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.

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