RANT WARNING: This is a rant, be prepared to disagree. It is an editorial treatment of a problematic subject. If you have an angle that was not explored, anecdotes, or other commentary please feel free to throw in. Your two cents are welcome.
People probably have already heard from us about the white-listed filter that exists in Wizard 101. It is not as badly implemented as similar for-tweens offerings in the market—things that often implode under their own weight as unusable. While it is nice that the filter is less cumbersome it is still a filter. It’s a form of censorship that doesn’t really add to the experience, it doesn’t offer any actual protections, and exists solely to damage the immersion for the players and make KingsIsle Entertainment look better to potential investors and overzealous parents.
We are going to continue to refer to the use of the filter and the choices made into its white list as the responsibility of KingsIsle Entertainment. It is their doing and their donkey to drag should it get untenable.
It’s hard to fault KingsIsle Entertainment for this behavior at first glance. After all, it does make good business sense. They are attempting to market this game to the tween/teen age groups, and that age group comes with the demographic most easily scandalized and drawn about by the nose: parents. The good business sense comes in to pandering directly to the fears of those parents by producing a deceptively comfortable “safe zone.” Even if all it takes is a little prodding to tear through the veil of verisimilitude; it will draw in the beau coup bucks.
There are numerous examples where good business sense does not make good moral sense or even good sense for society at large. Such as when factories used to dump their waste chemicals directly into nearby rivers rather than going through expensive processes to store and clean them up. It made good business sense at the time because it cost far less, and the cities largely ignored them because the factory gave them lots of jobs and brought in a great deal of money. Of course, then people started to get sick and die.
Practices like censoring communication pollute our communal consciousness in a very similar way.
Does censorship make children stupid? We abridge the experience our children have of the world in a myriad of ways because it could be harmful to them. Like putting plugs in the wall sockets, locking cabinets full of poisons, and putting sharp objects out of their reach… But all that while if we are not educating them and not supervising them, these actions will not benefit them—eventually they will be older, taller, more likely to get at those poisons, knives, and electrical sockets. If they had no experience of them up until that point they will get into trouble.
Can we really equate language and words to sharp knifes in the kitchen? No, not really. That’s certainly not it.
With knives we are afraid of cuts and lacerations, but with censorship we’re afraid of communication. A fear of knowledge. KingsIsle is white listing language in a way that puts a perfunctory sugarcoat on everything said in the chat, it demonizes strange words and strange wording, blocks insults, and a lot of vulgar aphorisms. It certainly creates a false sense of decorum—but none of this actually does anything more than shift the use of language to other more creative ranges.
“You have sheet for brains!”
See how easy that was? It was even totally within the bounds of KingsIsle’s white list. In fact, our friends and us have gotten down to saying “donkey brains” instead of “damnit” when we’re annoyed at a function of the game. In a lot of ways the filtration just acts as a bad replacement for supervision. Like people want to be comfortable with this sort of interaction to allow their children to run about in virtual worlds unsupervised because some fragile veil has been spread between them and the rest of the world.
How exactly is this training children playing the game? It reminds us of a particular come-across with a good friend of ours when we were standing in a cell phone store with her son. He’d found a particularly strange phone that only had four buttons (programmable, for children) and it was said to the effect, “Oh, might get something like that for you one day.” And when he asked about it, she said, “Oh no, honey, when we get you a phone I’ll get you a real phone.” Yes. Wizard 101 chat is not real chat. It is a grim parody of Fischer Price chat: dumbed down, patronizing, patting the players on the head as if they’re cretins.
Language finds a way, donkey brains!
The use of filters in video games to modify or blur language is an insipid expedience done out of cover-your-ass foolishness at best and morally questionable at worst. This filter does not raise the bar high enough to prevent “bad people” from soliciting our children online (of course this is because most of that solicitation is being done by their own classmates.) It will not prevent kids telling other kids where they live or their phone numbers or giving out their IM info. What it will do is give them a sense of frustration at the agonizing censorship the filter provides as it cuts words out of their newspaper.
The only thing that protects people online from these extremely rare potential threats is going to be actual education and this sort of hell-paving good intentions gets in the way of that. How does one explain exactly to a student that we don’t trust them with their own language while trying to educate? How exactly can we teach them about the world without the world available even to us to provide the materials.
Worse. KingsIsle has created an interesting experiment in how to make everyone conform to the same linguistic rules. The filter manages to strip out what’s left of “body language” on the Internet; it makes it more difficult to tell if someone else is actually on the level or not. Having been compressed into a particular vocabulary means that they don’t have a chance to step out of bounds as easily, giving them the same veneer as everyone else. Sure, we will never suffer chatspeak on Wizard 101, but whatever, Ignore and Report have worked for ages.
We won’t exactly deny this video game to our children, but we will probably tell them over and over about how communication isn’t a piecemeal experience.
This sort of thing actually harms our children. It does not protect them from anything. Especially not themselves. Certainly not reality.
As a parting gift, our particular bête noire about the filter.
What is with KingsIsle’s dislike of English diction? To wit, much to our chagrin we discovered that semicolons are verboten, our favorite part of punctuation ripped from us like a babe who has been divested of a doll. We cannot even use the word “semicolon” because it’s not in the white list—to make things worse, discussing the problem is also impossible as the word “semicolon” itself is not permitted, neither is the all important “grammar.”
Oh yes, and before we leave, a moment of zen.
As of this posting the KingsIsle filter blocks the word “censorship.”