Character customisation has become a fundamental element of game design over the past few years. Many online titles allow players to personalise their onscreen characters, vehicles and weapons, often through the use of quite powerful editing packages. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the latest example, offering gamers the chance to paint their clan tags on guns and to create their own graphics for targeting reticules and character badges.
But creative freedom is always open to abuse and this week, the Director of Xbox Live Policy and Enforcement has been explaining Microsoft's decision to ban CoD players who use the customisation mode to draw swastika badges for their in-game avatars. In an unusually forthright blog post, Stephan Tolouse criticised 'contrarians' who point out the symbol's pre-Nazi origins and who see the ban as an attack on free speech. He claimed Microsoft's stance was one of, 'fundamental respect'.
It's not political correctness, it's fundamental respect. If you think the swastika symbol should be re-evaluated by societies all over the Earth, I think that's great. Your Xbox Live profile or in game logo, which doesn't have the context to explain your goal, is not the right place to do that.
Tolouse has clearly had to deal with a range of justifying arguments...
Some have suggested that because the game itself displays swastikas – specifically in the Zombie co-op map entitled 'Kino der Toten' – it should be acceptable for players themselves to adopt the imagery. The Microsoft representative counters by drawing a distinction between game and custom materials: "that's content that you know that you are getting, because it is rated content. It's there as part of the experience, not making a statement. Using it as your emblem is different."
Elsewhere, there are arguments that all religious symbols should be similarly banned, due to the numerous instances of bloodshed carried out in the name of major faith systems. There are some who even claim an aesthetic appreciation. On one Black Ops discussion forum a contributor named 'w Nightmare w' protests: "I am not looking for a reaction I just like how the Swastika plus eagle shield looks on my AK-47, why is that such a big deal?"
It is a complex argument about morality and censorship, and like the debate that exploded around misogynistic and homophobic gangster rap in the nineties, it tests the boundaries of the term 'free speech', its myriad interpretations and the types of opinion we are prepared to protect under its banner. The unavoidable suspicion is that a vast majority of CoD users who choose to deface their game with this symbol aren't doing so because they want to make a point about its Neolithic origins, or its importance in Hindu and Buddhist semiology (likely to be one of the reasons why Japanese publisher, Square Enix, decided to remove the swastikas from the game before its release in Japan), they're doing it for the shock value, or because they consider it cool to align themselves with neo-Nazi ideology.
Most of my friends rarely play shooters on public servers because the voice communications are rife with homophobic and racist abuse. Whether it is representative or not, it is a damning and depressing indictment of 'game culture'. So does Microsoft's direct action in this case send out a message that this behaviour is unacceptable? Or are measures like this always going to be interpreted as corporate bullying, especially considering Microsoft's complicated public image – part benevolent game system provider, part merciless capitalist behemoth?
Ultimately, the question becomes: is Microsoft right? I think it is. Do you?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010