Every entertainment medium has its critics and video games are no exception. From the earliest moments in gaming history, violence has been a key factor in the way game makers have conceptualized their interactive experiences; and quite honestly, why the hell not? On the list of things that humans think are pretty fuckin’ nifty, violence has got to definitely be in the top ten. Early game makers were keen to tap into our primal urges and used the technology that they had available at the time to deliver experiences that the general public would find interesting—pretty simple stuff, right?
Unfortunately, there happens to be another thing that some people think is pretty damn cool too: pseudo-moral Neo-Luddism. There exists a sort of person out there who lives solely to find things that other people enjoy and fucking smack whatever that is straight out of their hands. This person is just the grown-up version of that kid on the schoolyard who would do absolutely anything he could to take away that ice cream cone you had. Everything that humanity has created—from sports to board games—have had at least one of these assholes standing behind the people who enjoy it, screaming into a metaphorical bullhorn about how morally bankrupt whatever that thing was.
In our day and age we can get complacent towards these people. “After all,” we might reason, “what harm can a few self-righteous dipshits really do?” The truth is that these people can and do cause substantial harm. Now, I don’t want you to think that all moral crusading is wrong. There are some instances where something is just ridiculously wrong and it is, by no means, wrong to call it out for what it is. On the other hand, there are professional moral crusaders who make it their mission in life to not only ruin everyone’s fun, but pick on hot topics that garner attention from the rest of the world so that they can either make a profit or get their names out there; this is the reason why moral panics exist in the first place. If you want to test this out, ask yourself: would anyone even know who Jack Thompson was if it wasn’t for his campaign of moral crusading?
“Hi, I’m Jack Thompson and I was disbarred by the Florida Bar for being a complete asswipe-fuckface.” -Jack Thompson with his new copy of GTA4 (allegedly)
You see, whether we like to admit it or not, creating a public identity that is centered on “defending the public’s welfare” is an excellent advertising strategy for any slimy snake-oil salesman. It’s quite possible for anyone with a lack of integrity and a drive to steal money from the public (read: lawyers and politicians) to exploit the delicate psychology that ties society together. Humanity, by our communal desire to protect ourselves—and especially our youth—from harm, has evolved to be prone to moral panics.
It doesn’t take much effort to attack the new, unestablished entertainment medium: all you have to do is attribute pretend negative effects to whatever it is and say that it’s damaging the development of our children. It’s important to notice how these people always say “our children”. People who try to stir up moral panics often use buzzwords to elicit the urge we have to protect ourselves—and what better word achieves this than “our”? In reality, the children that are mentioned are typically not thought of as belonging to us, as if they were our civilization’s collective responsibility to raise. In almost any other situation your average person won’t try to put a mental claim on other people’s children; well, that is until the professional moral crusader comes around.
These people are absolute masters of their craft. Their craft being, of course, to turn their bullshit into very real money. Given the fact that the video game industry is still in its infancy, the moral crusaders have absolutely come out of the woodwork over the last few decades to try to stir as much controversy as they could muster. So, how have they done at creating a video game moral panic? To examine their attempts at winning the hearts and minds of lame people everywhere, let’s take a look at a few of the best highlights from the history of video game moral criticism.
1992: “Mortal Kombat is Teaching Our Children How to Kill Each Other in Ridiculous Ways!”
Imagine for a second that you’re a parent in the early 90s. With all the mullets and flannel shirts that are apparently being worn by everyone, you don’t really have any idea what the hell is going on in the world of your children. Making it worse, all the stuff that only nerds did in the late 70s and early 80s—video games, computer usage, flannel shirts, etc—are now all accepted behaviors. “How am I supposed to relate to my stupid kids now?” you wonder as you somberly sip your beer and your right hand clenches your TV remote. You’ve been watching a Matlock marathon for the last few hours and, since even 90s parents can only take so much Andy Griffith before shriveling up like a salted snail, you decide to flick the remote’s “channel up” button, changing the channel.
That’s when you see this:
You stare off in terror, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “Holy fuck!” you think to yourself. “My children play video games and apparently that means that they’ll end up killing their classmates in some horrible Dojo made out of skeletons and fire. I must now put a stop to this!”
This is why the UFC only recruits from the best Mortal Kombat players.
This is a pretty good example of exactly how a new moral panic is introduced. It’s almost like Fox went through some kind of controversy checklist before they settled on Mortal Kombat as their new target of choice. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine the Fox producers filling it out:
Is this a new entertainment product or device? “Check.” Does this new product or device in question involve violence, sexuality or both? “Oh, God yes.” Does this product or device confuse and bewilder the generation who are raising children? “Yep.” Congratulations, if you have answered that two or more of these criteria are correct, you now have a brand-new moral panic on your hands! If not, well, there’s always pornography.
Overall effectiveness of the moral panic: 3.5 “Our Children” out of 5
While Mortal Kombat did cause a few middle-aged soccer moms to quake in fear for the future, it was quickly forgotten as the sole cause of the head and spinal cord-filled streets that will become infamous in the year 2032.
1993-Present: “First Person Shooters Are Training Our Children How to be Evil Special Forces Units!”
Despite the obvious lack of child-commandos, many people are pretty susceptible to this moral panic for some reason, and I still have absolutely no idea why that is. Maybe this one has something to do with the fact that the older you get the more you tend to fear and misunderstand the younger generation. I prefer to think that old people just like to fantasize about a world filled with murderous 12-year-olds that they would actually have an excuse to kill; to an old person this idea must completely fucking rock. I suppose the closest example would be Charles Manson (oh yeah, I am totally comparing old people to murderous psychopaths) and his crew of lunatics: even though they pretended to be afraid of their fantasy of a coming race war, you just know that they were really, really excited about the prospect.
Lighthearted and jovial, Manson has always retained his excitement towards life.
Though there have been many flawed studies on the subject, playing violent video games does seem to have a temporary effect on aggression. Notice that I said “aggression”. Playing video games doesn’t, however, have any connection with becoming a heartless sociopath; though the causes are still mysterious, that stuff is now thought to develop before the child even touches his or her first D-pad. Alas, even if your kid is a sociopath, he is more likely to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company than he is to mistake his slaughter of “Achmed the Minority” in Call of Duty as an actual representation of the sweet perks he’d get if he killed Billy down the street.
Even though there is a ton of logical inconsistencies with this moral panic, it’s still, by far, the most successful. So successful, in fact, that the all-star moral crusader and hilariously misanthropic sodomite (allegedly), Jack Thompson, has spent quite a bit of his career targeting it.
Who would have thought that “the video games made me do it” would turn out to be a real defense in court if you have killed someone in an outlandishly violent way? You’d think that defense would be as believable as mowing your wife down with a weed-whacker and then blaming the whole thing on the nearest object to your recently-incarcerated body…just think of the possibilities.
“The Defendant has expressly stated that this garden gnome should be presented as the possible perpetrator.”
Overall effectiveness of the moral panic: 5 “Our Children” out of 5
In spite of the Military’s efforts to train people by very expensive and effective means, quite a few people still feel that violent video games provide far superior combat training to children the world over.
2007: “Mass Effect is Turning Our Children Into Sexually Desensitized Rape Machines!”
This moral panic always struck me as creepy. Someone had to actually sit down and think that children watching naked blue aliens would be thinking “This stuff is really turning me on! Maybe I should find some witless child, who is my own age, and play doctor. Y’know, I think I will, maybe after I finish playing with these lettered blocks.” I guarantee that someone thought—no, fantasized about this. Someone, who tried to imagine the mind of a child, has decided that that said child would somehow decide to have sex based on a fairly tame two minute erotic cutscene. Am I the only one who thinks that this is disturbing?
When’s the last time you stopped and thought about what a child thinks about sex? If you answered more than once, and you aren’t a parent who is actively attempting to explain what sex is to your children, then I can guarantee you that it is way too much. It reminds me of that horrible show on A&E, Toddlers & Tiaras, where the weird-ass male judge explains how he judges the babies on criteria that are totally not based on his raging pedophilia. Just like the male judge on that show, there is someone working for Fox News right now that thinks about kids a little bit too much.
Okay, probably all of them.
Besides the possible pedophilia, this moral panic is completely, 100% bullshit. Don’t believe me? Well, of course you do, but here’s the video anyway:
After watching that video it should be obvious that no one at Fox had even seen the sex scene, let alone played the fucking game. If there was one reason why this moral panic failed, it was because Fox’s only research on the subject was a Google search by one very sad, sad intern. It’s almost like they decided to forgo the previously mentioned “Moral Panic Checklist” and just wing it: “Hey, our demographic of scared old people don’t need no evidence. Just get some of our resident blonde chicks out there to tell them how it’s scarring our youth and call it a fucking day.” You can be sure that this conversation was uttered in one of the Fox offices at least once.
Look, I know that sex is “edgy” but why, when there are so many other things for Fox to choose, would they use a game that is relatively ‘G’ rated? It seems to me that the Old Media is starting to lose track of the games that might actually cause a moral panic; or maybe, just maybe, our culture is beginning to get past some of our old susceptibilities. In any case, this one didn’t go over so well for Fox News.
Overall effectiveness of the moral panic: 1 “Our Children” out of 5
For the fact that Fox didn’t even try a little bit, this moral panic, unfortunately, never really took off the ground. I suppose we’ll all just have to imagine what could have been.
To sum everything up, as long as there are video games there will probably be people who will do whatever it takes to make things up about them to serve their own greedy desires. If you really want to help in the fight against these self-interested douchebags, do what I do: point and laugh at them.