TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: cgw.txt

Computer Gaming World & government abuse

Computer Gaming World (Golden Empire Publications)
June, 1990, Number 72, Page 8
Editorial by Johnny L. Wilson

                        It CAN Happen Here

  Although Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis is probably best known
for 'Main Street', 'Babbitt', 'Elmer Gantry', and 'Arrowsmith', my personal
favorites are 'It Can't Happen Here' and 'Kingsblood Royal'.  The latter is an
ironic narrative in which who suffers from racial prejudice toward the black
population discovers, through genealogical research, that he himself has black
ancestors.  The protagonist experienced a life-challenging discovery that
enabled Lewis to preach a gospel of civil rights to his readership.

  The former is, perhaps, Lewis' most lengthy novel and it tells how a radio
evangelist was able to use the issues of morality and national security to form
a national mandate and create a fascist dictatorship in the United States.  As
Lewis showed how patriotic symbolism could be distorted by power-hungry elite
and religious fervor channeled into a political movement, I was personally
shaken.  As a highschool student, reading this novel, for the first time, I
suddenly realized what lewis intended for his readers to realize.  "It" (a
dictatorship) really CAN happen here,  There is an infinitesimally fine line
between protecting the interests of society and encumbering the freedoms of the
self-same society in the name of protection.

  Now it appears that the civil liberties of game designers and gamers
themselves are to be assaulted in the name of protecting society.  In recent
months two unrelated events have taken place which must make us pause: the
raiding of Steve Jackson Games' offices by the United States Secret Service,
and the introduction of A.B. 3280 into the California State Assembly by
Assemblyperson Tanner.

  On March 1, 1990, Steve Jackson Games (a small pen and paper game company)
was raided by agents of the United States Secret Service.  The raid was
allegedly part of an investigation into data piracy and was, apparently,
related  to the latest supplement from SJG entitled, GURPS Cyberpunk (GURPS
stands for Generic Universal Role-Playing System).  GURPS Cyberpunk features
rules for a game universe analogous to the dark futures of George Alec Effinger
('When Gravity Fails'), William Gibson ('Neuromancer'), Norman Spinrad ('Little
Heroes'), Bruce Sterling ('Islands in the Net'), and Walter Jon Williams

  GURPS Cyberpunk features character related to breaking into networks and
phreaking (abusing the telephone system).Hence, certain federal agents are
reported to have made several disparaging remarks about the game rules being a
"handbook for computer crime".  In the course of the raid (reported to have
been conducted under the authority of an unsigned photocopy of a warrant; at
least, such was the only warrant showed to the employees at SJG) significant
destruction allegedly occurred.  A footlocker, as well as exterior storage
units and cartons, were deliberately forced open even though an employee with
appropriate keys was present and available to lend assistance.  In addition,
the materials confiscated included: two computers, an HP Laserjet II printer, a
variety of computer cards and parts, and an assortment of commercial software.
In all, SJG estimates that approximately $10,000 worth of computer hardware and
software was confiscated.

  The amorphous nature of the raid is what is most frightening to me.  Does
this raid indicate that those who operate bulletin board systems as individuals
are at risk for similar raids if someone posts "hacking" information on their
computer?  Or does it indicate that games which involve "hacking" are subject
to searches and seizures by the federal government?  Does it indicate that
writing about "hacking" exposes one to the risk of a raid?  It seems that this
raid goes over the line of protecting society and has, instead, violated the
freedom of its citizenry.  Further facts may indicate that this is not the
case, but the first impression strongly indicates an abuse of freedom.

  Then there is the case of California's A.B 3280 which would forbid the
depiction of any alcohol or tobacco package or container in any video game
intended primarily for use by minors.  The bill makes no distinction between
positive or negative depiction of alcohol or tobacco, does not specify what
"primarily designed for" means, and defines 'video game' in such a way that
coin-ops, dedicated game machines, and computer games can all fit within the

  Now the law is, admittedly, intended to help curb the use and abuse of
alcohol and tobacco among minors.  Yet the broad stroke of the brush with which
it is written limits the dramatic license which can be used to make even
desirable points in computer games.  For example, Chris Crawford's 'Balance of
the Planet' depicts a liquor bottle on a trash heap as part of a screen talking
about the garbage problem.  Does this encourage alcohol abuse?  In 'Wasteland',
one of the encounters involves two winos in an alley.  Does their use of
homemade white lightening commend it to any minors that might be playing the

  One of the problems with legislating art is that art is designed to both
reflect and cast new light and new perspectives on life.  As such, depiction of
any aspect of life may be appropriate, in context.  Unfortunately for those who
want to use the law as a means of enforcing morality, laws cannot be written to
cover every context.

  We urge our California readers to oppose A.B. 3280 and help defend our basic
freedoms.  We urge all of our readers to be on the alert for any governmental
intervention that threatens our freedom of expression.  "It" not only CAN
happen here, but "it" is very likely to if we are not careful.

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