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Chess trumps  Mortal Kombat  as the first game to incite moral panic
Chess trumps Mortal Kombat as the first game to incite moral panic
May 22, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

"With the distance of time, all these panics start to look foolish and quaint."
- Author Scott Cunningham suggests that video games are simple the latest victims of the cyclical nature of moral panic.

According to the authors of "Bad For You: Exposing The War On Fun," video games are but the latest in a long line of popular pastimes painted as threats to the nebulous "youth" of the era that includes movies, comics, television, chess, and the written word.

"The headlines from the 1800s about penny dreadfuls and their ghastly influence on young readers are worded almost exactly like what critics of violent video games are saying today about their influence on kids," said co-author Scott Cunningham in an interview with GeekDad.

Cunningham and his co-author Kevin C. Pyle make an effort to document the rise and fall of public outcry over new forms of popular entertainment in their graphic novel, using timelines like "Fear of the New" to correlate common trends across centuries of human history.

"Each new wave of fear over the latest technology that interests kids is just that: a wave," says Cunningham, speaking about what he's learned from studying the similarities between the demonization of video games and the demonization of, say, chess. "The wave comes, it crests, and then it crashes against the shore and fades away."

During the interview Pyle points out that chess was once believed to attract children "of very inferior character", an anecdote that inspired writer Clive Thompson to dig deeper into why people once thought that chess would destroy children's minds.

Writing on Medium, Thompson quotes heavily from a Scientific American article published in the summer of 1859 that paints chess as an "adder's nest" which ensnares and exhausts a player's mental energy.

"No young man who designs to be useful in the world can prosecute it [chess] without danger to his best interests," reads the article, and Thompson points out that there's a kernel of truth there -- improving your skill at chess requires deep focus and time spent sitting at a table memorizing strategies that are chiefly applicable to the game.

Like video games, chess was once decried as a time-waster that kept kids entranced at a desk for hours when they could have been outside playing or studying something useful.

Like chess, games will likely become better accepted into popular culture if the wave theory of moral outrage proposed by Cunningham and Pyle proves true.

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Jesse Tucker
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Not to mention that chess encourages violence and even murder.

Ian Uniacke
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Also it's a murder simulator :P

John Hearty
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It's interesting to see recurring moral outcry cast as a feature of human nature rather than as piercing critique of specific titles. I think this distinction isn't always sufficiently recognised.

I'm not sure how far we can reasonably take the author's (inital quote paraphrased) "current moral concerns will look silly in the future" line based on drawing a parallel between chess and modern titles, though. There's a pretty clear experiential difference between removing a piece of wood from the game board and shooting someone in the simulated face with your simulated AK-47.

The question we could then ask might be "how much downplaying of conventional morality (a la, say, Mortal Combat) is too much"?

We might even ask "how far we can go in the times in which we live?", without being too embarrassed about drawing lines based on conventional, current and culture-specific sensibilities. Perhaps the really quaint practice is criticism of the practices of another time and place by our own standards, instead of happy recognition of how much we've gained over time.

Michael Joseph
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It doesn't sound like much of an argument.

"The world hasn't imploded, human beings still exist, therefore all your concerns, your father's concerns, his father's concerns, and on and on... are wrong."

1) The world has changed and continues to change and just because there's been people every generation speaking in opposition to various popular entertainment offerings, doesn't make them wrong.

2) There really aren't that many people speaking out about the negative effects of video games. There might be some loud voices here and there but that hardly constitutes the kind of national "moral panic" the authors are alluding to.

Jamie Mann
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I'm not really seeing the point you're making here. US student scores may be dropping, but there's absolutely nothing in those two articles which links that to popular media; instead, they both point to weaknesses in the educational system itself.

Then too, at least two of the countries cited as being higher performers - Japan and South Korea - are heavily obsessed by popular media and gaming in particular.

(In fact, that's arguably the same kind of demonisation highlighted in this article...)

Personally, I think the peak point for video games was probably Mortal Kombat (which triggered a US Congressional hearing) - though GTA3 definitely fanned the flames a few years later.

In fact, if I was feeling particularly energetic, I'd try and draw up a chart of the various moral panics of the last 30 years; I strongly suspect you'd see a sine-wave pattern - and if I wanted to be cynical, I'd suggest that this is driven by the fact that pretty much everything loses its shock value after a year or two, forcing people to find a new sensationalistic cause to promote.

I'd therefore only dispute the article's last line: I'd suggest that gaming is well on it's way to being an accepted part of mainstream culture - social networking is probably the biggest target at the minute.

Then too, as this week's European elections have shown, the main thing currently driving Western politicians (and sensationalist newspaper headlines) is the ongoing rise of extreme right-wing and nationalistic groups, as well as the economic issues which have created the conditions for these groups to develop. All of a sudden, the age-inappropriate gameplay in "House of the Splatter Dead Evil 17: dismemberment special edition" just ain't that important any more...

Michael Joseph
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I think the point I was making was clear but the articles I linked to were to suggest causality even if they don't come close to proving it. It doesn't mean there is none.

I'm fine with that. It's an opinion. Just as you aren't energetic enough to draw up a chart of the various moral panics of the last 30 years... I'm not energetic enough to... there's only so much time in the day right?

Ben Lippincott
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If anything, your highlighting of education slipping while entertainment continues to ramp up doesn't really mean that we should blame the medium that continues to improve.

Ty Underwood
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We can all agree here that videogames most likely do not cause violence in kids or anyone else. I personally just don't like that, more than movies, more than books, violence is the most visible aspect of video games and the primary outward-facing indicator of the medium.
This is the fault of the industry, of marketing, of us the game designers. I think that should change.

Daniel Pang
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If we all agree videogames do not cause violence in kids or anyone else, then why is there a moral panic surrounding perceived sexist content in videogames? If people accept that videogames don't make people more violent, do they make people more sexist?

Not talking about the industry (which is and will continue to be largely male-dominated for a whole bevy of reasons both prejudiced and non), just talking about the products.