Pattern Recognition

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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And so, two critical questions arise:

1 – How do we break out of the current moral panic over videogames, so we can better address real social issues?

2 – How do we ensure that we do not slip into the same pattern when the next medium of mass entrainment and expression comes onto the scene?

Some tease that the solution to the current panic over games is simply to wait it out. That is, we just have to hang around until the older generation dies off and this will all be a non-issue. While that may be true, mounting attacks on the industry make it hard to see how we could survive from now to then with such a laissez-faire approach. The challenge is in ensuring that games, and gamer culture, are not sterilized and neutered into oblivion before we get to a point where we become the older generation.

More likely, it will require a collective, concerted and proactive approach from everyone connected to games – not just “the industry.” Sony Online honcho John Smedley got it right when he said that we need to take the words out of the politicians’ mouths, get off the sidelines and get into the fight. We can’t just rely on Brain Age to serve as our Trojan horse.

The recent establishment of the Entertainment Consumers Association and the Video Game Voters Network are two steps in the right direction. And even big guys like Microsoft realize it’s time to get involved: They recently unveiled their “Safety is no game” campaign.

More importantly, it is about bringing attention to all the positive things about games and the diverse range of content available. New trends in lifestyle and fitness games have a role to play, along with advances in the serious games movement. Certainly charitable efforts like Penny Arcade‘s Child’s Play can do wonders for the perception of games and gamers – if only it got a bit more play in the media.

Maybe we need our own summit to come up with a big – no pun intended – game plan?

In regard to the second question, well, that’s even tougher. No doubt, there will come a time when we all wax nostalgic over how charming the GTA series was, and how some newfangled metaverse will turn kids’ brains into jelly. And, in our old age, we’d likely be blind to the fact that we’d be singing the same ol’ song that’s been playing since humans first learned to mix nostalgia with panic.

Plus ça change …

Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. (Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the IGDA.) He really cannot understand why his 1-year-old daughter keeps smacking him even though she’s never played a video game. You can read his other musings at Reality Panic.

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