In 1972, Stanley Cohen explored moral panics in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. Wikipedia defines a moral panic as a “widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, that some evil person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society. It is ‘the process of arousing social concern over an issue,’ usually perpetuated by moral entrepreneurs and the mass media, and exacerbated by politicians and lawmakers.”
Recent history is replete with moral panics, including the Satanic panic and religious freak-outs about Dungeons and Dragons and panics about Rock and Roll music and rap.
Moral panics are frustrating. Those who aren’t swept up in them can see the illogic of the claims of those who are panicking and how they seem to latch onto any tenuous connection to keep their prejudice alive. Moral panics can be dangerous. The Red Scare, for example, ruined lives.
Moral panics also divert attention from other issues, keeping them from being discussed while scapegoating innocent people.
In the 2000s, gaming became a premier example of all the above, mostly because of unfounded concerns about violence.
Concerns over violence in video games have been around for a long time. The 1976 game Death Race was the first game to be targeted because of its violence. But in 1992, the debate spiked with the release of Mortal Kombat. The gory fatalities portrayed in the game resulted in congressional hearings in 1993 and 1994 to discuss violence in video games; the hearings and other criticism led to the industry’s creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which rates video games with respect to content and player age.
In 1997, when 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire at Heath High School, killing three people, parents sued porn sites, movie makers, and video-game companies. Critics said that the producers of video games played by Carneal had desensitized him and made him more likely to commit violence. Such fallacious arguments would plague the video-game industry for years.
But the real spark came in 1999. On April 20, 1999, twelfth-grade students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on students and teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado. Twelve students and one teacher were killed, and 21 others were wounded. Harris and Klebold had been armed to the teeth: four guns, 99 explosives. At the time, it was the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. Many theories were suggested about why these two shot up their school. One is relevant here: the pair had been fans of several violent video games, including Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and Postal.
The outsized effect of this claim belies the lack of evidence for it. What is known is that the two played video games; that they said the massacre would be “like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke and Doom all mixed together”; and that in Eric’s last journal entry, he wrote that he wanted to get “a few extra frags on the scoreboard.”
Despite the scantiness of the evidence, the claim that video games triggered the massacre set off a firestorm. In their book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson observe that “the Columbine massacre was a pivotal event in cementing in the public’s mind the notion that violent video games and school shootings were linked.” Earlier school shootings, such as the Westside Middle School massacre of 1998, were reassessed in the context of the new controversy. Some pointed out that the perpetrators of Westside mass murder had played first-person shooters.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Moral panics are half-intentional, encouraged by certain people. In the wake of Columbine, a key encourager of moral panic appeared on the program 60 Minutes. He was an attorney who blamed the shooting on video games, claiming that first-person shooters in particular teach kids to kill and cause them act aggressively. More than any other single person, this attorney stoked the fires of the panic.
Jack Thompson is a bad man. In 2008, he was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court for lying to tribunals and humiliating litigants. But even before that episode, he had been a public nuisance and moral crusader who had targeted any form of media, from rap music to Howard Stern raps, that clashed with his narrow view of what is acceptable. He went so far as to accuse the Japanese game company Sony of committing “Pearl Harbor 2” for selling violent video games in the West.
Thompson had been opposed to video games at least since 1997, but Columbine was his big launching point. After the shooting, he pounced on almost any act of violence that hit the headlines, loudly attributing the mayhem to video games. This was his modus operandi throughout the 2000s. His pet project was the video-game company Rockstar, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, which he harassed about Grand Theft Auto and Bully. He contended that gaming desensitizes kids to violence, misrepresented video games as largely violent, and pushed for laws to ban or restrict the sale of certain video games to certain populations.
Among opponents, Thompson was widely regarded as a school-shooting chaser. The description was well-earned. In 2007, only hours after the Virginia Tech shooting, Thompson popped up with claims that the shooter had used video games to prepare for their act of violence (a claim that would be refuted). But he also had his followers. In 2005, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton jumped on the bandwagon with a bill that would have punished any retailer who sold M-rated games to minors, treating violent video games as if they were a public health hazard.
A Turnaround of Sorts
Clinton’s bill died in committee. Then, in 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Associationthat like the “protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices . . . and through features distinctive to the medium. That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.” The ruling affirmed that video games were a constitutionally protected art form. Meanwhile, more studies were published showing little or no connection between violent video games and violent behavior, and many studies that did show links were marred by methodological errors. There is no conclusive evidence that violent video games cause violent behavior.
But those swayed by moral panics tend not to be swayed by logic. Jack Thompson’s strenuous moral assaults had accomplished something: they had taken myriad tragedies, mixed them with concerns about video games intended for adults, and created an enduring controversy the echoes of which we still feel today. The damage had been done, even if the biggest effect of the controversy was not what it created but what it obscured.
Hurting Some, Hiding a Monster
If you were not a gamer yourself in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s hard to understand exactly what this controversy meant to gamers.
Many gamers were outcasts, not really fitting into the communities in which they lived. Video games provided a pastime that could easily be made social. They were young, and sometimes they were bullied. Suddenly, their parents and teachers were claiming that their favorite pastime was “evil.” Something that helped these kids get through the day was suddenly being demonized.
The dismay of gamers was even more painful in rural, conservative communities where people were especially prone to agree with Thompson’s rhetoric.
Thompson became a reviled figure among the gaming community. He started arguments with gamers and he harassed them. They fought back.
Games weren’t even the issue. Gamers knew something else was going on. Something was being obscured by the rhetoric about games.
If, when we were talking about Columbine, you wondered how the hell those kids got so well-armed, then you’ve already figured out the big one: gun control.
An Easy Target
The moral panic and the attendant debate about a fake problem did hurt people, but also obscured real problems.
Video-game violence is often raised to distract people from more fundamental problems. Even after discussion of gun control was renewed in 2021 in the wake of several shootings, politicians were still blaming video games. Video games are a convenient target for Republicans who don’t want to answer questions about why they don’t invest in mental health resources after having said that “we need a national discussion on mental health.”
Video games are an easy target. They are a new medium that has been advancing quickly, one more immersive than any medium that has come before. And many older people are unfamiliar with them. Most importantly: decrying the evils of video games doesn’t run the risk of forcing activists or politicians to spend or lose money.
Criticizing gun sales and the NRA, or actually investing in mental health resources, can hurt the pocketbook.
There’s a racial element to this as well. Acts of violence perpetrated by people of color are often attributed to innate violence, whereas members of the American media often look for an excuse when mass shootings are committed by white, middle-class kids. As Markey and Ferguson comment: “horrific acts of violence by white kids, supposedly coming from nice families, violated the prejudice that youth violence was a minority/urban phenomenon. . . . Some scholars . . . argue that our racial prejudices about violence lead us to seek out external explanations when white kids commit crimes.” So as the debate about video games and violence distracts from discussions of gun control, it also insulates white children who have commit heinous crimes from the criticisms wielded against children of color.
Although the controversy over video games and violence may not be quite dead and buried, it is not the same monster that it was in the early 2000s. Yet the sheer absurdity of those days does serve as a reminder—not only of the difficulties faced by new media but also of how a moral panic can prevent us from discussing the problems that we really need to face.