101: The Great Gaming Moral Panic

"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."

The Great Gaming Moral Panic

Two quick things:

1) I don't think we are becoming desensitized to violence--in fact, I think we're *more* sensitive to it these days. For example, fairy tales are horribly violent. Hansel and Gretel is about a cannibalistic witch who entices children to her home to use them as livestock. Cinderella is about emotional abuse in stepfamilies. Snow White involves the use of poison. Yet no one ever freaked out over selling kids books with those stories in them in the past.

I think my disagreement, however, actually supports your point: it's nothing inherent about games that is causing this panic, it's that it's something new. And when we encounter something new, we don't have a lot of context. So every new piece of data swings the 'average' wildly. By the time we saw someone get their arm chainsawed off in _Scarface_ there were enough movies around and movies were enough a part of everyday life already that one work in a medium didn't change our perception of the medium itself. On the other hand, we're still forming our opinion of what the medium of the 'game' is so each individual game has the potential to define the medium. And you're right that this is really a contingent event, one that could go either way. That although the paradigm may always be the same where ignorance is followed by reaction and then by the settling down into a status quo, that status quo can vary wildly depending on how successful the initial reaction is.

2) Mortal Kombat was the *perfect* game...

It would almost be preferable for games to be censored than for them to undertake a comics code authority style of self-censorship. There's a reason why comics suffer the stereotype of being for emotionally stunted man-children, even decades after the CCA was abandoned.

Bongo Bill:
It would almost be preferable for games to be censored than for them to undertake a comics code authority style of self-censorship. There's a reason why comics suffer the stereotype of being for emotionally stunted man-children, even decades after the CCA was abandoned.

I don't think it's a matter of self- or government imposed censorship. As far as I know, the modern MPAA code is self-censorship, as are those RIAA stickers. The problem with the "comics code authority style of self-censorship" wasn't that it was self-censorship, it was that the "style" it adopted was so terrible.

Comic books, rock 'n' roll, cable television, rap music

Yep, yep, yep, yep...

and internet pornography

Whaaat?!

Did I miss the memo where pornography (of any kind) gained "widespread acceptance"? Take any of the people worrying about video games today and ask them how they feel about pornography. I doubt you'll find much "acceptance" in the responses.

(As usual I am rather unfairly picking on the one dubious line in a very fine article. Keep up the good work!)

Cheeze_Pavilion - I would think your example, while valid, is more related to political correctness gone mad than our sensitivity to violence. But sure, they don't make cartoons like Tom and Jerry anymore, do they? On the other hand, prime time TV, for example, is far more violent than I ever remember it being. Is this another example of our generation not really knowing what it stands for, like I mentioned?

Mortal Kombat - for button mashers. You're not a button masher now, are you?

Don Camus - thanks. Widespread acceptance might be taking it a bit far, true, but you don't see many people decrying it as the downfall of civilization anymore. Indeed, I've seen serious articles about the business of internet porn in places like Business Week and the NYT recently. I read somewhere that the LA Times' excellent profile of the guy behind 'Girls Gone Wild' was their most-read online article ever. I think it's pretty accepted in that sense - or certainly, more than it used to be.

To attract visibility, politicians often take up pitchfork and torch and storm the video game castle. We apparently need attention-starved politicians to save us from ourselves every once in a while, especially around election time. Here's an incomplete and roughly ordered chronology of things we've needed saving from:

• Immoral/Sexual video games like GTA (How did those little nippers get an MA-rated game in the first place?
• Internet porn (I only look at porn for the articles.)
• Violent video games like Mortal Combat (Finish him!)
• Explicit lyrical content in music (Tipper Gore vs MTV It was great television.)
• Heavy Metal (Ozzie Osborn kills through song!)
• Violent cartoons (Voltron made me do it.)
• Video games (Anything that much fun must be dangerous.)
• Dungeons and Dragons (That whole Fantasy vs Reality thing is pretty confusing)
• "Jiggle-vision" television shows like Charlie's Angels (Sabrina: I need to check your outfit. Jill: Why? Is something not showing?)
• Psychedelic Music (White Rabbit = Satan)
• Rock-n-Roll music (Pat Boone is corrupting America's youth!)
• Comic Books (Wonder Woman caused many a sinful thought, no doubt.)
• Communism in the film industry (Are you now, or have you ever been an actor?)
• Science Fiction (Stories about outer space creatures are eating my brain!)
• Alcohol (Prohibition almost single-handedly launching organized crime in America has to be one of the most unexpected results of legislation in history.)
• Jazz (Negroes playing music? There must be something wrong with that?)
• Moving Pictures (Some actresses exposed their ankles)
• Fiction (What! You're reading something besides the Bible? For shame!)
• Theater, including Shakespeare, etc.

I'm sure the list goes all the way back to the cave paintings. And, despite the odds, mankind has managed to survive. It's even more amazing that I've personally been exposed to a large portion of the above list and have been able to remain a non-psychotic, reasonably well-adjusted, law-abiding, productive citizen.

Gearoid Reidy:
Cheeze_Pavilion - I would think your example, while valid, is more related to political correctness gone mad than our sensitivity to violence.

I would say that an aspect of political correctness is that it has made us more sensitive to violence, especially exposing children to it. Cartoons are for kids, so that's more sanitized. Prime time tv, however, is no longer thought of as a family experience--instead, I feel like we think it's for single young adults.

Gearoid Reidy:
Mortal Kombat - for button mashers. You're not a button masher now, are you?

I am a PROUD button masher! Button masher or not, it was a ridiculous amount of fun. I'd compare it to the Mario party games, just for young adult males. No game before or since I've found encouraged the same social interaction. When I want a *fulfilling* and fun game, I fire up an old copy of Avalon Hill's computer port of "Rise and Decline of the Third Reich."

However, MK wasn't for button mashers--it was for people who grew up in a time when Saturday afternoon was such a weak market that badly dubbed low quality kung-fu films were all the networks would put on. Especially if those people then saw "Big Trouble In Little China" at some point!

gcason - that's an excellent list. Another addition (and I forgot this myself) was the fuss about Pokemon and other trading card games causing murders on school playgrounds, or turning our children into Nazis and/or psychos. Fortunately, I think just about every moral panic for the last decade has been made into a South Park episode, making them easy to keep track of!

Cheeze_Pavilion - OK, OK, MK was fun. When I was 10. To be fair, I haven't played it since then, and I was always a Street Fighter man.

This has to be the most depressing article I've ever read regarding gaming, humanity, folk devils, and scapegoats. You always have to wonder if people will ever realize these things, and evolve beyond them. Is evolution even possible at this point of the human race? Can we, as a society, learn to be peaceful?

Closed societies and neighborhoods are the scariest when it comes to these subjects, and it seems that the same rules apply even on the global playing field. Imagine what will happen when we finally come in contact with aliens? Or when robots form their own society? The ignorant and fearful outcry will be fueled by greedy headline writers, as well as twisted experimenters that want to see the outcome. Its more than just fear that grips people, as the mixture of sadism, greed, and curiosity play a large role for people that have the power to make a difference for the better, but decide not to.

 

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