The Media War


Is Media Controversy a tale as old as time? The war against violent media is not new. Learn the history of media controversy, and take a sobering look at what’s in store for gamers down the road.

There’s a war going on (and we don’t mean terrorism or the war in Iraq). Lines are drawn between media crusaders beleiving that games cause society’s problems and a game industry worried about censorship. Caught in the middle are parents, GamerDads and Moms, unsure which side is correct.

Old as Time

The argument over the effect that art has on culture is likely as old as civilization itself (no, not the computer game). Socrates was compelled to commit suicide because of his “affect” on the minds of children. Plato believed that Drama disturbed people, especially children, while Aristotle argued that Drama provided “catharsis”, a release of negative emotion.

Now, centuries later, that pretty much sums up what this argument boils down to.

International Game Developer Association spokesman Jason Della Rocca jokes that the issue probably predates those two hoary old philosophers. Saying that it probably dates back to the dawn of man. “Caveman drawings of speared buffalo were probably criticized for encouraging violence.” According to Della Rocca, a good early example of media controversy can be found in the plays of William Shakespeare. The Bard’s contemporaries raised objections that depictions of sexuality and violence in his plays would “rouse the masses” in unsavory ways, “It took about 200-300 years before his work was considered respectable, let alone art.”

There are good examples from the Victorian era as well. The 19th century Grand Guignol theater tradition in France, for example, focused on macabre story-telling and gruesome special effects that titillated audiences byt also led to an outcry from segments of the public and aristocracy. The Marquis de Sade was jailed and his works were banned for his sexually charged stories. Morality groups in London openly protested street corner sales of lurid pamphlet books called “Penny Dreadfuls,” feeling they inspired violence and perhaps even the infamous murders of Jack the Ripper. In America, similar novels glorified outlaws and were often grouped with alcohol consumption as prime causes for societies’ ills.

Early films, notably The Great Train Robbery, a silent film that featured a cowboy pointing a gun at the audience and firing it, caused much controversy — some theatergoers even fainted from fear–giving rise to the first fears over the power of cinema. Later, in the wake of the Great Depression, society’s fascination with real-life outlaws and bank robbers made films like Little C’sar and other gangster movies in blockbusters. Universal released films like Dracula and Frankenstein in the 30’s, which were especially popular with children. Editorials appeared arguing against the power of cinema and its supposed effect on society and children. In the 1950s, a sharp rise in juvenile delinquency was in part blamed on the immorality in movies and music.

Fears about the power of media and media violence were given an authoritative voice by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent in the early ’50s. The book galvanized anti-media crusaders and led to Senate hearings on the subject. In his book, Wertham argues that the horror, depravity, and violence found in comic books of the era could warp the mind of a child and turn an otherwise “good boy” into a monster. (Sound familiar?)

Wertham ignored sales information that showed that the chief consumer of comics were adults looking for mature subject matter. The resulting Senate hearings were embarrassing for the comics industry–so much so, that it’s all but forgotten that they were largely exonerated. Still the scrutiny and public backlash led to a form of voluntary self-censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority. The Code became the stamp of approval necessary for a comic to be sold in bookstores and on newstands, which demanded that the words “crime”and “horror” not appear in a comic’s title, and that the villain always be captured by the end of the story.

The Code also placed strict guidelines on the kinds of stories that could be told. Comics became, virtually overnight, a children’s medium, which almost completely bankrupted industry leader E.C. Comics. Some people believe this was the Code’s real agenda, since E.C., a company owned by William Gaines, was the industry sales leader on the strength of its fabulous crime and horror comics. Of course, E.C. then went on to produce Code-Exempt magazines like Creepy and MAD, so it isn’t a completely sad story. It took the comics industry over 30 years to recover from this form of aggressive “self-censorship,” and even now, they still haven’t shaken the “just for kids” stigma they didn’t have in the 30’s-40’s.

X-Rated Hulks

Cinema in the late 1960’s and television in the ’70s and early ’80’s took on similar, if less draconian, self-regulation to avoid criticism. The Motion Picture Association of America created the ratings system we’re familiar with today, and at first this led to greater creativity. Movies in the ’60s became more violent and sexually explicit because filmakers felt more free with a mature R rating. Midnight Cowboy even won a Best Picture Oscar, despite its X rating. Later, when that rating became synonymous with the pornography industry, it became mainstream box office posion. Today, filmmakers often go to great lengths to avoid an R rating, and no one releases a film with the newer NC-17 rating because many newspapers won’t run advertisements for them, and theater owners won’t carry them.

Fears of criticism also affected television in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s rather odd to watch the old Incredible Hulk TV show and see Lou Ferrigno’s massive Hulk spend most of his time posturing, bashing walls (in slow motion), and throwing bad guys into swimming pools; or witness the A-Team fire entire clips from an M-16 machine gun and not hit a single bad guy. But According to Gerard Jones in his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, And Make-Believe Violence, this pseudo-violence was a direct result of when Baby Boomers became fearful about the effect that violence has on children.

D&D & the PMRC

The next culprit was Dungeons and Dragons as it supposedly fostered a belief in the power of the occult. Parents feared that their kids were worshipping Satna as they quietly rolled their dice and fought Orcs. There were several teen suicides during that era that were attributed to the victim’s preoccupation with D&D. A but later, journalists found a similar Doom and Quake connection to the shootings at Columbine High School.

The ’80s saw lawsuits accusing Ozzy Osbourne and the band Judas Priest of inducing their troubled teenaged fans to commit suicide. (Why they would want record-buying fans to off themselves was never answered.) The artists were eventually exonerated, but only after intense controversy and legal battles.

Besides making “obscene” lyrics increasingly popular, and giving 2 Live Crew its 15-minutes of fame, the Parents’ Music Resource Center-led senate hearings of the late ’80s had little effect on the music industry. Music companies are required to display a warning sticker (a self-imposed compromise) but kids still want, and still buy, so-called “obscene” music. In fact, the stickers led to greater and greater obscenity. The lyrics that made the PMRC so angry seem tame compared to today’s music.

Pac-Man Fever

The first videogame to cause concern among media critics was Death Race 2000, but that was a fairly obscure case. Space Invaders was a much larger phenomenon. Parents watched in dismay as kids lined up for blocks to play the game, it was easy to see a generation of video zombies drooling and twitching, bent on, above all else, killing hordes of alien invaders. Papers were written about the “addicitive” qualities of coin-op videogames and console systems, mirroring contemporary fears over EverQuest. Technology marched onward and the hapless aliens of Space Invaders transformed into the colorful and more realistic fighters in Mortal Kombat. Children and adults could rop out their foe’s spines, or do worse, in a series of special “fatalities.” Soon, senator Joseph Lieberman (D, MA) seized upon the issue of parental concern, and with fellow senator Herb Kohl (D, WI) frequently criticized and evaluates the videogame industry with annual report cards. The public scrutiny led to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which created a ratings system for games.

Technology continued to advance, and so did the realism found in games like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Soldier of Fortune, and Grand Theft Auto III. It’s true that games continually up the ante on realistic depictions of violence, making news reports about videogame violence all the more frightening-looking to people who don’t play games.

Back to WarThe “war” between media crusaders and the media itself is an old one, with each successive generation protesting the latest form of media as if it’s some new scourge on society. “It comes down to the fact that the previous generation simply does not want to understand the next generation’s pop culture entertainment,” says Della Rocca. Lowenstein adds that most attacks on videogames come from people in their 50s, who ignore that the average age of the game buyer is between 18 and 35.


Other attacks come from experts like Retired Colonel Dave Grossman, a self-described “killologist” (an expert in the science of killing) who argues in his book Stop Teaching Our Children To Kill that games are actually “murder simulators,” teaching young people how to kill while lessening the impact and shock value of real violence. Despite lurid arguments, the truth is that there still hasn’t been a definitive study that proves any media culpable in real-world violence. In fact, according to Jones the studies and evidence thus far prove the opposite–that games act as a release valve for natural violent impulses and fantasies. In Killing Monsters he argues that fake violence helps purge violent urges, noting that studies prove that children do engage in more (play) violence after viewing a disturbing video, and that they tend to be more relaxed after they play. He also notes that the bulk of these studies were done in artificial environments–places in which children probably don’t feel comfortable or “normal.”

“For every report that claims there is proof, there is another that says there is no proof,” says Della Rocca, who also cites a recent study showing that videogames can improve vision and response time. “There has not been a single situation where a video game has caused real-world violence,” he says. “Many people have pointed to Columbine as a case where the students learned how to shoot and trained for the massacre with Doom. Of course, no one paid much attention to the fact that they were firing off real guns at their uncle’s farm.”

Is Censorship Coming?

As technology continues to advance, games are only going to get more “realistic.” Does this mean gamers have to fear for the future? After all, as games get more realistic, it gets easier to see a correlation between violent past-times and violent acts. Is there danger lurking around the corner that eventually the government or some other force (some form of self-censorship) will take away your favorite games?

“I don’t believe (gamers) need fear that the government will ban games,” says my source, “The courts clearly and unequivocally are recognizing that regulating game content is unconstitutional.” Della Rocca agrees, noting that, aside from one or two cases (like the over-turned Limbaugh decision) all court cases have ruled positively for games as protected speech. He believes that the industry needs to be diligent, but as long as developers are creating innovative games and expressing themselves, they’ll be able to win in court.

But government, media crusaders, and parental groups may not be the real cause for concern for gaming freedom. Some fear that what happened to comic books is a good example of what might happen to videogames–that publishers or organizations like the ESA or ESRB will dictate content in games. Both my source and Della Rocca deny this as a possibility, instead, they point to a different influence.

“The market has the biggest ability to censor,” says Della Rocca, noting that large chains like Wal-Mart might decide not to carry certain games or genres. If this happenes, due to lawmaker, media critic, or parental pressures, publishers might simply stop making certain kinds of games in an effot to avoid a ban from large retailers. But sales mean everything, and even a company like Wal-Mart, makes M-Rated games available.

My source sees a civic-minded solution. He believes that gamers who are of voting age should simply contact their congressman and senators and inform them that they are gamers who vote. Further, he recommends that parents are the one’s responsible for keeping their children healthy and well-adjusted. They don’t need politicians to take over the job of parenting. Della Rocca recommends helping to make people more aware that games aren’t just for children, that they’re an emerging art form with a broad range of content that appeals to a mass audience. He believes that if you remove the “protecting children” part of the equation, you’ll find most people less willing to criticize video games, or to worry about their influence.

Maybe on this front the war can finally come to an end.

15 Responses to “The Media War”

  1. This was definitely something I loved reading about in ‘Grand Theft Childhood’. So often we think that everything in every way is worse than ‘the good ol’ days’, when in reality much of it is the same ol’ stuff with a new paint job!

  2. “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.
    – Billy Joel”

    A VERY strong argument can be made that – in almost every significant way:

    “There’s never been a better time… than right now” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

    Others say:
    “It’s getting better, a little better, all the time (it can’t get no worse)” – Beatles

  3. I’ve been playing video games since Intellivision and the Atari 2600 when I was like 8 years old. I played Doom, Quake, Hexen, Doom II, Doom 3, Quake 2, the Battlefield and Call of Duty Series, Baldurs Gate, Diablo and Diablo II, World of Warcraft and tons more. I played D&D for countless hours, dropped tons of quarters in video arcades, and love violent movies. And guess what, I haven’t killed a single person. Neither have any of my friends.

    The bottom line that we all know, and the mainstream media needs to learn, is that nothing can replace responsible parenting. Only you, as a parent, can decide what is right and wrong for your child. Only you can determine what level of violence and realism is right for your child. Not some stuffed suit in DC or sitting in a office somewhere. You the parent are the one who can, and should decide, what is right and wrong for your kid. For too long lax parents have blamed media and society for their failure to raise their children.

    I’m gonna get off my soapbox now and go back to work. 🙂

  4. Mike, I also like the history part of Grand Theft Childhood. I am also old enough to remember the furor over D & D and Heavy Metal. Hopefully, advocates for gaming will continue to use reason and logic to fight claims that games are a significant cause of violence. That doesn’t always work. Just look at gun control. There is almost no scientific evidence that it works, but legislation is passed all the time.

  5. Except that in countries where guns are readily available there’s far fewer gun related crime and deaths. You mean aside from that “scientific evidence”?

  6. Oh man man man did I just step in it? I mean “NOT readily available” but the lack of edit is going to make my argument silly before it even starts. I’m the worst flamer ever.

  7. GamerDad ’08.

  8. GamerDad & Luigi ’08

    (Luigi seems like the ultimate Veep to me)

  9. “You mean aside from that “scientific evidence”?”

    An unsubstantiated statement is not evidence.

    In the US, gun ownership has steadily increased since 1970 (almost doubling). The gun homicide and suicide rate has declined during that time period (FBI Uniform Crime Report, 2002)

    Internationally speaking “There’s no clear relationship between more guns and higher levels of violence.” (Keith Krause, Project Director, Small Arms Survey project, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, 2007).

    “… a detailed study of the major surveys completed in the past 20 years or more provides no evidence of any relationship between the total number of legally held firearms in society and the rate of armed crime. Nor is there a relationship between the severity of controls imposed in various countries or the mass of bureaucracy involved with many control systems with the apparent ease of access to firearms by criminals and terrorists.” (Colin Greenwood, “Minutes of Evidence”, Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, January 29, 2003)

    In 1968, the U.K. passed laws that reduced the number of licensed firearm owners, and thus reduced firearm availability. Their homicide rate has steady risen since then. Ironically, firearm use in crimes has doubled in the decade after the U.K. banned handguns. (“A Century of Change: Trends in UK Statistics since 1900”, Hicks, Joe; Allen, Grahame (SGS), Social and General Statistics Section, House of Commons).

    Countries with the strictest gun-control laws also tended to have the highest homicide rates. (“Violence, Guns and Drugs: A Cross-Country Analysis”, Jeffery A. Miron, Department of Economics, Boston University.)

    I could go on and on. Violent crime rates are more influenced by things like poverty, economic hardships, exposure to domestic abuse, and drug abuse. Gun ownership and gun laws, according to the vast majority of studies, does not have a causal relatioship to a rise in crime.

  10. Steve,
    Correct me if I’m wrong. During that 40 year span you’re talking about where gun ownership doubled and violence and suicide decreased … well… isn’t that span also when we’ve had some of the most draconian anti-gun laws on the books?

    I also question the relevance and analogy here. Beyond misleading studies, I don’t see how the anti-gun and anti-video game crowds – or issues – are in any way similar.

    I’m not anti-gun myself (I’m not really pro either) but if you take the misleading stats and fear-mongering out you’re still left with a peice of interactive entertainment versus a tool made for killing or harming. A game versus a weapon. That’s not an analogy at all!

  11. Yes, that period has seen a rise in gun laws, but if the mere presence of guns or proliferation of guns caused violence, then there should be a corresponding increase. Additionally, if you go back farther than 40 years, you will see relatively low crime rates when there were almost no gun laws. I still stand by my assertion that there is little, if any data, that proves gun control works.

    The only similarity I am suggesting is that both anti-gun and anti-game proponents use emotional arguments to make their point. They both have no evidence to show a causal relationship between their legislation and what they say should happen (in regards to violence). An analogy in a broad sense is a shared abstraction and both ideas certainly contain a shared pattern. By themselves, they are very different. One is a tool and the other is a form of entertainment.

  12. I should also point out that during that period, crime is lower at the end, then in 1970, but peaked in the mid 1980’s and mid 1990’s (all time high). I should have provided a chart.

    There have been several large studies on this issue by non-partisan groups that I can dig up if anyone is interested. One was done by the National Academy of Sciences and was based on 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, a survey of 80 different gun-control laws and some of its own independent study. It concluded that “no link between restrictions on gun ownership and lower rates of crime, firearms violence or even accidents with guns,” could be found. I should note that this panel was mostly made up of people on record as to supporting gun control measures.

  13. Be honest man. You’re just cutting and pasting all of this information from an article at, aren’t you?

  14. If not obvious… then 😉

    And yeah, I’d take Luigi as my running mate. GamerDad ’08! Wait, what’s this about my having to post my health records?

  15. The quotes are certainly cut and pasted. Why should I type them over? The rest is mine. I have a bunch more info from an unpublished law review article that I wrote 4 years ago, but I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the jurisprudence of gun rights.

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