From the archives: Ban this sadist filth? A study on moral panics and video games

“BAN THIS SADIST FILTH” roars the headline of an article dated 11th April 2000. But what was the filth it was referring to? The answer was, perhaps somewhat predictably for the time, violent video games. And the rage came from a piece that looked an awful lot like a typical tabloid news article to outsiders.

In the piece, the author rages against violent video games in all their forms. He bemoans Silent Hill for “rewarding” players by allowing them to kill a child. He casually links Duke Nukem 3D to a mass shooting in Brazil. And he suggests that Resident Evil 3’s action oriented horror game play is “frighteningly realistic” for its audience.

And to round it all off, he accuses the government and regulators of inaction. He forcefully claims that age ratings proposed by the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) are not being enforced, allowing ”profit hungry retailers” to sell these games to children. He then rounds off with a call to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to change legislation to help hold back “the tide of morally reprehensible filth”.

Fortunately though, this wasn’t a real news article. Instead, the piece was “fake news” created by the author of a report called “Virtual Morality: historic parallels and potential developments in the regulation of entertainment software” to demonstrate how a violent video game moral panic could be quoted.

But while this piece was an incisive pastiche of tabloid norms, the report it was based on proved to be an altogether more serious piece of work. And over the course of a little under 25 pages, Virtual Morality made an important argument for meaningful self-regulation of violent video games through legally enforceable age ratings that would help shape the industry for decades to come.

Contextualising moral panics

The report – which is dated for the 22nd April 2000 and was written by academic Dan Evans – aimed to contextualise media outrages about video game violence within the framework of the sociological concept of a ‘moral panic’.

According to thoughtco.com, a moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large.

As Evans points out on page 5 of Virtual Morality, they are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, Evans raises the case of the 1322 panic that saw the use of the major third banned from religious music because the ‘wanton’ sound could distract well-meaning churchgoers.

But while these historic examples of moral panics are, undoubtedly, hilarious, he instead sought to focus on two more recent relevant panics to understand how the “violent video game” narrative could lead to software regulation in the future.

First, he looked at the emergence of ‘horror comics’ in the 1950s. The comics – which came from America in the late 1940s and featured violent or sexual imagery – drew the ire of a pressure group called the Comics Campaign Council (CCC) and the National Unions of Teacher who were concerned by their emergence.

IMG_2049.jpg

Their pressure led, in the fullness of time, to the 1955 Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Bill, which imposed fines of up to £100 or four months imprisonment on “any book, magazine or other like work…stories told in pictures…portraying a) the commission of crimes, b) acts of violence or cruelty or c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person.”

Though few individuals were prosecuted under the laws, it led to an almost immediate disappearance of horror comics in the mid 1950s. However, though the law remained in place at the time of writing, Evans pointed out that horror comics were again on sale – suggesting that the panic had more momentum, than substance, behind it.

Additionally, and second, Evans looked into a similar panic in the 1980s relating to ‘video nasties’ that led to a similarly active response from government following a moral panic.

Video nasties were ultra violent horror films that emerged in the early 1980s and immediately drew tabloid ire. The Daily Mail ran a dedicated campaign to ban video nasties, with the backing of Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association.

Whether the campaign was principally a drive against immorality in the media or a way to sell papers, its timing fell fortuitously close to the 1983 general election for its campaigners.

Although the Conservative Party preferred a self-regulatory approach to the video industry, it introduced a manifesto commitment to ban video nasties in 1984 through the Video Recordings Act (VRA) – which forced all videos (including those going straight to cassette) to be classified by the BBFC.

But, again, Evans showed that handing greater powers to regulators did not lead to the long term disappearance of the source of the panic. By the mid 1990s, films such as Crash and Natural Born Killers made it to the big screen with little fuss, barely a decade after the video nasties controversy.

For Evans, this was evidence that these panics were ‘engendered’. In his words both campaigns “came out of nowhere…attracted their fair share of bandwagon boarders…[that] the evidence put forward for their claims was at best questionable and the tactics employed were designed to tug on emotions rather than provoke rational discussion.

Video game violence as moral panic

It’s in this framework that Evans places much of his analysis. In many ways, the industry was well ahead of the press and government in taking responsibility on behalf of its audience.

On page 13 of the report, Evans pointed out that the video games industry through ELSPA and the Video Standards Council had introduced a rating system after the government decided to only refer a handful of games to the BBFC if they depicted content that could breach the VRA.

Yet despite this – and evidence that only 14.5% of video games were rated 15 or 18 by ELSPA or the BBFC between 1993-1999 – panicky claims about what violent video games could do to people began to emerge.

Conservative MP Terry Dicks described the makers of Night Trap and the parents who bought the game as “evil” for allowing their children to “buy this filth”. Military psychologist Lt. Col. David Grossman in 1998 produced a speculative paper claiming that violent video games were, inadvertently, conditioning children to kill (despite a lack of evidence). Even outright tragedies, such as the Columbine High School killings were rolled into the panic with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s rampage supposedly inspired by Doom.

IMG_2051.jpg

Evans’ report demonstrated that reports such as these – which were disseminated widely through the press – lacked credibility in a number of ways.

In some instances, facts were distorted to the point of fabrication. Night Trap, for example, supposedly featured “scenes of unimaginable torture” according to The Daily Mail. But the BBFC indicated that the violence contained within was comparable to an “early episode of Dr Who.”

Furthermore, Evans demonstrated that there were some basic sampling errors that exaggerated the impact of violence from games. He cited, as an example, Doom’s 20 million strong player base as a strong counter to the claim that it motivated players to unspeakable acts of violence on a significant basis.

From panic to proactive

However, Evans’ report did not conclude that video game violence was not an issue for the industry. Instead, he concluded something rather different: while the threat of video game violence was overblown by a moral panic and should not dictate legislation, there were inconsistencies in the rating system that the industry needed to solve before the government did it for them.

Evans cited numerous examples of this. For example, the cartoony violence of Grand Theft Auto and Carmageddon both led to 18 ratings from the BBFC. But the, at times, profoundly disturbing Silent Hill received a 15 from ELSPA. There was also a discrepancy in the Quake series, which saw the original Quake referred to the BBFC while its similarly violent sequel was not.

Furthermore, Evans indicated that such inconsistencies could lead – inadvertently – to a total ban on violent video games.

IMG_2057.jpg


While the industry was behaving proactively, Evans showed how moral panics in Australia and cultural circumstances in Germany could lead quickly to tight regulation and – potentially – a complete curtailment of the right to sell violent games to even above aged consumers.

So while Evans is clear in demonstrating how moral panics shaped coverage of violent video games, he nevertheless concluded that “we rethink software regulation in this country” because it is “just asking to be legislated against.” He therefore called for the creation of “a single body which rated all games with legally enforceable classifications” to put concerns to rest and to pre-empt concerns before politicians – driven by a frenzied media – could get there first.

Evans’s conclusions may not have led to an immediate result. But within three years of his report, many of his recommendations came into force.

The Pan European Game Information (PEGI) video game rating content system was formed in April 2003, creating a single European standard to rate video games consistently across the continent. It also signed publishers up to a contractually binding code of conduct, committing them to a set of rules that they all agreed to adhere to. And in July 2012, the UK went a step further to make PEGI legally enforceable across the country – delivering on Evans’s suggestion.

So while Evans may have caught the eye with a sensationalist, tabloid style appendix, his findings were quietly influential on the future course of the industry. And at a time when the sector is asking tough questions of itself and how it operates, the spirit of Evans’s proactive self regulatory approach could be usefully resurrected by the industry today.

George Osborn