2009-12-27: Profanity filters - when the cure is worse than the ailment

Posted at 2009-12-27 11:57:37 by SHD

There are some online games that I enjoy playing. What many of those appear to have in common nowadays is that there are profanity filters in them. Personally I think that is a monumentally stupid idea. There are two reasons for that. The first is that it is a very ineffective and hypocritical form of censorship. I've never understood why people, especially Americans, (at least in public) condemn the use of certain simple words and go positively ballistic at the sight of even mild nudity, yet live in a society that glorifies violence to the point where the "right to bear arms" is a part of the country's constitution and many people make use of that right. I can sort of understand that parents don't want their kids to be bombarded with expletives, but can those same parents honestly say that they never swear themselves? I doubt it very much. Many are indeed terrible hypocrits and say they "won't swear in front of the children". As if no child hearing a curse suddenly makes it better. The parents learnt those words, the kids will too. Filtering them in a game isn't going to prevent that. If you really think swearing is that bad, then it won't do to keep your children ignorant, but you need to set the right example for them and explain to them what it is they shouldn't be doing and why they shouldn't be doing it.

Captain Haddock swearing

My second reason for despising profanity filters is how they can make innocent things look offensive. This gets worse the "smarter" the filter gets. If people really want to swear, they'll always find ways of outsmarting the filters anyway, often simply by interjecting spaces or using leetspeak. This only means the filters misfire even more often. Misfiring filters make perfectly normal phrases seem offensive and even human moderators tend to get their knickers in a twist at innocent players. Here's a few real life examples:

  • The Dutch translation of "you can" is "je kunt". Some moronic programmer decided that "kunt" was an attempt at bypassing the filter, probably because of an English word that starts with a C. I personally find it insulting to see my natively language butchered this way.
  • Apparently, the word "ass" is too much for grownups to handle. The word "butt" somehow less so. Some dumbbutt's idea to fix this was to replace all occurrences of "ass" in official documents with "butt" resulting in clbuttic mistakes such as buttessing buttetts in Mbuttachussetts or somesuch nonsense.
  • "Sex" is, of course, even worse. Totally unacceptable. Especially to people who live in Essex or Sussex. Oh, and what about the people who went to Middlesex High School? They can't even mention the name of their school or place of residence without it being seen as cursing. I guess they'll have to pretend they're from Esgender or Susintercourse.
  • I once asked a player to identify himself using the message "who're you?". The filter had never heard of that perfectly valid contraction and decided "who're" was probably intended as a derogatory term for "prostitute". It dutifully replaced that, as it does all swear-words (I use the term lightly) with "$@*#". The message that this player received was therefore "$@*# you?". Does anybody want to hazard a guess as to what the recipient thought I had written? I'll give you a hint: it starts with F.
  • The filter in the previous example also considered the name of the company that produced the game, as well as that of its publisher to be swear-words. Any mention of the company that actually made the game thus seemed to turn into what looked like a tutorial on Perl regular expressions. Incidentally, "Microsoft" was also not a word that can be spoken in public. Some people are taking their hatred of that company just a teensy-weensy bit too far. Interesting, as the game itself require $@*# Windows XP or better.
  • When the subject came up in one of those games, I jokingly said something like "**** ** * *** Tourette's ********" (for "what if I had ********** syndrome?"), having typed out those asterisks by hand. You'd think the joke was obvious with Tourette's being the only recognisable words and there, to my knowledge, being no two- or even one-letter English words that are considered offensive (I dare anyone to prove me wrong — there's only 676 and 26 combinations respectively). Still, this was enough to get not one but two human moderators threatening to use their ban-hammers on me. I'm still uncertain whether that was because the joke was too cerebral for their limited understanding or whether they'd been conditioned to interpret a sequence of asterisks as true expletives. I'm not sure which of those I'd find more pathetic.

That last and most recent instance is actually what prompted me to write this blog post.

Not once– let me repeat and emphasize that: NOT ONCE have I seen a profanity filter have a positive or wholesome effect. Without exception, I have seen them give rise to misunderstandings and create offence where there was none. I'm somebody who doesn't swear, simply because I don't see a need for it and when somebody else does it, well, I could only care less if paid to do so. In the rare cases where I do feel offended or, more likely, get annoyed at a person's swearing, I'll simply hit the ignore button. Besides, it is quite possible (and much more fun) to insult people using otherwise perfectly polite words. So, if you are one of those people who think profanity filters are a good idea, I think you're a dense, hypersensitive conservative with the cranial capacity of a Neanderthal that happens to be filled with a vacuum leaving your intelligence at a level slightly below that of the average clothespin and you can just *** *** or ^*$%&#@!!

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