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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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 May 2014 @ 5:17am

    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.

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