The Great Gaming Moral Panic

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.

Recommended Videos

By December of 1993, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman was declaring that Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were “no mark of a civilized society,” and the Senate was holding hearings into the sales of videogames.

Preempting the hearings – and wary of the effect similar hearings had on the comic book industry 50 years beforehand – the game industry formed the Entertainment Software Rating Board rating system. With the benefits of hindsight, it’s hard to believe how anyone could be shocked by what is now such blatant cartoon violence in Mortal Kombat. While part of that stems from our continual desensitization to violence, by any objective view, the worst thing about Mortal Kombat was it wasn’t a very good game.

Panic on the Streets of London
Once Lieberman and the media got their claws into the videogame moral panic, they were reluctant to let it go. And so with every modern tragedy committed by young people, games inevitably factor into news reports, regardless of their relevance to the incident.

And never have facts stood in the way of a good story – from the Manhunt hysteria, in which the Rockstar game was initially blamed as the inspiration for the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah, to the U.K.’s Sky News, a key player in the missing girl stories that consume the British media once a year, reporting that the 9-11 terrorists “could” have used Microsoft Flight Simulator to help them train.

And it’s not just the English-speaking world that is affected by this phenomenon. Rule of Rose famously caused ripples right across continental Europe last year, particularly in Italy, where European Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini declared the game had “shocked me profoundly for its obscene cruelty and brutality,” thus turning an obscure, rather dull Japanese title into one of the best-known games of the year.

The online version of the Times report on the story tellingly opens with the words “have computer games gone too far?” linking to an online vote. One can scarcely imagine an editor of the lowest gutter-press tabloid, much less of the Times, daring to write the words “have books gone too far?” but the comparison seems to be lost on some. Trapped in a campaign of misinformation, the publishers of Rule of Rose set a worrying precedent – choosing to leave the game unreleased in the U.K. due to the moral panic that surrounded it.

Germany, long famous for making blood green and turning humans into robots, has tightened up its regulations in recent years, refusing to rate (and thereby effectively eliminating any German versions of) games such as Dead Rising, Crackdown and Gears of War.

In China, the speed at which the country’s male youth are taking to MMOGs in internet cafes has delighted developers and spooked the Chinese government. In April, the government instigated new regulations that required makers of online games to initiate a system to penalize players under 18 for playing longer than the state-mandated three-hour limit. More disturbing, it also required all players to register their real names and identity card numbers in order to play. There are also a growing number of reports about “treatment centers” for addicted players which, judging by reports, more closely resemble lunatic asylums.

Even Japan, usually thought of as one of the main sources of questionable material in gaming, is not immune: Kanagawa Prefecture choosing to restrict sales of Grand Theft Auto, even before a 15-year-old murderer was linked in the media to being a fan of the game.

Sense and Sensibility
All over the world, the media faces one major problem with moral panics: the law of ever-diminishing returns. Play the same message over and over again, and eventually people start to get bored, which is why new folk devils need to be created to keep interest piqued.

Just as home video technology created “video nasties,” and increasing graphical power made games into a problem, so too will changing technology take the focus off games. The question is how much damage will be done before the moral panic passes.

The Comics Code stifled creativity within the comic book industry for decades and perhaps denied comics their chance to ascend into a medium appreciated in the same way they are in Japan. Yet a similar outcry over music in the early 1990s merely led to the introduction of the Parental Advisory sticker, and the game industry’s decision to voluntarily bring in the ESRB and thus avoid legislation has proved to be very astute.

The moral panic over videogames will probably never die out completely. There will always be something shocking to stir up the usual suspects, just as Marilyn Manson brought back the fear of rock music and Bret Easton Ellis the book burners. But the nadir of the videogames moral panic was probably Columbine, and if gaming was able to overcome the reaction to that event, in which games could be seen to play a very substantial role, the worst has passed.

Games have already become an inseparable part of our culture. The multi-billion dollar launch events for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii in late 2006 were reported in every media outlet, and gaming has become a much bigger and more influential business than it was in 1993.

Moreover, the shift away from videogames is already happening. Enough time has passed for most sensible readers to figure out videogames are not very likely to turn your child into a serial killer. More importantly, a generation of journalists has grown up with videogames and knows this for themselves; games are simply another hobby, another form of media, no longer a strange and alien whipping boy. The focus can already been seen shifting away, to other media starting to come into its own – social networking sites, where you never know who your kids might be talking to.

As deplorable as the willful obfuscation of facts and creation of hate figures may be, moral panics are in one sense understandable. They are an attempt to put reason on situations that are beyond our comprehension – to put logic on the sheer insanity of human brutality. In an ideal world, a swish of a pen on some legislation would save us from ever having to wake up to another Jamie Bulger or Columbine.

But the world just doesn’t work like this. And sooner than we think, the world will have come to terms with videogames and moved on to something else. As Cohen, who could not have predicted even the development of videogames when he first wrote his theory, says, “More moral panics will be generated and other, as yet nameless, folk devils will be created … because our society … will continue to generate problems for some of its members … and then condemn whatever solution these groups find.”

Gearoid Reidy firmly believes that losing at Winning Eleven causes real violence against his furniture. Find him at

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article The Fake Sound of Outrage
Read Article The Breasts That Broke The Game
Read Article Blowing Up Galaxies
Related Content
Read Article The Fake Sound of Outrage
Read Article The Breasts That Broke The Game
Read Article Blowing Up Galaxies