Civil Liberties

Birth of a Medium

Video games, art, and moral panic


For Henry Jenkins, a professor of media studies at MIT, the video game Grand Theft Auto III is a bit like Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that cineastes praise for helping create the basic grammar of the movies and simultaneously damn for celebrating the Ku Klux Klan.

"In terms of what it does for games as a medium, Grand Theft Auto III is an enormous step forward," says Jenkins. "It represents a totally different model of how games can tell stories and what you can do in a gamespace. It happens to be yoked with some sophomoric images of violence that a lot of us wish weren't there."

Mary Lou Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat in the Washington legislature, sees only the violence. A bill she sponsored will ban stores from selling or renting violent video games to anyone under 17.

The bill, which the legislature has approved and the governor is expected to sign, defines "violent" as "realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive conflict in which the player kills, injures, or otherwise causes physical harm to a human form in the game who is depicted, by dress or other recognizable symbols, as a public law enforcement officer."

Pushing the bill in her constituent newsletter, Dickerson cited five recent murders in California. "One of the six youthful murder suspects confessed their random killings were inspired by the popular game Grand Theft Auto III," she wrote. "'We play the game by day, we live the game by night,' he boasted to police."

Birth of a Nation faced censorship battles too. In those days, the courts held that the First Amendment didn't apply to the movies, which were seen as a medium more for pie fights than for art. In other words, they were viewed the way video games are viewed today. In 2002 U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh ruled that video games are not protected speech, a judgment that's unlikely to be law 10 years from now but sums up the current conventional wisdom. (By limiting itself to restrictions on minors, Dickerson's bill avoids most of the First Amendment questions a full-fledged ban would raise.)

Forward-looking critics such as Jenkins, and an increasing number of game designers, believe that video games can be art—and that laws like this could retard the new medium's development. But most people regard them as toys at best and dangerous diversions at worst.

As John Springhall put it in Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Panics (1998), "A new medium with mass appeal, and with a technology best understood by the young…almost invariably attracts a desire for adult or government control."

Video games date back to the early 1960s, but they didn't become popular until Pong and Space Invaders arrived in the '70s, bringing the dreaded video arcade with them. A dark maze filled with nickelodeon-sized consoles, the arcade became a magnet for anxieties and urban legends. For fretful parents, they were a hangout for hooligans cutting class to play Pac-Man, losing hours and quarters that could be spent in the fresh air and wholesome sunshine.

Worse, those spaceship-shooting toughs would become role models for younger arcade goers. Before you knew it, they'd be learning not just how to save a girl from Donkey Kong but how to smoke weed, play slots, and steal cars.

The fear of arcades dates back to long before video games existed, as anyone familiar with the pool hall scene in The Music Man already knows. Any public space that appeals to kids but is not under constant adult supervision is going to inspire anxieties. If games, traditionally associated with sin, are involved, then those anxieties will be magnified.

The current panic, though, focuses on games played not in public but in private, on the family PlayStation while Mom or Dad is upstairs. "We've gone through a cycle of moral panic that said, 'Kids are playing it, we don't know what it is,'" comments Jenkins.

"Now we're at the second danger point," he continues, "when the medium begins to spread outward and attract more adults while the public still perceives it as mostly a children's medium. Grand Theft Auto III was made, marketed, and rated for adults, but parents don't know the game can be for adults." So they buy the games for their kids without realizing what they're getting.

When the parents finally peek at the mayhem in the family den, the misunderstanding explodes. The result is wild rhetoric and ill-conceived laws that interfere not just with gamers' fun but with an art form in its infancy.