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A Fight over Gamers First Amendment Rights
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on October 03, 2005   |   Episode 79 (Show Archive)  

   

If you think the characters in Deadwood use a lot of profanity, then you haven't experienced Halo 2 online yet!
It's not often you find Sony and Nintendo on the same page about anything. Usually these two companies are at each others throats swapping insults and doing their best to keep their user base as large as possible. But there's something so heinous that it has both Nintendo and Sony scrambling to address what could be a future minefield. It's something beyond game violence, worse than in-game sex scenes. Both Nintendo and Sony are doing their best to stamp out ... inappropriate language?

That's right, while Jack Thompson and his ilk are ready to condemn video games for their violence, sex, and criminal behavior, Nintendo and Sony are secretly doing their part to stamp out profanity, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Both companies have (quietly) announced that they would be addressing the concerns of bad language, but its how they've decided to combat this new terror that has some people a tad concerned.

If you haven't played games online lately chances are you don't know what the fuss is about, but believe me when I tell you that it often seems like you're playing with and against the cast of HBO's Deadwood. It's common to have a simple game of Halo 2 turn into immature name calling, racial slurs, and other hateful comments. There are times where you have to wonder if the people are being serious, or if they're all trying out for some strange Andrew Dice Clay sound-a-like contest.


I suppose it's something like this Nintendo is desperately trying to avoid!
Generally speaking, online games have a bad habit of bringing out the worst in human nature, something Nintendo clearly wants to steer clear of. Although past Nintendo systems have offered online support, the Nintendo DS is really the first time Nintendo has jumped into the world of online gaming. With games like Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing DS offering online modes, it looks like Nintendo is finally making some inroads when it comes to the online multiplayer marketplace. This is a major step for Big N, but judging by some of their recent decisions, this is one step they are still somewhat unsure about.

Citing "safety reasons" as their main concern, Nintendo has decided that their first party titles will have no voice communication what so ever. Nintendo doesn't mind if you play games with your friends online ... they just don't want you to trash talk each other while doing it! "We need to be entirely confident that there can be no untoward activity," says a Nintendo product manager, "pure gameplay."

Of course, it's not like Sony's portable allows you to talk to each other while playing games. So far the PSP has a handful of online titles, but

Sometimes Nintendo makes it seem like they cannot connect with adult gamers!
not a single one of them will allow you to chat with your friends like you do on Xbox Live or most recent PlayStation 2 Online titles. But

Maybe this isn't what they meant by "safety reasons!"
the truth is that Sony's PlayStation Portable does not come with a built in microphone, unfortunately the same cannot be said about the Nintendo DS.

Obviously gamers will be able to write comments back and forth using the Nintendo DS' touch screen abilities, but it's the microphone that gets the least amount of love on that system. Just about every game on the DS uses the touch screen, yet the microphone is only used as a gimmick ... or not at all. If ever there was a reason for a built in microphone it's to allow you to chat with your friends online, that way you won't have to scribble out comments while in the middle of an exciting Mario Kart battle.

Sony, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a problem with allowing people to talk to each other online. Just about all of their online titles (with the exception of their earliest efforts) have offered some form of microphone support, which certainly helped sell thousands (if not millions) of third party USB headsets. But just because you can say whatever you want to the person on your team in SOCOM 3, it doesn't mean they aren't trying their hardest to get rid of what they deem to be offensive language.


By making President Bush a "bad word," it would appear as Sony has taken a political side!
According to one of Sony's recent press releases, "subscribers within Sony PlayStation's Online arena are open to language and content that may not be suitable for all players. To combat the risk of exposing customers to offensive language and content, the company turned to Teragram to build a "vulgarity filter." Whether playing SOCOM III, Ratchet and Clank ... Sony wants to ensure that all players have a fun, but also appropriate, gaming experience."

This is the type of thing Sony (and other companies) have been toying with for years, so it should come as no surprise that they are doing whatever they can to improve on the "vulgarity filter" idea. But so far these kinds of filters have proven to be problematic

The answer is not less control, it's more
control!
at best, usually filtering out words that aren't offensive or substituting letters that simply don't belong.

For example, the program might censor the word "basement" simply because the word "semen" can be found if you look at the word long enough (a common practice in Phantasy Star Online). Sony's own SOCOM 1 and 2 had similar problems, words like "unless," "neutral," "twisted," and even "President Bush" all came out looking like nothing more than numbers and symbols thanks to Sony's "vulgarity filter."

Playing games online is a lot like going outside, you're going to find a lot of friendly faces on your journey, but there are also going to meet up with your fair share of people that offend your sense of humanity. Thankfully with most of today's online games you are able to mute (and report) just about anybody that calls you names, uses racial slurs, or does anything to offend you. It's not a perfect solution to the problem, but it does allow you to talk to friendly voices in peace, which is better than not being able to talk at all.


It's always fun to have people around to play with, but sometimes your friends can't be in the same room!
In fact, Nintendo may have missed one of the main reasons some of us play online in the first place, which is to meet up with friends who are scattered throughout the country (and world). Being able to talk to your friends while playing games is one of the best things to come from the online revolution; it's not the same as having the person sitting next to you, but it's damn close. I doubt many of us would be nearly as interested in games like Halo 2 or SOCOM 3 if they didn't offer some sort of voice communication, and I can't help but wonder if the same could be said about Mario Kart and Animal Crossing.

Perhaps the answer lies not in restricting everybody, but offering more options and controls. Perhaps it's time to let parents choose the type of online experience their kid has (possibly by having a lock on the voice chat, which but can still get online otherwise), or how about easier control over who we can and can't hear. It seems like there are solutions to the problem that don't involve going all the way to the extreme and banning voice communication for everybody. It doesn't matter what company you are, the answer comes in the way of giving us gamers choices, not making up our minds for us.
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