Digital Images, Real Controversy

Is it ethical to digitally scan a private space open to the public and then use it to make a video game or a movie without the permission of the owners? Especially when the use of those images is antithetical to the mission and values of the owners? Is it ethical for a company to make buckets of money on these images? And how should the church react when popular culture uses, comments or intrudes on the church’s sacred spaces? These are the questions at the core of a controversy brewing over the use of digital images of the interior of Manchester Cathedral in a video game called “Resistance: Fall of Man.”

Ruth Gledhill, in her blog, Articles of Faith, first broke the story last week. Now the clergy and leadership of Manchester Cathedral are hitting back. Sony, the maker of the Playstation 3 system for which the game was produced, has become the focus of protests.

The Dean and Canons of the Cathedral have written a letter to Sony protesting the inclusion of their Cathedral in the game.

During the game players are asked to assume the role of an army sergeant and win a battle in the Cathedral. We have seen screenshots of the game in play showing the interior of the Cathedral with the player’s gun ready to fight; soldiers can be seen elsewhere in the nave taking aim. The video footage of the Cathedral battle on ‘YouTube’ has shocked and dismayed us beyond words and can only be described as virtual desecration.

We are shocked to see a place of worship, prayer, learning and heritage being presented to the youth of today as a location where guns can be fired.

We were sickened to discover that millions of people who play the game have a choice of weaponry to use within the Cathedral including the Rossmore 236 close-quarter combat shotgun, the L23 Fareye sniper rifle and the XR-005 Hailstorm chaingun.

The Cathedral works with victims of gun violence in their city, including counseling, special worship, and work with teenagers to find other ways to deal with conflict beside violence.

…it is a shame to have a game like this undermining such important work. It is well know that Manchester has serious gun-crime problems, as can be testified by the sad shooting of three youths in the past 72 hours, and, for many young people, these games offer a different sort of reality. Seeing guns in Manchester Cathedral is not the sort of connection we want them or anyone to make.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev Nigel McCulloch, is calling on Sony to withdraw the game, which is on sale globally. He said: “For a global manufacturer to recreate one of our great cathedrals with photo-realistic quality and then encourage people to have gun battles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible.”

Spokeman for Sony believes that game users will differentiate the digital images from the real thing.

David Wilson, a Sony spokesman, told The Times: “It is game-created footage, it is not video or photography. It is entertainment, like Doctor Who or any other science fiction. It is not based on reality at all. Throughout the whole process we have sought permission where necessary.”

A statement from Sony says

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is aware of the concerns expressed by the Bishop of Manchester and the cathedral authorities… and we naturally take the concerns very seriously. “Resistance: Fall of Man is a fantasy science fiction game and is not based on reality.”

The spokesman also said that permission was not necessary because the Cathedral is public space. Just as people may take snapshots, they say, an environmental artist can digitize what people can routinely see, including historic landmarks like the Cathedral. Even so, Sony says they will would contact the cathedral on Monday “to understand their concerns in more detail”.

Ted Price, President and CEO of Insomniac, the creator of the game says on the Playstation web site that “one of our Environment Artists went over to Great Britain with his camera and researched all the towns that the game takes place in, and that was important because we wanted to get it right.”

The legal implications of the row are unclear. Matt Wardman on The Wardman Wire describes the questions of law that the situations raises.

The initial response has been from the news media has been one of some bemusement.

Sony may have a risk, but they may not. However, they have an exposure of 10s of millions in revenue from this game – so they face a large downside.

Similarly, for Church of England cathedrals, there is a potential risk and a large potential downside. The income from commercial photography and film is probably in the millions.

It may be that Manchester Cathedral (and they will have consulted with other Cathedrals and the Church legal advisers before taking this action) want to stop this before it becomes open season on English Cathedrals.

It may be an attempt to establish legally that video games are in the same category as films, and avoid losing the income that comes from rental of cathedrals by film crews.

Income from set piece filming (such as the weddings in Four Weddings and a Funeral) are not at risk, but with the rapid increase in small producers and guerilla filming at least one category of income is potentially at risk in the future. Broadcast and HD quality footage can now be shot on prosumer level video cameras.

It may in fact turn out that Sony obtained freelance footage, and are only potentially liable for “reproduction” and “publication” (which would be violations of copyright if copyright exists) rather than filming without permission.

Gamers themselves seem more upset by the blowback than by the game itself. A quick search of Digg turned up comments about the row from gamers.

A commenter going by ‘vx69’ wrote said, “Some people really need to understand the concept of reality and fantasy.”

Another, called ‘maoa’ said,

I don’t think it’s just that they used the Church’s interior without permission – it’s a whole game genre that goes against the Church’s beliefs. It’s a bit like a game using Jack Thompson’s house as a location for a violent shoot-out – the main difference being that Manchester Cathedral is a public place. I agree that legal action would be overkill, but you can understand the Church getting a bit upset. Furthermore, the article does specifically say they are “considering” legal action rather than “pursuing”, so we perhaps Sony will apologise over the phone and we’ll hear no more about it.

But ‘maoa’ also said, “I’d have expected this kind of reaction from Manchester Cathedral, anyway. I live in Manchester and know the Canon’s son, and I remember they held a faith-affirming “Da Vinci Mass” in reaction to Dan Brown’s film… they advertised through parody billboard posters and the works. It’s not the first time they’ve overreacted to popular culture.”

Other gamers commented that churches have been used in scenes in other video games, such as the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor series. The difference in this case is that these seem to be digital images of fictional churches. Commenters wonder if it made a difference though the scenes in these games accurartely portray the fact that in wartime churches have been used in a variety of ways including hospitals, headquarter and gun emplacements.

There is a similar row brewing over the upcoming release of Grand Theft Auto IV and the use of actual New York City locales in a game that is at once violent and portrays criminal behavior. There have been statements of protest but no lawsuits. Since the game has not been released, no one knows if actual churches were used in the production of this game.

The controversy points up what can happen when popular culture clashes with the traditions and sensibilities of the faithful. Should the church push back? Was it “digital desecration” and “virtual vandalism?” Or is it an opportunity to use the fantasy to speak to real life? The Bishop, Dean and leadership of Manchester Cathedral are hopping mad and ready to fight back at what they see as a violation of their mission and ministry.

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