Gerard Jones is the author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence, as well as a former scripter for DC and Marvel Comics, among others.
At the 2006 Montreal International Games Summit, Jones spoke about repressing violence, and how video game gore can act as a release valve for our unexpressed aggression. Following his speech, Gamasutra sat down for a Q&A, to discuss violence, tension, and the acceptance (or lack thereof) of games as mainstream media.
Gamasutra: In your talk this morning, you mentioned you don’t really deal with video games directly, yet you keep getting invited to these games conferences. What do you think it is in your work that resonates with the gaming community?
Gerard Jones: Video games have been so much under attack recently, that I think there’s a certain nervousness. Most people in this business are very pleasant and non-confrontational and the fact that they are being reviled as the causes of crime, causes of violence, is disturbing. On the one hand, I think people want to know how to respond to those criticisms. But on the other hand, I think there’s some genuine anxiety that maybe games have a bad side, maybe there is a problem, and how do we deal with any guilt or fear?
I think anyone who’s a decent person but who finds himself or herself attracted to aggressive or violent imagery is a little troubled. Why do I like this? It’s not really something that we’re taught in life to examine. It just sort of sneaks up. So I think a desire to understand what’s happening inside ourselves is a big part of it. People in the games business are particularly inclined that way, being, for the most part, a gentle group in a medium where violence has become so prominent.
GS: In your work, you use sociology to take a historical approach to this issue. How do the current attacks on video games compare to attacks on other mediums in the past?
GJ: Attacks like this are very common. It started in the mid-nineteenth century. As that whole Victorian industrial complex was being pulled together, it was suddenly a very popular opinion among the shapers of taste and teachers that the material children or the uneducated masses were consuming, their entertainment, was going to lead to major social trouble. It makes sense in the context of a society trying aggressively to pull together, to minimize the chaos and day-to-day confrontations.
The first big attack in the United States was against popular novels, dime novels, yellow backs, cheap five and ten cents bits of fiction that were often romance stories with no real sex in them, but sexual overtones, a lot of young women barely maintaining their virtue. And then there were a lot of crime stories: dashing detectives, nests of counterfeiters, sex and violence material. So there was a huge outcry driven by teachers and doctors, bought into by parents and politicians--who saw a way to generate votes. This outcry was probably more virulent and widespread than the attacks on video games now.
You find it about movies in their early days. You find it again about movies in the late 20's and early 30's when they got sexier. You find it again about movies in the early 90's when gore was coming up. And certainly music too: ragtime, then jazz, then rock and roll, then the whole goth rock, death metal thing, and gangster rap. Whenever there’s a new medium, or there’s a distinct new style, there will be this.
If you look at the way furors begin and play out, they’re very predictable. I would say now we’re kind of at the tail end. If games continue to push boundaries, particular ones could come under attack. A lot of it’s just the medium being around long enough that people have realized the world hasn’t gone to hell. It’s just something else people are doing with their spare time. But somehow the bigger issues are the same as ever.
GS: You say we’re at the tail end of the attack. But in the past few months, anti-game fervor on the part of the government has really grown. It was even a big topic in the recent elections.
GJ: That’s rather typical actually. First there’s this rising chorus of voices, say from the clergy or some part of the pedagogical community. Then there’ll be growing community anxiety, where you’ll find large parent or church groups getting involved. Then the politicians start to catch on that there’s material here and votes to be gained. What’s happened most recently is first it was the cultural conservatives who realized they could motivate their voters with the argument that once again the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Then the democrats in the U.S., the people sort of left of center, realized they were losing the moral high ground, and they needed some way to say, well, we’re morally righteous too, and since they’ve already come out for free speech and contraception, video games was an easy way to do it. You get into this sort of duel, who’ll come down harder on video games.