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The Greek Electronic Game Ban --
and how it illustrates the pernicious effect of 'victimless crime' laws

It was in the news a few years ago that Greece has banned all electronic games, from Doom to online chess to the solitaire and Minesweeper in Windows. It's not a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story; the law actually does apply to all electronic game devices, in public or private places. The fact that the authorities apparently only intend on enforcing the law in public places (arcades, cybercafes, etc.) doesn't mean that playing with your GameBoy in the privacy of your home isn't illegal, just that you're not likely to get arrested for it (unless the government wants to make an example of you for political purposes). But if you try to play the games included in most cell phones while you're in a hotel lobby or airport lounge, they may bust you for it; and Internet cafes are definitely getting cracked down upon if they let their patrons play any sort of game, even chess -- three cafe employees were arrested and put on trial soon after the law was passed. See articles at Wikipedia, The Register, MSNBC, Cellular News, Games Domain, ZDNet, BBC, and in.gr. One can even stretch the law far enough to argue with a straight face that the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens were illegal, since they made use of electronic devices (e.g., in timing races).

As of 2004, a modified version of the law is still in effect, this time apparently narrower in scope and applying only to cybercafes. It's still apparently illegal to play games there, and enforcement is being done.

The gamer community is in outrage about it; Overclockers posted parody song lyrics about "Greeks and geeks" and called for a tourism boycott; Gameland, a Greek gamers' site, is organizing protests and petitions (and has received so much traffic it's slowing down its Web server and forcing the use of multiple mirror sites); Warbucket and UserFriendly have cartoons on the subject; The Daily Bull has a satiric article; and Kuro5hin has extensive discussion.

The law has its online defenders, however; this article, and some newsgroup discussions, support it as a necessary (if regrettable) step to curtail illegal gambling. It seems that unlawful gambling halls have been ever-present in Greece, mostly consisting of doctored-up video game machines set to pay off in real money, but recently extending even to cybercafes running gambling programs on their computers. This became a big political scandal in 2002 after a tabloid-style yellow journalist caught a prominent anti-gambling politician playing one of these illegal machines himself. The usual public demand to Do Something followed, with the predictable feeding frenzy of sensation-hungry news media, chest-beating politicians, and busybody moralists all striving to outdo one another in reaction to this "menace". (We saw a similar phenomenon in the USA after the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" incident, where everybody rushed to condemn "indecency" on TV.) Since lawmakers have never been all that knowledgeable about or comfortable with technology, this resulted in an absurdly broad ban on all sorts of electronic games, on the grounds that the cops couldn't easily tell an illegal gambling game from a legal just-for-fun one.

The sincerity of the Greek government's desire to stamp out gambling on the grounds of morality can be put in question by the fact that they, like many governments around the world, operate a lottery and also license and tax legal casinos throughout Greece. Hence, gambling is apparently only immoral unless the government profits from it. The government is hypocritical on the subject, but so is the Greek public when they demand stronger anti-gambling laws; if Greeks didn't like to gamble so much, there'd be no need for the laws in the first place. Nobody's holding a gun to anybody to force them into a gambling hall, legal or illegal; if people stopped going to those places they'd all go out of business. The public is shouting to the government, "Stop me before I gamble again!", but I question whether it's a proper function of governments to protect people from themselves in this manner. I've been very bad about eating fatty, high-cholesterol foods and am now making a serious attempt to change my diet, but I don't think it would be proper for the government to force me into this by banning all the sorts of foods that are bad for my health. It must be my own decision to make.

There's another point to all of this, however, that is mostly missed by supporters and opponents of this law alike, but is crystal-clear to Libertarians like myself; it is that any attempt to legislate morality by passing laws against the "victimless crimes" committed by consenting adults is bound to produce ever-escalating harm against personal freedoms. Some people cite a "slippery slope" theory where, once they set a precedent by banning something (even something universally reviled), it leads to more and more interventions until nobody's liberties are safe. More apt in this case, however, is the "expanding concentric circles" theory of legislation: when an attempt is made to outlaw a popular, consensual activity, efforts to enforce it will prove so difficult, frustrating, and vulnerable to corruption on the part of the enforcers, that there will be a nearly irresistable impulse to "win the war on vice" by expanding the ban to cover things which, while not inherently immoral in themselves, can be seen as aiding, promoting, or covering up the original victimless crime. The end result is that many people who have no desire to participate in vice still find that some perfectly reasonable activity they wish to engage in is eliminated, restricted, or made more difficult; they become collateral damage in the war on vice.

The American "War On Drugs" provides many examples of this, from the property forfeiture laws that make anybody carrying large sums of cash subject to arbitrary seizure of it by law enforcement, to even sillier cases -- I believe some city actually banned pay phones from public places at one point because drug dealers were using them. The "War On Gangs" has resulted in public schools banning particular colors or styles of clothing and jewelry because they resemble gang symbols -- even religious symbols such as the Star of David or the Christian cross have been caught up in this at times. The "War on Pornography" led to a law, unfortunately upheld by the Supreme Court, forcing public libraries to install filtering programs on their Internet access that were known to do such things as block access to breast cancer information sites because they had the word "breast" in them. The Chinese government's attempts to filter both porn and dangerous politics from its citizens' Internet access resulted in the Google search engine getting entirely blocked because its cache allows users to see various sites without accessing their own domains or IP addresses which can be blocked; thus, in order to keep a tight rein on access to "dangerous" sites, Chinese citizens are kept from a highly useful research tool. The Greek game ban is only the latest example of this sort of thing.

Hence, in the end, the only truly stable positions are those at the opposite extremes of the spectrum; either have a totalitarian government that bans everything, or a libertarian system where individuals are all free to go to hell (or heaven) in their own way. Don't think that just because you don't drink, smoke, gamble, or do drugs that you will be unaffected by government wars on those things -- the inevitable tendency of such governmental "wars" is to expand until something you do care about is affected.

Find all about
Greek electronic game ban
[Wikiverse]

2013 update: It looks like my home state of Florida has, in a similar burst of scandal-driven zeal against electronic gambling, passed a law that might just be even more sweeping than the one in Greece, perhaps banning all computers and smartphones! Info here.

 

This page was first created 08 Sep 2002, and was last modified 09 Jul 2013.
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