Video game controversy is not a new topic. Countless studies and laws have been proposed and subsequently shot down. So what makes this new hearing important? It’s that the Supreme Court will give the final word on all these violent video game shenanigans. If the Supreme Court sides with the anti gaming laws, it’ll bring all the Jack Thompsons out of the woodwork, and developers may pass up a lot of good, but mature, game ideas to go for what’s safe instead. Sure, with the precedent of previous rulings, it may not pass, but with various studies and conservative groups pushing the ‘fact’ that violence in games harms minors, well meaning people who are in the dark about it could try to pass a law that’s more harmful than good. But it’s not like this hasn’t happened in American culture before, because it has. I’m talking about comics.
The mid 40s saw a rise in dark fantasy, horror, and noir and crime stories in American comics. Titles that were over the top with blood, violence and other mature themes were in vogue. In 1954, psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, published his book “Seduction of the Innocent” which claimed that comics in general, and especially the noir and horror genres, were a major cause of juvenile delinquency. The public’s fear about the effect of comics on the nation’s youth was eventually brought to a US Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency focusing on the effects of horror, crime and violence. It was a lot like the hearings of the mid 90s when they couldn’t stop complaining about Mortal Kombat, Doom, and other violent games. Similar to the founding of the ESRB as a self regulating ratings and content board, the comic publishers of the time founded the Comics Code Authority. The similarity ends there, however, since the ESRB provides ratings for content in contrast to the Comics Code which served as a regulation and censorship authority to determine what comic creators could publish.
Among its regulations, the Comics Code banned any supernatural references, excessive blood or violence, and it required that authority figures be portrayed positively. Though there were some comic genres that flourished under the CCA, titles like Tales from the Crypt, Two Fisted Tales and Vault of Horror were canceled outright because the wording of the Comics Code seemed tailor made for these titles to be taken off the market. Despite the fact that the CCA had no legal authority on what a comics creator could publish, retailers would simply deny whatever titles lacked CCA approval. The quality control over what was and wasn’t code approved was also debatable. For instance, a writer’s name, Wolfman, was omitted from his work because reference to supernatural monsters was a no-no, and one sequence in an issue of Nick Fury: Agent of Shield was ironically made more explicit following a code approved panel change.
The CCA has very little significance today. But it was only until the 1970s and 80s before comics publishers would see any changes in it, giving us the more serious themes in comics from the mid 1980s and not much later, the launch titles had by Image Comics, direct market comic shops and the continuing manga boom has made the comics code seal a non issue, a dinosaur. But after being in place for almost 50 years, it’s given American comics the stereotype of being either crap Sunday newspaper strips or increasingly stagnant superhero stories while in Japan and Europe, comics continue to be made in all genres to be enjoyed by all ages.
Now how do the woes of comic censorship have to relate to the current hearings? Well in the event that the law in California is accepted by the Supreme Court, people who have been crying wolf for years about the effect of violent video games on the young will bring back all of their laws which would be brought back and would be approved by concerned parents who lack the information on the subject at large, but also by retailers and distributors wanting to minimize liability and not carry m rated games at all. I have no problem with games geared for younger audiences, but I also love the fact that when I walk into a store, I have the choice of either picking up God of War, Fallout 3 or Super Princess Peach and not having moral opinions that I disagree with made into a law that society needs to follow. And let’s not forget that one of the people behind this bill is none other than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose stance against violent gaming is somewhat hypocritical considering he made his name on R rated films that were and are being seen and enjoyed by people well underage for their content.
Video games as an entertainment medium have been around for almost as much time, but have thrived with both advancements of storytelling and technology. It’s a vibrant art form full of opportunity to say meaningful things. In the event of the ruling passing, and politicians prey on the lack of knowledge about the medium from the average consumer, then will gaming have to wait another 20 or 50 years of stagnation before putting out anything of artistic value?
The bottom line to this is that if video games are to continue as an artistic medium, then there should be no limits on exactly what is used to express that art form. Even with the hearings well underway, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be done to help the case. On the Legal level, you can let your voice be heard through the video game voter’s network, but also gamers need to be more inclusive of newbies in gaming, informing parents about what good content exists in violent games, and finding ways to turn casual gamers into dedicated gamers. Gaming, much like comics, are mediums that have something for everyone to enjoy, and we need to let people know that there’s more to games than just Doom and Mario. Do you have Final Fantasy VII or some other gem of a game on digital console and a physical copy sitting collecting dust? Maybe you have a younger relative who would enjoy the hell out of that game. The more people see gaming as just a hobby and not something to be afraid of, the less we’ll see parents groups worried about how seeing game violence affects their kids. We need to let lawmakers know that we don’t need their help deciding what media we want to consume, and as far as parents groups, they need to know that even though their hearts are in the right place, legal legislation is definitely where they don’t belong.