Cutscenes at 11

Cutscenes at 11
The Great Gaming Moral Panic

Gearoid Reidy | 12 Jun 2007 12:00
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With apologies to Gandhi: First they ignored gaming, then they laughed at gaming, then they fought gaming.

Then gaming won.

Like every new form of media before it, gaming has been demonized, criticized and made out to be something it isn't. Brutal, uncivilized, a threat to society, it has been made a figure of hate by moral guardians and bottom-line-obsessed editors the world over.

But gaming is not alone. This treatment is practically a right of passage for any new medium. Comic books, rock 'n' roll, cable television, rap music and internet pornography have all suffered the same or worse, and the only lesson from each of these experiences appears to be that to live through a moral panic is to gain widespread acceptance.

"Moral panic" was a term first coined by Stanley Cohen, a sociologist who wrote of social and media reaction to the violent clashes between Mods and Rockers in 1960s U.K. Cohen defines a moral panic as something that poses a threat to societal values, popularized and transmitted by the mass media. From rock 'n' roll as the devil's music onward, there has always been some new scourge of all that is good and decent in society, some overreaction to the unknown.

But somewhere along the line, moral panics stopped being a reaction and started being a construction. Fear sells; U.K. tabloids have for years used the greatest public fear to shift copies - the fear that something might happen to your children. Thus the Leah Betts Ecstasy scandal; mad cow disease; the fear there might be a pedophile living on your street or lurking on the internet, waiting to steal your little Johnny away. (The latter has led to tragic outcomes.)

And it has also led to videogames being identified as a threat to youth, and a real response from within gaming - from Nintendo choosing to replace the blood in Mortal Kombat, to the publishers of Rule of Rose abandoning publication plans in the U.K.

But while gamers may now be worried, following Hot Coffee, the Manhunt fiasco and the Rule of Rose episode, the cries of Jack Thompson and company are not a new front on the war against gaming, but the last throes of a futile struggle. For the enduring characteristic of a moral panic is that people grow tired of it - and gaming has weathered the storm.

Videogame Nasties
It's not necessary to sum up the mixed moral message of our times any more than it already has been - but the world we live in, where celebrity sex tapes are the beginning of a career, not the end, but one slipped nipple can spell disaster - rarely seems sure what it stands for any more.

In a way, that's what makes the videogame moral panic all the more bizarre, because it so closely resembles others that existed in a far more traditionalist, conservative age. The devil's music, video nasties, the Tipper Sticker: the lexicon of terms is embarrassingly quaint.

As Kenneth A. Gagne's excellent thesis outlines, the similarities between the American fear of comic books in the 1950s and the modern day global concern over videogames are glaring, right down to the comparisons between Dr. Frederic Wertham - he of the declaration that Batman and Robin's co-habitation was a homosexual's dream - and Jack Thompson. Wertham was extremely influential in forcing the comic book industry to adopt the self-censoring Comics Code Authority - something, no doubt, Thompson has in mind for gaming.

The similarities don't end there. Cable television, rap music, Dungeons & Dragons, violent movies - all new, all strange, all accused of corrupting our youth. And in the '90s came videogames.

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