The Glorious History Of Video Game Panics

from the freak-out dept

We’ve talked in the past about the wonderful world of moral panics that typically show up anytime a new kind of entertainment and/or technology is introduced. Whether they revolve around Dungeons and Dragons, social media, now-accepted pagan holidays, or certain kinds of music, the hallmark of these moral whip-ups is that they rise suddenly with the introduction of the new whatever-we’re-talking-about, reach a fever pitch, and then suddenly fall away once everyone realizes how stupid the whole panic thing was. That typically takes roughly a generation to cycle through, as the youth that enjoyed the horror of the new whatever-thing become adults and move on to demonizing something else. I guess it’s something of a tradition, one whose history we’ve highlighted in the past.

Of course, the moral panic du jour for my lifetime has been video games, and that panic has been just as stupid and fact-deprived as the rest of them. If history is any indication, however, we should be entering the part of the cycle where the moral panic over video games starts to decline. As this somewhat comprehensive history of video game panics from Reason shows, adults have been at this for nearly half a century. It started with pinball arcades and, boy, does it offer some perspective on the current panics.

Video game arcades did not exist before the 1970s, but amusement arcades have been around for more than a century, giving people a place to play pinball and other coin-operated entertainments. They were tightly packed, anonymous environments filled with young people and working-class immigrants, a perfect recipe for middle-class anxieties. (There were even rumors of girls being kidnapped at arcades and sold into white slavery.) Throw in the fact that gambling was known to take place on the premises, and the venues’ shady reputation was assured.

Look, which of us can honestly say we haven’t been desperate for a few quarters and sold a couple of girls into white (?!!?) slavery (which I assume is somehow supposedly different than other kinds of slavery, but I don’t want to know how). It should be noted that many cities, including New York, didn’t lift the ban on pinball until the late seventies. From there, once video game arcades made their appearance in the eighties, the ground was already laid for how to freak out about them.

The article goes on to describe all the other game-related panics: Death Race supposedly teaching kids how to run over real people on highways in real life, Custer’s Revenge and other crappy attempts to put nudity in games, the couch-potato claims that fell away once Dance Dance Revolution and the Wii made them untenable, Joe Lieberman (the man who was apparently less fit to be Vice President than Sarah Palin) being Joe Lieberman, how Doom was directly responsible for the Columbine massacre, and, of course, Grand Theft Auto, which brings this whole panicky nonsense full-circle.

The series, which started to appear in 1997 but came into its own with 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, was praised in the gaming community for its pioneering open-world environments, in which players roam freely and choose their own goals rather than following a linear, pre-set sequence of tasks. But pundits pilloried it for its morally shaky content: The gameplay could include not just car theft but murder, bank robbery, and—shades of Death Race—deliberately running down pedestrians.

And, with that, we’re right back to games supposedly teaching roughly all the children to run over people in real life, despite the fact that that didn’t happen the last time this nonsense was offered up as a prediction.

As always, there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that we aren’t out of the woods on the moral panic over games yet. The good news is that we probably will be soon. The bad news is that Jack Thompson is still making his noise about video games. The good news is that he was disbarred. The bad news is that the media still enjoys whipping up a panic amongst naive adults who will believe their squawks about the dangers of some of these games. The good news is that, every time they have in the past, it only resulted in higher sales for those games, which will only spur on the eventual decline of the panic. Then we can all move on to the next panic. It’ll probably be, I don’t know, sex robots or something.

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Comments on “The Glorious History Of Video Game Panics”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "White slavery"

No. “White slavery” was a euphemism for prostitution, and did not necessarily indicate rape or even physical force. The compulsion could be drug addiction or even shame, threat of exposure, or verbal and emotional abuse. There is also a historic association of the phrase with opium and the Chinese (see the Julie Andrews movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie” for an example of the Chinese “white slavery” trope).

The achiac middle-class model of the prostitute was of a woman somehow enthralled to work for a pimp or “trapped” in a brothel, wherein the fruits of her labor almost exclusively went to someone else, hence “slavery”, with “white” affixed in the phrase to distinguish it from generic slavery in the euphemism.

And yes, there really used to be a social need for a euphemism for prostitution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: "White slavery"

Not sure you are following the logic here. There is a reason the term slave is appended.

And for the record “enthralled” is not really much different from slavery. the “to captivate” part of its definition is someone captivated them against their will so they can pimp them out.

Additionally keep in mind the context here. People were afraid their daughters could be kidnapped, in other words forcibly placed into the sex slave category. Saying White Slavery as a euphemism to cover that is incredibly… no down right cold hearted & ignorant.

A female willingly submitting to prostitution should not be lumped in with females that are slaves to human trafficking.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "White slavery"

You’re an idiot, “White Slave” is a standard euphemism that has existed in the lexicon for decades which you can easily look up using the power of the internet.

Oh look, here’s the definition right here. The one that defines what ‘White Slave’ means. Huh, look at that, he was correct all along. Why it goes back 100 years even to the mafia days of Chicago.

Instead you chose to come here and tell us about how that phrasing ‘offends’ you instead of taking the four seconds it took to google it and find out why it’s called that.

Like we somehow care about how common words and phrases of old offend the thin-skinned people of the internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 "White slavery"


Words do mean something, do not diminish someone for trying to fight back against a bad euphemism.

Think about it. How do you think black people felt when someone used a euphemism to describe their existence or when they were classified as non-human!

I am willing to bet you would never publicly state that a black prostitute gang pressed into sex by a pimp is a “White Slave”

Dare you…

JJJoseph (profile) says:

Re: Silly Article writer...

Yes, “we” didn’t do it, but it still happened. “White” slavery involved the capture of Slav women in Ukraine & Crimea by Tatar slavers. The captured women were sold to Turkish brokers for resale as sex slaves in the Middle East. Nowadays, muslims capture any vulnerable young girls for resale, as happened recently in Nigeria.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yeah, the narrow minded and quick to judge are always going to be yammering on about the horrific consequences of their outrage du jour.

Elvis was going to ruin society, rock ‘n roll was the devil and these idiotic claims persist today.

Probably the funniest video game freakout was the hot coffee mod. OMG it’s the end of the world as we know it!

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The hot coffee mod shows the hypocrisy towards sex in this country. Sure, a game can let the user run over people, shoot people with a shotgun, and even shoot down a helicopter and cause it to crash into things. But put some sex and nudity into an already M-rated game and there will be hell to pay!!!

Wasn’t there similar outrage about an unlockable sex scene in “God of War”, which again, is already rated M for the blood and violence.

vegetaman (profile) says:

I guess you could turn this same stupid argument around on them, like so:

“I’m getting the new Wolfenstein game, because I want to fight NAZIs. You don’t… You don’t LIKE the NAZIs, do you? Why wouldn’t you want me to fight them?”

I’m not sure if their means to an end is “no violent video games” or “only politically correct video games”.

And that, my friends, is how art truly dies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Doom was probably a contributing factor to the Columbine massacre. Dismissing it as having no influence into the deranged person’s mind is just as bad as blaming the game.

Just sayin.

Of course video games are not reality and don’t make people act out the game IRL. That doesn’t mean that some “deranged” people wont be influenced by them and act them out IRL.

Then again…I am bias. I used to play paperboy in the arcade. I was also a paperboy IRL… who on a few occasions threw the papers in the same way that I learned from the game.
I was meant to put them through the letterbox

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Doom was probably a contributing factor to the Columbine massacre”

This claim has probably been debunked many times but I will not provide any references because that would be silly, just trust me on this on – k?

“Then again…I am bias”

Yes, you apparently are biased.

If I play Frogger – a lot – will I be uncontrollably jaywalking in and out of traffic?

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