo’s augmented reality game, Pokemon GO, for being unislamic, encouraging gambling and polytheism, and for perceived political symbolism. But the game was banned in other countries as well because players focused on catching virtual Pokemon characters on their mobile phones were trespassing or risking their lives stumbling into Bosnia’s mine fields, for example.

Games with extreme violence and drug use have been banned in European countries and Australia, for example. Germany took issue with Dead Rising 3 for depicting humans as enemies and understandably frowns on games with Nazi references.

But there are other reasons as well. Pakistan banned Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Medal of Honor: Warfighter for their poor representation of the county, and Iran banned Battlefield 3 because of a scene that lays siege to Tehran.

FILE - Visitors play Battlefield at the Paris Games Week, a trade fair for video games in Paris, France, Oct. 29, 2016.

FILE – Visitors play Battlefield at the Paris Games Week, a trade fair for video games in Paris, France, Oct. 29, 2016.

While Beijing has a refined set of criteria by which to judge a video game, the destruction of China was a key feature that landed Command & Conquer: Generals on its list of banned titles.

“From the local perspective, they’re trying to allow content that more or less meets the local expectations of their society, based on their values, mores, etc.,” said Edwards. “So when a ban is enacted, it often comes from a position of cultural protectionism or in a more extreme case, from a position of trying to control the local public mindshare around specific issues [e.g., mindshare protectionism is the bedrock rationale for the Great Firewall of China].”

As part of her “culturization” work, Edwards frequently communicates directly with governments to discuss potential offenses and appropriate solutions. “In some cases,” she noted, “there is no recourse and they want to ban the game outright.”

But in other situations, they are more open to dialogue about the issues at hand. “And we can negotiate a fix that still can serve the creative vision of the game while also making the content more compatible with local expectations,” she said. “In my years, such negotiations and discussions have included China, India, South Korea, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Greece, Singapore, and many others.”

The augmented reality mobile game 'Pokemon Go' by Nintendo is shown on a smartphone screen in this photo illustration taken in Palm Springs, California U.S. July 11, 2016. (Reuters)

FILE – Nintendo’s augmented reality mobile game ‘Pokemon Go,’ banned in many countries, is shown on a smartphone screen in this photo illustration taken in Palm Springs, California, July 11, 2016. (Reuters)

One could argue banning video games is a form of censorship, but Edwards cautioned that that definition depends on what the “censors” intend. “Are they trying to sway perception in a specific direction? Are they offended by how their culture, history, and/or faith were depicted in the game?”

“Some bans may not be as grievous if we better understand the motivation behind them,” she said. “Ideally, every country would be open-minded to all content and let the consumer decide what they consume. But we know this isn’t the case – not even in the U.S.”

That said, Edwards stressed that while game developers need to feel free to create whatever they want to create, they also have to “be mindful of the local expectations of various markets” if they want their games to be enjoyed worldwide.

“If they’re eager to share their game with more challenging content markets like China, the Middle East, and so forth,” she cautioned, “they have to be prepared to make changes to their content to make it more compatible with local expectations. Most typically, such changes are very small or surgical in nature and rarely disrupt the overall vision of the game.”

But she also implored governments to “strive to better understand the games medium and treat it with the same artistic fairness that is often more afforded to film and literature.”

“Games are a powerful medium that represent[s] a major cultural artifact of our time,” she said. “And it behooves countries to better understand what games represent – not just as a product for import, but as a legitimate form of artistic expression.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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