That Time When People Thought Playing Chess Would Make You Violent
from the let-the-wookie-win dept
Whenever one is forced to bear witness to the predictable silliness of the moral panic of the day, it is useful to recall all the past moral panics that we now consider so equally silly. We’ve written before about the relatively recent hand-wringing over modern entertainment ventures such as tabletop boardgames, video games, and even ghost stories told on that most-dreaded of mediums, the internet. Most recently, the moral panic that had once focused its misguided eyes upon violence has inexplicably shifted to hacking, with warnings abounding that ten-year-olds everywhere will be crashing our civic infrastructure with their iPhones and all the rest. It should be apparent that all this is stupid on its face, but even forgiving the general public’s inability to make that determination, the point should be unassailable when put into historical context.
Take, for example, chess. ChurchHatesTucker writes in about a nice and extensive post on iO9 about how critics attacked what is now considered the game of intellectuals when it was first taking over, over a century ago. The arguments, I dare say, will sound familiar to you.
One word, however, to the sempiternal chess-players, whom we meet everywhere: they are, for the most part, persons with long well-filled heads and ambitious hearts; which if they devoted to the further improvement of useful arts, sciences, inventions, &c., only half the time they squander in contests for victories “baseless as the fabric of a vision,” this sacrifice alone would liberate at least ten thousand profound thinkers on the globe for the service of their own times and generation, and compensate for the rather selfish and unsocial species of warfare which two of a company carry on for hours together, to the annoyance and exclusion of all the rest from the charms of their conversation and intelligent minds.
That is the writing of a physician in 1883 and it operates under the notion that the time in which we must pursue the useful arts and abandon any form of pleasure or entertainment is limitless and without diminishing returns. If only the people of the world would put down their rooks and pick up a chemistry set, we’d have the elixir of life worked out and eternity would be our playground! You hear this argument all the time when it comes to gaming: those damned kids should be reading/playing outside/studying/etc. It makes a certain amount of sense until you decide to understand that anything without moderation is dangerous and most things in moderation are not. It’s entertainment after all, and suggesting that people who play chess or video games should instead be furthering the useful arts only makes sense as an argument if you also propose closing up all the movie theaters, sports leagues, golf courses, parks and swimming pools. The only thing that was different about chess at the time, and video games now, is that they were/are new, which apparently makes them scary.
But, of course, you just can’t have a moral panic without predictions of apathy and violence. This first quotation comes from An Introduction to the History and Study of Chess, published in 1804.
Richlet, in his Dictionary, article Echec, writes, ” It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess.”…Col. Stewart, who had been aid-de-camp to the Earl of Stair, and was afterwards one of the Quarter-masters General in the Duke of Cumberland’s time, used frequently to play with the Earl, who was very fond of the game; but an unexpected check-mate used to put his Lordship into such a passion, that he was ready to throw a candlestick, or any thing else that was near him, at his adversary; the prudent Colonel always took care therefore, to be on his feet, to fly to the farthest corner of the room, when he said, ” check-mate, my Lord!”…King John was playing at Chess when the deputies from Rouen came to acquaint him that their city was besieged, but he would not hear them until he had finished his game. Charles I. was also playing at it when news was brought of the resolution of the Scots to sell him to the English ; but so little was he discomposed by this alarming intelligence, that he continued his game with the utmost composure.
Yes, chess, in the very tome that endeavored to examine the game in detail, was blamed for biblical corruption, peer-on-peer violence, and apathy of a King. What a cruel, twisted game this must be. It’s almost comical to note that video games, the entertainment of children today, have been blamed for sin, violence, and general apathy toward the things we’re all supposed to be focusing on, according to the whims of others. It’s… the… same… exact… story. So much so, in fact, that it becomes instantly frustrating knowing this history and seeing it play out all over again.
The young become old and repeat the moral panic pattern of their parents, for some stupid reason. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Maybe it’s a function of a society that creates generational age-groups the way we have. Or maybe it’s the fault of some new fad that my peers will soon be blaming for all the world’s ills. Personally, I blame chess.