Pants of Time’s offhand (and deserved) swipe at the MPAA in the comments a few posts below made me think of this issue. While I am no fan of the MPAA and find even the hint of censorship in art to be offensive on its face, I have to admit that the MPAA is better than the alternative (congress). We see this playing out now with the video game industry in the wake of “hot coffee,” and I am willing to bet that the video game industry takes the same approach as Hollywood did.
Prior to 1930, Hollywood Studios had absolute free reign over the content of their films. However, the explosion of the popularity of film (especially among immigrant populations) lead many to fear the potential effect that immoral films might have on these “illiterate,” “unsophisticated,” groups. As a result, local governments created ratings boards which would enforce local censorship laws.
These boards were generally ineffective, and national public outcry, headed by the Women’s Christian Temperence Union (the fine folks that brought you Prohibition), lead to the creation of the MPAA. The MPAA created a list of guidelines for filmakers which were largely ignored untill the advent of sound in film. The inclusion of sound lead to widespread public concern and the creation of a more formal code.
In 1930, the code was finally given teeth with the creation of the Production Code Administration which required all films to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. As a result, many films were either edited or never made it to the screen and foreign films were prevented from being imported (I will spare you the rediculous details of what content was prohibited; but you should check it out for a good laugh).
All this was working just fine (for the studios, if not for the art) untill the late 1950s when the Supreme Court ruled that the studios were violating antitrust laws in their ownership over the theaters themselves. This resulted in independent theaters which would show films that had not been approved of by the PCA. The success of these movies lead the studios to reovlt against the production code and release movies without the certificate. The overwhelming success of uncertified films lead to the wholesale abandonment of the code.
Congress responded by launching an inquiry into congressional regulation of film content. Responding to this, the MPAA, headed up by Lyndon Johnson aide Jack Valenti, established the rating system. The MPAA rating system went into effect with four ratings: G, M, R, and X. The M rating was changed to PG in 1972. The advent of the rating system resulted in the release cutting edge films (Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris; Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and also allowed for the importing cutting edge foreign films (e.g. I am Curious Yellow), while avoiding congressional ire.
Although these films were very sexually explicit (at least for their time; although Tango still qualifies IMO) and very popular, the ratings sytem allowed the industry to argue that they were preventing harm by notifying consumers about the content of the film. Unfortunately, for reasons I can’t remember, the MPAA failed to trademark the X rating. This allowed independent film companies (and pornographers) to distribute even more sexually explicit films and use the X rating without actually receiving it from the MPAA. Two famous films to do this were “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door,” both of which enjoyed wide releases and suprisingly good box office numbers. Congress once again decided they were going to get into the act and start regulating the industry. As a result, the MPAA quickly dropped the X rating and substituted it with NC-17.
More importantly, the MPAA began pressuring theater owners not to release movies that recieved an NC-17 rating by threateneing to withold major blockbusters from the offending theater. The result is the system we have today.
Admittedly, the system is flawed. It leads to self-censorship by producers and directors in an effort to avoid the dreaded NC-17, it is absurd and arbitrary (you can say “fuck” only X number of times before your rating bumps up a notch). Additionally, because the ratings are rigidly policed by theater owners, there is even further pressure for self censorship in order to lower the rating and increase the target audience. Further pressures are put on by moralistic distibutors (Wal Mart and Blockbuster) who will refuse to stock the DVD if the movie receives an NC-17.
However, as anyone following the politically (and probably personally–I hate how she is always accused of “positioning” herself) motivated antics of Hillary Clinton regarding the “hot coffee” issue knows, there is aboslutely nothing worse than government when it comes to promoting creativity. I shudder to think of what a govenrment censorship board would have done to movies such as “Farenheight 9-11,” “Three Kings,” “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Dogma,” and my personal favorite, Roberto Rosselini’s “L’Amore.” (which suggests that the Virgin Mary was a completely insane) While the MPAA can accurately be derrided as a censor, I think the genius of the MPAA is that as long as Hollywood has control over the censorship, they can slowly push the envelope (although I must concede that TV seems to have progressed a lot more than film in the last 20 years despite rigid FCC regulation)
I suspect that video games will head in the same direction as movies. They are certianly going to have to commit heavily right now to much more rigid self-censorship. Personally, I have a hard time seeing video games as art, so I have a difficult time getting passionate about this issue (I guess its hard to care about the censorship of what you consider to be pure entertainment: “I am OUTRAGED that they censored three instances of the word “fuck” out of Pearl Harbor!!!”). Even so, here’s hoping the video game industry takes the smart road and re-commits to its own brand of rigid self-censorship and not to congress’.