No fun, no games, as Greece takes a gamble

Rupert Goodwins: The Greek government has banned all video games in a move that goes beyond farce.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

You can tell the characteristics of a nation by the stuff that they ban. The Dutch ban as little as possible. Us English ban handguns, erections in movies and beer after 11 p.m. The Ayatollah Khomeni banned chess. The Taliban banned music. And now the Greek government has banned video games.

Such bans are enacted because of events filtered through culture. It's well known to thirsty tourists that you can't get a drink in London after you leave the theatre. That's because the government didn't want World War One armaments workers getting too squiffy to pack the cordite in and as no British government ever gives up puritan legislation without an enormous fight, it's stayed on the books ever since. I'll leave the reasons behind the Taliban's aversion to music as an exercise to the reader, but the Greek move, coming from a democracy sufficiently mature to be a member of the European Union, is a fascinating new addition to the list.

It all started with Mr Hrisanthakopoulos, who for the sake of my spelling checker I'll call Mr H. Mr H was a member of parliament and of PASOK, the governing party. Mr H was also fond of a flutter, and enjoyed the odd punt on electronic gambling machines. Alas for Mr H, this was not concomitant with his status, such things being illegal: alas and alack, he was also caught on camera. Exit Mr H.

Clearly, such scandalous behaviour could not be allowed to happen again. The Greek government decided that, although electronic gambling was illegal, it would be a good idea to make doubly sure and ban the machines altogether. But how could you tell an electronic gambling machine from one that was merely used for fun and games? The latter could easily be turned into the former, said the critics.

The government thought about it a bit more, and decided that they might as well ban all electronic games. Furthermore, although the problem was only with gambling in public places, all the newly banned machines would soon find their way into private clubs and houses thrown open for the continuance of the sin. So games at home would have to go.

A double win -- they'd close down the illegal gambling and save their kids from wasting their time playing those nasty, violent console games. It's a stern, headmasterish approach to making law, combining a fondness for simplicity and disciplinarianism with an air of "It's for your own good, you know," and judging by the enthusiasm with which the parliament adopted it, they thought it would play well with the voters. These are not people who've spent much time in Quake, one feels.

The irony is metres deep. Not only did Greece invent the Olympics, but they're hosting the 2004 games. This is not a country unaware of the importance of the competitive spirit. Come to that, they invented irony as well -- anyone with experience of Grecian life will know that an appreciation of classical irony is essential for a tranquil mind. Every country has its share of official sinfulness best summed up by the Matins lamentation from the Prayerbook: we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. The average Greek bureaucrat, however, seems to exalt this to a basic principle of governance.

Hellenic gamers are besides themselves with frustration and fury, and not just because their fun has been taken away for no good reason. They also correctly adduce that other nationalities will find the whole thing uproariously funny. The Greeks are a dignified race, proud of their heritage and nationality, and feel insults keenly -- banning games in the run up to the Athens Olympics is going to play very well in the stand-up clubs of Constantinople.

That's before the damage to tourism. Having Snake on your Nokia is, according to the law, good enough to have you sent down. Of course, no policeman would possibly bother you for cellphone ownership, say the apologists -- but the British have yet to forget the events of last Christmas, when some English planespotters were accused of espionage and shoved in prison. As always in politics nothing was what it seemed, but the threat of being banged up a la Midnight Express does nothing for a place's attractiveness.

It's hard to say what will happen next. No politician will ever admit that they were wrong, and the Greek parliament has yet to admit that there's even a problem. The cries of pain from the gamers are growing daily, with a threatened move to the European courts to get the law overthrown -- and that may be the best way forward. One of the advantages of being in Europe is you can get bad legislation removed while letting your domestic politicians off the hook: they just bluster about the unfairness of it all, and then go diplomatically quiet. One thing's for sure, it'll be a brave traveller who packs a Nintendo on the flight to Athens this autumn.

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