Moral Panic Over Games? That’s Nothing New

Moral Panic Over Games? That’s Nothing New

The kerfuffle over the R18+ rating and the recent banning (and subsequent reclassification) of Saints Row IV and State Of Decay has predictably brought forth the same old arguments about gaming. It only occurred to me over the weekend how very old those arguments are.

Over the weekend, I was in the need of some serious brain comfort food. In my case, that usually equates to some retro gaming, and I had it in mind to play some Sid Meier’s Pirates! for a time while watching something suitably retro to go along with it. My brain flicked around a few choices, before settling on 1983’s Joysticks.

It’s not a good movie.

Not by any stretch of the imagination; shot over 13 days in a warehouse that also serves as the parking lot of the video game arcade that’s the focus of what is, essentially, just another 80s teen comedy. There’s brief nudity, there’s off-colour jokes… and there’s a bevy of classic arcade games that would be worth an absolute fortune if they were still in the kind of condition they’re in within the movie.

Seriously, I struggle to think of a single cinema-released movie that features as many individual games as this particular not-so-great movie does — and yes, that does include Wreck-It-Ralph. The entire opening credits sequence is Pole Position. There are frequent Pac-Man and Satan’s Hollow references, and a Mayor who gets addicted to Gorf. It’s not a good movie, but if you’re keen on retro gaming, it’s one you should at least try to see once. Here’s the (somewhat NSFW) trailer:

In any case, I’ve seen Joysticks plenty of times beforehand, but watching it, I was struck with how, quite unconsciously, it was arguing many of the same points that get bandied about in modern games criticism, in many of the same ways.

Bear in mind, this movie came out in 1983. Thirty years ago, when these arguments (and these games) would have at least been a little bit fresh. I try not to think of that too much, because it makes me feel really old, but that aside, there’s a core plot that revolves around the idea that video games aren’t good for you. That they’re corrupting young minds, wasting money and destroying the ability of games addicts to think.

On the flipside, there’s even an argument from one of the movie’s villains, a punk caricature called King Vidiot, that when protestors are lured into the arcade with the promise of free game tokens that the management has “sold out”, because these aren’t serious gamers. Shades of the casual/hardcore “gamer” argument there, as well.

The thing that sticks out to me, however, is that back in 1983, video gaming was still in its infancy, and so this kind of moral panic was, arguably, quite new. The teenagers (spoiler alert: They win in the end, as always must happen with 80s teen comedies) of Joysticks would be the comfortably middle 40+ crowd of today, and it’d be comforting to think that attitudes might have changed in the intervening period.

Except that they very clearly haven’t. We’ve had three decades of gaming in the intervening period and it’d be lovely to think that gaming had become so mainstream that the very issues that a trite 80s comedy makes fun of would be things of the past, even as the games it celebrates so very much are.

Instead, we’re faced with the same kind of “won’t somebody think of the children” arguments, time and time again. That’s why, while the R18+ argument was never about letting everything through, it’s still a factor that we have to keep vigilant around. It’s all too easy to fall into caricatures on both sides (and this is something that Joysticks does for the purposes of comedy), but if it hits the level of games bans and serious legal implications, nobody’s going to be laughing any more.


  • It’s an argument that has been disproved time and time again. If I remember correctly, the last article I read stated that there was a stronger link between poetry and teen violence than videogames!

    I played plenty of violent videogames as a kid (mostly on PC) such as Postal, GTA, Duke Nukem 3D, and probably more I’ll remember as soon as click submit. but I’m a law abiding citizen. I have no criminal record, not even a parking ticket, and I’ve never been in a fight.

    Basically it’s pure nonsense. The only things a videogame is in danger of doing to a kid is distracting them from homework & study and possibly ruining their social life.

    • Hmmmm…I like you played such games as a youth, but I have been the prepetrator of several parking violoations. I certainly hope there is no link.

      • I got a speeding ticket once, and at least two parking tickets. GTA can’t be responsible, because @s0cks played it, so I’m going to put it down to Road Rash. On both the Mega Drive AND Game Boy.

        (Edit: I also blame Streets of Rage for my habit of eating roast chicken out of garbage bins.)

    • Oh my god! Run!

      I’ve played Myst most of my life and I’m gonna read journals and click on the lot of you!

      Look at the monster video games have turned me into!

      At least that is what I would say if the link between behavour and video games had some legs to it. It’s all about nature vs. nurture but for the life of me those who screech “Won’t someone think of the children” just don’t wish to get it.

      • The ones screaming “think of the children” are probably the ones who buy consoles to raise their children for them.

        • I myst be of a dying breed then. I was raised by my mother, not my SNES.

          And despite it’s appearance, I am not trying to be rude nor sarcastic. I’m just trying to find when all this nonsense started (habit from my research days).

          • I’m not sure if that second part is confirmation for all or part of the reply to me, either way, I’m agreeing with you. =)

            I was raised by my mother as well. She just happened to get into Sonic and Mario when I was young. So I’d watch her play until I was old enough to take it in turns.

            Once fantasy, reality, right and wrong were established, ratings were nothing more than a theory. Though she’d only let me watch movies she’d already seen.

  • I tellya, the argument about our ineffectual, in-name-only R18+ sham? Gives me stronger feelings of hostility than any video game ever has.

  • OK this is what I do not get. When something bad happens, they are quick to blame video games. Yet when something good happens, nay-sayers tend to resemble stoned mullets.

    Speaking for myself, one of the core elements to Myst is you find books some of which are journals for the fictional characters. After a while I started to carry small one about and eventually started using only a fountain pen. I don’t keep it as a diary but I do use it to take notes such as when I am shopping for computer parts or if I see a good TV deal.

    This I actually do attribute to having played Myst (but also I’m very old school). However, there are some where if I say it’s a habit I go from games, they look at me like I’ve had a kilo of meth.

    The point of my comment is, if nay-sayers are going to link bad events to video games they should know this can happen to good events too. But good luck trying to get them to see common sense.

  • With all the claims of child sex offenders, we could probably do with a lot LESS people “thinking of the children”.

  • The moral panic argument about entertainment is at least a century old and its only the set dressing that really changes, the core has always consisted of a solid block of ignorance with a seasoning of the fear of change liberally smothered in child damage histrionics. The saddest thing is that the people perpetuating the current moral panic against games would have been the victims about the panics over rock & roll and comics.

    Hmm hang on, doing the same thing over and over ad nauseum changing the slightest details and pretending its all new… Fucking hell, I think moral panics are caused by Call Of Duty!!!

  • The moral panic occurs whenever there’s a disjunction of media between generations.

    Abe Simpson said it best: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you too.”

    The trick is to imprint what you think now in your memory, then in 20 years when you’re complaining about the dangers of suspect media x influence on today’s youth, stop, remember this feeling now, and then shut up.

    • But that’s kind of my point. For that to be true, the adults of today (prime marketing material for Joysticks, essentially) should be more accepting of games and gaming given the 30 year gap. They’re not — or at least there’s enough noisy ones to make a difference.

      • To me, there’s a three-fold explanation:

        1. Gaming was far from mainstream in the 80s and 90s, so the majority of the adults who were kids back then have little to no exposure to games
        2. Of those who were exposed, many – possibly most – consider it “kids stuff”, so by now there’s little difference between them and those in 1.
        3. Of those who’re left from 1. And 2., there’ll be those who believe games now are evil, and games then weren’t. The same as how the kids who listened to “devil’s music” in the 60s (Beatles, Stones, The Who, Zepplin, etc.) and survived were horrified by the evil music their kids listened to in the 80s (Metallica, Iron Maiden, etc.). Those 80s kids now get horrified by music today.

        The common denominator is parents and kids. I guess it’s different when it’s your sweet little angel who’s playing violent video games. It’s much easier to blame a game for “anti-social” behaviour than accept that it’s your parenting, or even worse, that it’s a natural part of growing up and there’s no one to blame at all.

        That’s how conservatism works: glorifyingyour past as idyllic by decrying the present as the collapse of social order.

        • The difference between then and now. If I ever have a daughter, I will be the horrific kind of father who insists on meeting the boyfriends early, and intimidates the everloving hell out of them with scars and war stories and prominently displayed improvised weapons, along with the very best passive threats I can think of. Every word, gesture, and breath will be laden with latent violence.

          Because oh my God, I will remember what an unholy terror I have been to maiden virtue.

  • I remember watching this film as a teenager. One of those classic late night (possibly sbs) specials in which you wait for an hour to get a glimpse of sideboob promised by the pre movie warning of “contains nudity and adult themes”. This is what we did before the internet young uns.

  • Was watching an episode of “The Goodies” the other day as I too had a spout of nostalgic desire at the time.. It’s an ok show still in this day.. holds up reasonably well…. except for the nudity.. yes! NUDITY! I was very shocked to see the level of full-bodied nudity in this one particular episode.. there were no weird camera angles to hide it, they just got on with the filming of those scenes with the girls in the showers as the cast ran past this way or that… and there the naked ladies stood, for all to see… and this was a G rated show… fun for all! It’s still a G rated show… how can this be when censors are going ape over pixellated breasts that aren’t even fully uncovered or implied sex, let alone full body nudity…

    How times have changed… for the worse.

    • This is actually what bugs me so much about the Saints Row 4 anal probe weapon. At some point people seem to have lost the ability understand degrees of content based on context and the intended audience. Breast feeding and public masturbation are pretty much on the same page. It’s just a checklist now. Is there a breast? Yes. Is it uncovered? Yes.
      There’s no consideration for the difference between a sort-of-naughty joke and a major endorsement for/guide to going out and running through women’s showers.

    • Most of the nudity in The Goodies was meant to be edited out in Australia – three years ago some of the edited footage was found in the ABC archives (there are urban legends that the editors sometimes missed stuff, giving the mostly-child audience some early and rudmientary sex education).

      It was never meant to be a G rated show – they spent years trying to get condemned by Mary Whitehouse (the UKs moral panic commander-in-chief from the 60s-80s), after she complimented their show on its good morals. They even designed an entire episode (Sex and violence) mocking her and her puritanical views to try and get a complaint out of her. It didn’t. 10 years and 90 episodes later, they finally got a complaint in 1980 (because of a suggestive picture of a carrot).

      All your points still stand, though.

      • I have to admit I don’t remember seeing the nudity as a kid but I do remember countless other free-to-air TV shows and movies containing nudity and at the very least boobage..

        When I was watching The Goodies more recently, I was doing so on the Global iPlayer, so that may have had something to do with it..

  • Here are GORF’s thoughts on how Alex chose to spend his weekend: “Bad Move, Space Cadet.”

    • Where’s the Cheetos? Where’s the Mountain Dew? I’m casting Magic Missile!

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