Why Moral Panics About Video Games Are Bad Politics
Despite what the media and politicians have said, there is no evidence that shows that playing video games turn young people into killers.
What do presidents Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump have in common? They all presided over moral panics involving games. The ongoing “debate” about video and tabletop games has twisted and turned since the 1980s. Video games have been blamed for racism, sexism, violence, delinquency and even demonic possession. Despite a complete lack of evidence to support these claims, the war on video games persists.
It’s easy enough for scientists to say that kids aren’t psychologically damaged by games, but parental fear is a powerful thing. The fear that some form of media will damage the minds of their children is often too powerful to override with facts and studies. Besides, politics has never really relied on adherence to facts. But the rationalizations for ludectrophobia — the fear of video games — evolve with the times, with the foundations starting even before video games were popular.
In 1979, a private investigator was hired by worried parents to find James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old prodigy who had disappeared from Michigan State University. Egbert had struggled with depression and drug addiction, but the investigator falsely believed that the cause of Egbert’s disappearance was the guidebook-driven role-playing game series Dungeons and Dragons. Egbert died by suicide in 1980, and activists once again blamed D&D. In 1982, another teenager, Irving Lee Pulling, also fatally shot himself. His mother, Patricia Pulling, blamed Dungeons and Dragons, going so far as to sue D&D publishers, TSR Inc., and her son’s high school principal for putting a demonic curse on her son through the game.
Patricia Pulling lost both cases, but she may have won the PR war. Despite multiple studies from sources such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Health and Welfare Canada showing no causal link between D&D and suicide, the emotional impact of seeing grieving parents on television was undeniable.
By modern sensibilities, the idea of psychological disturbance due to demonic possession sounds absurd. But subsequent accusations against video games have been no more based in fact. In 1992, a similar moral panic erupted over the game Mortal Kombat, which had elements of supernatural gore similar to Dungeons and Dragons with a kung fu twist. This time, no one got hurt, except the delicate sensibilities of Senator Joe Lieberman.
“We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable,” Lieberman is quoted as saying, despite knowing nothing about video games. He then chaired a subcommittee on sex, violence and racism in video games, based on no facts, but plenty of vote-pandering outrage. The video game industry responded by founding the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to self-regulate its content, but this didn’t call off the cynically political dogs for long. The war on video games was a fire in search of fuel, and on April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School Massacre provided that fuel.
In the wake of the 12 murdered students, one murdered teacher and 21 injured, parents were once again viscerally afraid for the safety of their children. Because the two perpetrators of Columbine were fans of violent video games, the media seized on video games as a scapegoat. The truth was that in the years before the Columbine massacre, the perpetrators were less violent in their outward behavior and writing when they were allowed to express their rages in video games. Only after they were cut off from that outlet did they start planning the school attack.
You wouldn’t have known this from watching the news, however. The media was more widely circulating the theories of moral crusader lawyer Jack Thompson, who was suing video game makers for liability in the deaths of three people in the Heath High School shooting. This legal strategy was copied by the family of a Columbine victim.
Both suits failed because video games, unlike non-media products, are protected by the First Amendment. But Thompson’s claim that game developers were making “murder simulators” got traction in the media. He was arguing a concept called “operant conditioning”: behavior modification through direct positive and negative stimulus. It was, essentially, the demonic possession of the new millennium.
After the Columbine High School shooting, there was a great deal of research done that showed that playing video games doesn’t turn young people into killers. However, based on the strength of the “murder simulator” media narrative, various states banned the sale of violent video games to children. This led to the national corporate policy in gaming stores that prohibited sales of violent games to people who were going to give them to minors. This, in turn, resulted in corporate sexism: When an adult woman bought violent video games, she was more likely than a man to be grilled about whether she was buying a game for a child.
The video game industry launched a legal challenge to the ban in California, which reached the US Supreme Court in 2011. SCOTUS ruled that video games are subject to free speech protections in a rare point of 7-2 bipartisan agreement. The court also ruled that there was no compelling evidence of a link between violent video games and negative impacts on children. But bland scientific papers and constitutional Amendment debates don’t make people any less scared. In some ways, court rulings make the fear worse.
After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre directly blamed video games for the murder of the 20 children and 7 adults. Vice President Joe Biden met with members of the gaming industry, assured them they weren’t being singled out, then suggested a tax on violent video games. President Obama then said that Congress should fund more research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. Not surprisingly, nothing substantial came out of Obama’s call for more research. In fact, as video games have grown more popular, youth violence has plummeted.
But the fear has persisted. In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian’s infamous Tropes vs Women series argued that video games help cultivate violent, sexist and racist attitudes. The difference between Jack Thompson’s arguments in the 1990s and Sarkeesian’s ongoing allegations against video games is that Thompson believed that video games conditioned behavior. Sarkeesian claims video games cultivate opinions. To worried parents, this is a distinction without a difference. It still might as well be demonic possession.
After 17 people were murdered in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018, President Donald Trump once again summoned members of the video game industry to yet another meeting. The White House YouTube channel then released the series of violent video game excerpts.
Trump’s liberal opponents simultaneously disagreed that video games directly cause violence, but echoed Joe Lieberman’s opinion that video games cultivate a glorified opinion of violence. They couldn’t really do otherwise since they championed this view during the Obama/Biden years despite all the evidence to the contrary. So there’s bipartisan consensus that there’s something evil about video games, despite a complete lack of scientific evidence supporting this idea. The D&D theory of demonic possession lives on by other names.
While this fear-mongering may mobilize the religious right and worried, left-leaning PTA moms, this toxic politicking is hurting kids. The foolish idea that digital representations of guns are a more serious problem than actual, real-world guns is contributing to the delay on a meaningful debate on America’s attitude toward guns. It is possible to combat the problem of gun violence without trampling US citizens’ rights to bear arms, but not while the media continues to focus on the NRA-approved narrative about the evils of video games.
There is nothing in Doom or Mortal Kombat that encourages anyone to hurt innocents. These games do, however, temporarily help players escape the deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that they feel in the real world. Instead of demonizing the games popular with young men, we should be using these games to get them talking to us.
Every time authority figures treat video games as evil, they lose the trust of the people who identify as gamers. Many of these people are young and vulnerable, and if they continue to pull away, it’s a recipe for social disaster. Video games are too culturally dominant to continue to treat them as the work of Satan, and while doing so may gain politicians a few votes in the short term, it also exposes them as opportunists who will put a sellable story ahead of decades of facts. That isn’t real leadership. That’s politics at its worst.
*[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Parents Television Council had provided video game excerpts to the White House. Updated: April 25, 2018.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.