May 15, 2002


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techsploitation
by annalee newitz

Digital murder

IN A RECENT issue of the Bay Area Reporter, Ed Walsh reported on yet another gay-bashing death. What made this murder different from the usual "so-called straight guy freaks out and whacks the guy he's about to have sex with" story – of which there are far too many far too rarely discussed in the mainstream media – was that the murderous encounter began last July with a Yahoo! chat session between pimpassblingblingb (the alleged killer) and delasallesboy97 (the victim). Pimpassblingblingb (Brian Misquez) confessed to killing delasallesboy97 (Roggi De Chavez) after police identified his fingerprints at the scene. He claimed it was self-defense.

But when police obtained logs of the two men's Yahoo! chat session, in which pimpassblingblingb said he was horny and described exactly what kind of sex he wanted to have when the two agreed to meet up the next day, pimpassblingblingb's defense had to morph. Now his lawyer says she may try to use a "gay panic" defense, saying pimpassblingblingb wasn't responsible for his actions, because having sex with delasallesboy97 threw him into a blind panic, practically forcing him to stab delasallesboy97 more than two dozen times, so savagely that one of the knife blades broke off inside his skull.

Right-wingers who back legislation like the Child Online Protection Act are always saying kids have to be worried about meeting strangers who offer sexual content online. Dangerous pedophiles await, ready to snare any kid innocent enough to start chatting with them over Yahoo! or AOL I.M. Maybe what we really need is a Homosexual Online Protection Act, to rescue innocent young men from "straight" male predators with girlfriends and children (like our pal pimpassblingblingb) who want so badly to be hetero that they're willing to kill for it. Come to think of it, HOPA could be helpful in other ways too, protecting suicidal queer teens whose access to life-saving Web sites like PlanetOut (www.planetout.com) and that of the ACLU (www.aclu.org) has been blocked by censorware in their local public libraries and schools. After all, PlanetOut cofounder Tom Rielly reports that his site has received literally thousands of e-mails from queer youth saying that it if they hadn't found PlanetOut's queer-positive community online, they probably would have killed themselves. And what about SWOPA, the Sex Workers Online Protection Act? Don't we need that too?

Speaking of legislation we do and don't need, I'm still in awe over the stupidity of a new ruling from federal Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr., who decided that video games don't constitute a form of speech and therefore have no First Amendment protection. Well, yippee! His brilliant insight about what constitutes "speech" certainly explains "all your base are belong to us," but it doesn't account for why hundreds of games (like, say, XBox's Halo) have plots that are so complicated they include several extended cinematic sequences to acquaint players with what the hell is going on in the game and why they're playing it. As Salon.com's Wagner James Au points out in a recent article, video game plots may be stupid, but that doesn't mean they aren't speech.

The whole mess started with a St. Louis ordinance that requires people under 17 to get their parents' permission before they can buy violent or sexual video games. Arguing that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, the Interactive Digital Software Association challenged it in federal court, where Judge Limbaugh handed down his decision a few weeks ago. (The U.S. District Court of Appeals for a different federal circuit has already struck down a similar ordinance.)

What I want to know is how you can have definitions of speech cut so many different ways. I mean, if a game can be "sexually explicit" or "violent" then it must be a form of speech. It's not as if the game is fucking you or knifing you in the head. It's conveying sex and violence through images and words and all those things we think of as speech – often, indeed, your game literally talks to you. So, surely, if a game is expressive enough to be violent and sexual in a more or less coherent way, obviously it is a form of speech. And therefore it ought to be protected by the First Amendment.

A friend of mine who works on various Sim games explained to me once that every character in The Sims has been programmed to be bisexual and that characters in the game can also sustain polyamorous relationships. I like that message, and I want to be sure no hetero, monogamous bigot stops people from hearing what this game says about human social possibilities. I want people like delasallesboy97 protected from homicidal bigots too. And yet it seems as if most laws intended to protect people from violence are just one more way that violence gets perpetrated.

Annalee Newitz (antiviolence@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose spellchecker doesn't recognize the word polyamorous. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.