A Crusade In Search Of A Crisis: R18+ And The Moral Panic

We’re closer than ever to an R18+ rating – but in the face of overwhelming common sense there is still a vocal minority in stark opposition. Why are games the target of such a focused campaign – and why do these groups continue to fight in the face of overwhelming research and public support for an adult rating for video games?

It’s a certain outcome – history makes fools of us all. The norms of society evolve quickly, and those that attempt to preserve the relics of their own time inevitably become the laughing stock of future generations. Yet even they, secure in their own space – their own perspective – will eventually become embroiled in the exact same practice. It’s a cycle centuries in the making, and one that’ll continue long after we’re gone.

So while we, as gamers, resent the imposition politicians and those in power place upon us, as a younger generation to be controlled, it won’t be long before we’re encouraging our kids to stop playing with their 3D brain-implant-holoscope and do their PlayStation 6 homework before dinner time. It’s simply the nature of the beast.

In a sense, the reluctance to introduce an R18+ rating is part of this cycle – the endless cycle of the ubiquitous moral panic. In an attempt to control a medium they don’t understand, politicians and those in control of the status quo have tried to build a wall of fear around video games – a largely irrational fear. A fear of the unknown.

It’s part of tradition that tracks back as far as history can measure – a new form of entertainment emerges that captivates the youth of the day, and those in power attempt to subdue that medium: partly out of fear of the new, but partly to maintain control of their children. Socrates was afraid the alphabet would corrupt children, Plato was terrified of poetry – Victorian thinkers believed that reading would quite literally send children insane, and Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips sent parents into a frenzy.

This is the irrational moral panic in action, and video games are the latest target.

The Moral Panic
“The basic recipe for a media moral panic is this,” claims Christopher J. Ferguson. “You need a new form of media that, on average, elder adults don’t use, like or understand – but youth do. Elder adults are perennially afraid of outside sources turning youth rebellious – against the elder empowered status quo. This can historically be traced back all the way to Plato and Greek plays, dime novels, comic books, Elvis Presley and now video games.”

As a Professor at Texas A & M University, Christopher J. Ferguson’s major area of research is violent behaviour and, more recently, the effect of video games on violent behaviour. In June he guest edited a special video game focused edition of the Review of General Psychology, a collection of incredibly insightful articles on the topic of games and how they can be used positively in the field of psychology and beyond. He is an expert on the ‘moral panic’ as applied to video games.

“The Moral Panic Cycle works like this,” explains Christopher, “basically the elders, politicians, policy makers, social scientists and advocates, decide that Media X is bad. There are loud proclamations regarding how bad it is, and calls for research that will demonstrate how bad Media X is. And there is always the clear preference for research that does exactly that – try getting grant funding by arguing something isn’t a problem. Inevitably some scholars are willing to step forward and claim that Media X is conclusively linked with harmful outcomes – scholars have always been a part of these issues since the 19th century. Only after several decades of hindsight do we realize how ridiculous these claims sound”

Video games are simply the latest target in a tradition going back centuries but, according to Ferguson, as video games have slowly moved into the mainstream, those that are vehemently against video games are in decline – we’re moving to the point where the vast majority of concerned citizens need a new target – but in the meantime politicians and right wing lobbyists still need an axe to grind.

“Youth today,” begins Ferguson, “are mentally healthier than they’ve been in 40 years even as games have soared in popularity – but it takes a while for society at large to realize that. Political ‘save the children’ campaigns are compelling for politicians of all stripes, and emotionally loaded which, frankly, makes them difficult to counter with actual information.”

Won’t Somebody Think Of The Children
According to Ferguson, the Moral Panic occurs in three stages.

“First, claims will be made that the new media is uniquely harmful in some way,” states Ferguson. “Movies were considered to be uniquely harmful because they were visual, Dungeons and Dragons because kids assumed the roles of the characters, video games because they were interactive. In none of these cases including video games, even if you take the research at face value, ignoring the methodological problems, no evidence has ever emerged to support these notions. I must make this clear: there is no evidence – none whatsoever – that the interactive nature of video games makes them uniquely harmful.”

The second stage is one we can all recognise: the proliferation of the urban myth.

“Secondly, you will see ‘urban legends’ emerge and become accepted unqualified – these are urban legends because they continue to be repeated despite being debunked in published literature. These include the claims that media violence effects are similar to smoking and lung cancer. Or that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to kill. Or that youth violence is on the rise, when it’s obviously on the decline.”

The third stage is perhaps the most insidious – the ‘research’ that springs up in support of the moral crisis, and offers politicians and lobby groups a proverbial leg to stand on.

“Thirdly, you will find some scholars willing to make extreme claims of absolute certitude regarding harmful effects – the kind of claims that are otherwise unheard of in the social sciences. There are far, far stronger areas of social science that do not make such absurd claims. Along with this, you can count on some scholars to simply ignore any evidence which conflicts with their own view – simply pretend it doesn’t exist at all. This is scientifically irresponsible conduct.”

According to Ferguson, you can see examples of this ‘research’ littered through history.

“Interestingly,” he claims, “in Victorian times many experts worried that women couldn’t distinguish reality from fiction, and dime novels would have them running off with the stableboy.”

We interrupt with a laugh.

“Seriously,” he continues, “I’m not making this up. The ‘tell reality from fiction’ is another common rallying cry – no longer for women one hopes – but for children, despite the fact that kids have been shown to distinguish reality and fiction from the age of three.”

The Long Bow
The Australian Christian Lobby, and in particular their Chief of Staff Lyle Shelton, relies on such research – claiming that Craig Anderson’s study on the effects of video game violence is proof enough that we shouldn’t take the chance with an R18+ rating for video games; despite the fact that said study has been rebuked in almost every major Literature Review on the topic.

We asked Lyle Shelton – is he worried that history will ridicule his crusade to deny video games an R18+ rating?

“Yeah definitely,” begins Shelton, during a recent interview with Kotaku, “but I think it’s drawing a long bow to link Socrates being concerned with the alphabet to video game violence which allows players to walk through an airport mowing down innocent civilians with a machine gun. We all have concerns, we’re always open to rational debate, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”

We’d hardly expect to make a moral relativist of the spokesperson for the Australian Christian Lobby, but there is a connection between the moral panics of the past and the video game moral panic of today – the only difference is time and perspective. We asked Christopher J Ferguson: if history is destined to repeat itself to explicitly, can’t we learn from it?

“Since this cycle has been going on for at least 2500 years,” begins Ferguson, “I’d have to say ‘no’, although I’d like to be optimistic. For politicians, frankly, there’s no advantage in doing so. The short term gains of a ‘protect the children’ campaign far outweigh the long-view.

“Indeed, I suspect, some politicians don’t particularly believe what they’re saying, but it helps them look appropriately concerned for voters. These arguments also tend to be emotional, rather than rational, and people tend to respond to children emotionally. Parents commonly fear outside influences stealing their own ability to mold their children. New Media also makes an excellent scapegoat – it provides politicians with the illusion that they are ‘doing something’ to fix a pervasive problem like crime. Sure, in 20 years people will figure out it was a massive waste of time, but by then the politician in question may very well be retired. Engaging in this process is far easier than tackling a real issue like poverty or mental health.”

And that appears to be the real tragedy. While politicians and lobby groups harangue and bully one another – crusaders in search of a crisis – the roots of major issues like crime and poverty remain untended, sacrificed at the altar of party politics. In reality the R18+ rating is a minor one, it’s a common sense issue that should have been resolved years ago with a minimum of fuss; but the Moral Panic, and the political benefits of maintaining that cycle, are too tempting to pass up. The crusaders find their crisis – saddle up to win the hearts and minds of vulnerable parents across the country – and real problems are left to fester.

“There’s not much political capital in tackling poverty,” finishes Ferguson, “but people seem perfectly willing to burn tax money on a witch hunt. People like ‘villains’ even when those villains are folk devils like video games. Real, pressing social problems don’t always have identifiable villains, therefore it becomes harder to raise the will to tackle them. But, sadly, by reaching for the low-hanging fruit we leave these problems unaddressed.”

We’d like to think that, with a little time and perspective, our generation will be able to look back at the R18+ debate and smile at the naivety of the people who opposed its introduction, but most likely we’ll have replaced those we argued against – trying to preserve that which we now value, struggling against fate and history. Refusing to learn from the mistakes of the past – crusaders in search of a new crisis.


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