The Cycle Continues: How Videogame Alarmists are Dead Wrong

-Shawn Trautman

Last semester, a history professor of mine, a self-described baby boomer, launched into one of his many tirades about how American society, families, and social systems have degraded since his time. As both cause and evidence of what is wrong with “kids these days,” one word repeatedly crossed his lips - not said so much as spat out with all the derision and contempt typically reserved for racists and pedophiles. The problem, of course, was videogames.

He said this so many times over the course of the semester that I at last had to confront him about it. What evidence did he have? What were his causal connections? And, most interesting to me, what was his personal experience with videogames that he hated them so? Maybe he was well-informed on the subject, and had tons of empirical or at least personal evidence to back up his claims. As it turned out, all he had to go on was trying (and failing) to play Super Mario Bros. in 1985, and his only evidence of the evils of videogames was “I just don’t get it.” Rarely does one encapsulate their entire argument in just five words.

Because he most certainly does not get it, and he is not the first. When Don Quixote, considered the first Western novel, was published in 1605, it was hugely popular, but not universally respected. In fact, the novel, as a new medium, was considered trash, a diversion, a waste of time, and a destructive influence on society. There was no room for a book that wasn’t either: religious or liturgical texts; purely educational or scientific works; or ancient myths and traditional stories, which were typically meant to be instructive as well. Now, of course, Don Quixote is a canonized classic, and the novel has become one of our most popular, respected and enduring forms of artistic expression.

This cycle has appeared over and over again throughout history - radio, film, television, music not for religious purposes, pop music, rock and roll in the 1950s, rap music in the 1980s, and comic books. In each case, whenever a new form of art or a new medium to experience art would emerge, the “moral guardians” of the society would proclaim that it would degrade the society, corrupt its citizens and be the end of Western Civilization. And here’s the thing: they were always wrong. Every time. We have made it through rock, rap, comics and movies, and Western Civilization still stands. We still have families, and flags, and suburbs, and apple pie, and all that is good and just in the world. If our society actually eroded at the pace the fear-mongers believed it would, we would all long ago have been living in sewers, eating our young while the blood of the righteous flowed freely in the streets.

And now the newest target is videogames. The same baby boomers who grew up loving television and rock and roll, who had to brush off or rage against their parents’ fervent insistence that it would “rot their brains,” are now using their parents’ faulty logic and misplaced fear to put videogames on trial. Do they truly not see the parallels? They are doing exactly what their parents did, which they knew at the time was wrong. They are harshly judging a newer medium using only their basest instinct, the fear of the unknown. It is foreign to them, unknown and perhaps unknowable, and therefore terrifying. The frame of reference and evidence upon which most videogame alarmists’ arguments seemed to be based are typically two: a feeble attempt to play an NES game in the mid-1980s, and modern reports on Grand Theft Auto controversy, which are usually both biased in tone and factually incorrect. These two angles are all they see: silly toys for kids, or brutal murder simulators for frustrated adolescents. 

These knee-jerk reactions are completely inappropriate, and yet overwhelmingly common while the generation that runs our media outlets is still a generation that did not grow up with videogames in the home.

One last note: videogames are still a young medium, and they were in their infancy when most of these alarmists had their first experience with them. To judge the medium of videogames in its entirety by the merits of Super Mario Bros. is just like judging all of novels, what they are capable of, what their impact will be, by Don Quixote. Or worse, judging all that films are capable of by watching silent, black-and-white films full of slapstick pratfalls and ethnic stereotypes. Videogames have come a long way since 1985, and they continue to progress every day. They are an artistic medium with all the merits (and shortcomings) of television, film, novels or music. The ideas that can be expressed, the skills and creativity that goes into them just as real and intense; the experiences which can be had infinitely more immersive and engaging.

Whether or not these baby boomers personally enjoy videogames, or simply cannot get past the barrier of controllers, saying they are anything other than a new artistic medium is not only demonstrably wrong (according to the Supreme Court among others), but also disingenuous, given the previous “moral crises” they have witnessed being trumped up, fizzling out, and never amounting to anything. Film, radio, television, pop and rap music, comic books and novels have all invaded our popular culture, and not only has our society survived, we have been made stronger and better by our exposure to new ideas and new media. 

As the medium continues to grow and evolve, videogames will get better, and contrary to the opinions of baby boomer fear mongers, we as a society will be better for it, too. We cannot allow aging conservative fear to stifle what could be the next great chapter in human artistic expression.