Moral panics are nothing new, but taking them to the Supreme Court in 2010 is madness

OPINION: US ratings row a puerile, tedious waste

The pace of media change can be terrifying. As anyone who grew up listening to 45s will likely attest, from a certain angle iTunes looks like the work of the Devil himself.

It isn’t, of course, but after a particular age people tend towards favouring the things that they already understand. It’s as natural as it is silly, and in most cases is nothing more than a gentle reminder that we perhaps haven’t evolved quite as much as we like to think we have.

Once or twice a generation, however, fear of the unfamiliar leads to a moral panic. As media consumption is one of the most rapidly changing sectors of human life, it also tends to be one that also raises a large amount of ire.

It happened with comics. It happened with films. It happened time and time again with music. It still hasn’t stopped happening with books. Now, it’s the turn of video games.

Not that the ongoing dispute in the Supreme Court is the first example of certain video games being declared as attempts to brainwash children into juvenile delinquency.

The GTA series has been offending politicians with a need of votes and newspapers with a need of readers since the late nineties, and many have been happy to lay the blame for atrocities like the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre at the feet of video games like Doom.

People do terrible things. They did so in the middle ages, they do them today and they will do them again in the future. While these actions undoubtedly have their causes, the regularity with which forms of entertainment are blamed for potential criminality in entire age groups is just as alarming a concept as the frequency of human cruelty.

Yesterday, in Washington, D.C., the state of California argued that a certain type of “deviant” video games requires specialised regulation to prevent them from corrupting the minds of those too young to play them.

Consider this in a wider sense. If it were said that children should not watch The Exorcist, it is unlikely that many people would disagree with that statement. If it were then said that The Exorcist contains deviant violence, and should therefore be subjected to regulation that say, Live and Let Die would not, would as many people agree with that?

Both films were released in 1973. Both feature death and violence as prominent themes. Live and Let Die has a far higher body count than The Exorcist. How many people would turn both films off if they found their child watching them, however? And how many would leave both films on?

We are fortunate enough to live in a world where both films are considered on equal merits. No court case arguing that The Exorcist should be more tightly controlled would ever be considered because, one hopes, the majority of people are intelligent enough to make sure children don’t see it, and a satisfactory ratings system is already in use. No new law would improve on the situation as it stands.

It would, however, harm sales of The Exorcist. Retailers who feared retaliation for selling the game to people who did not appear of age would clamp down on staff, and people who did not like the stigma attached to a specially regulated film would steer clear of buying it.

Film studios would note the downturn, and cancel projects that may attract the same attention as The Exorcist was receiving. Before long, people would think twice before making a horror film. A great deal of writers would reconsider writing in the genre that never attracts film deals. Censorship would have been born.

That a debate over creating a situation like this is going on at such a high judiciary level today is embarrassing. It is perhaps to the credit of the Supreme Court that it took on the case, assuming that the intention of its nine justices was to draw a line under a blatant attempt to curb expression in a particular media format.

We won’t find out if this is what is happening for a while yet, but it shouldn’t have come this far. The ESA and EMA have gone way above and beyond the defense of an industry, and all credit to them. They shouldn’t have had to do it, though.

The California games dispute is out of rational control. It’s time for video games to be allowed to grow up.

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