Jul 17, 2019

Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’

50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics
Adam Thierer Senior Research Fellow

I have a confession: I’m 50 years old and still completely in love with video games.

I feel silly saying that, even though I really shouldn’t. Video games are now fully intertwined with the fabric of modern life and, by this point, there have been a couple of generations of adults who, like me, have played them actively over the past few decades. Somehow, despite the seemingly endless moral panics about video games, we came out alright. But that likely will not stop some critics from finding new things to panic over.

As a child of the 1970s, I straddled the divide between the old and new worlds of gaming. I was (and remain) obsessed with board and card games, which my family played avidly. But then Atari’s home version of “Pong” landed in 1976. The console had rudimentary graphics and controls, and just one game to play, but it was a revelation. After my uncle bought Pong for my cousins, our families and neighbors would gather round his tiny 20-inch television to watch two electronic paddles and a little dot move around the screen.

Every kid in the world immediately began lobbying their parents for a Pong game of their own, but then a year later something even more magical hit the market: Atari’s 2600 gaming platform. It was followed by Mattel’s “Intellivision” and Coleco’s “ColecoVision.” The platform wars had begun, and home video games had gone mainstream.

My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, started calling my brother and me “vidiots,” which was short for “video game idiots.” My grandmother raised me and was an absolute treasure to my existence, but when it came to video games (as well as rock music), the generational tensions between us were omnipresent. She was constantly haranguing my brother and me about how we were never going to amount to much in life if we didn’t get away from those damn video games!

I used to ask her why she never gave us as much grief about playing board or card games. She thought those were mostly fine. There was just something about the electronic or more interactive nature of video games that set her and the older generation off.

And, of course, there was the violence. There is no doubt that video games contained violent themes and images that were new to the gaming experience. In the analog gaming era, violent action was left mostly to the imagination. With electronic games, it was right there for us to see in all its (very bloody) glory.

As depictions of violence in video games became more intense, parental anxiety boiled over into political activism. By the early 1990s, complaints by parent groups and politicians escalated and congressional hearings commenced. This was the Nintendo and Sega era, when games like “Mortal Kombat” and “Night Trap” were capturing attention for their violent themes.

By this time, I had moved to Washington, DC and taken a job with a think tank. I was a young researcher covering media and telecommunications policy issues, so I had both a personal and professional interest in covering video game hearings. What ensued was a media spectacle in which an endless parade of politicians and self-anointed “parent advocates” expressed their concerns about various games and the supposed lost generation of kids playing them.

The first major congressional hearing on video game violence that I attended in 1993 included then-Sen. Joe Lieberman and other lawmakers speaking with disgust and furrowed brows as they watched clips from those games. But most of us twenty-somethings in the hearing room were rolling our eyes through the entire spectacle. I distinctly remember hearing a Capitol Hill staffer that I was sitting next to whisper, “This is the greatest ad for getting a Sega Genesis ever!” Following the hearing, several friends and I went to my house and played Mortal Kombat together just for kicks.

As the decade went on and gamers began enjoying a third generation of consoles that included Playstation and XBox, the moral panic surrounding violent video games rapidly intensified. This was the era of “Doom,” “Resident Evil” and then “Grand Theft Auto.” The whole world went mad.

Critics were writing books with titles like Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill and referring to video games as “murder simulators.” Every TV news outlet was running some sort of hair-raising report about how America’s youth were doomed for a life of depravity due to video games. By 2006, Sen. Lieberman and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton were floating the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” to create a federal enforcement regime for video games ratings and sales. Court battles ensued over the constitutionality of restrictions on video game sales.

During this push for video game censorship, I wrote many essays, papers, and even contributed to court filings in which I poured over the evidence—or rather the lack thereof—for what we might think of as the “monkey see-monkey do” theory of human behavior. Put simply, there has never been any conclusive scientific evidence correlating video game exposure and real-world acts of violence. If this theory held any water, at some point it should have shown up in crime statistics either here or abroad. But it hasn’t.

In fact, over the past two decades, the US population has grown from 270 million in 1998 to 325 million today, and video games have grown in popularity over that same period. At the same time, according to FBI data, overall violent crime has fallen by almost 19 percent, and for adolescents ages 12 to 20, every class of crime plummeted over the same period.

To be sure, video games—violent or otherwise—can give rise to some problems worth worrying about. Addiction is a real concern, and not just for juveniles. Again, I’m an old man, but I still play far too many games on my phone when I could be doing other things. That’s not technically addiction, but it sure feels like it sometimes. When our kids, or even some adults, go overboard with game time, they need strategies to find a better balance. That has always been a legitimate issue deserving attention.

But the people and politicians who engaged in panics and proselytizing about the supposed evils of video games went much too far. What they failed to realize—as almost all cultural critics have mistakenly done throughout history—is that humans are more sensible and resilient than they assume. We can muddle through and find a reasonable balance.

Indeed, a great many first and second generation gamers are now raising kids and actively gaming with them. My teenage son and I play multiple games together and are part of many different leagues and teams. On our phones, we play “Boom Beach” and other games together, often with groups of other father and son gamers. At home, we love to play “Star Wars: Battlefront” and we are absolutely infatuated with the alien bug-killing “Earth Defense Force” games.

A few years back, my son and I got so good at the game “Toy Soldiers: Cold War” that we were briefly ranked in the top 15 globally. We also play a lot of board games together. I now include him in monthly poker nights at my house, where he has become quite the card shark, regularly depriving many of my adult friends of their money.

My strategy with my son and gaming activity has been simple: stay involved, be open-minded, and set reasonable limits. Oh sure, there are games he plays that I find silly and worthless. But I try to talk to him about all of them and get a better understanding of what they are about. And I encourage him—not always successfully—to get off the couch and go outside to get plenty of outdoor playtime in, too.

While heavy-handed regulatory efforts have been beaten back, we can expect moral panics to continue as video games become even more interactive and immersive. We aging gamers should be willing to hear out concerns about those new gaming themes and capabilities and consider reasonable responses.

If we have learned anything from the first half century of video game history, it is that over-reaction is never the right response. Whether you are a parent or a politician, try to be patient and willing to talk to kids in an open and understanding fashion about things you might not appreciate at first.

Now please excuse me while my son and I get back to killing some alien bugs and saving the Earth once more!

Photo credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images

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