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.


    By reading ACL's side of the argument, they give off biased research and not give any evidence of it, they are trying to control a medium that they have absolutely no understanding of. Going back into the 80's with the rise of video games as a popular media, video games were just a over glorified toy but now the ACl still thinks that its a fad thats going to pass but in reality its here to stay.

    It is just a moral panic the ACL is trying to stir up, just look at when Rock and Roll was said going to destroy society and look how that turned out.

    Wow. This guy has it down to a "t".
    I seriously could not have said this better myself!

    The combined literary talents of Mark and Christopher have shown how right we've been all along!

    We can't lose! :D

    Good read Mark! thanks

    Excellent article posted on ABC today. http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2010/12/07/3086975.htm


      I haven't agreed with a single thing that the ACL has come out with in this debate. And yes, I'm a Christian.

      (Woo Jesus :P)

      Well there you go Mark, I wasn't the only one who thought this was a good angle. Too bad ABC got to it before you did!

      Not that you could work on your own anyway!

        Their angle is different - a christian viewpoint. I think it's a great follow up to the ACL piece they posted yesterday.

        My angle here is completely different - more of a look at the cycle of this stuff, and how politics and the generation gap gets in the way of progress.

        EDIT: Yeah I misread that post! I thought it was a great angle. I tried to get Junglist to write one (since he's a Christian) but we never got round to organising it! He was very pissed off in the same way – the ACL claims to represent Christians, but really they're just attempting to satiate the people that pay their salaries. They have to be seen to be doing something. A spokesman for the Catholic Bishops said that to me!

    I don't think gamers are active enough... politically.

    Couldn't we all join the ACL, and then at the next Annual General Meeting table a motion (and pass it) to disolve the ACL (or at least reverse its position).

    On topic though... good article, not surprising that this kind of thing has been going on for generations.

      I think you'll find the ACL isn't based on any form of voting or democracy.

      Basically take all the Christian Groups - including the fundamentalist wacko's - put them together in a small room and there's the ACL membership.

      The greatest shame of the ACL is that it proclaims to represent all Christians, but only follows through on policies by the hard line fundamentalist members who believe that by politican donations, threats to politicians and secret agreements, they can make Australia a better place.

        Or that they do anything that would commonly be associated with the word Christian like promoting or funding the dozens of social service programs that are hanging by a thread in Australia.

        Or perhaps trying to implement some type of education reform to increase funding of public schools. Something that was actually 'for the children', than bullyish thought policeing.

        Even though I'm an atheist I'd happily vote for a christian focused party if they behavied in an even remotely christian manner.

        All those Christians who dont support the line pushed by the Australian Christian Lobby should start spreading that message.

        Set up a rival group designed to support the beliefs of the many Christians who DON'T support the ACL and their views.

    “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.”

    This here is what is wrong with the ACL's, etc argument - do they realise this game is available and is is rated as being suitable for 15 year old's despite the rest of the world restricting it to adults? The system doesnt function and needs some adjustments - the R18+ rating is just a necessary part of those fixes.

      Yes, they realise it. They aren't fools. They just refuse to admit they are wrong.

      Agreed. I think the ACL, from what I've read, are mostly concerned that the R18+ rating will "open the floodgates" so the speak. While there may be a slightly higher tolerance of games to fit the R18+ rating now (an uncensored LFD2 comes to mind), I think the biggest change will be a shift of games from MA15+ to R18+, as opposed to a shift from RC to R18+.

    Is it bad that my first reaction to this excellent column was "I want one of those panic buttons"?

    "kids have been shown to distinguish reality and fiction from the age of three."

    Resounded strongly with me, and made me think about;

    "allows players to walk through an airport mowing down innocent civilians with a machine gun"

    The players aren't mowing down civilians in an airport, they are controlling someone who is, there is a subtle difference, one that aperantly a three year old can pick up but an 'educated' adult cannot?

    I feel the need to point out the irony.

    The Christian Lobby is worried about youth losing touch with reality, when they themselves are pushing a world of make believe on their own kind.

    Christians may argue I'm wrong, there is a God, and their beliefs are valid, that's fine I'll accept your opinions and not discriminate, but you need to in return accept that the studies prove factually beyond doubt this medium is not negatively influencing anyone, especially those that are actually of age to legally view it.

    This is my opinion.

    Your move.

      Please don't lump Christians in with the ACL... man I feel stupid having to say that.

      I for one as a Christian don't support a scrap of their arguments on the issue, and there are probably so many more in the same camp.

        I would like to clarify that offense was not intended when I wrote that post.

        My wife's side of the family is entirely Christian, I'm no stranger to the religion and they too share the same views as you.

        I would go a step further and say the vast majority of Australian Christians are embarrassed by the ACL, at least they are in the community's my in-laws are a part of.

        I am not anti-religious despite what my post made me sound like, the argument was directed squarely at the ACL, and not Christianity as a whole.

        I would like to apologize for not making the distinction clear. :)

    i don't think it is exclusively "right wing lobbyists" who have an axe to grind as the article states. there are plenty on the left how are for greater control on video games, see Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman etc.

      dave is entirely correct,

      The US "Progressivist" Left has historically been socially conservative in many respects; they just back up their puritanism with pseudoscience rather than with religion (the latter being the province of the religious right).

      Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman are two examples but there are many more. Dr Frederic Wertham, the man that launched the moral panic over comic books, was a progressive leftist convinced of the ability of social scientists to reshape and intelligently design social arrangements. Additionally, look at the California video game law; its principal sponsor is Leland Yee. Yee is a child psychologist, a leftist and a progressive. The law also passed through a strongly Democratic-controlled legislature.

      Puritanism is not confined to the right.




    "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."

    Oh... bring up Modern Warfare 2 without knowing the fact that firstly, you can skip that mission and secondly that you dont even have to do anything in that mission.

    These articles get more brilliant by the day. Amazing work.

    For me, the best part is to hear such a mature discussion on the subject. It signals that we've grown, and our entertainment choices are not children's playthings anymore.

    I did find it amusing, or scary, whichever perspective you want to take it from, that the R-18+ shouldn't be allowed because their survey said 63% of people believe theres a linke between games and violence.
    Last I checked mass uninformed opinion wasn't a reliable base of policy. Surveying children would probably find a decent number worried about a monster hiding under the bed, but no one is calling for a law forcing all beds to be flush to the floor.
    And the ACL's continued misrepresentation of the pro R arguments is tiring.

      Wouldn't surprise me if beds-flush-to-the-floor is the next campaign they launch after they lose this one on Friday.

      I mean they spend all their time railing on about imaginary boogeymen (such as the hundreds of graphic, hard-core rape and murder simulations waiting to be released on Monday if the A-G's agree to an R rating on Friday) anyway, so they might as well just come right on out and embrace the theme literally.

    Even if politicians never drop the alarmist crusades against folk evils, this article has inspired me to try and avoid making the same assumptions as I become responsible for shaping younger minds.

    ACL doesn't represent all Christians.

    I know many Christians that support the rating, but don't let me interrupt your hate speech.

    "Parents commonly fear outside influences stealing their own ability to mold their children."

    Bahahahaha, it's so true.

    Isn't the whole point of religion to ignore all reality and facts by charging blindly through life with a complete conviction that your view (based on nothing, mind) is correct?

    Why religious groups are allowed to have any say on matters such as this is baffling. Progress, or be left behind.

      Firstly I firmly believe that religion and state should be kept completely separate at all times.

      No exceptions.

      Those with religious views and beliefs have every right to their choice and opinion and to speak their mind and have their voice heard.

      It becomes difficult to reach an agreement when one parties argument is guided by their belief, and the other parties is guided by research, with each party so willing to dismiss the others evidence.

      It's like watching a dog chase it's tail.

    "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"

    Doesn't that just sum it all up nicely? Any other form of Media we wouldn't even be having this discussion, it's just that video games are the current "evil" that parents, politicians and the religious must hate, because well, we gotta hate something hey? Everyone needs and enemy...

      Progress for the sake of progress is no benefit to society either.

    Great article!

    The R18+ debate always reminds me about the claims in the 50's, that comic books cause juvenile delinquency.


      Have you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay? Wertham's book/crusade leads to some heart-breaking scenes for the main characters in the book.

        The comics code was also one of the worst things to happen to American comics. It took years before mainstream comics developed any sense of maturity.

    Fantastic read yet again., Mark.

    You're effort leading up to the meeting of the AG's has been absolutely phenomenal.

    It truly makes me proud to be a gamer.

      I gotta learn to change my name back after i change it to silly things..

    This has me nervous. C'mon, please pull through!

    So close! Roll on Friday!

    For those who haven't seen my invitation to fresh Aussie Gaming R18+ news (Kotaku and many others), videos, pics and more, everyone is welcome to come take a look, maybe join if you like:


    Not spam, just a friendly invite, free to ignore me. :)

    Thanks for the article Mark!

    "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."

    of course if he hadn't stood in the way of an R18+ rating, hardly any children would have been exposed to that.

    the longer an R18 rating is blocked, the more society (both children and parents) is conditioned to believe that all video games are suitable for children. the ACL is such a ****ing liability.

    if it had been introduced before games were so mainstream, it would have been taken more seriously. now, the mainstream youth are just going to see their games, or sequels to games, move from MA to R, and go "well, how bad can they really be if they sold them to us kids for so long without the country going into anarchy? they must be fine really, just bureaucracy"

    so ACL: worried about the R rating not being taken seriously? you've all but assured that by blocking it for so long!

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