Yesterday we reported on some horrendous games that had made their way on to to the Google Play store. “Bomb Gaza” and “Gaza Assault” amongst others were games themed around the on-going conflict on the Gaza Strip. Hey, at least Call of Duty had the decency to give it a few years, guys!
As you might imagine, as word of the games spread so did the outrage – which eventually prompted Google to remove the games from the store. But was this the right thing to do? I’m not so sure.
At risk of banging on and on about the same point I always make: Isn’t this another example of where we have devolved decision making like this to an unaccountable global corporation? As I argued when YouTube took down the videos of spree killer Elliot Rodgers, given Google’s place as a hegemonic power in online content, though it makes us queasy, is it not weird that Google is the company that gets to make the decision over what is acceptable? Though Google is not the government telling us what we can and cannot do, it would be wilfully naive to argue that it is not a hugely powerful arbiter in what is acceptable online.
The decision to remove “Bomb Gaza” was made by Google alone and yes, if the makers of the game really did want to publish their horrible game they could offer the APK file to side-load on to your device, or produce it for another format and distribute it on floppy discs or something… but given how much extra effort these alternative methods are, is this not an act of censorship? If I held a debate, but only let you speak if you can pick the sellotape from your mouth and escape from the box you’d been locked in, would that really be fair?
Okay, so “Bomb Gaza” is just a trite video game and this isn’t book burning. So why should we care? It’s not like videogames are “free speech” are they?
I would argue that they certainly are. Just because it is a new format for expressing an opinion doesn’t make it any less valid: Whilst there are more sophisticated games that make political points, like Papers Please or this satirical iPhone factory game (that was also problematically banned), they’re all expressions of a point of view however crudely – and the idea of shutting any of them out should make anyone who believes in free expression nervous. The kids (let’s face it, they’re probably kids) who coded the offensive games clearly feel strongly about what is happening in Gaza: why would making a poster or writing a pamphlet (as they used to do in the old days) – or even sending a tweet or posting a Vine (as they do now) – be any different?
Interestingly the US Supreme Court agree with me – in 2005 it ruled that games are a form of speech that should be protected under the first amendment. Regardless of the outcome of this case, it wouldn’t impact my opinion – but it is interesting to see that I’m not alone in this view.
So this brings me to the point I keep making: Why are we happy for Google to make these decisions? Is it an act of censorship? Or was removing the games the right thing to do?
Counterintuitively, the answer might be both. It would be the “right” thing to do, but I’m not sure Google should have actually done it. In a free society, we have to accept that inevitably, some people are going to be awful. And even if we were to accept that there is a need for some degree of censorship (I’m not sure I do)… who put Google in charge?
By James O'Malley | August 5th, 2014