Ask Not ...

Ask Not ...
Pattern Recognition

Jason Della Rocca | 7 Nov 2006 11:04
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Our fear and loathing of some future generations' pop culture and entertainment is inevitable. Just as many of us have been staunchly defending digital games and proclaiming that critics and politicians just don't get it, we too, will soon be demonizing our children (or perhaps our grandchildren) for whatever new medium/media they choose to entertain themselves.

The moral panic over videogames is never more evident than in instances where youth have been involved in violent crimes. The recent, tragic rash of school shootings has put games and their perceived potential for negative effects at the forefront of criticism - often as a scapegoat for complex social problems. Ignorance is further demonstrated when critics are quick to judge a game they've never played based on the title alone. The unsubstantiated hysteria over the commercial release of the relatively tame T-rated Bully, as well as intentionally satirical amateur/indie efforts like Super Columbine Massacre RPG, are just two examples of a growing problem.

To most of us, this is not rocket science. We've all probably used the "before games, it was 'X'" line to defend ourselves - our career, our pastime, our creative output - at social and family functions where we've come under attack for our "connection" to games. I sometimes joke that this has been going on since prehistoric man, with cavepeople shielding their young from horrible attacking saber tooth tiger cave paintings.

Indeed, a predictable pattern of moral panic has been going on for quite some time now. The April 2006 issue of Wired magazine had an amusing collection of quotes, each from a critic of yesteryear condemning everything from novels to the Waltz to the telephone. One detractor questioned in 1926, "Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?"

Old practice of visiting friends? How quaint.

This pattern has been repeating itself, not over the past few decades, but over the past several centuries - if not millennia.

In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, author Harold Schechter looks at this very issue. Schechter is a professor of literature at Queens College in New York City and has written extensively on serial killers, violence and pop culture.

While the main thrust of Savage Pastimes is to dispel the myth that today's entertainment is more violent or perverse than it was in years past, several chapters are dedicated to giving out examples of entertainment from past generations (like how public hangings were considered good, wholesome family amusement until the late 1800s) and how a pattern of moral panics started to emerge.

In this way, Schechter not only tracks the history of violent entertainment but also analyzes the public outrage each inevitably provoked. By the 20th century, the cultural watchdogs were out in full force, demonizing everything from movies (the Hays Code) and comic books (the Comics Code Authority) and setting up a pattern of equating action-packed entertainment with a variety of cultural ills.

In an interview with the Inside Bay Area paper, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign assistant professor Dmitri Williams notes that every new medium has been condemned by the older generation as "a convenient way of assigning blame while ignoring complex and troubling problems."

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