On ‘We Happy Few’: Illegal video games, censorship and drug policy


Words || Cameron Colwell

“The player who takes Joy can reduce gameplay difficulty, therefore receiving an incentive by progressing through the game quickly. Although there are alternative methods to complete the game, gameplay requires the player to take Joy to progress. In the Board’s opinion, the game’s drug-use mechanism of making game progression less difficult, constituted an incentive or reward for drug-use.”

This quote from the Australian Classification Board comes from its statement which justified the banning of WE HAPPY FEW. WE HAPPY FEW is a dystopian video game set in a 1960s wherein the population must, at all times, be happy, and are drugged into constant, distracted bliss. You play as one of three protagonists who has decided to rebel against the state and stop their use of Joy, the drug, and is persecuted for doing so. While a review overturned the banning of the game, and it will now be made available to the public with an R18+ rating, it’s another note in the histories of two policy areas that Australia has a deeply regressive track record in: drug policy and censorship.

Throughout much of last century, many of the most memorable books were banned due to moral outrage. BRAVE NEW WORLD was banned for its portrayal of promiscuity, despite the fact its author was deeply concerned with sexuality as poison to the family unit. So was ULYSSES by James Joyce. To this day, you can’t even buy AMERICAN PSYCHO if you’re under 18, as an Adelaidean bookseller found out in 2015 when it stocked the book without its plastic cover and became subject to a police raid. Moving on from books, perhaps thinking a declining national readership has effectively neutralised them, the new favourite target of Australia’s moral guardians is video games. Not that you’d know it, but Australia has a burgeoning video games scene, that regularly has to contend with a complete disinterest in funding from the government, and scrutiny from censors. Another example is FALLOUT 3, which was going to be banned from Australia, before it changed the name of an item within the game, amphetamine, to ‘med-x’ in the final version.

In terms of drug policy, Australia maintains a crude, wowser-flavoured moralism that only seems to be doubling down in the face of growing public opinion that the answer to drug problems isn’t further criminalisation but rather, support. These specific and arbitrary bans on depictions within video games speak to a wider issue in Australia, whose leaders would rather demonise addicts than offer realistic solutions. If you approach the issue of drugs in culture as one of individual morality, then you’re going to eventually stop seeing addicts as people. Putting people into a box labelled ‘hopeless junkies’ makes it easier to put them away. What is needed is a systematic, less fear-based approach from a medical standpoint. This isn’t even a radical opinion anymore: former Police Commissioner Mick Palmer recently advocated for pill testing at the music festival Groovin’ The Moo, recommending that a social and medical approach be taken to drug policy, rather than a criminal one. Addicts need care, support and counselling, which is hard to find in prison.

The fearful moralist approach to drug policy is having real impact. The South Australian government has recently decided to up its penalties on marijuana usage, quadrupling the fine and introducing prison sentences. Dr. David Caldicott, clinical lead at ANU’s Australian Medicinal Cannabis Observatory, recently suggested to the ABC that the new policies could be intended to ‘generate revenue,’ and ‘send a message,’ but that tough new the laws would neither decrease use or reduce harm from marijuana. People are largely already aware of the penalties of possessing drugs, yet that has never stopped people from using it.

Drug abuse ruins lives, breaks down families, and further marginalises the already underprivileged. The same is also true of extended police powers, and they don’t do anything to prevent people using drugs. A biannual poll by the The Department of Public Health and Environment in Colorado, one of the growing number of places in the world where cannabis is being legalised, has reported a decrease in youth uptake of the drug. Harsher penalties serve to offer the state new cudgels with which to beat poor people and people of colour, and do nothing to stop usage or addiction. In a similar case of denialism, it’s been proven that violent video games do not make people violent, as an Oxford University study found: while large amounts of time spent playing video games do correlate with antisocial behaviour, the content doesn’t matter. People who spend six hours a day playing games like Tetris, are just as likely to be violent than people who spend the same time on Grand Theft Auto.

I don’t come to this issue from the perspective of a drug user, but from someone who despises the growing power of the police force, someone who loves evidence-based policy, and somebody who cares about justice for the poor, the mentally ill, and the otherwise marginalised. My viewpoint rests on a belief in individual autonomy, rather than hyper-individualist responsibility. The difference is that the first allows for care and for empathy, whereas the other is a bizarre ideology that thinks relying on a community and seeking support are weaknesses. Another case in point is nicotine. You’re allowed to buy if you have the dough after the extortionate and increasingly ineffective† taxes, nicotine in cigarettes, but if you want to quit using a vaporiser, you have to get a prescription from one of the extremely few doctors in Australia who will give you permission to get liquid nicotine, after importing it from overseas.

Or, to speak in the terms of the chronically tax-hike-addicted bureaucrats, you can get it on a thriving black market, where it can’t be taxed. If the wider culture doesn’t grow up in the face of drugs, and stop the fear-blind mindset the Australian Board of Classification took to WE HAPPY FEW, none of this is going to change. It’s almost as if policy-makers are more interested in revenue-raising than actually helping people. I have quite a lot of hope that, slowly, attention to the facts is overtaking dogmatism, but it’s a slow cultural change. Hopefully, open minds and critical, evidence-informed thought can accelerate that progress.