Yes, I know.  It is entirely possible to overdo the “Europe is awesome/US sucks” comparisons.  The USA possesses many fine cultural characteristics of which Europeans are (or should be) rightly envious.

There is baseball. . .a steroid-infused episode of boredom designed to allow Americans to spend yet more time on their keesters as they eat and drink their way to WHN (World’s Heaviest Nation) status.  Hmmm.  Ok, there is Lindsay Lohan, and Cheezwiz. . .wait, those two might be the same thing (they both have a kind of oddly attractive surface sheen, make a terrible mess when used in public, are highly toxic and seem to be everywhere). . .alright, I’ll have to get back to you on the positives.

What US culture manifestly doesn’t have is a sophisticated understanding of electronic games.  Now let’s consider what they do with games in Britain.

They give them awards.  And not just any awards.  BAFTA awards.  For those who don’t know, that’s the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.  Basically it is the US equivalent of the Oscars.  (Actually, it is bigger than that because it is the equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys combined; in the US we need two separate ceremonies to keep Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon gainfully employed).  Do the Oscars give out awards for games?  Don’t be silly.  They are too busy giving out awards for the inevitably forgettable “best song” (i.e. songs that are only in the film because there is a best song category in the Oscars).  The BAFTA site offers a complete list of all nominees and winners for a variety of game categories.

On the face of it, the fact that that the Oscars don’t give out awards to games and the BAFTAs do is a little strange.  The Oscars, after all, are given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Arguably, the prevailing paradigm for understanding game achievements and game design in the US (on the part of magazine reviewers and players especially) is still to see them as examples of technological, engineering, and or design prowess.  So you would think that this would fall comfortably under the “sciences” part of the Academy’s mandate.  Games should, at least, be included in the “technical Oscars” show.  You know, this is the Other Oscars that is typically given a 30 second spot in the main Oscar broadcast every year.  These awards are typically held in a secure, undisclosed location somewhere near Yucca mountain.  Every year some poor starlet, chosen mainly for the potential for an impressive display of cleavage, is fed to a band of salivating nerds who have been enticed out of their basements with the promise of seeing a real woman.  The geeks receive awards for incredibly arcane technological innovations that range from musical toilet paper dispensers for stars’ dressing rooms to really major devices that have completely revolutionized filmgoing as we know it. . .but which the Academy can’t be bothered to mention because they need to fit in Celine Dion singing another “best song” nominee (which, oddly enough, sounds exactly like the previous best song nominee which itself sounded eerily similar to all best song nominees from the year before).

But no.  Games don’t even make it into the Geek Awards Dungeon as far as the Oscars are concerned.

That the Brits have taken a different tack seems mainly due to the fact that their awards fuse both television and cinema and consider them through the lens of “art.”  This, for many in the US at least, is an entirely alien concept in relation to electronic games.  Popular culture, in the world of the BAFTAs, may be (should be!) entertaining but that isn’t incompatible with artistic achievement.

So how do we treat electronic games in the US?

We try and ban them on the grounds of obscenity.

The US Supreme Court is at present considering three landmark cases with some important implications for the concept of free speech and freedom of association  John Doe #1 and John Doe #2 v. Sam Reed is a test of whether or not signatories to petitions have a right to anonymous political speech.  Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Leo Martinez et al. considers the degree to which mandates in favor of inclusivity may be discriminatory.  Arguably the most significant case, however, is Schwarzenegger v. Electronic Merchants Association.

The justices will be considering whether or not a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors constitutes an abridgement of free speech.  Frankly, in some ways I’m amazed that this law wasn’t tossed out on its ear at its inception; the fact that it wasn’t should give the lie once and for all to the belief that California is the land of loopy liberals.  But I’m also willing to bet the golden eagle emblazoned on the red, white and blue boxers of Justice Scalia that since its swing to the right this court has been itching to get its hands on the videogame violence issue.

Naturally, there is a lot of “family values” posturing going on around this issue.  Schwarzenegger, predictably, has claimed that the law is in place “to protect our kids” (this from the same governor who has systemically de-funded the California education system).  But there are two aspects to this case that should raise concerns for two broad sectors of the population.

First, anyone who cares about the quaint notion of evidence, should be concerned that much of the discussion around the California Law has not sought seriously to challenge the notion that viewing violence leads inevitably to violent behavior.  Links between violent representations and violent behavior are questionable at best and more typically are nonexistent.  Yet part of the reluctance to challenge the basic premise is because it also undergirds other ratings systems (such as that for movies).  But it is also such a central cultural assumption in the US that I’m sure that some people would stop functioning entirely if it were discredited.  That, however, is not likely to happen.  After all, the fact that violent games create violent kids is now basically an article of faith among the family values folks and faith is immune to the pesky prodding of actual evidence.

But free speech advocates everywhere should be deeply concerned about the outcome of this case.  Because at its core it is not really about the definition of violence and the effects of violence (although it should be).  Rather, it is about the definition of obscenity.  If the great state of California is successful, this will be the first time the definition of obscenity has been extended to non-sexual representations.  And even the Supreme Court’s existing definition of sexual obscenity has been usefully vague.  A victory for the forces of reaction in this case, however, would both narrow the definition and broaden its potential application.  I can see a number of scenarios where the new criteria could be applied to forms of political speech, for example.

Ultimately, however, the reason this court case even exists is because electronic games are, in the US, accorded a completely different status than they are in the UK.  In the US they are seen as a deeply threatening form that is totally unlike any other cultural form.  This is why they don’t “fit” with the Oscars, and why, on the other hand, we don’t have a California law seeking to ban the sale of violent political thriller novels.  In Britain, games are seen as having a lot in common with other forms (film and television) and being a form of art.

OK, who wants some Cheezwiz?

Reality Check: Before anyone points out the obvious, the Brits may include games in the BAFTAs but that doesn’t mean they have reached total enlightenment.  This is the nation that, like Australia and New Zealand, has dealt with potentially controversial games simply by banning them from sale to anybody at all (Manhunt2).