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The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet
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The Designer's Notebook: The Moral Panic Isn't Over Yet

November 25, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The culture wars of the last quarter-century have produced some strange bedfellows in video game politics.

Socially conservative Republicans, who are hostile to anything outside their quaint Ozzie-and-Harriet notions of what American society ought to be like, have been joined by Democrats who object to the way that titles like GTA make a virtue of cynicism and glorify criminality.

Both groups seek to suppress such games because the games undermine their vision of an ideal world. The conservatives' and liberals' respective notions of what an ideal world would look like are entirely different, but neither one has any room in it for "murder simulators."

In fact, our most aggressive critics have not come from the right, but from the moderate left.

(I use these terms in their American sense; in truth America has no genuine left wing. To the rest of the world, the Democratic party is right wing, and the Republican party is even more right wing. Those ignoramuses who called Obama a socialist know nothing about socialism.)

Tom Lantos, our earliest Congressional critic, was a Democrat. Hillary Clinton is a Democrat. Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, who took on the music industry, is a Democrat. Joe Lieberman is a Democrat... sort of.

These people would never dream of threatening to impose a government labeling system on books if the book publishers didn't set up their own, yet that is exactly what they did to video games.

Part of this is simple "triangulation," as Bill Clinton called it. In order to avoid appearing too far left, Democrats need an issue that will appeal to social conservatives. They can't argue for censoring books or movies or TV, or they'll lose the support of their base.

Video games are a safe target. Nobody important cares about them. Unlike movies, games don't have a lot of rich, popular, and very good-looking people standing up to defend them.

It's not all greasy political maneuvering, however; some of the Democrats' actions are motivated by genuine concern. Rep. Tom Lantos was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps.

He looked at the way some video games glorify wanton violence and brutality and saw echoes of Nazi culture. The fact that a game takes place in a virtual fantasy world didn't matter to him; fantasy can be powerful stuff.

The Nazis, and for that matter the Soviets, lived in a bizarre fantasy world constructed by their own propaganda, but its twisted ethics enabled them to kill an awful lot of people in the real world without any pangs of conscience.

Lantos was a slick operator and I didn't like the way he manipulated the game industry and the press, but I'm convinced that -- unlike Hillary Clinton -- his uneasiness about games was sincere.

So what's next for us? Lantos died in February of 2008. Clinton may be our next Secretary of State; if she is, video games will be off her agenda for several years at least. If she remains in the Senate, however, she may well continue to use them to bolster her centrist credentials.

The Democrats have apparently forgiven Lieberman for supporting McCain during the election; they still need him in the Senate to break Republican filibusters. I don't think we've seen the last of him by any means.

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