Focus - Video games: a modern solution to censorship?

Video games: a modern solution to censorship?

“We’ll meet where there’s no darkness.”

George Orwell, 1984

It may seem ominous to begin an article on Mojang’s hit video game Minecraft with a quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel. But for the seriousness of the subject, it’s not just convenient, it’s necessary. The subject at hand: the destruction of freedom of information and of the press in certain countries, where journalists and activists are censored under threat of imprisonment or worse. These same regimes force young people to interact with censored or blocked informational wastelands, heavily manipulated by government disinformation campaigns coordinated by oppressive rulers.

To mark World Day Against Cybercensorship on March 12, 2020, the organization known as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has released a way for individuals and journalists to subvert Internet censorship in their respective countries. It’s called The Uncensored Library, and it’s been built inside a Minecraft server.

This article will not deal with the political aspects of the countries represented in the Uncensored Library. On the contrary, it will attempt to discuss the innovative merits of certain groups and individuals who circumvent the erasure of political criticism by using the media or video games such as Minecraft.

The Uncensored Library

To say that Minecraft has quickly become much more than a video game is an understatement. The game has long been a place where people from all walks of life express their creative freedom, test their survival skills and build structures and friendships that can last a lifetime. Minecraft is the embodiment of freedom of expression, thanks to its open gameplay and the versatility of its basic components: blocks. Everything is made of blocks, from sandstone to wooden planks to books. This simple idea, taken even further than what Lego has been able to do with its famous bricks, is at the very heart of this freedom. The organization Reporters sans frontières put this freedom to good use, building a neoclassical library of intricate detail. It took 18 virtual builders three months to construct, and contains 12.5 million blocks. The official website includes an informative film as well as the purpose of the library, the authors who contributed to it and an updated offline backup file of the uncensored library that allows anyone to access its digital archive.

The difference with other equally impressive Minecraft constructions is immediately apparent. In addition to serving as a breathtaking spawn on an online survival server, or as a grand spectacle in a save file in creative mode, this library’s function is to save and distribute censored articles and books from journalists and media outlets in countries under strict government control. Minecraft‘s block books contain hundreds of pages of detailed political commentary and personal accounts, available in several languages, from inside some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. This provocative act of subversion is only possible through Minecraft, as traditional media and outspoken journalists are suppressed.

The interior of the library is incredibly large, with various wings and pavilions designed to house articles written by journalists whose voices have been silenced, lost or altered. In addition to the articles, which can be read in their original language as well as in English, there are monuments and artistic installations reflecting the ideas of truth and freedom of the press specific to each nation.

The Labyrinth of Truth in the Uncensored Library
The Labyrinth of Truth in the Uncensored Library

One example is The Labyrinth of Truth in the Vietnam section, which evokes the image of a vast labyrinth, with several entrances at one end and a traditional building at the other. This text highlights the increasing censorship of information and “the growing effort to make access to the truth as difficult as possible” in Vietnam, where the only source of independent information comes from bloggers and citizen journalists, all of whom are subject to severe persecution. Another example is the Data Kraken in the Russian pavilion. This large construction covers the entire floor area and depicts the mythical Kraken beast amidst a sea of Minecraft blocks. As a plaque at the entrance indicates, the artwork symbolizes the “immense effort” undertaken by Russia’s rulers to systematically control the Internet and “critical journalists”. Due to the establishment of a blacklist of banned sites, which allows websites to be blocked without a court order, many people are sentenced to prison terms, even a misplaced like on a post can land someone in jail.

The Uncensored Library was created to offer journalists a safe space to download articles censored in countries that seek to control press freedom. To fully understand the scope of this digital place, it’s pertinent to download the backup file of the modern Alexandria Library and experience it for yourself.

What is censorship?

Without straying too far from the subject of this article, it seems prudent to take a brief look at the role of censorship in human history and how, in recent history, it has become prevalent in oppressive regimes as a means of preserving a stranglehold on the dissemination of information, both nationally and internationally.

Censorship in Antiquity

Censorship has been used by authorities to control populations since time immemorial. The city-states of ancient Greece and Rome shaped people’s perceptions to suit the character and needs of the regime. This ancient censorship focused on the “city gods” and the idea that every citizen should respect the privilege of religious worship and conformity. Any breach of this rule exposed the citizen to hardship followed by legal ramifications if he spoke out against these issues. In Athens, citizens were encouraged to discuss public discourse freely, as Pericles, an influential democratic ruler of Athens, believed that without taboo-free political discussion :

The city’s best interests could not be served.

Source: Britannica

Medieval censorship

What’s more, almost 2000 years later, censorship continued to exist in medieval Christendom. Medieval Europe was rife with controversy, often due to the inability to separate political from religious differences. The Roman Catholic Church’s creation of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Latin for Index of Forbidden Books, the medieval equivalent of Russia’s blacklist of forbidden sites) in the 5th century CE is a case in point, the suppression of Galileo’s defense of the Copernican theory (which proclaimed that the sun was the center of the universe) in 1633, and the promulgation of the Nicene Creed in 325 CE (a creed outlining exactly what Christians should believe), one thing is clear: what people believed mattered. Indeed, these beliefs influenced not only religious action, but also the political action of authority, since church and state were inseparable in those days. The advent of printing compounded the problem of disseminating information that was not officially approved by the Church or the authorities. This situation can be compared with the disseminating power of the Internet and the measures taken by modern authorities to control information.

Source: EHNE

A very short explanation of modern press freedom

In response to the British government’s approval of a pre-publication censorship law in 1644 (which required media to be approved or altered), John Milton wrote the pamphlet Areopagitica, whose title alone evokes the ideas of ancient Greek democracy, which defends freedom of the press by asserting that:

Truth and understanding are not commodities that can be monopolized and exchanged by banknotes, statutes and standards.” 

John Milton, Areopagitica

Milton’s sentiment is reflected in the legislation passed by the Swedish Parliament in 1766. This legislation was the first in the world to legally defend freedom of the press and information. This Freedom of the Press Act laid the foundations for future democratic countries to adapt their own principles of press freedom and freedom of expression, notably the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Although most democratic countries in the world today, in one form or another, have achieved a healthy status with regard to press freedom, many have not. Clearly, it is the dictatorships that suffer most, but as the official Reporters Without Borders ranking shows, there are nuances between the conceptions and laws of each country.

Video games and the subversion of censorship

After this overview, our initial question still remains: how is information still censored, and how are the media, especially video games, leading the charge against oppression?

As we mentioned at the start of this article, we won’t be commenting on oppressive regimes, ideologies and leaders, but will simply be discussing the origin and use of selected media to subvert censorship. If one country or individual is mentioned more than others, this is purely because of the number of examples and not because of any political bias.

Animal Crossing: The Shadow Protesters

As the pandemic shook the world and many people were forced to stay indoors, many found themselves isolated and in desperate need of escape. Fortunately, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released and answered this collective desire to escape. Players could engage in a single-player experience, or use the multiplayer features that allowed people to meet virtually to share artwork, show off their respective islands, and…. protest their government?

An example of Animal Crossing action in the Free Hong Kong movement
An example of Animal Crossing action in the Free Hong Kong movement

That’s exactly what players in Hong Kong did when closures forced them into isolation. Players used the game’s features to create protest-themed artwork and clothing, which could then be shared online via QR codes. In this way, activists could not only pursue their political commentary anonymously and from home, but it was also a good way of promoting their mission to those on the streets. This example is similar to that of the Uncensored Library, as it highlights the versatility of video games, as well as the adaptability of gamers, to use a game’s existing functions to subvert censorship and promote freedom of expression.

Devotion’s secret poster

The invention of easter eggs in the media has given games a transmedia quality that translates into callbacks to other games, obscure pop culture references and, as we’ll see, secret political commentary on the real world. In this context, the term easter egg refers to a hidden reference, feature or joke that can be found through in-game interactions, specific keystrokes or access to the game’s secret levels. The easter egg we’re interested in was discovered in the horror game Devotion, developed by Taiwanese studio Red Candle Games. It took the form of a discreet yellow poster found in the bowels of a digitally-rendered 1980s Taiwan. The secret message could only be seen if the player interacted with a poster hanging on the wall. Upon interaction, the names of China’s president, written in an ancient style, and the fictional Winnie-the-Pooh character created by A. A. Milne, were then displayed.

The Hakka curse words are the four circled characters, while the left side of the stamp shows Winnie the Pooh and the right side the name Xi.
The Hakka curse words are the four circled characters, while the left side of the stamp shows Winnie the Pooh and the right side the name Xi.

Due to its secret nature, the easter egg was only discovered after release, but the game was subsequently banned, censored and removed from the Steam store in China. The studio also apologized to players offended by the “accidental” inclusion of the poster, and offered refunds to anyone wishing to remove the game from their Steam library. Although this meme, which compares the Chinese president to the innocent fictional bear, could be seen as a simple attempt at political commentary, it is nevertheless an example of freedom of expression and an attempt to escape censorship via a video game.

QR Codes: The modern invisible ink

Imagine the situation: it’s 2017 in Beijing, China. You’re walking down the street and pass people walking to your left and right. From the front, they’re wearing normal clothes, but as you pass them, you notice white ties bearing English text and discreet QR codes. Intrigued, you approach them and ask if you can scan the codes. As QR codes are ubiquitous in Beijing, you expect nothing until your scan loads a web page giving you the opportunity to download and read deleted texts by He Yinzhen, a radical 20th-century anarchist feminist. This is the Thunderclap project undertaken by Amy Suo Wu, a Chinese-born artist, designer and teacher living in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

This act of subversion uses modern technology to disseminate texts deemed inappropriate by the authorities, using the advent of unconventional clothing accessories to provide discreet access terminals to offline databases. Once again, this act is reminiscent of the Uncensored Library, as both attempt to hide in plain sight by using media and modern technology to thwart government censors and promote the truth or the ideas of marginalized groups in a safe, anonymous way.

Memes and Emojis: A modern coded language

The communicative power of memes, emoticons and slang has grown in recent years, creating a phenomenon of secret languages and meanings that can be rapidly dispersed on a global scale. Although primarily a form of comedy, some more subtle than others, memes can also be seen as a tool for subverting censorship. As far as social media platforms are concerned, the researchers found that :

whenever online authorities […] try to restrict freedom of expression on the internet, people find creative ways to get around the rules. These strategies can be used to spread abuse or to preserve freedom of expression.

Source: Scientific American
Using #metoo with Emojis in China
Using #metoo with Emojis in China

The way people have used nuances of language and emojis to evade government censors is a case in point. The #MeToo movement, commonly spread via hashtags on social media, has been blocked in some countries, leading people to adapt their broadcasting approach in creative ways. In China, the Chinese symbol for rice (米, “mí”) and rabbit (兔, “tù”) were used to replace “#MeToo” with “#米兔”, enabling users to continue raising awareness on social media despite censorship, this method was later refined to retain only the rice and rabbit emojis, proving even more effective in evading censorship. This example illustrates an innovative method of subversion using modern technology and media to transcend international barriers and hide secret meanings within emoticons and language.

Our future

The notion of freedom of the press exists so that people can inform others of their experiences, report the truth about corruption and violence, and as a means of remaining politically vigilant in a fast-paced and insatiable world. When this notion is hijacked and the truth is suppressed or altered, the door is opened to dangerous oppression of dystopian proportions. Indeed, if truth exists only in the mind of a first-hand experience, this information can be lost in death or imprisonment. As in Orwell’s 1984, if freedom of the press is not respected, those in power can alter the history books until only those who experienced the events first-hand know the truth, and if these people are repressed or the media shut down, that truth erodes into non-existence.

All documents have been destroyed or falsified, all books rewritten, all photos repainted, all statues and buildings renamed, all dates changed. And the process continues day after day, minute after minute. History has stopped. There is nothing but an endless present in which the Party is always right.

George Orwell, 1984

It’s hard to believe that today’s society can be compared in the slightest to Orwell’s fictional land of Oceania, or to the book-burning firemen in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But you’d better believe it, because modern book autodafés are still happening in 2010, as we saw in the USA, where around 10,000 copies of Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart were purchased and destroyed by the US Department of Defense, with the aim of preserving national security. While it is comically pointless in the digital age to destroy physical books, it is nevertheless a worrying move on the part of a democratic government.

In other countries, history itself is being erased. Why is this happening? To widen the distance between memory and facts, in order to distance present-day authority from the atrocities of the past. This is evident from a recent story in Russia, where the Sakharov Center, a leading human rights center and pro-democracy anchor in Moscow, which strives to preserve “a quarter-century of Russian human rights work“, including the purges and prison camps set up by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, is being closed down and its occupants forcibly expelled as foreign agents. In a globalized world, where the average citizen has access to unprecedented levels of information on all subjects and can watch live events unfolding in real time anywhere in the world, it’s hard to imagine censorship being a major problem. But as we’ve tried to highlight with this article, censorship is still rife in many countries, prompting individuals to seek creative means of subversion through modern technology and popular media, such as video games like Minecraft and innovative projects like The Uncensored Library.

Ressources

Website

https://www.uncensoredlibrary.com/en

http://thunderclap.io

Article – internet

https://www.britannica.com/topic/censorship/History-of-censorship

https://rsf.org/en/ranking

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-47361172

https://www.goethe.de/ins/us/en/kul/tec/23100078.html

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/social-media-restrictions-cannot-keep-up-with-hidden-codes-and-symbols/

https://restofworld.org/2022/china-social-media-censorship/

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/world/moscow-human-rights-centre-packs-state-tightens-monopoly-memory-3443146

Videos

Reporters Without Borders, The Uncensored Library, 2020, 1 min 57, URL : https://youtu.be/YGzeYfwVa5U?si=rLtf_Zqa7ddCsNwQ

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