The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet
November 25, 2008 Page 1 of 3
[After Barack Obama's U.S. election victory, does his brave new world means we never have to worry about game censorship again? IGDA co-founder and designer Ernest Adams looks at what his administration might mean for games and 'moral panic'.]
The American election is finally over, and a new era has begun in American politics. The Republicans, who so arrogantly talked of establishing a "permanent majority" in Congress only four years ago, have been reduced to a distinct minority.
Their party is in disarray, and a significant number of them, mostly the moderate intelligentsia such as General Colin Powell, jumped ship to endorse Barack Obama. So what does it mean for video games?
I grew up in the era of the space race and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, when science, the arts, and education generally were respected. Engineers were not derided as nerds; they were the heroes who were taking us to the moon and bringing us the wonders of solid-state electronics.
Gradually, however, that faded. We got to the moon and then punted. In the 1970s, Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, and soaring inflation drove it all from the public mind.
People got fed up and elected a populist faux-cowboy, Ronald Reagan, who knew little about science and cared even less. Reagan moved his party sharply to the right and gave socially conservative evangelical Christians a major role to play -- some of whom were actively hostile to science.
At the same time, video games appeared and were a roaring success. There was bound to be trouble. This new form of entertainment, which apparently turned children into twitching zombies, scared the life out of a lot of folks. The moral panic began in the early '80s, and we began to hear the first calls for censorship.
I got into the game industry in 1989. Five years later, with the help of Dave Walker and a number of other good folks, I founded the International Game Developers' Association (then called the Computer Game Developers' Association). We did it partly as a reaction to Congressional investigations into video games.
Congress was in full freak-out mode over Mortal Kombat. With its extreme violence and gory, sadistic "finishing moves," MK dialed public anxiety about games up to stratospheric levels -- possibly even higher than Grand Theft Auto has more recently. Our creative freedom was under attack.
The IGDA was established to give a voice to the individual game developer, to fight our corner against censorship. Personally, I don't care for Mortal Kombat and I don't care for Grand Theft Auto, in spite of its obvious brilliance both technically and as satire.
But I do care very deeply for the rights of game developers to express themselves, and that is a principle that transcends the excesses of any particular title. This medium can never reach its full potential so long as we must conform to the demands of those who seek to place limits on it.
So now Obama's soon to take office. Since Ronald Reagan I've had to wait 28 years for a president who was proud of his education and didn't have to pretend to be dumber than he really was to get elected. (Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, but he never talked about it.)
I despise Know-Nothing populists. I'm delighted to see a professor of constitutional law and former editor of the Harvard Law Review in the White House.
Obama is also technically savvy, a BlackBerry user who made brilliant use of the Internet to run a game-changing campaign.
He represents just the sort of leader I like, and with solid, near-filibuster-proof backing in Congress, he can go a long way to undoing the damage that George W. Bush has done to America in the last eight years.
Obama's not a liberal by my standards (he's opposed to gun control and claims to support the death penalty), but he certainly respects the Constitution.
Unfortunately I don't think his election means that video games are now safe.
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