The years spanning the late 1930s through the early 1950s are often referred to as the golden age of comics – and with good reason. Serving as a cheap escape from the grim reality of the Second World War, comic books came into their own as a medium. What began as a ragtag band of publishers turned into a multimillion dollar industry: popular titles such as Batman and Green Lantern sold over a million copies in a single issue, and the industry experienced wild growth.
As the war drew longer, comic books’ audience changed: The children who read them grew older, and many GIs who received issues for free overseas got hooked on comics. As their demographics changed, the industry’s focus shifted to cater to their new audience. Publishers like EC Comics created books centered on more adult themes – gritty crime stories, and horror comics. By the early 1950s, comics weren’t just for children anymore.
Does this sound familiar to you? Even if you aren’t a fan of comic books, it should. In terms of history, comic books and videogames have a lot in common. With this in mind, there’s a great deal that we can learn from them. In particular, we can learn from the mistakes of 1954 – the year the golden age of comic books came crashing down.
The comic industry’s woes began when Dr. Fredric Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist, published Seduction of the Innocent – a book which warned that comic books were turning America’s youth into juvenile delinquents. Wertham’s book attacked comics for their violence and strong sexual themes which, he argued, young readers were likely to imitate. Much of the book was backed by undocumented anecdotal evidence, but it managed to cause a stir among concerned parents, and prompted a congressional subcommittee to launch an investigation into comic books’ effects on youth.
Frightened by the possibility of federal regulation, the comic book industry rushed to create its own set of decency guidelines. The resulting entity was the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a regulatory organization with a strict set of rules. In its first incarnation, the Comics Code barred depictions of sex or excessive violence, forbade any depiction of disrespect towards authority figures and decreed the forces of good must always win. While the CCA didn’t have legal control over the industry, most shops and distributors refused to carry comic books which hadn’t been approved. Many publishers, such as Marvel and DC, simply cancelled books which contained questionable content, but for publishers who thrived on the edgy themes, the impact was devastating: Almost overnight, entire comic book genres ceased to exist.
With the fate of comics in mind, it’s easy to see just how vulnerable the videogame industry is. It’s only in the past 20 years that comic book industry has begun to recover from the destruction brought about by the Comics Code. And while videogames have yet to suffer under anything as oppressive as the CCA, the industry has come dangerously close on a number of occasions. This is why we need to learn from the comic industry’s mistakes while there’s still time. The gaming industry itself, in the form of the ESA and ESRB has done a lot to defend itself, but there’s still a lot gamers themselves can do.
The first thing we need to do is ask ourselves an important question: Why do politicians go after targets like comic books and videogames? The answer is simple: We let them. Politicians live and die by public opinion. If nobody votes for them, they don’t get elected. Indeed, most politicians regularly poll voters when deciding what issues to address. Since they go where the votes are, you’d expect politicians to represent the interests of everyone in their jurisdiction, including gamers – after all, there are a lot of us.
The problem is, when people don’t vote, this system breaks down. Many gamers are in their late teens or early 20s – a demographic which is notorious for not voting. By not defending our interests at the polls, we become our own worst enemies. The politicians who are elected don’t understand gaming because there’s no political gain in it. Worse yet, our apathy makes gaming an easy target. Older voters don’t identify with videogame culture, so when games are demonized, the average voter doesn’t know enough to disagree. In effect, decrying games is about as politically dangerous as saying, “Murder is bad.”
As we’re all aware, the wolves are already at the gate. Opportunists like Jack Thompson have set their sights on the videogame industry, and have already had a disturbing level of success. If we want to avoid the fate of the comic book industry, we need to take control of the gaming industry’s political situation. The industry itself has begun to take action on the political front – The Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association recently hired a political lobbyist to push their interests in Washington, but there’s still plenty we as gamers can do. Some have suggested running a pro-gaming political candidate, but that isn’t likely to work. As important as games are to us, it’s a single issue – not nearly enough to build a political platform upon.
The real answer is much simpler: Make our cause worthwhile for politicians. If you don’t vote, register now get yourself to the polls. The more of us who vote, the harder we are to ignore. If you’re already registered, it’s time to take an active stance in defending your hobby. Writing your local congressman is a great start, and getting organized is even better. Being a concerned voter doesn’t have the political pull it used to, so a few scattered gamers may not have much clout; but if we organize ourselves into a special interest group, we have the numbers to effect real change in Washington. Working together we can have some real power in the struggle to defend the industry.
Ian Easton is an aspiring technology journalist with plans to attend graduate school in the fall.