So a few days ago, one of gaming's (current) biggest enemies, California State Senator Leland Yee, was charged with almost comical levels of corruption. And, like Jack Thompson before him, another titan falls before us. I've said it many times before: outspoken policy makers and pundits who actively call for strong anti-game measures are typically corrupt individuals whose only true interest is pandering to voters or viewer ratings. And it's nice when hard evidence comes along that supports such a claim. However, this kind of person is actually in the minority. By far, most people are motivated by plain honest, ignorant concern. Today I'd like to talk about where that notion came from, why it's an issue, and what we can do about it.
Let's dive in, shall we?
Moral panics are no stranger to western history. From Salem to rock 'n' roll, society has again and again demonstrated its ability to completely lose its marbles. Yet we've never had a crisis quite like violent video games. An unusual amount of research and legislative effort has been conducted on the subject. No other folk devil has been subject to scrutiny of this institutional and systematic level; in the past, you either bought the hype or you didn't.
Actually that's not true. There has been exactly one case in history that matches our present predicament: comic books. Let's turn back the clock to the early 1950's. Comic books were incredibly prevalent and popular with all audiences and ages. The variety of genres was rich as well, including superheroes, fantasy, romance, drama, westerns, religious, adventure, crime, and horror. Those last couple are important.
Along came Fredric Wertham in 1954, with his book, titled Seduction of the Innocent. Personally, I always used to wonder where in hell the ridiculous notion that simply viewing images influences people originated from. Turns out, it was this guy! Wertham was a clinical psychiatrist who primarily worked with criminal cases involving teenagers. Noting that comics were popular with most of his clients, he recklessly jumped to conclusions, and published a book condemning comics as a cause for juvenile delinquency, violent behavior, and (get this) homosexuality. As in directly causing children to engage in homosexual behavior. I'm not even kidding, you can go look this up.
Concerned parents all over America ate this up like candy, sparking a culture war that the medium would ultimately lose at the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings later that year. Faced with the threat of censorship, the industry agreed to implement the Comics Code Authority: a failure of a regulatory system that did much more harm than good, with its absolutely draconian requirements, and binary approval method (as opposed to a tiered rating system.) If a comic was to realistically see the light of day, it had to abide by all of the rules; in fact, there was an instance when a series of Spiderman issues commissioned by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare set to cover the dangers of drug abuse. Those issues never received approval from the Comics Code Authority. Because they contained depictions of drugs. Yeah.
So what happened to Fredric Wertham? Well, a discovery was made when his original research files were made available to the public recently, and it turns out the data he used for his book was completely falsified. The grandfather of anti-media science, of the X-does-psychological-harm-to-children school of thought, was a fraud. Interestingly enough, decades later he would do further research into the benefits of the culture of comic fandoms. Maybe he had a change of heart? Perhaps he sought to make amends for his baseless claims. We may never know; he was rejected by all comic conventions and fans with suspicion and anger at his infamy, and died sad and alone in 1981. Or he might have been surrounded by loving friends and family, like most people. I actually have no idea.
Today, sixty years later, we can still see the effects of his actions. The Comics Code Authority was formally disbanded only a few years ago, and while we are starting to see a range of depth and subject matters return to the medium, comic books are still predominantly thought of as superheroes and geeks. And Wertham's crackpot theories on the effects of media on the mind have remained firmly rooted in our society's psyche. From the moment video games became capable of depicting violence, in the form of 1976's Death Race 2000, there has been public uproar.
By the way, this is what Death Race 2000 looked like ... such disappointment. This has been going on for almost forty years now. We're putting up a much better fight this time around. And while the odds of us seeing any truly harmful legislation becoming reality are fairly low, this has to stop. I always hear people say to just wait for the next thing to come along, or for the old generation to die off, but I am not willing to wait that long. Leland Yee's shenanigans alone have cost my home state over two million dollars; my taxes are being wasted on this horse crap. When the federal government responds to tragedies by having the national organization that specializes in biological disease research video games (am I the only one who thinks that makes no sense at all?), not only is it a waste of time and money, it actively detracts from any effort to look for real solutions.
Why is this still such a big deal? How can this many people be so misguided? At this point we reliably know there is no connection between games and violent behavior. We have the science, we have the decline in crime, we have the gun violence statistics compared to other nations: all these things and more have been covered a million times over already. Could there be some kind of massive conspiracy among all of our politicians to blatantly use this as a scapegoat to pander to voters? I actually highly doubt that.
In my spare time, when I'm not playing games I'm harassing my senators. This is one actual letter reply that I've personally received. In this letter, my Senator shows that she is not completely insane and overzealous by positively acknowledging the ESRB and the industry, as well as at least having an awareness of how the First Amendment covers games. I've concluded that most of this letter can be taken at face value since, if she were trying to completely bullshit me, she would not have admitted to personally disagreeing with the result of Brown v EMA. At the same time, however, she voices her concerns regarding violent games in general, demonstrating that, while she's at least trying to be reasonable, she lacks a degree of reliable knowledge on the topic.
In fact, that's really what it comes down to in the end: a lack of knowledge and experience. Most anti-gamers don't actually know what a game is. When you consider things from this perspective, it almost starts to sound plausible. These strange and horrible computer-toy-things, with their obsession with guns and gore: kids used to play Pong and Pac-Man, but now the only games that exist are Call of Duty, Postal, Grand Theft Auto, and Mortal Combat. Yes, that's "Combat" with a "C". And yes, it is definitely a "shoot 'em up" game. When you put it that way, how could something like that possibly be any good?
Of course, this is wrong. The thing is, though, very few people realize just how wrong it really is. Of course people will respond "virtual violence is different from real world violence," and they're right, naturally ... but there's a fundamental point that not even most gamers I know seem to be consciously aware of:
Violent video games are not actually about violence.
I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me here. If you recall one of my earlier pieces here, the one that discusses why we play games, and what fun is, you might remember how I mentioned different types of fun. Any well designed game has a core experience that is build around a few of these types of engagement; from the exploration drive that makes Skyrim to the interpersonal skill based competition that defines Call of Duty, each game has an experience that it is fundamentally about. Of all the games that people actually play, not one of these games is truly about hurting or murdering people at its core. Even if a game features heavy gore and grisly death animations, that's not the underlying purpose, and it's certainly not intended taken seriously as such. Even if someone were to make such a game, no one would play it. That kind of experience simply is not fun. In fact, given the vastness of the dark corners of the internet, someone has likely made that game, and nobody has ever heard of it precisely for this reason. So there you have it: people who worry that games will corrupt us all merely do not understand what they are and how we interact with them as players. Moving forward, I believe the best thing we can do is to simply educate people, sit down and play a game with them, and ultimately share in our experiences.
What do you think? Do you believe we can overcome moral panic through understanding? Do you think I'm right about misconceptions? Have a relevant experience you'd like to share? Any topics you'd like me to cover in the future? I'd love to know!