In a recent column, George Will notes the parallels between current concerns about violent video games and the controversy over comic books in the 1950s (he also mentions moral panics provoked by "ragtime music, 'penny dreadful' novels, jazz, 'penny theatres,' radio and movies," as well as rock 'n' roll, rap, TV, and the Internet). Will emphasizes that Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who wrote the anti-comic diatribe Seduction of the Innocent and testified on the subject before Congress, was a man of the left, reflecting the "Puritan streak in progressivism." He quotes a lawyer for the trade groups challenging California's law against selling "offensively violent" games to minors, who told the Supreme Court that "today's crusaders come less from the pulpit than from university social science departments, but their goals and tactics remain the same." They also frequently adopt the language of public health, even when discussing such seemingly nonmedical issues as gambling and violent entertainment.
Critics of violent video games, of course, insist they are nothing like those fuddy-duddies who worried about comic books, crime novels, and Elvis Presley's hips. They say this medium, unlike all those others, really is so radically and alarmingly new that different legal standards should apply to it (an argument that provoked a skeptical response from Justice Antonin Scalia). Yet the state of California, in defending (PDF) its law, approvingly cites such embarrassing precedents as a 1956 Rhode Island law that included this finding:
It is hereby declared that the publication, sale and distribution to minors of comic books devoted to crime, sex, horror, terror, brutality and violence, and of pocket books, photographs, pamphlets, magazines and pornographic films devoted to the presentation and exploitation of illicit sex, lust, passion, depravity, violence, brutality, nudity and immorality are a contributing factor to juvenile crime, a basic factor in impairing the ethical and moral development of our youth and a clear and present danger to the people of the state.
For his part, Will seems concerned about "the coarsening of the culture," although he evidently believes this particular effort to stop it, which would require creating a new First Amendment exception for a heretofore protected category of speech, goes too far. Good for him. But it is often hard to tell the difference between the social conservatives of the left and the social conservatives of the right. Is it really just a matter of violence vs. sex?
I discussed the video game case in a column last month. Jesse Walker analyzed "the intolerant alliance" between censors of the left and censors of the right in a 2001 Reason essay. More on the comic-book crackdown here and here.