A Major Qualifying Project Report
submitted to the Faculty
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Bachelor of Science
Kenneth A. Gagne
Professor John O. Trimbur, Main Advisor
- Moral Panics
- Video Games
Professor Lisa T. Lebduska, Co-Advisor
Moral panics occur when media and society link youth culture to juvenile delinquency, as video games were to the 1999 Columbine shootings. In all moral panics, patterns emerge of how the media chooses to portray what society finds threatening, and what the panics mean in a larger societal context. This paper analyzes video games as a modern moral panic by examining rock 'n roll, comic books, and Dungeons and Dragons as historical moral panics.
This project would not have been possible without the help of many people:
Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, aliases Gabriel and Tycho Brahe, for Penny Arcade and their permission to include their work in this project.
Scott McCloud and Steven L. Kent, authors of some of the referenced material, who were available to answer my questions and provide sources for additional material.
Neil Beardsley, Madeline Molis, Jurg Zwahlen, and Lisa Lanzillotti, for providing unique perspectives on familiar topics.
Ron Luks, Mike Schoenbach, and Jen Kuiper of Video Gaming Central, for getting me online.
Larry Tipton, who provided me with the time necessary to complete this project.
Rupert (Robert) Lissner, Randy Brandt, Alan Bird, and Henrik Gudat, for the means by which to complete this project.
Eric Shepherd and Brian Carbonneau, for incentives to complete the project.
Bruce Phillips, who gave me a chance at a new way of writing, and let me stay there, when no one else would let me in the door.
Video gamers, rock 'n rollers, comic book readers, and role-players everywhere, throughout the ages.
Table of Contents
1.0 Introduction to Moral Panics
Several decades of the past century have been marked by forms of entertainment that were not available to the previous generation. The comic books of the Forties and Fifties, rock 'n roll music of the Fifties, Dungeons & Dragons in the Seventies and Eighties, and video games of the Eighties and Nineties were each part of the popular culture of that era's young people. Each of these entertainment forms, which is each a medium unto itself, have also fallen under public scrutiny, as witnessed in journalistic media such as newspapers and journals – thus creating a "moral panic."
Moral panic, a term coined by Stanley Cohen, is a central theme to this paper. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex (Britain) in the 1960's, explored moral panic as a means to explain the societal reaction to that era's phenomenon of Mods and Rockers. In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen looks at this phenomenon and how the public and media perceived and responded to its aspects. He defines a moral panic as follows:
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible (Cohen 9).
Thus, a moral panic is the process in which individuals receive a group stereotype they did not have before, being described with blanket statements and exaggerated reports. Leaders in the community address the group from a supposed moral high ground, "treating" the panic with solutions that more often than not reinforce the stereotype and fail to produce any real resolution. Eventually the stereotype fades of its own volition, to be replaced in a few years by another moral panic, perhaps when the original entertainment form and the response to it change, creating a panic that is a variation on the original.
A moral panic is a panic over what is seen as deviant. The subject of the panic is usually not a suddenly new phenomenon, but something which has been in existence for many years, and suddenly comes to society's and the media's attention. In this sense, Cohen explains, deviancy and deviants are created by society. He does not suggest that a society's structure leaves an individual no choice but to turn to deviancy; rather, the action seen as deviant, and the people who engage in it, existed before society applied such labels, and become "deviant" only due to those labels.
Throughout the ages, media and society have been concerned over children, the next generation, are doing, or what is being done to them. Moral panics often occur when the desire to protect them and ourselves is expressed.
In 1999, the nation was shocked by a school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Not only were several students murdered, but two of their classmates were sufficiently depraved to have executed the event. The reality that so much harm could be generated by, and inflicted on, high school students was alarming to a society which values the lives of children.
There had already been some publicity over the amount of violence in video games. When the media emphasized that the Columbine shooters played these games, and society luminaries drew connections between the nature of the shootings and the games, people became more worried than ever about what video games were doing to kids, and what the kids would do as a result. This new technology had become a new threat.
Moral panics have happened throughout the years, though; video games were merely the latest form to feed society's concerns about their children. Though each moral panic plays out in unique ways with different origins and repercussions, they often have similar characteristics, not only in Cohen's definition of the term "moral panic," but also in what society and the media find alarming about the entertainment forms being panicked about.
I have a personal interest in the moral panics examined in this paper. Home computers and I grew up together, and I was weaned on Atari video games. As a child, my mother would take me to the local library where I borrowed every book I could about werewolves, vampires, and other gothic horror figures. My father bought me fantasy novels and let me spend my meager savings on Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks; I didn't play the game, but the rules and setting fascinated me. My favorite computer and video games were those in fantastic, D&D-type settings. In high school, my interest in science fiction and Star Trek led me to join the ranks of comic book enthusiasts.
All these leisure time activities became active parts of my life in the Nineties, when video games were constantly under attack. It concerned me that the media were suggesting that video games, which I enjoyed so much, could lead kids to anything from poor eyesight to murder. I'd perceived stigmas attached to my other hobbies, and as I did research, I learned that each one had gone through periods of "trial by fire" much as video games have been recently. The stigmas associated with the activities today were the remnants of earlier moral panics.
These personal interests have also become my professional interests. As a journalist, I cover the video game scene from many perspectives. I have interviewed people along the entire line of electronic entertainment, from developer to publisher to retailer to consumer. I've seen what video games are and can be, whether it's as simple as a hobby or as significant as a social status symbol, a means of self-expression, an advancement in technology, or a economic industry. Whereas most journalists write about what other people do, I write about something I do, and have been doing for decades.
Few other journalists are willing to approach these topics from the perspective of a participant, preferring instead to being outsiders to the events, distancing themselves from whatever is being attacked in that era. Such reservation is often to the detriment of their coverage, which lacks the knowledge of an informed insider. It prevents a journalist's readers from experiencing whatever is being panicked about in the context in which young adults are experiencing it. Journalists who report on a culture of which they are not a part are likely to make assumptions or present inaccurate data.
Though being an insider has led me to examine these activities as moral panics with an insider's knowledge, I have attempted to do so from a neutral perspective. Knowledge about the workings, appeal, and context of the entertainment forms has helped to identify trends not only in what is likely to be the subject of a moral panic, but how the moral panic develops around that item. There have been many instances to which Cohen's term and cycle can refer.
The term "moral panic" has been applied to various phenomena throughout the decades, ranging from teenagers' forms of entertainment to societal issues such as fetal alcohol syndrome. Moral panics have represented issues of varying seriousness and repercussions, and they occur again and again throughout history. Any "new" moral panic is just the latest instance of "nameless folk devils… be[ing] created. This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society… will continue to generate problems for some of its members – like working-class adolescents – and then condemn whatever solution these groups find" (Cohen i).
Cohen's term was first applied to the Mods and Rockers of 1960's England. Unlike the Sharks and Jets of "West Side Story", the Mods and Rockers were not gangs. They lacked the organization and violence commonly associated with gangs. Rather, they were teenagers who were categorized by certain characteristics, such as their dress or attitudes. The two groups had much in common, and no intense rivalry existed as often does between opposing gangs.
The groups' characterizations became stronger after incidents at Brighton on one poor weather Bank Holiday in 1964. Large crowds of teenagers were at Brighton that weekend, and rabble-rousing ensued: noise was made, some shop windows were broken, and other products of teenage exuberance could be seen and heard. The following Monday's newspapers carried headlines such as "Day of Terror by Scooter Groups" (Daily Telegraph), "West Side Story on English Coast", and "Wild Ones Invade Seaside – 97 Arrests" (Daily Mirror) (Cohen 30).
Though Mods and Rockers had been a part of Britain for years, the Brighton "sieges" were the first time they became headline news. As Cohen wrote, "the Mods and Rockers didn't become news because they were new; they were presented as new to justify their creation as news" (Cohen 46). The media could not pass off the day-to-day occurrences of Mods and Rockers as news, as these groups had already been around for years; old news does not sell. Therefore, the media had to create a new scenario in which to report on the Mods and Rockers, and present the public with a new face for the latest deviants.
Cohen analyzes the media's treatment of the incident under three headings: exaggeration and distortion; prediction; and symbolization.
Exaggeration and distortion occur when facts are omitted or misconstrued to portray an event as worse than it really was. An article's vocabulary can reflect exaggeration, such as calling a few broken shop windows an "orgy of destruction". In the case of the weekend at Brighton, Cohen defines ten methods of exaggeration (Cohen 34). These instances include referring to the Mods and Rockers as "gangs", and overestimating the dollar value of the damage they supposedly caused, or blaming them, and not the weather, for the poor turnout of families on vacation.
Prediction is the assumption that the event being reported on will happen again. The assumptions can be implied in current reports ("we will be ready next time"), before the next expected occurrence ("we're ready for whatever this weekend brings"), or even during or after unfulfilled predictions, by reporting non-events, when nothing happens. For example, the Evening Argus (30 May 1966) reported the next holiday "in Brighton there was no violence in spite of the crowds of teenagers on the beach" (Cohen 39).
Yet while the press was promoting beliefs that the deviants were violent youths sure to strike again, the public wasn't so sure. The majority of the people surveyed in Brighton were annoyed or puzzled by the weekend's events; only 38.4% thought it was a phenomenon that would inevitably continue (Cohen 66-67).
Symbolization is the inferring of neutral terms and names with emotional symbolism. By describing Mods or Rockers as wearing certain clothing or hair styles, such characteristics become symbolic of those groups, and group labels can be used to describe people who fit those characteristics, in which anyone wearing a "mod jacket" becomes a Mod. Through similar symbolization, the Edwardian dress style became associated with the Teddy Boy folk devil, and Zoot Suits because the focus point of 1943 riots in Los Angeles (Cohen 40-41). After the reports came the public's reaction, in which "people talk less about the event itself and more about the implications of it" (Cohen 49).
Cohen also categorizes the societal opinions that formed as a result of these images in three ways: orientation, images, and causation.
The orientation, or standpoint from which the deviance is evaluated, can take many forms. One popular model is that of a disaster, treating the deviance as some natural catastrophe. The following report, made by David James, M.P. for Brighton Kemptown, exemplifies this tendency:
I was not in Brighton during the weekend to which references have been made, but I arrived there later to find a sense of horror and outrage felt by the people who live there. It was almost as if one had been to a city which, at least emotionally, had been recently hit by an earthquake and as if all the conventions and values of life had been completely flouted. This was deeply felt (Cohen 52).
(By changing just a few words, this paragraph could be used in relation to many other events, such as Columbine.)
Inherent in the disaster theme is likening the responsible party to a force of nature, capable of striking at anytime, causing property damage and threatening the lives of the town's inhabitants.
Cohen offers several other orientation themes. The "Prophecy of Doom" theme suggests that the next such occasion will be worst than the former, which may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The "It's Not So Much What Happened" theme also focuses on what happened, but more on what could have happened, or what it could lead to. If a few kids are acting out of line today, how long before they incite mass rallies and mob rule?
"It's Not Only This" associates what happened with other, possibly unrelated ailments of youth. Mods and Rockers, rock 'n rollers, or role-players are representative of an entire generation lacking morals, though not all are acknowledged as participating in the deviancy.
The second reaction category is images. The Brighton teenagers were often given images they had not earned as immature, inarticulate, unwashed misfits (Cohen 56), images often applied to all teenagers at Brighton that weekend regardless of their participation in the rowdiness, earning them guilt by association.
An important image in moral panics is that which distinguishes the enemy from the public by overemphasizing differences. By focusing on the enemy instead of oneself, this tendency helps to deflect the thought that deviancy may be the product of society itself. It is especially important to do so, since deviants and those that deem them such often have much in common which may cause the concept of deviancy to evaporate.
The third and final societal reaction theme is causation. Deviancy is seen as a sign of the times, suggesting that the deviancy is caused by societal issues, not psychological. This "societal mirror" may be contradictory to the "divide and conquer" theme of giving deviants an image that separates them from society. But when an entire generation falls into depravity, it is possible to separate them from the current generation of upright leaders while still suggesting that society, or at least the next generation of it, is responsible for this deviance.
Causation leads to solutions which do not strive to cure the individual, but prevent the problem on a wider scale. The deviancy is also compared with a disease (again, often of a social nature): not only will things get worse, but more people will become involved (delinquent) as the disease spreads. Causation also took the form of cabalism, or the belief that deviants form organized groups which act in premeditated, conspiratorial fashion, and never alone.
Other phenomenon can be described by the term "moral panic." InMoral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, Philip Jenkins shows how public reaction to adults who engage in sexual acts with minors has changed over the years. His book shows that a quarter of a century ago, sexual offenders were seen as rare and confused individuals unlikely to repeat their crimes, whereas today, sexual offenders are perceived as predators, repeat offenders, and incurable.
The terminology used to describe these offenders has also changed, both in vocabulary and connotation. Lacking a proper term for offenses involving teenagers, the term "pedophile," which involves a child of age thirteen years or younger, has taken the responsibility of describing all sexual offenders. In fact, neutral terms introduced by experts often take on pejorative connotations as they enter general discourse and mass media (Jenkins 8). Other, inappropriate terms are often adapted to the panic to create more vivid and vicious imagery. The term "predator," normally meant to describe an animal that hunts and eats other animals for survival, has become synonymous with "serial molester." "Sexual predator," a term unknown to newspapers in 1985 and 1986, appeared in print 924 times in 1995 (Jenkins 195).
In 1992, the ABC show Compass broadcast "The Ultimate Betrayal: Sexual Violence in the Church," reporting on the "pedophile priest" James Porter. In 1993, Stephen Cook testified to be sexually victimized by a priest in the 1970's. After these charges received national publicity, Cook withdrew them, stating his memories were distorted (Jenkins 184). Television shows, movies, and books featuring sexual predators, a disproportionate number of them priests, appeared on the market, sensationalizing the few scandals that existed.
Jenkins' other examples of the "sexual predator" moral panic focus on television presentations, and do not focus much on society's reaction to the crisis.
On a related matter, Julia Wilkins describes in an article in The Humanist how "cyberporn" was another moral panic of the Nineties, created primarily by Time magazine's June 1995 cover article "On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn". Wilkins' article distills Cohen's theory into three main media tools that contribute to the generation of a moral panic: exaggeration in reporting; the repetition of fallacies; and misleading pictures and snappy titles. All three of these functions can be seen in the Time article.
The Time article exaggerated when it reported that 83.5% of Internet material is pornographic in nature. Shortly after this statistic became well-publicized, Time recanted, stating the actual figure was less than 1%.
Many cyberporn articles suggested the fallacy that it was very simple for any Internet user to find and access cyberporn. Those who engaged in such searches would usually find it took time, effort, and, more often than not, a credit card – something even less easily accessibly by kids.
Sensationalist photographs included a naked man hunched over a computer, furthering the fear that "sexual predators" are online, hunting for our children.
Wilkins' summary is as follows:
Through sensationalized reporting, certain forms of behavior become classified as deviant. Specifically, those who put pornography online or those who download it are seen as being deviant in nature. This style of reporting benefits the publication or broadcast by giving it the aura of "moral guardian" to the rest of society. It also increases revenue (Wilkins 4).
Other moral panics can be seen retroactively, as existing before Cohen defined the term in the Sixties. In the 1920's, the city of Cleveland charged the press with an increase in crime reporting disproportionate to the actual increase in crime, creating a public scare (Frankfurter).
The creation of a moral panic involves the press in many important ways.
In the Mods and Rockers situation, Cohen lists seven functions of the mass media: they publicized the events; led teenagers to engage in activity for the sake of publicity; spread a hostile belief, causing the participants to mobilize for action; defined expectations for deviant behavior; magnified the groups involved, providing them with greater structure; and polarized the deviants further against the community (Cohen 175-176).
The media played a crucial role in defining who the Mods and Rockers were. As stated earlier, prior to the Brighton incident, each group was loosely defined and had no quarrel with the other. By creating images for these groups and defining them as separate from the majority, the media provided the groups with a structure formerly unknown to them. Reporting one instance as being about Mods, and another about Rockers, polarized the two groups by making them out to be more different than they initially were.
The press led teenagers to seek publicity by showing that deviant acts would receive wide coverage. "There is a tendency for the participant in such situations to exaggerate the extent of his involvement and to look for some recognition of it" (Cohen 162). When the press encountered youth who were not engaging in such acts, they often requested the individual to perform an act that could be caught on film, such as kicking over a phone box or simply waving for the camera.
Yet media often have farther-reaching effects than a reporter on the scene inviting a delinquent to perform some act. The act of reporting an event or behavior can cause the reported item to become more widespread. This process applies not only to fashions and fads, but also deviance. In his study "Popular TV and Schoolchildren", media educationalist David Lusted outlines three themes cited in moral panics: the likeliness that youngsters will copycat behavior to which they are exposed; the squandering of youthful potential on anesthetics; and, combining the former two, that sex and violence will become the subject of desensitization and imitation (Lusted). These fears, especially that of copying the subjects of the media's reports, can be seen not only in media such as journalism, but also in the media which journalism often blames as leading to delinquency.
A 1963 report of a Vietnamese monk's suicide by self-immolation may've led to nine other instances the following year in England, where this form of suicide was previously unheard of (Cohen 163). The 1995 movie "Money Train" featured a scene in which a subway tollbooth attendant is doused with inflammable liquid and ignited; similar real-life incidents were spotted days after the movie's release, and connected to the cinematic origin. (Daily Telegraph, 21 Sep 1996)
Whether or not these small-scale incidents were moral panics could be argued. Both forms of immolation existed before the newspaper and movie brought them to a wider audience; the media did not create them. And if a movie can be linked to a subsequent real-life incident, it is possible the newspaper reporting this link may play the same role the movie did.
In her book Crack Mothers, Drew Humphrey makes an unusual distinction between two kinds of moral panics: what she considers real threats (those that can be verified) and imagined or perceived threats. The instances she cites of perceived threats were those deliberately manufactured by the press or other organizations to achieve a specific goal. For example, by using a looser definition of "gangs," the Phoenix police department increased the number of gangs, qualifying the force for anti-drug grants.
It is not always so easy to distinguish between perceived and real threats. A perceived threat is often not the product of a government's legalistic maneuverings, but rather the media's engagement in hyperbole – and not all stories are exaggerated. So is the increase in gangs a result of a change in terms, a newspaper's exaggeration, or a real increase in gang numbers? How does one find out?
Yet in Moral Panic, Jenkins suggests that the word "panic" "implies not only fear but fear that is wildly exaggerated and wrongly directed" (Jenkins 6-7). He seems to ignore the possibility there are "real" moral panics, and that the term applies only to instances of deviancy overplayed in the media.
As is, neither Jenkins' nor Humphries' definitions of moral panics are suitable to this paper. One implies that a moral panic can be justified; the other assumes all moral panics are overblown and wrongly directed. These definitions look at the cause of the moral panic.
Moral panics are about more than just stereotyping. Labelling "them" and "us" is not the ultimate goal of a society and media engaged in a moral panic. Moral panics are an important process the media and society undergo, a process which makes statements about the nature of that society and the time period in which it exists. Rock 'n roll would not incite the same kind of moral panic, if any, in any other decade as it did in the Fifties. A moral panic is unique to the society, era, and entertainment form it encompasses. By examining a moral panic and its causes and effects, a society's values and fears, and other aspects of cultural identity, are revealed.
I do not believe there is an objective reality with which one can get in touch to determine whether a moral panic is justified or not. This paper's aim is not to peel back decades of moral panics and label some "real" and others "imagined." Regardless of the cause of moral panics, the media's portrayal of the subject and their tendency to exaggerate, and society's reaction to the panic, are what is of interest here, and that is what shall be examined.
Therefore, the aspects of moral panic to be examined will not be the "true" cause or nature of the panic or deviancy, but more how the subject is represented in the media. The media must especially be the focus of any journalistic study on video games, as it does not fall within this paper's domain to determine if video games are a real or imagined moral panic. Determining if video games truly are "breeding a generation of natural-born killers" is not a simple cause-and-effect to be discovered as easily as calling a hotel clerk and asking if the Mods and Rockers really caused as much monetary damage as the paper reported. There are people who play video games without becoming violent, and violent people who do not play video games; the two do coincide, yet not necessarily coincidentally. Proving with any definiteness a link between video games and juvenile (or otherwise) delinquency would be a project in psychology, not journalism or moral panics, and thus falls beyond the scope of this project.
Within the scope of this project are several notable moral panics from the last half a century. Unlike Cohen's Mods and Rockers, which was aimed at the effects of young people's actions, the moral panics I examine are aimed at American popular culture and their effects on young people and their actions. The first panic to be examined is rock 'n roll, a style of music which suggested something not dangerous by today's standards, but certainly something different and threatening in the era of the Fifties in which it appeared. The next two topics will be Dungeons and Dragons, and comic books, which allow their audience to escape into fantasy worlds. These three past panics will lead to the final chapter, and current panic over video games.
2.0 Historical Moral Panics
Video games may be the newest moral panic, but they have as company many entertainment forms that have been enjoyed by the youth of the twentieth century. Each facet of youth culture was interpreted as threatening the values of the era in which it appeared. This chapter takes a chronological look at how Cohen's term can be applied to comic books, rock 'n roll music, and Dungeons and Dragons. The moral panics are interpreted by what threats they presented and how they were portrayed in the media.
2.1. Comic Books
Comic books was the object of one of the first post-war moral panics. Stand-alone comic books first appeared in 1934, having evolved from newspaper comic strips which were first printed in 1894. Without the context of journalistic news, comic books lacked the adult and sophisticated atmosphere of newspapers, and became associated with a juvenile audience.
Many pre-war comics featured "superheroes," a term not coined until several years after the appearance of Superman. Other comics were of the "funny animal" type, such as "Sylvester and Tweety" or "Donald Duck." These early comic works were neither serious nor daring, and often aimed at younger, uneducated readers. When, in a 1940 interview with the Baltimore Sun, artist Will Eisner suggested that comics were a valid literary and artistic form, disbelief was the response. Even in the 1950's, mature themes, such as war, were treated in a sensationalist format and style appropriate to that audience (McCloud, Reinventing 27).
By the end of World War II, readers had lost interest in the superheroes prevalent among the pages of comic books. To attract more readers, the comics industry began producing crime and horror comics to thrill and scare their readers. "Crime comics" detailed the stories of criminals and their exploits, trading the fantastic, fictional worlds of superheroes for more realistic settings. Crime comics usually carried a disclaimer on their front cover: "This magazine is dedicated to the prevention of crime. We hope that within its pages the youth of America will learn to know crime for what it really is: a sad, black, dead-end road of fools and tears."
Comic books received little attention during World War II. The war disrupted family life, as fathers went to war and mothers went to work to support the family. Kids, as they often do, sought ways at home to emulate the life of their parents. Superheroes and funny animals were too unrealistic, failing to match their readers' environment.
Crime and horror comics filled a desire by that era's youth to experience some of the excitement they imagined was part of World War II, and in which their fathers were engaged. War-based commercialism was rampant as kids were encouraged to collect fighter squadron pins and other paraphernalia. To kids, the war was represented as a dangerous and, by extension, exciting affair. Crime comics allowed them to experience some of that excitement at home in a way that the superhero and "funny animal" genres did not.
These comics represented several values that a society engaged in or recovering from a war found threatening. During the war, the entire nation participated in the war effort. Fathers went to war, mothers went to work, fuel and scrap metal were conserved. Everyone found a way to contribute to as swift and painless a victory as possible. In this context, comic books were seen as non-contributory. They taught children nothing useful, and were often perceived as contributing to crime. With an entire country engaged in a war effort, anything that precluded an entire generation from advancing the effort was sure to be frowned upon.
After the war, the attitude toward comics shifted to one that perceived them as contributing to the problem of crime on American soil. Some moral leaders accused comic books of promoting racist beliefs, which is exactly what America had just come back from war against. An upright generation of young soldiers had given all they had to make the world as safe a place as the United States. Comic books not only provided the next generation with a means of escape from that world, but they were also perceived as promoting criminal values that did not agree with the image the country had created for itself – an image of moral righteousness.
Comic books provided these values through several attributes which involve the reader. The cartoon quality of comic art allows the artist to emphasize concepts of the story, instead of the specific people or places drawn to tell the story. This is in part possible because of the non-specific quality of comic art; readers are more likely to associate with a drawing, and assume the identity, of a generic person than they are a specific one. Comics often feature these generic characters in detailed backgrounds, allowing readers to insert themselves into the fantastic world in which the character stands. Also, comics are sequential art that show the passage of time, depicted between the frames of a comic. It is the reader's imagination that fills in the gap. As McCloud put it, "Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice: an equal partner in crime known as the reader" (McCloud, Understanding 30-31, 42-43, 68).
Less abstractly, society was concerned with the environment and lessons contained within comic books. Crime comics often portrayed scenarios which glamorized crime. Regardless of whether the comic crime's consequences were realistic, comic books suggested that crime was exciting, which cast crime in a more favorable light than society would prefer. When juveniles were found committing crimes, media and society often blamed the comic books found in their possession.
Even those comics with fantastical elements were set in realistic settings, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Superman comics, for example, featured a hero who used his unworldly strength and abilities to stop everyday criminals. Parents and psychologists felt the presentation of a superhero performing the police's job undermined their authority. Additionally, several small children supposedly hurt themselves attempting to duplicate the hero's impossible feats.
The form of the comic book moral panic, as with many moral panics, changed form over the years. In the Thirties and Forties, comics were decried as luring children away from more appropriate reading material. Comics blend both art and words to tell a story, yet readers are often expected to graduate to books with more text and fewer graphics, and then to books with no pictures, as the readers mature (McCloud, Understanding 140).
Various groups produced organized efforts to remove comic books from store shelves and magazine racks. The Catholic Church formed the National Organization for Decent Literature, formed in 1938, began evaluating comic books in 1947. Retailers whose inventory met their evaluation criteria received a certificate of approval. The NODL's list of approved literature was often used by police in searching for legally obscene material (Nyberg 23-26).
The Committee on Evaluation of Comic Books in Cincinnati, founded in 1948, was another such group. The CECBC consisted of mothers, teachers, juvenile court workers, librarians, clergymen, and businessmen who reviewed comic book publications by various standards, including "morally objectionable" comics which glamorized crime, had sexual implications, glorified drug use, or depicted authority in a demeaning manner. Lists of objectionable comics were published annually in Parents Magazine (Nyberg 29-30).
The change in post-war comic book genres was accompanied in 1948 by articles printed by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, who worked primarily with juvenile delinquents. In his studies, Wertham came to the conclusion that crime and horror comics were one aspect of a social environment that was damaging to our children. Comics began to be scrutinized not just for absorbing children's time, but also for what their content was teaching children.
In 1954, Wertham collected his articles and published Seduction of the Innocent which addressed the "atmosphere of crime comic books… unparalleled in the history of children's literature of any time or any nation" (Wertham 94). He called comics a "virus", much as the Mods and Rockers were compared to a disease: not only would things get worse, but more people would become involved (delinquent) as the disease spread.
Wertham was critical of crime comics, which he loosely defined as "comic books that depict crime" (Wertham 20). 15% – 20% of comics were normally considered of the crime variety, but many more fell under Wertham's broad definition. Though Wertham often criticized comics which focuses on the villains and made their lives appear glamorous, he was equally critical of Superman comics, which traditionally focus on an extraterrestrial crime fighter, whose enemies were too fantastic to warrant copycatting. It made no difference to Wertham "'whether the locale was western, or Superman or space ship or horror, if a girl is raped she is raped whether it is in a space ship or on the prairie'" (Nyberg 60).
In his book, Wertham proposed that mass culture has led children to imitate the criminal acts featured and glorified in comic books. Also, the culture's influence over children was stronger than the ties of social, cultural, and moral order (Gilbert 9). He demonstrated this belief by listing several case histories of juveniles carrying out criminal acts of violence and thievery. This qualitative data, however, lacked context: focused on the tendency of kids who read comics to become delinquent, the histories did not offer any other facts regarding the youths' backgrounds, activities, delinquencies, etc. (Wertham 150-153, 231-232).
Comics were not the sole suspected cause of juvenile delinquency. Many people acknowledged that comic books could be only one factor in juvenile delinquency, and that a person's background and emotional stability were other prime factors. Reversely, Wertham believed that "it is primarily the 'normal' child upon whom the comics have their greatest detrimental effects, and thus it is this type of individual who is 'tempted' and 'seduced' into imitating the crime portrayed in the story" (Senate Report, Section IV).
But perhaps most interesting is Wertham's definition of juvenile delinquency: "all… thoughts, actions, desires and strivings which deviate from moral and ethical principals" (Wertham 5). Wertham does not define delinquency as a law-breaking matter, or one which produces harm for either the self or other individuals, but as that which strays from the norm. Such a definition implies that delinquency is specific in nature to the age in which it occurs, since moral and ethical principals are constantly changing. Wertham himself states that "in a society like our own… ethical norms are undergoing great changes" (Wertham 92). Wertham is not suggesting that the rise in juvenile delinquency is reflected by a change in the society's ethical norms; if that were the case, then their actions would no longer be considered delinquent. Wertham makes a few attempts at suggesting how civilized people should act, such as "boys shouldn't hit smaller boys," but generally does not define what he sees as the day's "moral and ethical principals" which crime comics encourage youth to violate.
Wertham criticized comic book content partly due to what it was teaching its readers. Crime comics were often accused as being instructional; the detail they provided of crimes could show a juvenile the steps involved in going about performing delinquent acts. Wertham described this as "anti-educational", in that what children had to learn from these books was harmful. By itself, the term "anti-educational" would imply that one learns less, or forgets knowledge, with "non-educational" being that which teaches nothing, and "educational" producing an increase in knowledge. But by placing a value on the knowledge which comic books conveyed, Wertham decreed them anti-educational.
To demonstrate the lessons comic books had to offer, Wertham included inSeduction of the Innocent a selection of comics panels and covers (see Appendix A). Each sample was not only sensationalist, but also removed from the context of the comic book in which it originally appeared. If comic books tell tales of crime with the intent of portraying it as a "sad, black, dead-end road of fools and tears," then Wertham's gallery made that moral difficult to discern.
Wertham's credentials lent credibility to his claims. Among his peers, Wertham was "generally accepted by psychologists as a man whose opinions are worthy of a great deal of attention" (Gilbert 146). His credibility as a doctor gave weight to his work against comic books, contributing to a firestorm of anti-comics hysteria that included burning books in the street (McCloudReinventing 86). One mother wrote to Dr. Wertham to express her concert about a situation "as serious as an invasion of the enemy in wartime, with as far reaching consequences as the atom bomb. If we cannot stop wicked men who are poisoning our children's minds, what chance is there for mankind to survive…?" (Gilbert 105).
Much of Wertham's book focused on the crime comics of the era. By doing so, he chose a visible and specific attribute of youth culture which society could blame for juvenile delinquency. Wertham brought focus to general fears about the mass media that had been existent for the past decade. Other changes in juvenile behavior also had society concerned. Since World War II, more adolescents drove cars, married early, and initiated sexual relations at an earlier age (Gilbert 17). Easily-accessible literature detailing racist and criminal behavior were equally disturbing. Thus, comic books were seen as a "sign of the times," a controllable representation of an ever-changing generation.
Not everyone agreed with Wertham's studies. In 1950, the Senate sent a survey to judges, psychiatrists, social workers, and cartoonists, inquiring about their opinion of a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Only 30% reported believing that such a link existed. The survey results were issued quietly (Nyberg 54).
Despite this difference of opinion, few people or publishers were willing to stand up in defense of comics. Drama critic John Mason Brown provided a quote that was used often in the battle against comics: that comics were "the marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house; the curse of the kids; and a threat to the future" (Nyberg 31). Given the accusation that crimes were leading children astray, anyone in defense of comic books would appear unconcerned with the welfare of the next generation.
The publication of Wertham's book fed parents' concern with the effect of mass media on their children. A vast amount of mail received by the Senate prompted them to produce an interim report on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency. The report focused on comics that were of the horror or crime genre, which were reported to
offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror… [and] provide a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable (Senate Report, Section III).
The Senate joined Wertham in his beliefs; the subcommittee's report indicated that comic books could be a "force for evil":
The child today in the process of growing up is constantly exposed to sights and sounds of a kind and quality undreamed of in previous generations. As these sights and sounds can be a powerful force for good, so too can they be a powerful counterpoise working evil. Their very quantity makes them a factor to be reckoned with in determining the total climate encountered by today's children during their formative years (Senate Report, Section I).
The debate did not always seem to be over a link between horror comics and juvenile delinquency, but what the Senate subcommittee and society in general considered "good taste," as seen in the following heated exchange:
Kefauver: "Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"
Gaines: "Yes, sir: I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody" (Gilbert 151).
In the above transcript, horror comics were not linked to juvenile delinquency. Such a suggestion in this context would likely have been impossible to support; it would strain credulity to suggest that a reader of the comic would get the notion to behead someone. The debate becomes, then, an issue of what Kefauver called "good taste." The comic cover in question was a departure from the norm for that era, as was the changing behavior of adolescents.
Was Kefauver concerned that comic books promoted juvenile delinquency, or that they were in bad taste? Most likely it was exceptions to both feeding each other. Post-war America had recently engaged in a very real war against a country performing unspeakable acts. Considering that background, Americans were likely to be more sensitive to violence, murder, and crime in their own backyard. If anything threatened the American sensibilities or work ethic – especially if the threat came from youth culture and was aimed at the generation for which the world had just been made safe – that threat would likely be attacked on many fronts as media and society continued a different kind of war at home.
Though the Senate subcommittee did not propose censorship, damage had been done. Wertham's attacks and public outcry led the comic book industry to experience a lack of support from newsstands which refused to carry the medium associated with crime, horror, and juvenile delinquency. The comics industry agreed to a self-imposed, strict code of ethics called the Comics Code Authority, to which every comic book and publisher would be subjected. The code removed all depictions of "sex, gore, and sadistic behavior… challenges to established authority, the unique details of any crime, any hints of 'illicit relations' or the condoning of divorce, any references to physical deformities or afflictions, and any allusions to 'sexual perversions' of any kind" (McCloud, Reinventing 87). Comics became "harmless fun" aimed at young children, abandoning any attempts to produce mature products for an older audience. E.C. Comics, a popular publisher of "challenging stories and bold innovative artwork" (McCloud,Reinventing 88), was unable to survive under these stringent requirements, and soon closed their doors. The Comics Code Authority was extremely limiting to the comics medium and industry, but it resolved much of what had been found objectionable about the comics. The list of what topics comics could no longer depict was almost the same as what attributes caused a comic to be placed on the CECBC's list of objectionable titles.
The Code did not change comic books' image as a juvenile medium; if anything, it enhanced it. Though comic books had almost always presented adult content in a fashion suitable for a younger audience, the CCA now made it nearly impossible for such issues to even be discussed. Issues of race, for example, could not be depicted without being called racist. The harmless entertainment that comics became as a result of the CCA were incapable of presenting topics suitable for anyone but children – an audience with whom comic books are still commonly associated to this day.
At almost the same time that the comic book moral panic was quelled, another threat to America's youth would soon be created. This new facet of youth culture would show that escape and endangered values could take a very different form.
2.2 Rock 'n Roll
Shortly after the comic books moral panic, rock 'n roll arrived as a new moral panic, in the form of Elvis Presley. Both Presley and his music represented threats to American values of the time, as other styles of music would do in other years.
A unique combination of music and artist fed the rock 'n roll moral panic. Presley's songs were typical of the music produced by black performers of the time. Earlier musicians such as Pat Boone had opted to instead take black music and "whiten" it, making it acceptable to the general public. Presley retained the black style of the music, despite his own skin color. His music was often termed "rockabilly" in the way it combined rock 'n roll beat with country music sentiments; he was the first white person to popularly sing rock 'n roll music, in a style he created himself.
The three main issues against rock 'n roll were that they had too much sexuality and vulgarity; that they displayed an attitude that challenged authority; and that the singers either were or sounded like Negroes, which was the main charge in the South (Gillett 17).
Presley, himself from the South, arrived less than a century after the Civil War, when segregation and racial tensions were still rampant in the South. The Fifties and Sixties were when Blacks and Whites had their own drinking fountains and lunch counters, and schools were still segregated. Though the status quo had changed somewhat over the hundreds of years since enslavement of African-American people was introduced to America, there were still clear lines that kept the races apart.
Rock 'n roll music represented the marriage of Black and White music styles and artists in an era when such union was unheard of, or at least vastly unpopular. It threatened the societal structure that had been in place for much longer than rock 'n roll. Presley's music appealed to all audiences and represented the possibility of a unified society. While such an image could've been appealing to some, it also appeared as something that threatened the status quo. New and different ideas, whether technological or societal, are often met with distrust. The way things are is what people understand, and what people don't understand, they tend to fear, distrust, or hate. Presley had a new style of music, which represented something even greater – making it all the more susceptible to a moral panic.
As with all moral panics, community leaders manned the moral pulpits. The NAACP was accused by church leaders of organizing rock 'n roll as a plot to corrupt white youth. In later years, senators and other government officials would speak out against other forms of music.
When rock 'n roll arrived on television, it was subjected to the same moral guidelines applied to other television broadcasts. In sitcoms and other shows, married couples were never to be shown in bed together; bedrooms were furnished with separate, twin beds. The word "pregnant" was taboo. Mary Tyler Moore was originally not allowed to wear skintight capri slacks on the air. Even many years later, on shows such as "I Dream of Jeannie," women could not leave certain parts of their body, such as the navel, exposed.
"The Ed Sullivan Show" filmed Elvis Presley from the waist up, so not to expose the home audience to the musician's gyrating hips. Rock 'n roll music was thought to have too much sexuality, which was transmitted in Presley's entire presence, from his appearance to his music. Different eras have different levels of prudery, and Presley violated that level in the Fifties.
Cohen suggested that a moral panic often "disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." Music generally exhibits this cycle more clearly than almost any other moral panic, as various forms of music become wax and wane through the decades. Though an early moral panic targeted the genre of rock 'n roll, rap and heavy metal were other musical moral panics, nearly half a century later.
In 1990, the music group Judas Priest was taken to court after being implicated in the suicide of 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and attempted suicide of 20-year-old James Vance. Originally the case was based on the nature of the group's heavy metal music, in which "The suggestive lyrics [and the style of music] combined to induce, encourage, aid, abet, and otherwise mesmerize [Raymond Belknap] into believing the answer to life was death" (Soocher 157). When the First Amendment proved incontrovertible in protecting Judas Priest's choice of lyrics, the case was redefined based on evidence that the album "Stained Class" contained subliminal messages that could be heard when the album was played backward. It was predicted that the album could prompt more, even worse effects, when a computer science professor testified that "this album is a time bomb waiting to go off" (Soocher 166)
During the trial, Judas Priest's music and lyrics were attributed with the ability to "create an 'uncontrollable impulse' to commit suicide" (Soocher 158). The teenagers in this scenario were portrayed as victims of an indefensible attack on their subconscious. Both fans had rough backgrounds that included unstable family lives, beatings, gambling, and alcoholism. But at the time of their deaths, Judas Priest was playing an integral, or at least extremely visible, role in their lives. Due to the visible closeness between the music and their deaths, the media could draw a clear correlation between their suicides and the repeated playing of an album that encouraged suicide. Not so obvious and less reported was any possible correlation to their personal histories.
Judas Priest, much as Presley did before, sang of topics which were uncomfortable to its society. Whereas sexuality was taboo in Presley's Fifties, death and other dark matters were to be avoided in the Eighties (a trend that would continue into the late Nineties with public perception of Goths). This music occurred at a time when the threat of Satanism was seen everywhere, especially in Dungeons and Dragons.
Marilyn Manson was another performer whose music was part of a moral panic. His name implied much of what had been controversial about both Elvis and Judas Priest. Marilyn Monroe was a sensual celebrity who committed suicide, while Charles Manson was a mass-murderer. Sexuality, violence, and death were all implied by the musician before he began his first song.
In November of 1997, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and Restructuring met on the topic of "Music Violence: How Does It Affect Our Youth?" (apparently having already answered the question, "Does It Affect Our Youth?"). The hearings were prompted by the suicide of 15-year-old Richard Kuntz, who had listened to the violent song lyrics of Marilyn Manson just before his death.
Manson's music was described by Senator Conrad as "morally reprehensible, socially irresponsible and completely unacceptable." At this point, the music was defined in terms of a social context of what is "acceptable" and what is not, just as Kefauver had done in comic book Senate hearings forty years earlier.
What was unacceptable was to promote to children that death is an answer to problems. Suicide especially is a permanent solution to temporary problems, and is possibly the ultimate escape from any situation. Society does not view escape as a valid solution, since the problem continues without being addressed. Music that taught children to avoid their problems is "anti-educational," as Wertham would have put it.
Judas Priest and Marilyn Manson were not the first musicians to incorporate into their songs the theme of death. The style in which the topic was addressed had changed greatly since the music of the Fifties and Sixties. Earlier performers had approached the issue with mystery, reverence, and a bit of awe. Their songs mourned the lost of loved ones, asking why this had to happen to them. The quiet, soft tones respected the dead while celebrating life.
The difference with more modern performers is that they treat death not as a problem, but as a solution. Death is not mourned, but promoted and celebrated. It is a subject embraced, not avoided. In the heavy metal music of the Eighties and Nineties, death became something to be celebrated, not mourned; befriended, not feared; embraced, not avoided. Manson's music, punctuated with unintelligible screaming and angry lyrics, was in sharp contrast to the soft, respectful tones of music from decades before.
Though this style of music was unique from its predecessors, music in general differs from the subjects of other moral panics in the interaction its audience members has with other people. Video games, D&D, and comic books are all objects to be purchased, brought home and experienced by an individual. The teen culture had little knowledge of the people that created these objects, nor did they interact with each other in seeking to experience these objects. When the entertainment forms became the subject of a moral panic, it was the objects and the industry that produced them that were attacked, not their creators. For example, Mortal Kombat became a household name in the early Nineties, yet non-gamers were ignorant of its creators, Ed Boon and John Tobias.
Unlike video games, rock 'n roll could not be easily separated from its creators. It was always apparent who was performing a song; Elvis could not be separated from his music. It was often Elvis himself, not his music, that was censored, such as when he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Ozzy Osbourne's entire presence, even his album cover art, was said to "demonstrate a preoccupation with death" (Soocher 159).
Though records allowed individuals to enjoy the music by themselves, live performances and appearances by the artists were likely to incite mob mentality, prompting people to swarm around performers, rip their clothing, and other actions they might not do by themselves. Just as a single Mod or Rocker was unlikely to do much harm, or be represented as anything less than a mob, an individual listening to heavy metal was not perceived as unusual – unless that action was linked to dire consequences, such as a suicide.
This mob mentality was its own form of escape in which an audience member took on different characteristics. Someone who might sit quietly at home to listen to an album would be hanging from the rafters, screaming, at a public concert. Society feared that fans of such music would incorporate such characteristics into their individual selves, returning to reality bearing remnants of their escape fantasy world.
Comic books had granted readers a more obvious escape into fantasy worlds, while rock 'n roll provided its audience the opportunity to congregate and share in an experience. These characteristics would be seamlessly blended in the Seventies with the emergence of Dungeons and Dragons.
2.3 Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax of TSR Inc. and Dave Arneson. D&D is defined as a role-playing game (RPG) or fantasy role-playing (FRP):
Roleplaying is a hobby that stresses cooperation, teamwork, stimulation of the mind, competitive spirit, goal orientation, and above all, having fun. In roleplaying games, you build friendships. When you play a roleplaying game, you and your fellow players create your own heroic characters and, together, develop your own stories.
When you play the Dungeons & Dragons game, you create a unique fictional character that lives in your imagination and the imaginations of your friends. One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (the DM), controls the monsters and people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face the dangers and explore the mysteries that your Dungeon Master sets before you.(http://www.playdnd.com)
Dungeons and Dragons involves several people using paper, pencils, and their imaginations to maneuver through a fantasy world and directed by one of the players, who is designated the Dungeon Master (DM), or coordinator. These fantasy worlds can be created by a player or DM, or bought pre-made from TSR. The adventure goals can be whatever the DM or modules define them to be. Fine states that D&D is about pitting good versus evil, and was not designed as a sociological stimulation, which partly explains its large and young audience (Fine 18).
Fantasy role-playing games evolved from war games, which simulate military or economic situations in Earth's history. War games are limited by their historical accuracy and structured rules. Additionally, in war games, players often represent armies, nations, or companies, not individuals (Fine 9-10). FRPs evolved from war games to grant players more freedom and involvement in the game. By being based in a fantasy setting, FRPs were not restricted by realistic rules, historical facts, or probable settings. D&D was not a new incarnation of an old game that previously existed in board or miniature form, though they did evolve from these constructs. What was new about D&D was its potential for escapism that could not be matched by standard children's games of imagination.
As children grow up, they find that society tends to favor reality over fantasy and escapism. It is acceptable for children to play "Army" or "Cops & Robbers" or "House" when young. These games are imitations of real situations which children have observed, be it from watching television Westerns, or watching their parents either run the household or go to war. When children become young adults, they are expected to trade these games for more reality-oriented ones, such as baseball. Even Army-type games can evolve into paintball, replacing cap guns with paint rifles, moving toward a more realistic setting.
Dungeons and Dragons' appeal is mainly in its fantasy setting and lack of reality-based context. Dragons, flying horses, and magic spells are not standard features of any child's life. Instead of imitating reality, possibly as a basis for moving into it later (either by playing paintball or going to war), FRPs create an escape from reality in which anything is possible.
D&D is aimed at an audience of adolescents and young adults. At just the point when children are expected to give up their games of pretend, D&D becomes available as a means of continued escapism, which parents might see as retarding players' expected growth out of childhood.
Children's games are as limited in their potential for escape as war games were in their settings. In games such as paintball, "House", or Monopoly, players adopt roles to put themselves in varying situations. Regardless of whether the player is a lieutenant, housewife, or banker, he is acting as himself in that abstract role, retaining his identity throughout the game.
D&D has a greater potential for escapism than other games of imagination because it allows the player to escape not only his surroundings, but also himself. In fantasy role-playing games, the role the player adopts is a tool to separate himself from reality. Dwarves, elves, and wizards have no real-life counterparts in which a player can imagine himself. The player is not just role-playing, he is person-playing. Using fantasy roles (dwarves and elves) "provides sufficient self-distance that players believe that they have transcended the constraining features of their selves" (Fine 56). A fantasy character has a name, physical attributes, and personality which can be distinct from the player, but which the player adopts for the game. Thus, "Players are seen as leaving their real lives and problems to lose themselves in the game" (Turkle 188).
This fantasy game appeared just after an era when various forms of escape from real-life problems was a national concern. The Vietnam War was a conflict that involved heated debates and strong opinions from almost every American. Drug use was prevalent and was considered a youth problem by much of the media and society. Drugs altered their users' perceptions and experiences and were often seen as a form of escape during a time with issues that needed addressing.
Shortly after the Vietnam War ended, D&D was created, allowing people to escape into another environment and persona. The media portrayed D&D as an opportunity for young people to replace their reality with a fantasy, sometimes to the point where they could not tell the two apart. How could a generation of kids who refused to face the reality of a world at war mature into upright and productive citizens? people asked.
D&D was not new when it arrived on the newspaper front page. When D&D was created in the mid-Seventies and selling at an average rate of 100 copies a month, the media did not give the game much attention. It wasn't until the turn of the decade that Dungeons and Dragons found itself under media scrutiny. By then, D&D was selling at the rate of 7,000 copies a month, and the number of players was estimated at 300,000 (Fine 15). Competing publishers were releasing similar products, and some efforts were made to computerize the games. Though D&D was not new, its increasing popularity allowed it to be presented as new to justify its creation as news. Two unfortunate incidents shoved FRPs into the news limelight.
In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old college student, disappeared from Michigan State University. He wandered the 10-mile network of steam tunnels beneath the campus, supposedly using them as a Dungeons and Dragons maze, where he became the DM. He was found a month later, but in August 1980, Egbert shot himself in the head, committing suicide. These incidents led to William Dear's book, The Dungeon Master, which explored the events leading to Egbert's death.
In June 1982, Irving L. Pulling II, a 16-year-old high school student, died of a self-inflicted pistol wound to the chest, "hours after a D&D curse was placed on him during a game conducted at his local high school" (NCTV press release, 17 Jan. 1985). The victim's mother, Patricia Pulling, later brought a suit against TSR (it was thrown out in October 1983), and formed Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD).
The moral panic was fed by the escapist nature of D&D. Role-playing games can provide a psychosocial moratorium, an idea suggested by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The moratorium is key to Erikson's theories about the development of adolescent identity, in which a "time-out" is placed on the consequences of actions. A consequential moratorium provides youth with an opportunity to expose themselves to a variety of experiences without concern for the results of those actions. Doing so allows the individual to develop a core self, or identity (Turkle 203).
The media perceived D&D as having just the opposite effect. By associating their deaths with D&D, the media portrayed Egbert and Pulling as becoming more involved in their fantasy games as their concepts of self and reality began to dissolve, being replaced by the rules and worlds offered by D&D. Instead of enjoying a consequential moratorium, Egbert and Pulling allowed events in the game to have real-world consequences, causing a fantasy curse to lead to a player's real death.
Some concern aroused by FRPs is applicable in similar fields. Sherry Turkle, Professor of sociology of Science at MIT, has done extensive research on the effects of MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. MUDs often incorporate the rules and setting of D&D, but using computers and networks. Her research was not so much on the medium of MUDs, but on their uses and properties, and thus her findings often apply equally well to D&D.
Turkle's discussion of how MUDs offer experiences of various aspects of the self is particularly relevant to D&D. It is not only the freedom from consequences, but also from the self that may have fed the Dungeons and Dragons moral panic. In D&D, players experiment not only with actions, but also aspects of their very selves. "MUDs blur the boundaries between self and game, self and role, self and simulation… People don't just become who they play, they play who they are or who they want to be or who they don't want to be" (Turkle 192). A character in a role-playing game can exemplify whichever characteristics the player chooses. The player can experience himself as having only certain qualities (generosity, envy) or lacking other ones (cowardice, conscience). The great freedom of RPGs allows players to adopt not only new personas, but also new bodies, sexes, and races. Players need not pretend to be tall, thin, white humans, but powerful warriors or dark elves or bustling barmaids. "In this way they are swept up by experiences that enable them to explore previously unexamined aspects of their sexuality or that challenge their ideas about a unitary self" (Turkle 49).
There was concern over what players were learning from FRPs, even if it proved less fatal than what Egbert and Pulling supposedly learned. In the real world, criminal behavior has serious consequences, which can include imprisonment, fines, and harm to other members of society. Yet in a game that lacks these consequences, there is no incentive for role-players to behave "well" or to not act "poorly." In a role-playing game, players can engage in any virtual activities they wish, with consequences that are equally virtual.
Whether the act is real or virtual, the D&D moral panic seems to engage the philosophy that a certain mindset is required to carry out criminal acts, and that the negative consequences of those actions are the main blockades against their execution. In a role-playing game, the lack of real-world consequences permit players to experiment with criminal acts and display tendencies that, in the real world, would be repressed – and, society believes, should be repressed under all circumstances, real or virtual. Apparently, it was felt that D&D was capable of having a stronger influence over children than the ties of social, cultural, and moral order (Gilbert 9).
Both RPGs and computers (which were often used to play RPGs, or MUDs) created new classifications, or labels, in the Seventies. In addition to jocks, beauty queens, and car freaks, gamers and hackers now existed as well, accommodated by the creation and availability of games and computers. Through their connection to these external devices, gamers and hackers found a way to be labeled by others.
The media presentation of Dungeons and Dragons contained many images vital to Cohen's definition of a moral panic.
TSR defines D&D as a game in which players assume heroic personas and use their imaginations to tell and live stories. Yet newspapers rarely used the words "hero" or "story" in their descriptions of the game. Such instances were often confined to a quote from a D&D player. The cooperative nature of the game was also given rare acknowledgment.
Newspaper descriptions of Dungeons and Dragons often focused on the game's unrestricted gameplay. The players' freedom to play an evil character was often mentioned; only half the time was this point made in the context that good (lawful) and neutral characters were the other options. The use of the D&D term for a good character, "lawful," was infrequent. Facts were omitted or misconstrued to make the game appear more centered on evil than it really was.
On 2 Nov. 1980, the New York Times ran a brief article about D&D, not linked to any particular event but informative in nature. The article, which points out the game "hooks" players to invest $200 for the full package, was followed a week later by this letter to the editor:
As a 12-year-old and an experienced player of the game Dungeons and Dragons, I noticed several misinterpretations in "Dungeons and Dollars" (Nov. 2). They are as follows:
- "The player in charge is a Dragon Master," the article said. The person in charge is actually the Dungeon Master.
- "Characters must traverse in search of treasure." Characters may search not only for treasure but also hidden cities, castles, enemies, etc.
- "Guarded by demons." Not necessarily; something may also be guarded by nothing, or by other creatures, i.e., hobgoblins, trolls, etc.
- "Characters periodically die, but they revive." Characters periodically die, but only sometimes revive. The reason for this is that they may not be eligible to come back to life. NICHOLAS TRABULSI (New York Times 9 Nov. 1980)
The game's nature and goal, Trabulsi's second point, is one that continued to be misconstrued in future articles. Newspapers tended to downplay teamwork and the accumulation of experience in favor of describing a more competitive and avaricious game, such as in the following: "… Dungeons and Dragon players become imaginary characters and, following complex rules, try to overcome traps and tricks, wizards and monsters to annihilate each other in a search for treasure" (New York Times 22 Aug. 1985). Treasure was commonly represented as the game's main goal, with the San Diego Union-Tribune and Washington Post both listing "hobgoblins and green slime" specifically as monster guardians.
The misuse of terms or lack of elaboration were to be repeated in future articles: "Each player takes a role – wizard, warrior or whatever, and with a roll of the dice or a word from the dragon master, must extricate himself from some perilous situation" (New York Times 11 Oct. 1981). The obvious disinterest in elaborating on the player's roles ("whatever") and the reference to a "dragon master," not "dungeon master," are typical journalistic errors.
Trabulsi's final point, that characters can die yet be revived, is also an issue raised by the media and communities that later rose up against video games. Both D&D and video games offer players a fantasy escape, in which their actions have no real-world consequences, and a "reset" is never far away. Newspaper articles that mentioned Dungeons and Dragons without the words "death" or "suicide" were rare.
Several articles put forward the concerns of the paper's community about gaming. A Utah city's school program discontinued D&D due to "townspeople who feel that game reflects operations of Satan and forces of Communist subversion" (New York Times, 3 May 1980). Regarding D&D, a police detective was quoted as saying: "There are satanic figures, there are Antichrist figures" (San Diego Union-Tribune 6 Nov. 1984). And a parent pleaded with the Putnam Board of Education to ban the game, stating "It is another of Satan's ploys to pollute and destroy our children's minds" (New York Times 22 Aug. 1985).
Such statements reveal two facets crucial to a moral panic. First, the "moral barricades [were] manned by… right-thinking people" (Cohen 9). Principals, police, and parents, all important people in the community, spoke out against the game their children were playing. The high positions they held in the community gave weight to their statements, influencing public opinion against the games. Second, the articles omitted identifying specifically where Satanic or Communistic references in the games could be found, or how people came to their opinions. Omission or misrepresentation of facts such as these was an important media tool in creation of the Mods and Rockers moral panic.
Additionally, the media and such right-thinking people as above portrayed D&D as a threat to children's welfare. With such a clear challenge laid before school boards and city officials, there was little they could do without appearing unconcerned about the city's youth. Any effort to delay judgment or investigate D&D further could have been interpreted as lack of action against a clear and present danger.
On 22 Aug. 1985, the New York Times ran a 788-word story discussing the Putnam (CT) Board of Education's impending decision of whether or not to ban D&D from their schools. The article uses the word "suicide" seven times, gives statements both for and against the game, and presents the controversy between those who called D&D either "Satanic" or "harmless."
On 9 Oct. 1985, the same paper ran a 47-word article that the board had banned the game "after the suicide in April of 13-year-old Roland Cartier, who was known to have played it." No further discussion or aftermath is presented on the issue.
The suicides of D&D players were tragedies not viewed within the scope of national suicide statistics. Though some articles mentioned that three million D&D players existed nationwide, none did so in conjunction with the statistic that the annual suicide rate for the time was 12 per 100,000. Therefore, D&D players should have accounted for 360 suicides – yet only 28 D&D-related suicides were reported (Paulos 168-169). This is an example of distortion that Cohen considers part of the media's role in a moral panic.
As the controversy of the mid-Eighties passed, newspapers came to mention D&D only in passing. It was often used to denote something fantastic, such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings book; among a list of popular teenager activities (rollerblading, video games, D&D, etc.); or to imply something of incredible or increasing complexity, such as computers and computer games. In the Nineties, the "Dungeons and Dragons" term became commonly associated with descriptions of computer games, video games, movies, or any other entertainment that involved high levels of fantasy.
There are many aspects of Cohen's moral panic that fit the Dungeons and Dragons fright, and some that do not. Role-playing games and their audience had both been around for at least five years before Egbert's 1979 disappearance created a media frenzy. It was this incident which caused an existing group to receive a stereotype they did not previously have, and were "presented as new to justify their creation as news."
Though Cohen showed how the media polarized the Mods and Rockers by giving them strong identities, in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, many members of the gaming community began to tone down their activities. People who would often take their pretend games to extremes, by painting pentagrams and dressing in dark robes, became aware that they were being subjected to public scrutiny and so did away with these external representations of their fantasies. The games continued, though not in so obvious a fashion.
Prediction was not a clear factor in journalistic representation of D&D. Articles often ended by highlighting the game's potential for harm, hatred, etc. but did not specifically suggest that this potential would explode in inevitable damage to our youth or society. Occasionally, leaders in the community would speak out against D&D, warning that the generation of players was being led astray, or that "another deadly explosion will come" (New York Times 22 Aug. 1985). Suicides and murders supposedly linked to the game often prompted town officials to ban the game from local schools and libraries, presumably to prevent future such incidents.
D&D has yet to shed the stigma it received from the moral panic. In 2000, the release of an official Dungeons and Dragons movie prompted many journalists to reminisce about the game that "has been ruled by the king geeks of every UV-lit rec room and every freshmen dorm… they are often unathletic and sometimes downright troll-like in their appearance… masters of… bongs made from thrift-store lamps." Other reviewers wondered, "Why did they make a movie based on a game nobody has played in over ten years? It boggles the mind."
In 1999, an old moral panic surged back into existence in the harshest way possible. Video games, which had long been seen as a childish activity with negative psychological effects on its users, was portrayed in the media as a key factor that led to a high school massacre. The adolescents who carried out the events at Columbine were depicted as turning a fantasy video game into reality.
The worlds and characters present in video games are often based in fantasy. Game programmers have total freedom to create a world that is not constrained by the rules of reality. The worlds into which gamers insert themselves can have no realistic counterparts. In these worlds, gamers become characters who can fall from great heights without getting hurt, punch people without getting punched back, and come back to life after "dying." Society is often concerned with how children would translate these fantasy worlds into their real-life settings, if at all. The ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, as the media portrayed D&D players Egbert and Pulling as not being able to, is a chief concern.
Though gamers might not experience any real-world consequences because of their virtual actions, the media was often quick to report that video games teach anti-social lessons. Even if no outside forces were effecting consequences on the gamers, something could still be happening to them as a direct result of their exposure to games where the predominant themes include violence and revenge. Gamers operate in a world defined by a programmer, who can create any world he likes. A gamer is then confined within the game created by the programmer, who has defined rules, goals, and boundaries.
These worlds are unlike anything previous generations of people had experienced. Video games are abstract worlds of information, coded onto cartridges as series of ones and zeroes. Pushing buttons on a game controller manipulates this information which results in a change of display on a video screen. With a video game, there is no physical consequence to a player's actions.
So what's appealing about a game that has no apparent consequences? Not only are players freed from the constraints of reality, as previously discussed, but the fantasy worlds they temporarily inhabit often are clearer cut, more black and white, than reality. Regardless of the game's goal, the player becomes the Hero, the Good Guy, and has an opportunity to Win. As video game veteran J.C. Herz describes Doom:
… there is no way to humanize the enemy because the enemy is, by definition, Evil. Not just bad. Not misunderstood. Not the victim of childhood abuse, ethnic discrimination, faulty antidepressants, or low self-esteem. Not a belligerent race of aliens on Star Trek with whom you have some responsibility to negotiate and understand. It's the devil, OK? It's printed, right there in the instruction booklet: "They have no pity, no mercy, take no quarter, and crave none. They're the perfect enemy." (Herz 87)
Video games dehumanize enemies the same way the media dehumanizes wartime enemies. The Gulf War was not so much a war against Iraq as it was against Saddam Hussein, and before that, America went to war not with Germany, but with Adolf Hitler.
Video games allow youth to participate in similar scenarios. Video game players temporarily adopt the identity of a game's main character as they involve themselves in the world and quest of a particular game. As Sherry Turkle wrote in The Second Self, video game players are as likely to say "You control Pac-Man" as "You are Pac-Man" (Turkle 67). Thus, players are not just simulating World War II, or passively watching a documentary on the subject; they become active participants in the action.
Parents felt that the games adolescents used to simulate wartime actions promote goals in opposition to societal values. For every Nazi, monster, or opponent the player kills, defeats, or destroys, a reward is bestowed. The reward can be a higher score, extra lives, more playtime, or additional levels. Regardless of the form of the reward, players are often conditioned with positive reinforcement for what society deems negative actions. If this appealing and entertaining black-and-white world offers gamers the lesson that killing is good, then what actions can we expect from those gamers in the real world?
The media decided the answer to that question was Columbine.
While youth played video games, older generations panicked. Just a few decades before video games – when the parents of the Eighties and Nineties were adolescents – computers were not available for consumer use. Only large corporations and educational institutions had the money to afford them, and the large space in which to house them. Unlike today's kids, an entire generation grew up that did not have the opportunity to become techno-able. Comic books and rock 'n roll were extensions of existing media forms (newspapers and music). People growing up in pre-video game decades had little with which they could equate to electronic entertainment
It is this generation that became panicked over video games in the Eighties and Nineties. It is also this generation that has mistaken computer mice for foot peddles and garage remote controls, both of which result in a physical action in response to their operation. Their children grew up with computers, were introduced to them earlier, and learned how to use them. Youth rarely demonize their own culture or blame it for their actions. Their parents did not have an easy time of understanding how video games worked, or what the appeal or consequences were. It is much easier to demonize something that is not understood.
Despite their recent media exposure, video games are not a new phenomenon, having their roots in early pinball games. In 1937, Harry Williams developed the first electric pinball machine. Around that same time, slot machine manufacturers began building pinball machines that gave pay-outs based on the player's score. Authorities saw these machines as a combination of pinball and gambling. Mayor LaGuardia of New York City successfully passed bans to make all pinball machines illegal in his city. 3,000 machines were confiscated and destroyed, with the scrap metal being donated to the war effort. (Incidentally, it was at this time that Germans developed the first joystick for use in directing remote control missiles.) The ban remained in effect until 1976.
The gambling connotations of pinball lent a bad reputation to the whole electronic entertainment industry. Said Eddie Adlum, publisher of RePlay Magazine, "'Jukebox' was considered within our industry to be a dirty word… associated with organized crime that would bring up images of racketeering" (Kent 40).
Arcade games in their current form appeared in the mid-Seventies. They featured stand-up cabinets where a quarter purchased a set number of chances to play. Though the industry thrived on games with unwinnable scenarios designed to last less than two minutes per quarter, expert players of these new games could make a single quarter last 36 hours. Local schools and city councils began enacting laws and bans to monitor arcade operations, to lessen their effect on truancy. Like comic books, video games were perceived as a threat, absorbing time young adults could spend on better subjects. This was one of the first instances of officials reacting with concern to video games.
As the market grew, games appeared that were aimed at other audiences. Games such as Custer's Revenge and Bachelor Party featured sexual activity, but poor gameplay. Women Against Pornography and other groups protested these games, indirectly doubling their sales. The increased publicity of the game because of WAP's actions probably did not improve the public image of video games.
Violence in video games, an important and recurring issue in later years, was first an issue with one of the first game designers. Ed Rotberg, who designed the tank game Battlezone, was asked by the Army to design a more realistic version of the game. The simulator would be used to train soldiers. "I was doing games, I didn't want to train people to kill," Rotberg protested; Atari assigned him to the project anyway. Military Battlezone was one of Rotberg's last projects with Atari.
It was in 1976, the same year that pinball was legalized in New York City, that violence in video games first became a public issue. In Exidy's arcade game Death Race, players raced cars over skeletons escaping from a graveyard. A cross would appear to mark where a skeleton had been hit. The primitive graphics of the time made the skeletons look like people. Parents complained, protests were stirred up, and the television show "60 Minutes" discussed the game. Though many locations refused to carry the machine, the publicity caused Exidy's business to soar. Death Race threatened the gaming industry with a bad reputation in the same year it had distinguished itself from a gambling business.
Coin-operated arcade games and their environment continued to be perceived as a threat. When a $3 million video game parlor was to open in Westport, Connecticut, in 1983, "opponents charged that he [the store owner] would mesmerize their youngsters, rob them of their lunch money, provide them with a center for illicit drug traffic and cause the downfall of youth baseball, music lessons and, yes, the very Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of the community" (New York Times 27 Apr. 1983). Arcades became a modern-day pool hall, a place of gathering for kids, not adults. Various local ordinances were introduced that limited the hours adolescents were allowed into arcades, or set a minimum age for admittance. Some towns banned games completely, as New York had done with pinball decades earlier (Herz 185).
Arcade games would not remain the main concern, however, as games moved into the family living room. In the mid-Eighties, home computers became widely available and popular, causing consumers to lose interest in the home and arcade video game markets. It wasn't until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System that the home video game market revived, becoming a permanent fixture in the American home. Whereas arcade games were often limited to people who could get to the mall (such as teenagers or adults with driving licenses), now young children could enjoy video games in their own home, free from an atmosphere commonly associated with smoking and drugs.
Now that parents could observe a child's playtime, they were concerned that too much recreational time was spent in front of the television. A common newspaper article described a gamer with eyes glazed and glued to the television set, instead of playing sports and being outdoors. A 1984 study by G.W. Selnow found that many young people preferred their games to human companionship. Video games were absorbing time adults felt could be better spent in other activities.
It is important to note the transition from arcade to home video games. Arcade games lured youths away from school and into a dark atmosphere where parents feared they could be introduced to sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. Gaming parlors were a kids-only clubhouse from which parents could try to keep their children, but could not monitor their children once there. If a child sneaked off from school to an arcade, there was little that could then be done to protect her from the advances of the arcade's shady characters.
Parents had more control over home consoles such as the Nintendo, and were in fact traditionally the purchasers of such items, since the youth at whom the consoles were aimed had little spending power. Once in the home, the content of the video games and the environment in which they were played could be monitored and controlled. But there was no way of observing the psychological effects of exposure to video games. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the average parent to determine if their child is distinguishing between reality and fantasy, or what lessons the child is taking from video games. What is observable is how much time a child spends engaged in an activity, and if there is any simultaneous change in behavior, related or not to the new activity.
In both cases, parents were concerned over an environment over which they had no control, be it the arcade or their child's mind.
As a moral panic, video games have the distinction of being threatening on both realistic and fantastic fronts. One of the first games to begin to blur this line was Wolfenstein 3D (Wolf3D), a home computer game released in 1991. This game featured a first-person perspective (1pp) in which players saw through the eyes of a World War II American soldier caught behind enemy lines. Players of Wolf3D had to escape from a Nazi fortress filled with enemy soldiers and Adolf Hitler paraphernalia. Wolf3D was a descendant of early shooting games such as Rotberg's Battlezone, but with more than a decade of technological advances for use in rendering its graphical fantasy world.
Just as comic book readers were enthralled by the post-war crime comics of the Forties, so did the 1pp shooter become a popular genre. Wolf3D allowed young adults to experience a period in world history that is popular in textbooks, films, and documentaries. This game was the first 1pp shooter, putting players into a video game more than ever before. Though violent, the game was based on real life, where the enemies were Nazis, who almost everyone already perceived as "the bad guys," thus dehumanizing them and making it easier to kill them in the game.
By using a familiar environment, Wolf3D allowed players to grow accustomed to the concept of a 1pp game. Once that was done, future games such as Doom or Quake were made possible; though these games were more violent and used unfamiliar environments and enemies, by now, the play mechanics were familiar, allowing players to adapt to the new wave of games. If computer games are about blurring the line between fantasy and reality, as some news articles suggest, then the 1pp shooter did so by starting in reality and moving to fantasy.
Around the same time Wolf3D was published, a violent and competitive beat-em-up game, Street Fighter II, was released to the arcades. It gained the attention of gamers everywhere, yet despite its violent nature, it was not scrutinized by the press.
By 1993, technology had advanced to the point where video games could feature footage of live actors. Two games were quick to take advantage of this form of graphics. The first was Mortal Kombat, an arcade game which featured Street Fighter-style gameplay. Its popularity led to a quick release for the home console market. Another game to feature digitized film was Night Trap, a game in the style of campy B-movies, featuring vampires, sorority girls, and drills. Video games themselves were not new, but the improved technology created more realistic games that allowed them to be presented as new.
This time, the media took notice. An outpouring of written parental concern pressed Senator Joseph Lieberman to determine that violent video games, the equivalent of R-rated movies, were being marketed to children. Senate hearings ensued, involving many leading members of the electronic entertainment industry. During the hearings, violent games which did not use digitized graphics, such as Street Fighter II and Doom – the latter which would later receive much attention because of Columbine – were rarely, if ever, mentioned.
As a result of the hearings, the gaming industry adopted a self-imposed rating system. Unlike the Comics Code Authority of the Fifties, the Electronic Software Rating Board (ESRB) included more than one rating. Now, video games could be as violent as they liked, as long as they were properly labeled.
Another important transition had occurred in both the nature of video games and how they were received by the media. Adults perceived video games, from arcade Asteroids to Nintendo's Super Mario Bros., as a stealer of children's time, robbing them of participating in other, more normal activities. Kids were no longer playing baseball with friends or picking up good books; they were playing video games.
Violence had been a central theme of video games since Space Invaders; since then, target shooting in one form or another has been an objective of almost all games. This comic violence had lacked the technology to create realistic content; Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were the first games to present with graphic realism the underlying themes of video games.
This change in video game technology was accompanied by a change in the nature of the moral panic. Parents now became concerned about the lessons their children were learning from these realistic depictions of violence – and rightfully so, by the media's representation. Newspaper articles described Mortal Kombat as "offering children exciting new ways to maim, dismember, and murder unsavory opponents in a sadistic martial-arts tournament" where "it is considered a mark of success… to rip the head and spine out of an opponent and wave it in the air while the blood flows to the ground" (Montreal Gazette 7 Aug. 1994). With such stirring imagery, it was only natural for parents to be concerned about video games as more than a thief of a child's attention.
This change runs parallel to the progress of other moral panics. Comic books had been seen as a waste of children's time. The appearance of crime comics in an industry a decade old contributed to the suggestion that comics could be linked to juvenile delinquency.
After the video game industry began to regulate – or, rather, rate – itself through the ESRB, the moral panic began to subside. Though there were still violent video games, they did not receive much media attention. After forcing self-regulation, the government could do little else without treading on the First Amendment.
Soon, however, a situation so horrifying would develop that video games would not be able to avoid the limelight.
On April 20th, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, went on a shooting rampage, armed with shotguns, assault rifles, grenades, and pipe bombs. After killing twelve students and a teacher, Klebold and Harris turned their weapons on themselves, leaving the nation with no answers to their many questions. What could have caused two adolescents to do so much harm? The media's answer: video games.
Many media outlets found the methods behind the Columbine incident and the style of video games enjoyed by the killers to be too similar:
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were literally obsessed with playing the video game Doom… and they were very good at it. These boys… practiced for hundreds and hundreds of hours, perfecting their craft. Therefore, it should not be altogether surprising that their killing spree resembled something out of… a typical Doom scenario (Grossman 77).
Games such as Doom and Quake enabled Klebold and Harris to experience situations involving mass execution of monstrous beasts utilizing a variety of weaponry. Common sense dictated that the killers' fantasy world of video games, and the nightmare that they made a reality, was too similar to be a coincident.
Prediction was prevalent and was a driving force behind much of the action against the entertainment industry that followed the shootings. Nobody could dispute that Columbine was a terrible event in our nation's history, and should not happen again. The question became what caused Harris and Klebold to go off the deep end, so that the causal variable in their background could be removed from other children's. Many of Harris and Klebold's hobbies shared characteristics with their actions: violence, devaluing life, etc. Under the presumption that the two killers learned these values from their hobbies, removing these hobbies from other children's lives would prevent them from learning to devalue life and kill people. Otherwise, as was quoted in one paper, "It is guaranteed that more monsters will be created and more school killings will occur" (Denver Post 21 Apr. 2001).
The media portrayed a natural cause-and-effect scenario involving youth and video games, similar to a natural disaster or a disease. Lt. Colonel Grossman, in his book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, described the effect video games have on kids as "Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome", or AVIDS (Grossman 64). In a Senate Hearing, Bob Keeshan, aliases Captain Kangaroo, said, "the lessons learned by a child as an active participant in violence-oriented video games… could become a plague upon their house" (Herz 189). These celebrities and others believed that if kids play video games, they become desensitized, and prone, to violence. The media supported this theory and, as Wertham did with his comic book case studies, often omitted other facts about Harris and Klebold which may have suggested a predisposition to violence.
Exaggeration and misstating of facts occurred with the repeated labelling of Columbine as "the worst school massacre in our nation's history." In reality, the worst massacre occurred in 1927 Michigan when an angry farmer blew up a school, killing 38 children and several adults. Similar exaggeration occurred when Attorney Jack Thompson was quoted as equating Columbine to "the Pearl Harbor of America's culture war" (Denver Post). Wars usually evolve two sides fighting for control of something; here, Thompson suggests that parents and society are fighting against video games for control of their children. The paper does not quote analysts who suggest there is need for further research, compromise, or better understanding of youth and their culture.
Grossman, Keeshan, and Thompson are three of many reverends, senators, attorneys, and military men who have spoken against video games. Organizations have also stood against electronic entertainment, such as when Colorado radio station WQYK invited parents to deliver violent games, toys, and tapes to be destroyed by the station – much as horror comics were burned in the streets half a century before.
After Columbine, President Clinton requested a report from the Surgeon General on the effects of media violence on children. When the press received word in January 2001 that the report was nearly finished, The Charlotte Observer (19 Jan. 2001) ran a story with the headline "Surgeon General to Declare Violent Media Harmful to Children". The article goes on to say the report would fuel the side of politicians and parent groups pushing for legislation against video games, calling them as much a health hazard as cigarettes. The Los Angeles Times predicted the report would find that "repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behavior throughout the child's life."
The actual report, released a few days later, was contradictory to these advance news reports. According to the report, media violence plays only a minor role in the violence of pre-adolescents, and almost no role in older children. The report ranked video games as the tenth most significant risk factor, placing poor upbringing and violent parents, poverty, substance abuse, and natural aggressive tendencies as more likely factors. Though the results of the report were often predicted in the media, the actual results were omitted from wide coverage.
Perhaps consequently, school shootings that have occurred since the issuance of the report have not been linked to video games to the degree that Columbine was. Time magazine's March 2001 cover article, "The Columbine Effect," presented many cases of "young killers"; in the "warning signs" the article lists for individual shooters, video games are not mentioned once.
Though the media may now be presenting video games in less condemning tones, or not at all, many years of media representation and societal perception fit with what Cohen described as a moral panic.
Video games became subjected to a similar moral panic experienced by comic books and role-playing games. Suddenly, the younger generation was enjoying a form of entertainment unknown to their parents. To outsiders, these media appeared to highlight crime, horror, monsters, and killing, and threatened societal values.
"Societal values" entails more than just law. Murder, theft, and other crimes were feared results of exposure to new media, but more basic philosophical and psychological values were also considered. In our society, death is a morbid and taboo topic; so-called Goths – quiet, generally peaceful people who dwell on the topic – are cast as dark, disturbed people – despite that they do not commit crimes.
By playing violent video games, parents feared teenagers would learn to devalue life. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the students behind the Columbine murders, were video gamers; became associated with devaluing life. Their suicides left them unable to explain their actions, yet a tangible answer was needed to answer the question of how two white, middle-class boys could commit such violent crimes. By linking the killers to video games (among other things), an answer was produced and a stereotype created: video games have the power to lead people to murder, and anyone who engages in the activity is at risk of causing another Columbine. Other aspects of the teenagers' lives were hyped; when the media was done with the story, they were no longer two white, middle-class boys, but "trench coat mafia," among other things. The media gave Klebold and Harris images that separated them from society, and defined what children should be kept away from to dissociate them from that image.
While some officials make no presumptions regarding the degree of media's effect on youth, the presumption exists that media do have a measurable effect on teenagers, and thus is the cause of delinquency. Yet Prof. Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at M.I.T., says that journalism has been concerned primarily with understanding what the media are doing to our children, instead of asking what our children are doing with media.
Jenkins' theory on media effects is one in which "cultural artifacts are not simple chemical agents… that produce predictable results upon those who consume them" (Jenkins 2). This belief is in opposition to the analogy of video games as a transmittable disease (AVIDS) made by Grossman, with whom Jenkins has had many a debate. Jenkins proposes that youth use their culture to embody their personal fantasies and frustrations. He suggests, for example, that video games do not inspire the demons with which children such as Klebold and Harris were haunted, but that video gamers invest the medium with their personal torments.
Altogether, Grossman's belief has traditionally been more widely accepted by media and society. By demonizing a tangible aspect of youth culture, society can mobilize against that object and take definitive actions against it. If the media sided with Jenkins' belief that Klebold's and Harris's demons came from within, not without, then society would have to take very different steps to prevent future Columbines. These steps would be much harder to take, and would not be as easy as outlawing tangible marketplace objects.
Jenkins' belief has never been a popular one in the context of any moral panic. Concerned citizens of the Fifties dismissed comic book publishers who attempted to point out that they were responsible for the supply, not the demand, of horror comics. And there was definitely a demand for "horror video games": when Nintendo released a censored version of the violent Mortal Kombat, it sold only a quarter as many copies as the uncensored version released by Sega. Again, regardless of the source of a child's "demons," it is easier to assume they can be destroyed by outlawing a toy, as opposed to as outlawing or preventing a way of thinking similar to Klebold's and Harris's.
A few months after Columbine, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was held, in which the gaming industry shows off their wares for the upcoming year. Many publishers removed violent content from their displays, in hopes of avoiding journalists looking to validate the connection between Columbine and video games. One paper reported that video game publishers at E3 have "a reputation of delivering amoral, violent self-gratification to disturbed kids" (Guardian 20 May 1999). Video games had been considered violent for years, especially since Mortal Kombat brought down the wrath of Senator Lieberman in the early Nineties. But now, the games lacked not only good taste, but also morals; their audience, disturbed.
The kids who society found at risk from video games are the same kind that were at risk from Dungeons and Dragons. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, the FBI released a list of characteristics associated with "potentially violent or dangerous students":
- Usually boys of average or above-average intelligence.
- Often loners, or have small circle of friends who are outsiders.
- Experience unstable self-esteem.
- Often fascinated by cults, Satanism, weapons, themes of violence and death.
- Come from dysfunctional homes.
- Suffer or practice chronic bullying and drug use (Katz).
Although this list does not specifically mention video games, it obviously was released in response to Columbine and other school shootings, which had been connected with video games.
In 1988, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) released a profile of kids headed for involvement with Satanism:
- Some have low self-esteem and are loners
- Obsession with movies, videos, which have occult themes
- Some children have been abused (physically or mentally)
- Some are rebellious (Stackpole).
These two excerpts are almost identical. Both use generic terms to describe the audiences at risk. Many young adults are intelligent, and rebelliousness is a hallmark of adolescence. Other characteristics, such as being an "outsider" or enjoying occult themes, are commonly associated with the Goth crowd, who are in actuality non-violent. The characteristics listed do not help identify "bullies and predators or prey on different or 'non-normal'… nor… teachers and educators who preside over uncreative, hostile and, to many kids, suffocating classroom environments" (Katz).
The representation of video games in both the media and, consequently, in the minds of concerned parents fits all the characteristics of a moral panic, as defined by Cohen and other authors. Facts about youth culture have been omitted and exaggerated and the situation has been likened to a natural disaster. Other explanations of how youth culture affects children have been ignored, as have the questions of if the entertainment form affect children at all, or if children affect and use their culture to suit their own needs and desires. The panic preceded any actual research or evidence to either confirm or deny society's fears about what youth culture was doing to the youth. What society didn't need evidence for was to know that the activity in which their children were engaging symbolized something their parents found threatening and frightening.
So it is with rock 'n roll, comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, and video games.
Throughout this paper, the term "moral panic" has often been applied in a way unique from how Cohen first applied it. The Mods and Rockers themselves were the object of exaggeration and distortion, prediction, and symbolization, the key elements to Cohen's moral panic. Their actions and words were written about in newspaper articles, and society was, or was presented as being, concerned with what the kids would do next. Though the Mods and Rockers were seen as a sign of the times, Cohen did not show there was much concern over what influenced the Mods and Rockers to become so different from their preceding generation.
The moral panics involving rock 'n roll, comic books, fantasy role-playing games, and video games were not about what kids would do next, but what youth culture was doing to kids. It was often the action of these young adults that acted as a catalyst for the moral panic: Pulling and Egbert's deaths brought attention to D&D, and Columbine caused video games to be highly scrutinized.
Moral panics often ensue when a generation of leaders – parents, teachers, politicians – set out to protect their children from harm. Whereas the Mods and Rockers were seen as deviant, other panics revolved around what led to youth deviancy. Reading comics or playing video games were seldom labeled delinquent behavior, but the media described such actions as leading to delinquent, or criminal, behavior. The media predicted the behavior of members of youth culture would change in a certain way, given sufficient exposure to the various entertainment forms. In other words, an incident, such as a death or killing, was forecasted to occur again unless the activities seen as leading to or causal of that incident were changed.
Whatever behavior these entertainments incited, they challenged the societal norms of the day. Sexuality, violence, and escape were the traits with which society and the media took exception. Sex and violence, depending on their application, can be defined by law as criminal behavior. It is only natural to discourage such behavior, so any influence to the contrary – that which is seen to glamorize, sensationalize, or promote criminal behavior – was likely to cause a moral panic, especially as that influencing medium became popular among young adults.
This tendency to demonize aspects of adolescents' popular culture often comes despite lack of hard evidence. Wertham's research, in hindsight, is seen as "early, unsophisticated social science research into media effects… lack[ing] scientific methodology and… fail[ing] to present quantitative evidence to support his findings" (Nyberg x). Research on the effects of video games on adolescent psychology have also been primarily inconclusive. Common sense, morality, and societal norms are often higher dictators than scientific research, however. Research, scientific or not, that supports the popular opinion of right-thinking people is often touted as proof, while contradictory research, scientific or not, is lightly reported.
The topics in this paper became objects of moral panics several years after their creation. Once it became apparent that they were not just fads but were "here to stay," society woke up to their existence and formed an opinion.
Comic books, unlike their contemporaries of radio, film, and television, were not part of a new technology. Thirty years after the newspaper comic strip's first appearance, the comic book evolved. Ten years later, comic books were accused of absorbing children's time; ten years after that, a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency was proposed.
Rock 'n roll music style was noticeable in the songs of 1948, eight years before Presley arrived on the scene. The combination of rock 'n roll, a white singer (Presley), and his popularity, however, was new, and that is what contributed to the moral panic.
Similarly, Dungeons and Dragons was being played for five years before the first link between the game and a fan's death was suggested.
Video games were invented in 1967, and the first Senate hearings on violence in video games were held 26 years later in 1993. Technological innovations allowed for increasingly more realistic video games; digitized graphics that allowed games to depict real people as the victims of game violence fed the moral panic and the change in how video games were perceived.
Through all these decades and different entertainment forms, there are common traits in artifacts involved in moral panics, based on how realistic or fantastic the thing is. When entertainment forms become realistic, parents worry what lessons adolescents will learn, and what psychological effect those forms will have on young adults. Comic books and video games, for example, were both linked to juvenile delinquency when they made a move toward realism. The violence and sexuality depicted in youth culture were against societal norms of the day, whether based in legality or morality.
Conversely, when artifacts are solidly based in fantasy, the escapism they offer is seen as threatening – stealing kids from reality and from themselves. The fantasy is often portrayed by the media as having a main goal of players killing each other, which challenges the value society places on human life.
These common traits often allow moral panics to become associated with each other, even after some of them are no longer modern panics. For example, Michael M. McDermott was a Massachusetts office worker who went on a shooting spree, killing several coworkers. In the 28 Dec. 2000 edition of the Boston Globe, three articles pointed out that he enjoyed "playing video games, or the fantasy role-playing challenge of Dungeons and Dragons." No other personal interests of McDermott's were listed. I presume the journalist's intent in drawing attention to these details is to present McDermott as someone with a rich and active fantasy life. These details can suggest that he learned how to kill from these games, or maybe that they blurred the line between his fantasy and reality, making it easier for him to commit murder.
Some moral panics never truly die out. Just as comic books are still seen as a juvenile medium, Dungeons and Dragons is still being linked to youth violence. In the 1999 murder of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, the suspects were accused of playing out a fantasy D&D game scenario. The game was still being presented as having the same corrupting potential today as it did 20 years after the first such allegations were made. Newspapers also reported that violent video games "fueled the conspiracy" (San Diego Union-Tribune 24 Feb. 2001).
It is not only people that are stereotyped, but also the activities over which society is panicking. Generalities easily enter the mindset of people unfamiliar with the subjects in question. In the Catholic schools I attended, Dungeons and Dragons material was disallowed by teachers who felt it was in opposition to their teachings. A student, upon learning I played the game, asked, "Isn't that game evil? That's what I heard in religion class."
Likewise, society often exaggerated the popularity of specific genres that they found threatening. Wertham used a broad definition of "crime and horror comics" which encompassed more than the 15% of Fifties comics that truly fit such a category. The Senate and other groups devoted much time to computer and video games, such as Custer's Revenge and Night Trap, which had limited commercial appeal; the industry is far more dependent on non-violent sports titles (Jenkins 3).
When the media describe the negative psychological effects of such pastimes, they are feeding a moral panic that has benefits for society's adults. Right or wrong, blaming youth culture for juvenile delinquency is a simple answer, which reduces a possibly complex problem to a simple one. A moral panic focuses society's attention and attempts at solutions on one target, thereby making the people involved feel more effective.
Moral panics also solidify a reasoning for the ever-present generational gap. Almost every parent has seen their children aspire to a greatness unknown to the parent. When the child masters a new tool, skill, or technology, this foreign device can seem threatening to the older generation. Using that difference gives substance to the generational gap while giving cause to believe the next generation will not be greater than the preceding one.
Despite these benefits, and though moral panics occur over what society perceives as a danger, there is a danger inherent in the panic itself. If video games and the like are merely symbols of youth culture, as Jenkins proposes, then their effect on children may not be what society thinks they are, and attacking the symbols does not address the root of the problem. Media's attacks on youth symbols and society's efforts to regulate symbols may drive that culture further underground, where it becomes more difficult to observe. In some cases, it may also make the symbols more appealing to youth. Ordinances to regulate adolescent presence at game arcades made them a more desirable location to adolescents, for example. And the ESRB that formed as a result of public outcry over video games gave the industry the means with which to safely continue releasing violent games. If a panicked society has goals of regulating or eliminating aspects of youth culture, then the measures we have witnessed have often been counterproductive.
Despite the questionable effectiveness of a moral panic, it is easier to take action when something exists against which to act. Newspapers and other media do not make their sales by making targets of their audience. Instead, the media unites society against a common threat. When a serial killer receives front-page coverage, he symbolizes a threat to society's values. When video games are blamed for juvenile delinquency, they represent a threat to what parents value: the well-being of their children.
Psychologists' findings on the causation of juvenile delinquency seldom receive such journalistic coverage. Moral panics occur before definitive research can be performed and evidence uncovered on what truly does or doesn't cause youth violence. Regardless of video games' role in delinquency, other suggested links are to environment, schooling, upbringing, etc. For a journalistic medium to examine or support these theories for delinquency would be threatening to parents, society, and even the medium itself. Society and individuals often have an easier time finding fault with societies, people, and objects outside themselves, and it is certainly easier to effect changes on external targets. It is easier to cast society into the role of problem-solver than victim.
It's also better for sales.
Moral panics often result over activities which, before their suggested link to juvenile delinquency, have received little or no media coverage. They become a part of youth culture, freely adopted by a community willing to try new things. The new form of entertainment remains foreign to the older generation, who was brought up without it. It is this older generation who panics and who also controls the news media.
If youth culture was represented from a youth perspective in day-to-day journalistic media, moral panics might not be so apt to occur. None of the subjects in this paper were regulars on the pages of newspapers when they were a new and primarily adolescent phenomenon. When they did appear in print, they were not reported from the perspective from which they were being used. Example: video game news articles in the early Eighties were written from a business standpoint. Yet video games were made popular not by businessmen, but by teenagers who saw them as a means of entertainment and escape. It was not economists who went to the arcade with a pocketful of quarters; yet few, if any, articles were written by or about people who did. It was only once parents and society became concerned with the effects of the entertainment forms on children that newspapers began covering these "new phenomena".
Central to precluding moral panics would be a change in the treatment of youth culture in the media. Maintaining an active watch on popular culture and reporting on it primarily from a youth culture perspective would give society a better understanding of it. It is easy to make links to juvenile delinquency when society is largely ignorant of the purported causal component.
Early reporting on youth phenomena when they actually are still new would be an effective preventive measure against the ignorance that is prevalent in moral panics. Some important questions need to be answered: From what existing medium are these new entertainment forms emerging? How are they different from what came before? What's new and appealing about them? How do our children use them, and what can they learn from them? With this information, parents and society would be better able to determine on their own how to interpret youth culture, how to allow it to be used by their children, and to decide what threats, if any, they present.
Even once an entertainment form has gone from being a fad to mainstream acceptance, it is important for the youth culture to have a voice in journalistic media. Since teenagers seldom have the opportunities to be journalists themselves, it is the responsibility of the reporters to immerse themselves in youth culture.
Any professional journalist should be able to write an objective article, but the selection and presentation of facts – a form of rhetoric – can be influenced by a reporter's familiarity with a topic. Moral panics often involve articles that lead the reader to the conclusion that video games or other youth activities were to some degree responsible for the crime being reported. The writers of such articles have no personal stakes in the representation of the entertainment forms. Seldom do rock 'n rollers, role-players, or video gamers write words that condemn the authors' own interests.
Although objectivity is an important journalistic quality, knowledge is as well. An informed journalist whose personal life includes comic books or video games may represent that interest by presenting his topics neutrally. Such a reporter would be less likely to misstate facts, exaggerate reports, or take things out of context.
The ultimate goal for such a breed of journalists is to introduce a unique perspective into daily newspapers. The same can be accomplished by newspapers using material from gaming publications. For example, the 21 Aug. 2000 edition of GameWEEK, "The #1 Interactive Entertainment Trade Newsweekly," reported a poll of 1,000 adults who were asked, "Although there may be many explanations for juvenile delinquency and violence among youth, which of the following do you think has the most influence – movies, television, comic books, video games or family?" Family was the choice of 56.3% respondents, with video games ranked at 7.9% and comic books at 0.5%. Though many newspapers reported that kids felt a Columbine shooting could happen at their school, such articles did not report what would cause such a shooting. A poll of more than 13,000 video gamers held at GameFAQs.com on 25 Apr 2001 indicated that 60% felt video games are not responsible for real-life violence; less than 2% felt that video game makers are responsible for that violence. These opinions, divergent from what newspapers commonly report, are currently made available only to the audience that uses video games. Presenting both an insider's and outsider's perspectives in a medium to which the average reader, gamer and non-gamer alike, have regular access would create a public better informed to form their own opinions.
Despite all that we can learn from looking at these cycles of outrage, some moral panics seem inevitable. As sure as moral panics existed before Cohen coined the term, so will they continue to be created in the new millennium. In early 2001, a church in Pennsylvania hosted a book burning of J.K. Rowlings'Harry Potter fantasy books. Joining the books were the "ungodly" music records of Bruce Springsteen, movies such as Disney's "Pinocchio" and "Hercules", and books by psychic Shirley MacLaine. Rowlings' books, like video games, blend fantasy with reality, depicting magic use in modern-day England. They have received wide press coverage due to their amazing popularity among children, and the series has been praised for "turning couch potatoes into readers."
The Pennsylvanian church reverend, a community moral leader, stated, "It's the same old devil with a new face."
The following excerpts were chosen by Dr. Frederic Wertham for inclusion in his book, Seduction of the Innocent. They include many examples of what Wertham found objectionable with the crime and horror comics of his day.
As I suggested in the conclusion, a strong means by which to prevent moral panics is to allow both youth culture and the people representing them to present their interpretations in a medium to which everyone has access. Since this paper has explored how video games have been represented in the mass media, I feel it would be remiss of me to not allow video gamers to also have a say in this project.
The following pages are selected strips of the online comic Penny Arcade, by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins. These strips have been chosen for their representation of how video gamers perceive how others perceive them. Each strip is labeled with the original title, post date, and the online address at which it can be found.
This appendix is presented with the permission of Krahulik and Holkins.
posted 9 Dec 1998
posted 2 Jul 1999
"The Longest Line"
posted 13 Dec 1999
"A Threat To America's Youth"
posted 20 Dec 1999
"K-Mart: Saving Lives"
posted 2 Jun 2000
"But That's The Best Part!"
posted 14 Jul 2000
"For Mom and Dad!"
posted 16 Apr 2001
"Dear Stupid People:"
posted 23 Apr 2001
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