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Suppress or express: the net gives everybody a choice

By Natasha Cica - posted Monday, 28 August 2006

Were you one of the 100,000-plus signatories to online activist site GetUp’s recent ‘No Child in Detention’ petition, culminating in VOTE NO sky graffiti over Parliament House while the Prime Minister withdrew one of the harshest anti-refugee measures of our times?


It felt pretty good, even if the petition pinged into your inbox after the bill had been dropped, which is when it hit mine. Just hitting “send” gave you the sense of being on a cutting edge, having a direct say on a matter challenging bedrock Australian values. You may have gained reinforced confidence that those values include freedom of expression.


So how do you feel about Getting Up? Heard of it? It’s a computer game devised by American Mark Ecko, multimillionaire founder of a fashion brand trading on the hip, the cool, the edgy. Set in an urban world where freedom of expression is suppressed by tyrannical and corrupt authorities, players take them on using street fighting skills and graffiti.

It sounds like a bit of the “vibe of the Constitution” in virtual action to me, if hardly an original morality play - David with pixel paintballs v dominatrix Goliath.

But I can’t confirm that from first-hand experience, because in February the Australian Government’s Classification Review Board denied the game classification, which means it cannot be sold, demonstrated, hired or imported into Australia. The result was endorsed by Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who had asked the board to review Getting Up’s MA15+ classification in response to concern that the game promoted “graffiti crimes”.

Australia is the only nation to have banned this game. On the same day, the Singapore Government, not renowned for its liberalism, announced that gay cowboy flick Brokeback Mountain would be screened uncut. That movie played in Australia too, but initially only in relatively narrow release, mainly confined to tolerance-heavy, latte-luvvie demographics.

Now consider STOMP, the new online imitative of Singapore’s Straits Times. Just two months old, STOMP was established to counter the public perception that the staid, pro-government newspaper is - well, staid and pro-government.

While many eyeballs and digits were elsewhere - some sending that GetUp petition, others thumbing through tabloid newspaper advertorials for Rupert Murdoch’s online foray MySpace - a capacity crowd turned out for a recent international event at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, run by digital media think-tank XMediaLab. STOMP was showcased as a bleeding edge exemplar of user-generated content, along with projects like Al Gore’s broadcaster Current, plus our ABC’s own JTV.


Much material uploaded by STOMPers so far looked unremarkable - a mix of low-brow lifestyle and citizen video-policing of urban vandals (aka “graffiti criminals”). But then came the early-warning, uncensored scoop of new surveillance cameras on Singapore buses. I sat straighter in my seat, sensing battles to come on screens near all of us in real-time democracy wars.

Speaking of war, another game’s streaming along lawfully in Australia. Commissioned by the Federal government and hosted on its defence force website as a recruitment tool, Operation Allied Shield offers online sniper simulation. Click here to play - “Good Luck, Soldier!” - and you’re shooting away. Forget naughty words, it’s guns and bullets, those things that kill real-life people, in real places like Iraq.

I can’t report on the next level of operational challenge. Access to playtime with “my unit” was blocked with this message: “Unfortunately, you have failed basic marksmanship training.”

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First published in The Age on August 22, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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