“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed — a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems — the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”
— Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, 1940
“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock ’n’ roll!”
— Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros.
In the winter of 1574, early in the days of English theater, the Common Council of London issued a statement censoring and restricting theatrical performances within London city limits, complaining of their great popularity among youth and, as they described it, “the inveigling and alluring of maids, especially of orphans and good citizens’ children under age … and many other corruptions of youth and other enormities.”
While fears of plague and the risk of large gatherings also played a role in the ruling, chief among its reasons was the danger that this form of entertainment posed for the young, lower classes and the overly susceptible. This was followed by an outright ban within the city limits of London, and further censorship, lasting until the Restoration era of the 1660s.
From the 1690s until 1710, Pope Innocent XII and his successor, Pope Clement XI, following previous bans on female singers, whistling and shouting during performances, outlawed opera entirely, as a sinful and seditious form of music at odds with the morals and spirituality of the Church. The Teatro Tordinona, a place where “extravagance, gluttony and every other most guilty form of intemperance triumphed, so that the resources of families were squandered, youth were corrupted, and pilgrims were scandalized,” was torn down, only to be rebuilt several decades later with opera’s later resurgence.
With the popularity of jazz in the 1920s, so grew opposition to the so-called devil’s music (not the first to be labelled as such, and not the last). Within a decade, more than 60 communities in the U.S. (and Germany in its entirety) enabled prohibitions against the public performance of jazz, with the music seen as “the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds.”
Sixty years later, the 100th Congress passed Resolution 57, designating jazz as “a rare and valuable national American treasure.”
It never stops.
And then there’s film, immediately after its rise in popularity and again and again throughout its history, most notably with the moral censorship guidelines of the 1930 Hayes Code, which stated among its goals that “the important objective must be to avoid the hardening of the audience, especially of those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.”
Television, every couple decades since its invention. As Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow put it in 1961, a procession of “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.”
Comic books, particularly during the 1940s and ’50s. Portrayals of superheroes, crime and horror led to the 1954 publication of psychiatrist Fredric Wetham’s Seduction of the Innocent, an alarming screed warning of the dangers of lowbrow sequential art. This was followed by the formation of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the same year, which held hearings on the potentially deleterious impact of comic books on young readers.
Role playing games in the 1980s. Dungeons and Dragons was believed by some to promote devil worship and suicidal behavior, with opponents often tying unfortunate events involving young players to the demonic influences of the game.
Don’t get me started on rock ’n’ roll.
So we arrive at the present, and with it a new target. Video games, a form of entertainment with more than 90 percent of youth and the majority of adults playing, are the new opera, the new jazz, once again stimulating half-crazed teenagers to the vilest of deeds.
They’ve been connected to Sandy Hook (Adam Lanza was said to have played in his “underground bunker,” normally referred to as a basement), Aurora (James Holmes, alongside 10 million other players, was a fan of World of Warcraft, a fantasy adventure game), and the Virginia Tech massacre (shooter Seung-Hui Cho hadn’t played a video game since Sonic the Hedgehog in the early ’90s).
During a press conference held the week after the Sandy Hook shooting, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, called the game industry “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.”
On Jan. 12, following outcry against the industry, the vice president met with the heads of several prominent video game publishers as part of a task force looking at the role of video games in mass shootings.
Last week, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, asked about supporting universal background checks for gun purchases, replied that video games were “a bigger problem than guns.”
Never mind that murder rates have fallen in the United States over the past 20 years, while video game sales have skyrocketed.
Never mind that the largest video game markets in the world, per capita, also have some of the lowest reports of gun violence.
Never mind that this same sort of hysteria has happened many times before.
During the rise to prominence of any new form of media or pop culture, there follows a cadre of misguided do-gooders, armed with misinformation and loose correlations, ready to lash out at any perceived potential for harm. They take to the streets with the notion of protecting the youth, publishing anecdotal evidence as fact, pointing to unrelated ties and exclaiming “This! This is that which we should repress, for surely it brings no good!”
When tragedy happens, the new medium is hoisted onto the platform, threatened and mocked, examined and dissected because somewhere, somehow, there has to be a link between it and our woes. Because it’s the easy way; because it’s the new, it must be at fault, lest we pause and find fault in ourselves.
Over and over again, until the new is no longer new and another arises to take its place.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a native Las Vegan and tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.