Rated M for “moral panic”, or the one about video games and controversy

Are video games a virtuous hobby, or a corrupt and crumbling boulevard to the smouldering shores of perdition? Does the spectre of malignant misanthropy and secret addiction crouch in the corners of your children’s bedrooms, murderous murmurs dribbling from its rotted lips? Do lurid, subtly facetious questions like these instantly constitute your opinions, before you even stop to actually think about them? NAG steps behind the grimy curtain of Facebook re-re-re-posts to find out.

In his portentous exposition “Seduction of the Innocent”, German behavioural psychiatrist Frederic Wertham cites the propagation of sex, violence, and drug use in the media as the primary cause of adolescent degeneracy. On its publication, the book prompted dismay with parents and churches, preceding a series of pro-censorship campaigns, and Wertham himself testifying as an expert witness in front of the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.

This was in 1954.

And it was about comics.

One of the first, perhaps, but not the last moral panic denouncing whatever the kids are into as the opening of the next apocalyptic seal. Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, and The Simpsons also took their turns, and since the 90s, video games have frequently been the subject of tabloid pearl-clutching. Don’t you know, your aunt’s neighbour’s husband’s supervisor’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend was at school with a girl who told her about a guy who was at camp with this other guy who played Mortal Kombat the one time and then stabbed some random guy. Or something like that, I dunno, but now your mom is worried so no more video games.

And next year, perhaps, it’s no more YouTube because don’t you know, those Peppa Pig shows are spliced with subliminal messages about suicide. Wait, no. That was last year.

When it launched in 1992, Sega’s Night Trap was described as “shameful”, “ultra-violent”, “sick”, and “disgusting”, and credited with the subsequent introduction of ESRB ratings in 1994. It’s also described by gamers as one of the worst video games ever and was a commercial bomb, but don’t let that get between US senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl and re-election.

Pokémon? Satanism. Grand Theft Auto? Hot coffee. The Sims? Nudity. Sorry, pixelated nudity, but according to Florida attorney Jack Thompson who didn’t even play it and was wrong, real (fake, but real-fake, don’t you know) nudity.

And in 2019, Trump’s administration was blaming those “gruesome and grisly video games” for the country’s escalating problems with mass shootings and domestic terrorism.  Not the absence of sensible gun control regulation, not the disturbing increase of white nationalism, not the citizens’ patriotic obligation to support the second amendment with a personal arsenal of AR-15s, not the fact that the National Rifle Association invests millions in the president’s ad campaigns. It’s video games. Obviously. Ask Wertham, he’d probably go with it too, so he can avoid awkward questions about the conspicuous failure of Marvel’s movies to bring about the end times.

But video games are interactive. That’s the problem, don’t you know, because it’s not like TV, it’s… interactive. I mean, so is playing with Lego and Barbie and the complex sociopolitical ideologies between the Blorgoxon Alliance and the Vooz-Urzog Galactic Empire, but it’s not the same because it isn’t, okay.

Maybe that’s disingenuous, though. Video games in 2020 are much more sophisticated than in 1990 or 2000. The family-friendly fun of Mario Bros and Bubble Bobble has been supplemented with mega-popular franchises like Call of Duty, for example, which reduce the abhorrence of war and the military industrial complex to a sort of perfunctory indifference, a so-what narrative device between mission objectives propped up by questionable rhetoric. Could this kind of content, presented without adequate context and human empathy, provoke the same responses in reality? Probably. So could Fox News, /r/conspiracy, or your creepy uncle who’s not a racist, he’s “from a different generation”.

Although no scientific study has managed to establish a causal link between video games and antisocial or criminal behaviour, so that too.

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