This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Reason.
For decades moral guardians have warned us about the alleged evils of video games. They make people violent. They make people gamble. They're too addictive, too hypnotic, too bloody, too risque. If they aren't leading kids to drugs or delinquency, they're turning them into school shooters. And they might even make you fat.
Here are some highlights from the history of game-driven moral panics.
The Evil Arcade
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.
Moral opposition led to legal crackdowns. The most infamous effort began in 1942, when New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sent his gendarmes to seize the city's pinball machines. They brought in more than 2,000 on the first day, and newsreel crews filmed the mayor smashing some of them with a sledgehammer. New York did not relegalize pinball until 1976.
When video arcades started booming in the early '80s, many of those fears came rushing back. Parents worried that Pac-Man dens would encourage truancy, that kids would smoke cigarettes or buy drugs, that young children would come into contact with bad elements, that violence might break out. In 1982 The New York Times quoted a Long Island mom who believed video arcades "mesmerize our children," "addict them," "teach gambling," and "breed aggressive behavior." Zoning and permit fights were common, as fretful grown-ups urged the authorities to keep the arcades away.
These days, the arcades have virtually disappeared. But the anti-arcade scare petered out first.
Death Race 1976
The first individual video game to inspire a major moral panic was Death Race, a 1976 release inspired loosely by the cult film Death Race 2000. The movie was a science-fiction satire about a road race whose drivers ring up points by deliberately running people down. The game, which had not been licensed or endorsed by the filmmakers, put the player in the driver's role. It also changed the setup so that they were running over gremlins, not human pedestrians, but there's no sign that this prompted the critics to moderate their tone.
"On TV, violence is passive," a psychologist at the National Safety Council told The New York Times. "In this game a player takes the first step to creating violence. The player is no longer just a spectator….I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory." A former San Quentin psychologist told the Associated Press that "the prisoners I dealt with…would have loved the game." The Tucson Daily Citizen wondered whether "chasing down pedestrians on a TV screen now" would "encourage" players to kill people "on real highways later."
Public protest prompted some venues to remove the game, but all the publicity ended up bringing Death Race's manufacturer more business, not less. It would not be the last time that anti-game activism served as free advertising.
In the early '80s, a porn studio called the Caballero Control Corporation created a company it named Mystique to release erotic video games for the home market. "Erotic" may be a bit of a stretch: The company's most notorious product, the 1982 game Custer's Revenge, featured a crudely animated George Armstrong Custer with an even more crudely animated erection attempting to get past a volley of arrows to have his way with an Indian woman tied to a stake (or possibly to a cactus).
The game was attacked not just for being dumb, racist, and rapey—valid criticisms all—but for allegedly inspiring players to copy Custer's example. After some rapists allegedly mentioned the game while forcing themselves on an Indian, the anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin claimed that Custer's Revenge had "generated many gang rapes of Native American women." Canadian customs refused to let the software cross the border, and Women Against Pornography picketed the product.
This wasn't the first time a game's sexual content stirred up controversy. Way back in 1973, Atari's Gotcha was nicknamed "the boob game" because its controls were a pair of pink orbs that the player was supposed to squeeze. But it was the video game world's first great anti-porn campaign, and the results were similar to the results of the Death Race protests. "These were games that most people wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole," former Electronic Games editor Arnie Katz recalled in Steven Kent's 2001 book The Ultimate History of Video Games—but the protesters "succeeded in helping it sell twice as many copies as the other adult games."
After the furor faded, Mystique went out of business.
A Generation of Shut-Ins
As technology evolved, video games gradually became associated more with the home market than with public arcades. That in turn meant a new set of anxieties: Instead of smoky dens of delinquency far from the safety of home, we had a generation of fatties who never left the house. By the early 1990s, news accounts of children neglecting exercise inevitably invoked Nintendo along with (or instead of) the TV sets that in earlier years would have shouldered the blame for our bellies.
When Sega introduced a game system in 1993 featuring more active controls—"Instead of moving your thumb to, say, throw a punch at Evander Holyfield, you'll actually throw a punch," The Milwaukee Sentinel explained—critics were so attached to the couch-potato narrative that they weren't sure players would tolerate even that much exertion. This "may be a novelty for a while," the Sentinel writer proclaimed, "but how long will today's couch potatoes want to swing their arms into space to get a figure on the screen to move?" Just a few years later, one of the country's most popular games would be Dance Dance Revolution.
Joe Lieberman Goes to War
In December 1993, Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) convened a Senate hearing on violent video games. His opening statement described some high-profile crimes—a girl abducted from a slumber party, a mass shooting on a commuter train—then declared that "violence and violent images permeate more and more aspects of our lives, and I think it's time to draw the line. I know that one place where parents want us to draw the line is with violence in video games."
As the senator slid back and forth between describing real and virtual violence, he argued that these "so-called games" lead to real crimes: "Instead of enriching a child's mind, these games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture." Lieberman and his colleagues singled out some specific releases by name. Denouncing the martial-arts title Mortal Kombat, the senator noted that the Sega version of the game featured splattered blood and decapitation; the Nintendo version did not include those elements, he conceded, but "it is still a violent game." The politicians also attacked Night Trap, a previously obscure interactive horror movie that Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) described as an "effort to trap and kill women." In fact, the aim of the game was to rescue the women, not to attack them. (After the hearings, sales of Night Trap shot up.)
The senators kept grandstanding, the witnesses from Sega and Nintendo spent more time sniping at each other than defending their medium, and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) issued a direct warning to the industry: "If you don't do something about it, we will." Kohl and Lieberman underlined the threat a few months later, introducing a bill to impose government-run ratings on the industry if game makers didn't adopt a satisfactory alternative themselves. That summer, the Entertainment Software Association duly announced a new ratings system.
The Columbine Effect
Was there ever an event that fed into as many moral panics as the 1999 mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado? Movies, music, drugs, Goths, the Internet: Each found someone willing to give it a portion of the blame for the slaughter. Naturally, video games came under attack as well.
Shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were known to play Doom and other games, and while this same fact was true of millions of boys who had never aimed a gun in their lives, many pundits tried to draw a simple cause-effect relationship between their pastime and their crime. (Making matters worse, a persistent urban legend claimed that Harris had prepared for his shooting spree by creating custom Doom levels that resembled parts of the school.) Lawmakers in several states tried to prohibit violent video games. Some schools banned game-related T-shirts.
The panic finally faded, but the aftereffects were still reverberating years later. In 2007, the Portland psychiatrist Jerald Block made the dubious suggestion that the Columbine massacre was triggered when the killers' parents cut off their game-playing privileges. Harris and Klebold "relied on the virtual world of computer games to express their rage and to spend time, and cutting them off in 1998 sent them into crisis," Block told The Denver Post.
The more recent school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, didn't provoke as big an anti-game crusade as Columbine did, but a backlash took place nonetheless. The head of the National Rifle Association denounced game makers as "a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people." Celebrity mogul Donald Trump tweeted: "Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it's creating monsters!" And Vice President Joe Biden proposed a tax on violent video games and other bloody entertainments.
The Soul-Sucking Sandbox
The fears inspired by Doom and Mortal Kombat were only a warm-up for the reaction to the Grand Theft Auto games. 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.
Prostitutes appeared too, and there was a hidden sex scene in 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In 2005, when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) proposed a law to limit kids' access to certain games, she pointed to the San Andreas sex to explain why she was sponsoring the bill. Her law, she promised, would "empower parents by making sure their kids can't walk into a store and buy a video game that has graphic, violent and pornographic content."
The series was attacked in courtrooms as well as Congress. The anti-game attorney Jack Thompson repeatedly sued the games' maker for crimes he attempted to attribute to Grand Theft Auto's influence, stopping only after he was disbarred in 2008.
How much effect did the panic have on the game's long-term fortunes? In 2013, it took just three days for sales of Grand Theft Auto V to pass $1 billion.
Before anyone worried about online role-playing games, their old-fashioned offline equivalents inspired a panic in the '80s. The criticisms often had a Christian cast—religious tracts presented the games as though they were indistinguishable from occult rituals—but there was a secular side to the scare too. The 1982 TV movie Mazes and Monsters embodied the second set of fears, with a tale of a college student losing himself in his character and confusing his fantasy with reality.
As online role-playing games became popular, the most common complaint was that they were addictive. The idea of game addiction wasn't new-in 1983, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop claimed that young arcade-goers were getting hooked, "body and soul"—but this time it felt like a revised version of the old Mazes and Monsters story. There were extraordinary reports from overseas about players who abandoned their real lives to live in their games. In 2010, a Korean couple's baby starved to death as the duo spent long stretches at an Internet cafe, raising a virtual daughter in the role-playing game Prius Online.
As details about the story emerged, it became clear that those lethally irresponsible parents hadn't been sucked helplessly into a virtual life; they had actively fled their real life, which had involved caring for a prematurely born child at a time when neither of them had a job. In other words, there was a lot more to this story than a game. But in the cyberaddiction narrative, the couple was treated not as a bizarre outlier but as a warning of the places our electronic habits could lead.
"We used to call sites like this one games," Will Saletan wrote in Slate. "But today, they're more than that. They're worlds….A game is a place where your mind takes a vacation. A world is a place where your mind moves in, sets up house, and changes its mailing address." Metaphor established, Saletan staked out the anti-tech position: "The problem is that all of us are susceptible to being drawn into other worlds, and other worlds are becoming ever more compelling. In the old days, imaginary friends had to be imagined. Now you can see and interact with them. In cyberspace, they exist. They're more alluring and less flawed than your friends in the physical world. And thanks to artificial intelligence and three-dimensional graphics, they're becoming quite lifelike….The dead baby is just another casualty of this war between the worlds."
Playing for Money
Computer games may rouse angry opposition, but people do not generally get thrown in jail for making them available—unless the game is played for money. Then the country's anti-gambling statutes enter the picture, their effect intensified by a government willing to interpret them in counterintuitive ways. Under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, the Justice Department has not merely arrested Americans; it has cited the law to pursue foreign citizens running operations in countries where Internet gambling is legal.
The rhetoric around Full Tilt Poker and similar sites has displayed the sorts of exaggeration and mythmaking that mark a moral panic. A Fox News report in 2006, for example, acknowledged that there were "no statistics on how many adolescents gamble and how many develop gambling addictions," yet claimed nonetheless that gambling "is on the rise among teens and pre-teens," a trend due partly to "an increase in accessibility because of the Internet."
A century earlier, moral scolds might have blamed the alleged increase on arcades. That institution was effectively dead by now, but we never really got away from it. Now the Internet was a vast arcade, and all those old threats were burrowing through it into the home.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Reason.