Friday, 25 July 2008

Censorship Fallout

As yet another high profile game fails to meet the censor's stringent requirements, us gamers are left to befoul the most draconian censorship platform of games in the developed world. It's beyond a joke that Australia doesn't have an R 18+ rating for games, it stems from a complete misunderstanding of the medium as an entertainment source. The average age of a gamer in Australia in 2006 was 28 years old, and over half of gamers are over 18. This is fairly consistent with trends from elsewhere. Over 88% of Australians support an R rating for games. These are telling factors, yet there are still hurdles to overcome: namely attorney generals who have no clue about modern culture. The desire to protect children is one thing, to cut off the majority of the market in order to protect children is another.

Protecting children
On the show Q&A, a member of the audience asked a question about why we don't have an R rating. One thing that amazed me is how often the response is that it's about protecting children. "I have kids who play games" came up more than once. It's completely missing the whole point of the debate. The R rating is a means of restricting children from playing the game. To give certain games an R rating would remove it from the hands of children, much like doing so with films does so, much like making alcohol restricted removes it from the hands of children. Of course it's not perfect and kids still watch R rated films, just as kids still drink and smoke. The problem here is consistency, if parents can determine what is best for their children in terms of films, why can't they do the same with games?

The next point in the line of protecting children (keep in mind that R ratings are for adults only) is that interactive media is so much worse than films or books. And what evidence is there to support this? Turns out there is none. The studies on this field are scarce. But from the studies there are, there is nothing to suggest that violent games have any more effect than television. What is different about clicking a button to make violence happen than watching it? Most of the time, we don't passively watch films. If the film is engaging, we are actively taking part. Same goes for a good book. Games are no different to any other media in this respect, making minor choices in the direction of the media surely couldn't make it stand out.

The final point seems to be the idea of harm minimisation in society in general. And I agree with this point. If a particular medium causes enough social harm which greatly outweighs it's benefit then it shouldn't be allowed for sale. This goes for drugs including alcohol, gambling, extreme media like snuff or rape films. If there is a severe negative impact which is detrimental to society then it should be reviewed. So lets examine games under a critical eye:
  • Gaming is becoming more and more a social medium. Anti-social behaviour is one of the biggest factors people cite in the need to censor games.
  • Violent crimes in recent years has gone down. While correlation does not equate to causation, if there were a link between violent games and violent behaviour, then as game sales rise, then a trend showing the opposite shouldn't be there.
Now there are plenty of social ills that are legal. Alcohol is a great example, and while I love to suck down a few (or few dozen) drinks in a night, I can accept that it's both detrimental to society as a whole and to me as an individual. Now there are those who can handle a drink and those who can't. Those who become placid when drunk and those who become aggressive. But to remove alcohol from our society would unfairly punish those who do the right thing when drunk. And as prohibition taught the world, people are going to get their hands on alcohol regardless of it's legality. And by creating a black market, it brings organised crime. Likewise outlawing certain games is only going to bring about piracy. We live in a global society, all interconnected via the internet. Trying to restrict access is only going to mean that all control is forfeited, then ratings become absolutely useless.

Democracy can show it's flaws at times, the fallibility or ignorance of individual politicians on matters they have authority over is astounding. The bureaucrats who write the guidelines are sometimes so ignorant of the legislation they pass that even the most hardened supporter of the democratic process would be disillusioned. Gaming is a new medium, and while we now have a generation that grew up with games, it's original place as a niche market means that there is a generation gap between those who saw it's conception and the mainstream entertainment source we have now. As it's acceptance as a valid form of entertainment is kept at bay by ignorant commentators using the art form as a scape goat, the doubt in peoples minds is constantly part of the media spotlight.

A ratings system only works if it's consistent, and in Australia we don't have consistent guidelines. What good reason is there that sex can be shown in M rated films (and sometimes even PG) but the slight bit of sex in a game makes it unusable? Same goes for drugs. Fallout 3 was banned because it references the drug morphine, yet we can see the effects of drugs in M rated films and television. Some of the violence in games is deplorable, yet it's given an MA rating where the equivalent film would be rated R. Is this because it's interactive games are meant to be worse? It's those inconsistencies that make ratings irrelevant. It's those inconsistencies that confuse parents. For adults like myself, the rating is already irrelevant. It doesn't matter to me in the slightest if a movie is G or R, just like it doesn't matter for a game. I'm not a parent.

And that's the core issue in the end. As much as we want to protect children from harm, which is a noble aim, the bottom line is that entertainment mediums are there for everyone. Just like films such as Pulp Fiction or Hostel, there are games that cater for that adult audience. Having parents allowing their children to play a game like Grand Theft Auto would be around the same level as letting them watch something like Saw. But children aren't the only users of the medium. It's up to parents to protect their children from harm, and society as a whole shouldn't be deprived of the freedom of choice because of a few bad parents. What point is a ratings system if the government doesn't trust the population to use it properly?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Albums of the years

Calendar-wise, this is the 25th year I've been on this planet. Not quite onto my 25th revolution of the sun, but it's getting close. Anyway as a means of commemorating my time on this planet and the music that I've held profound to me over the years, I'm going to list my favourite album from each year as I see it now. I don't remember what I was listening to in 1984 to 1987 for obvious reasons. I've tried to just pick each band once, as to encompass a bit more variation in the overall list. It's a reflection of the variation in music, of all the bands that have given my life enjoyment.

The 1980's
1984: King Crimson - Three Of A Perfect Pair

1985: Weird Al Yankovic - Dare To Be Stupid

1986: Metallica - Master Of Puppets

1987: Icehouse - Man Of Colours

1988: Ministry - The Land of Rape and Honey

1989: The Cure - Disintegration

The 1990's
1990: Depeche Mode - Violator

1991: Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes

1992: Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine

1993: Nirvana - In Utero

1994: Green Day - Dookie

1995: Rammstein - Herzeleid

1996: Lemur Voice - Insights

1997: Regurgitator - Unit

1998: Placebo - Without You I'm Nothing

1999: Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile

The 2000's
2000: At The Drive-In - Relationship Of Command

2001: Tool - Lateralus

2002: Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf

2003: The Mars Volta - Deloused In The Comatorium

2004: The Dillinger Escape Plan - Miss Machine

2005: Cog - The New Normal

2006: Isis - In The Absence Of Truth

2007: Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet

2008: Zodiak - Sermons (So far)

There were so many bands I couldn't fit in that list, albums that were brilliant that were outshone in the particular year they came out. Albums like Opeth - Blackwater Park (2001), Oasis - Morning Glory (1995), Mastodon - Blood Mountain (2006), Pearl Jam - Ten (1991), Dream Theater - Scences From A Memory (1999), all brilliant albums that didn't get a look in. There has been some great music over the last 25 or so years, far more than I've chronicled. It's well worth going out of your way to hear new music. This is just a list of the music that moved me.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Catholic Tourist Week

A poor play on the title World Youth Day I know, but it's a far more accurate description of the event befalling Sydney in the coming week. Maybe the title is the church's way to delude itself into thinking it's still relevant, maybe they are genuinely trying to touch the youth of the world in a non-paedophilic way, maybe the misnomer of the title comes from the international and diocesan differing in the range of events, I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that spending hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to facilitate an archaic and nutty belief system is detrimental for society and the planet as a whole.

The cost of belief
I know I'm going against the majority of secularists on my views, but I wasn't completely opposed to the public funding of this event. There's a good part of our population who is Catholic and it's a major event that could showcase Sydney as an ideal tourist location. State governments help fund major events all the time that can't financially support themselves, the Formula 1 race in Melbourne each year is an example. There is a need to promote tourism, and having a city host glamorous events really puts it on the world stage. It may not be a financial winner right now, but if it goes well it could help attract tourists in the future. Though the same was said about the Olympics but Australia's location meant we didn't cash in like other cities that host the Olympics did. In any case, potential for the cities reputation and the local businesses looking to reap in tithes.

There is a grave concern over the separation of church and state. Now while it's impossible to keep the two completely separate, the financial independence of the two is well established. Religious organisations (and any corporate offshoots) don't pay taxes and in exchange the government staying away from the affairs of the church. So to have a church, one of the richest organisations in the world, receive funding after paying no tax is a violation of that financial boundary between the two institutions. This not only bodes poorly for having a secular government but opens the way for other religions to do the same with public money. How long now until Hillsong demand 10's of millions of dollars to bring a Ted Haggard out from the US? How long until some Muslim's demand the same to bring some radical cleric out to address the Islamic masses in Sydney? Or the Scientologists gaining public funding to bring out Tom Cruise?

It must be recognised that by giving money to one religion that others will ask for the same handouts to host similar events. And that is exactly the reason why there is a need for separation of church and state in a multicultural society. We can't have a government promoting one religion over another, nor can we have the government promoting religion over non-religion (or vice versa). Part of the reason there is a separation of church and state is to protect the church from state influences, so while it may seem like a helping hand from the government can do no harm it weakens the church's position of independence. Of course for an organisation that is of the size of the catholic church, being in bed with the government is a subversive means of keeping power it has otherwise lost to a liberal democracy, and that is something that should be a concern to anyone who wants a secular government. That's the real cost of publicly funding a religion, the cost of the freedoms that are lost.

I'm annoyed, where's my $5,500?
Above all else, the biggest concern out of world youth day is the annoyance laws brought in to stop protesters from harassing the pilgrims. Of course this was done in consultation with the church, though the erosion of civil liberties seems to be something that recent governments have no problems with. Maybe the ridiculous fines are a means to offset the spiralling costs of world youth day, because if it's a reduction in protests and harassment of WYD patrons that was the aim of the legislation then they have gotten it horribly wrong.

World Youth Day has been treated with a lot of apathy, people were indifferent to the concept apart from the fact it would be disruptive in the Sydney CBD. Now the laws are in, it's painting the protesters as the victims instead of those being harassed, which will lead to more widespread support of those protesting and it will lead to more people protesting who wouldn't have before. There is now a market for anti-WYD t-shirts, people trying to be as offensive as possible, people are now going to go out of their way to show civil disobedience. All that is fantastic because it's drawing focus towards the problems of the catholic church. It's anti-gay, anti-contraceptive, draconian message is being exposed for what it is, and it's no longer being hidden under a veil of religious tolerance.

The Catholic Church has had influence over our society and affairs for a long time. And as is always the case with power, comes corruption. As with all dogmatic systems (whether they be religious or otherwise) the rationalisation for the corruption becomes a part of the dogmatic systems. The stance on contraception in Africa means that over 100,000,000 people are at risk of AIDS, the stance on protecting paedophiles has meant that not only have kids been molested but those doing it have been afforded the opportunity to do so again and again as they are moved to different areas. The church has been more worried about protecting it's image than seeing those priests brought to justice for committing heinous crimes. Those who have been affected both directly and indirectly deserve their chance to protest, just as those who want to preserve the freedoms afforded by the separation of church and state. It needs to be known that the Catholic Church is fallible, that is has problems, and it's causing problems with the only rationalisation of that methodology being faith. Using the law to ensure the corruption and underhanded tactics of the church goes unnoticed is a grave concern.

A question of resource distribution
Paedophile-protector George Pell recently came out and defended the commercial aspect of world youth day. With over 40 different shirts, around 13 different hats, Guy Sebastian CDs, this event is really going to be a money spinner for a church. This is on top of the estimated $160 million that the state and federal government has put in to ensure this event would happen. Is the commercial aspect there to pay back the state government's generosity? I hope so. But sadly I think it'll be used to help line the church's coffers. One Sydney catholic priest came out critical of the event, saying the money could be better used to help the homeless. And with that comment, I could not agree more. The church's backbone in society has been it's ability to help those in need, and right now having a grand parade of sycophants flocking to the pope is not going to help with that image. The Catholic Church is an archaic institution daring people to show it's irrelevance in modern society, where it has the power to show it still has relevance; but that is being ignored in favour of promoting it's own grandeur. No wonder Catholics are lapsing in their faith and chuch attendance is lowering. Cease to be relevant and face the consequences.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


Wow, just wow.

It really puts things into perspective.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Global Warming Debate

Now I'm one to be odds with the media in general, and for the most part it's justified. Most news is just trivia, sensationalised and put forward to ignore the real issues of the time. At least there is some culpability in the news, something that can't be said the same for opinion pieces. Now blogging is entirely opinion, there is no culpability to this blog any more than the next. The same can be said for the internet in general, there's no punishment for being wrong or intellectually bankrupt, in fact we see the opposite where ignorance draws the gullible and feeble into believing what is otherwise absurd. It's the trappings of the medium and there is little any of us can do about it except strive for accuracy and hope that in the end people will inform themselves through other materials. The media is a completely different story though, the accountability of opinion is simply not there as speculation is free speech.

Today while listening to news radio there was talk on the Garnaut report commissioned by our government in order to work out set measures to tackle the climate change problem. On the radio we had journalists with no scientific training trying to defend either side without much clue as to what they are talking about. It turned into a farce when a political correspondent used a straw man about not being able to predict the weather next week as an excuse not to trust the science on climate change. And that is where the climate change "sceptics" turn out a lot like creationists, the same arguments creationists use against evolution are used by climate change deniers (they aren't really sceptics). It's bogus that these misinformed pundits have their weight of opinion thrown around as if it were credulous. Being objective does not mean showing both sides in equal light when one side has far more weighting behind it's evidence, and it's time that journalists stopped pussyfooting around controversial issues when one side is clearly backed by empirical data.

Climate change politics
It's important to recognise that the science behind climate change has been around for decades, it's not just a recent calling. Politicians and business have been ignoring the problem and neglecting to act. It's getting to the point where drastic measures are going to be needed across the globe to stem the tide. While there have been politicians who have spoken up, they were few and far between. In any case, despite scientists warning for decades very little has been done. The issue that the climate is not only changing but we are having an effect on it should be a non-issue. The climate is changing, we are having an effect on it, to what extent is uncertain and what exactly will happen is unknown.

One thing that is needed is a global solution: Australia while being one of the worst polluters per capita only accounts for a small percentage of global emissions. The two worst polluters, China and the US, are for one reason or another not seeking to be part of a global solution unless it's on their terms. Pandering to spoilt superpowers aside (a lot of the conservative objection to acting is precisely that); we are a minor contributor to the problem and without the major players backing any move it's sure to fail. And in a way they are right but it's weak way of getting out of responsibility: by shifting blame onto major polluters it neglects what we've done and what we can do about it. On the documentary Nice Guys Finish First, Richard Dawkins talked of a field that was being slowly destroyed by grazing. Each farmer only slightly contributed to the cause but as a whole it was devastating. If a farmer decided it was best to limit the numbers in his herd grazing, then it would serve no advantage because that farmer would miss out and other farmers wouldn't. It's that same deadlock with the climate crisis, it takes risk for countries to come out and try to change.

Technology doesn't happen overnight. It takes years of research and development, trial and error, failure. Working from scratch is always a risk and it could very well yield nothing of substance. To delay working towards finding new technology, for the sake of maintaining the current system, is a dangerous game. If the government doesn't invest, then it's up to private enterprise, but they won't invest unless they can justify the costs to the shareholders. Significant investment into cleaner technology to maintain our economy is vital for long term sustainability. That isn't disputed. What is under dispute is how and when investment will come about. Government can't go it alone, and neither can business. There needs to be bilateral support in order for it to have a chance of working.

Quite simply, the longer we wait the more sudden changes will be needed. Our modern civilisation is a very finely tuned organism that is reliant on certain resources in order to survive. As a result we have a centralised distribution system that is wholly dependant on fossil fuels in order to sustain itself. Any delay in making gradual changes means that the changes will have to be larger and more sudden. That risks the economy, and that risks the long-term future of our civilisation. Making smaller changes now and managing each smaller change to ease transition is really the only practical solution. Yes there will be losers in this model, and yes there will be economic downturn. But a robust economy should be able to handle that, a robust economy is one that is able to adapt to change.

If we develop the technology first, we are the economic beneficiaries when the technology is needed around the world. If we wait, we will pay a premium to cover the R&D costs that others have provided. At a time when we are having massive tax cuts, maybe a couple of billion a year could be set aside for research into a sustainable future. Same goes for fuel excise, with the federal opposition talking of cutting excise by 5c (which would be completely wiped out by profiteering and the constant rising cost of fuel), why not use the billions that 5c a litre would generate in order to fund research into transport that doesn't need petrol. That's a bit over 10% of the excise capital being put aside towards creating a sustainable future. Taking small steps like this should not be hard, nor should it be hard to sell to the people. It's sad that it takes the threat of global annihilation to gain enough attention to even consider making such changes. And the longer we wait, the more it's going to cost, and more risk will be involved. So that's why Australia shouldn't wait for the US and China, we should be masters of our own destiny.

Reporting science
Journalism has to be as objective as possible. Most of the time the way it's achieved is to show opposing opinions. The problem with reporting on scientific issues is that using the opposing opinions means garnering voices of dissent usually from outside the scientific community whose opinions should otherwise kept well away from discussions on science. For science is already objective, it's fought out in the academic arena well before ideas filter down into the public. So having a discussion on evolution with creationists is not being objective because creationists do not have equal weighting with evolutionary biologists. Just like having climate change deniers weigh in on the debate is not objective as they are going against the scientific method.

As climate change becomes more and more of an issue, political discussion of climate change will increase. Having politicians talking about the issue is bad enough already without having political commentators with no scientific training or understanding weighing in to further dilute the issue. As was shown in An Inconvenient Truth, the number of articles sceptical of global warming and the number of scientific papers sceptical of global warming were not even close to equal. This is a great disparity between those who strive to understand empirical data and those who report it to the public. It's not that they are oblivious to the scientific method (well some are), it's that the way they are taught to be objective doesn't apply to this particular field. It's important that we as consumers of the media recognise this fallibility of reporting and make a conscious effort to check for ourselves with publications that are reputable journals of scientific thought.