It's NOT all right -- Neopian Censorship 101

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On Neopets you either get rich, get frozen, get bored, or get gone. I'm not gone yet and not particularly bored since I started running a guild but and until recently I was quite rich. I just had my third warning.

It all started quite innocuously. I put up a role play about a winter semi-formal in a hotel ball room. Of course we all know what goes on in a hotel ball room: social dancing, yes couples dressed in gowns and tuxedos dancing cheek to cheek, toe to toe, doing spins and twists as the DJ spins CD's or mixes MP3's. Some player I did not know (and that could be one of millions) appeared on the role play and announced: "Dancing is not allowed." I blinked. I laughed. Role plays about dances and proms after all appear regularly. Was this player a throw back to the era of high button shoes? Did she hale from Saudi Arabia? I now think that given that it was about 11:30pm on the East Coast this young woman might have come from Singapore.

The announcement made by this absolute stranger, had a chilling effect. I role played for a while, having a character, named Nathalia order a Coca-Cola at the bar (No underage drinking in modern settings) and talk to the bar tender who came from Cuba as a teen and who hated slow nights in the starlight lounge. If there are any parents out there, does this shock you?

I got an official warning for this role play. The randomness of it shocks me as much as anything else, since I have trod all over the Neorules and usually do it with impunity. My characters spout religious allusions. I have managed to safely play a nun (The setting was Medeival Europe). I had a high school age character who is the son of a famous atheist scientist who wanted to be a minister. She could unpack her books on theology but had a bit of trouble assembling her book case because she needed to use nuts, bolts, and screws. I asked the electronic censors to review the post.

Well after the warning, all my posts disappeared from my guild site. I still have my guild and my account and some comiseration from members. I am glad I have a second account. I've managed to divest a lot of the wealth from my first account and shelter it in the second account to protect in case the first account is frozen. I also made sure that everyone in the guild had enough administrative power to keep the guild going in my absence. I've been in guilds where the leaders got frozen and there was no way for the next in line to take over. I think the monitor was in Singapore. I know we did not discuss anything except formal parties (Oh parties of all types appear to be illegal.) There was nothing particularly nasty in any of the conversation. I am an adult dealing with teens. I need to be careful, and I was. Decorum is my watch word.

I suspect someone for whom English is a second language butchered my board. The posts were highly idiomatic. I talked about a double breasted red suit dress, formal parties including my brother's wedding and my grandparents' fiftieth anniversary which incidentally was held in the Doral's Starlight Lounge, the same venue as the role play that got reported.

Well, I guess I have an answer to a question. Is Neopets a good place for children? The answer is NO and the reason is censorship.

Let's start with what is legal.
I am not a lawyer but I have a rough idea of what is legal for young people to read. I am a librarian, a card carrying member of the ALA and a member of its Intellectual Freedom Round Table.

Quite simply, people under the age of eighteen are not allowed to read obscene material and adults are not allowed to give them obscene materal. Yes, that means pornography. Obscene material according to a United States Supreme Court case called Miller vs CA, is writing or media that:

An average person aplying contemporary community standards would find, [that material ] taken as a whole, appeals to prurient [sexually arousing] interest; [AND] taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value [including humor]; and does one of the following:

  1. Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated.
  2. Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way masturbation, excretory functions, sadism or mascochism.
  3. Lewdly exhibits genitals

But all right you just described X-rated stuff? What about R rated stuff? Neopets has to have some controls to keep the little kids from reading that stuff. Ten year olds are interested and want to know and will find this stuff and then what will happen if their parents find out? The R rating was not set up by any court of law but by the Motion Picture Association. Interestingly enough, children under the age of seventeen can rent R rated videos with parental permission, or they can borrow them from many public libraries with no parental permission at all. The library does not get in trouble for lending these items and the video store does not get in trouble for renting them to a kid. R rated movies and videos are legal.

Actually though role plays and Neomail and pet pages are much closer to books and other printed matter than they are to movies and video. The net is still in large part a text based medium. Surely role play is text based. Books unlike videos do not have ratings at all. If they are not obscene they are legal. The ten year old can walk into a book store, buy herself a bodice ripper and enjoy it if that is her thing.

Most of the sexual content that Neopets prohibits is the stuff from which bodice rippers or even decent literature is made. Prohibited acts and scenes include:

social dancing (Is square dancing prohibited)
dirty dancing
and of course the act itself.

Also on the prohibited list are pets in heat and animal breeding and by correllation, childbirth. Not only can ten year olds not write their own version of a boddice ripper, hospital role plays are also risky as are some family role plays. Needless to say homoerotic role plays (the male on male version of a bodice ripper) are also frought with danger.

Now for the some other types of legal speech that Neopets outlaws: This includes all talk of politics, religion, and graphic violence, blood, and wounds, and also some mental health issues. One of my guild members was even recently warned for sustaining a "hip wound" in some kind of action role play. These prohibitions mean that Neopians can not discuss current events on the boards unless they are very careful. It means that nearly all war and adventure role plays are difficult to write well. Really good violence is bloody. A knock down drag 'em out brawl or fencing match is far more exciting reading than a quick, clean kill. Neopia does not care about well executed writing.

Historical role plays are also nearly impossible. The church was a major part of life in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Crusades and Reconquista pitted one religious group against another. Role play characters deserve a spiritual life.

On nonroleplay boards, members can not make or answer prayer requests, post testimony, or praise reports. An entire area of human endeavor is off limits. Conservative fora routinely prohibit religious proselytizing but usually permit prayer and praise.

Yes but Neopets is a children's site! Haven't we been here before? The vast majority of the speech Neopets prohibits is absolutely legal for children to write and read. Saying that these rules are necessary for child safety or for diverse users is a lame excuse. It gives Neopets the ability to enforce these rules and then smile. If an adult complains, they can say "It's a children's site. Go find an adult venue." despite the fact that at least one in five Neopians is over eighteen and of the proportion who are fully active, the fraction of adults is even higher. If a child complains Neopets has only to say "BEHAVE!" Children have low enough status that no one, including a parent is likely to question their child's punishment. Of course a parent may advise a disgruntled child to go elsewhere.

Preventing legal speech serves Neopets interest, but it does not serve the interests of its young membership. There is a great difference between speech that is repellant and speech that is illegal. If you or your child do not like a particular role play or board topic, the child or the parent have the option of walking away. Is that not protection enough?

The real effect of Neopets' rules is social control! First, people want to communicate with other live human beings rather than with a database. That is the great attraction of the boards at Neopets and people, even children, want to speak their minds. If they are dealing with sexual issues, than they want to discuss them as fiction. If high school politics and social stratification are on their minds, they want to pursue those. If they are into current events or sports or spirituality, they want to give voice to their ideas about those subjects.

As a result, Neopians learn to flout the Neorules and fly under the radar. They can accomplish this because Neopets uses a two pronged system to enforce its censorship. The first and somewhat humorous prong is what I call the mechanical or electronic censor. Certain words are filtered. Among them: sex, rape, and genocide. A bit of creative spelling usually gets around this as does the use of dashes symbols or the BLEEP!. Of course this did not help poor Amalie, the character, when she wanted to assemble her book case. Scr_ws are considered profanity even when they are small hardware implements.

Beyond this, a second set of unwritten rules takes over. Generally on the role play boards, if one stays with a role play, follows the hosts rules, leaves if a host asks him or her to go, and listens to the hosts commands on a board, one is fine. The second layer of Neopia's censorship relies on users to report one another. On a role play board where everyone inside a romance topic agrees to play that topic or in a historical Medieval role play where there is a nun and where we mentioned the Inquisition and the Crusades, players decided NOT to report other players. We routed around damage.

Of course the Neopian role play boards and all Neopian boards are public. This means one only stays lucky for so long. My luck ran out last night. I don't know how long it will continue to last. A stranger stumbling across a board that frightens or repels him or her can easily report the board and the host.

What this teaches is two less than desirable lessons. First, your fellow Neopians are not to be trusted. It only takes one wormy apple to spoil the whole barrel, and if you keep eating apples, you'll find a wormy one sooner or later. The second lesson is that one can be safe by playing more conservatively. I don't think this lesson is true, but when censorship is pervasive and random, it is an easy lesson to learn especially for users prohibited from going elsewhere.

The third lesson Neopets' censorship teaches is that communicating with the database is safer than communicating with fellow human beings. A system that prohibits a very long list of legal speech makes taking the initiative and using one's creativity punishable offenses. Areas where users write their own words are dangerous. You are better off as a player, just playing the games and ripping off your fellow players through your store. That this creates an attitude of learned helplessness and waiting to be entertained goes without saying.

Look it's pretty clear you don't like censorship at Neopets. You've gone on and on about it. If you don't like it then why not just leave. You are always free to go somewhere else? Yes, and if I am down at the shopping mall, I can always go somewhere else to pass out political pamphlets, hold up a protest sign, look for signatures etc... Neopets is very much like a shopping mall. It is large enough to be the public square, yet it is in private space.

You are always free to leave the mall, but to do so means leaving where most of the people are and finding oneself in small venues and on one's own blog or rented space if you are lucky enough to have that. The public square is not the same as one's own back yard. The public square that censors is a terrible place.

Many younger users are not permitted to leave. Parents trust Neopets as child safe and fear that other fora, even those run by children and teens themselves, are not. Also, due to the proscription against links to outside sites (The sponsors of course can advertise freely!) it is very difficult to take others with you when you do decide to leave.

Yes, but why should I care? I don't belong to Neopets and if children want to come there, fine. The site if for children. The site is designed to be safe for children. Don't you get it! It should be clear by now that I don't get it. It should also be clear that I care about children and teens, and that Neopets' censorship probably makes it a very poisonous place for young people. I am not sure what the long term effects of living with pervasive censorship are. I tried looking for research on it, but could find none.

Having a lot of wealth in an account that does a lot of communication is risky. Many Neopians undoubtedly learn the lesson of learned helpelessness and that it is better to do what you are told, play with the databases, and not talk too much. What happens to these children and teens after several years on the site?

For the children and teens brave enough to communicate, some will internalize the censors' ideas. Someone must maintain order. Authority, even heavy handed, authority is necessary.

Hours spent flying under the radar breed cynicism. Neopets censorship may teach a few extremely souls that rules are meant to be broken and can not possibly be rational. What happens to these young people when they finally venture out beyond Neopets and find themselves in fora where the rules are reasonable?

I don't have any good recommendations for alternatives to Neopets that will be as large or as full of light and movement. The public square is by its very nature seductive. The best bet is for young people to set up blogs, or boards at such providers as Proboards and Invisionfree There are also MSNGroups and Geocities for personal web space. None of these venues have any problem with the teen or middle schooler who wants to talk politics, answer prayer requests, or even write a straight or gay bodice ripper. Self experssion is healthy. Censorship is not.

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