Video Games: Why All The Controversy? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Video Games: Why All The Controversy?

Emma Kent looks into 3 reasons why video games cause so many 'moral panics'

A few weeks ago, I was foolish enough to agree to see the horror film IT with friends at the cinema. In the very first scene, I witnessed a child's arm being bitten off, and the poor kid being dragged into a drain and eaten by a satanic clown.

A few days later, having reflected on (and recovered from) watching IT, I wondered why films, books and other media forms seem to get away with adult themes in a way video games simply can't. While GTA games are routinely criticised for being too violent, Quentin Tarantino films are praised as 'genius' for their brutality and bloodshed. I decided to investigate this phenomenon and found 3 main reasons to explain why video games cause controversy and moral panics so frequently.

The curse of new media forms

"[…T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books." - Sylph no. 5, October 6, 1796: 36-37 

Did your parents often tell you to put down your game controller and pick up a book? If you'd grown up in 18th century England, you might have gotten into trouble for reading too much as well. In the 18th century 'novel reading panic', many adults were concerned that romance books would 'corrupt' the minds of the next generation. This is part of a historical trend of moral panics occurring whenever a new media form becomes popular and is misunderstood by older generations. Since then, rock music, 'slasher' films, and even role-playing games have all been blamed for spreading bad morals among young people.

Picture of D&D Players, video games

The (clearly dangerous) game of Dungeons and Dragons was claimed to promote 'satanism and witchcraft' in the 1980s

The current victims of this trend are video games and social media, both of which are being blamed for various ill effects on the youth of today. This is a generational issue; older adults are five and a half times more likely to believe that video games cause violence than the young (YouGov). It would seem that video games are yet to escape this historical moral panic cycle. However, this does bring hope for the future, when older generations will be made up of people who played video games in their youth. With greater understanding of the media form, video games should be less subject to hysteria over their impact on the young. Or are there other issues which will mean video games will always be more controversial than films and books?

Games are interactive

Perhaps the biggest reason for the abundance of moral panics surrounding video games is because they are an 'interactive' media form, rather than a 'passive' activity such as watching a film. Instead of merely watching a scene depicting violence, you are the one pressing the button to end someone's life in-game. In this sense, you are an active participant in the digital violence. This has also become more of an issue in recent years as video games have become more 'realistic', with huge improvements in graphics and the increased popularity of the first-person shooter game genre. This is why you'll notice that most complaints surrounding video games are based on their interactive nature, and that they 'reward and encourage bad behaviour'. As video games will always be interactive, this line of criticism is unlikely to ever fully go away.

Fallout 4/Fallout 2 Comparison, video games

Fallout games now feel much more realistic as first-person shooters with improved visuals

Games are supposed to be 'fun'

To add to the interactivity problem, video games are 'trivializing by nature'. In other words, because games are supposed to be a playful activity, society deems certain topics inappropriate to put in video games. You might have noticed, for instance, that there are no children in the GTA games, and that the children in Skyrim are immortal (no matter how annoying they are, you can't hurt them). This is because society finds killing children to be too serious an issue to put in video games- not only because games are interactive and realistic, but because there are limits to what can be deemed 'playful'. Again, this is an issue that will stick around for video games, as the 'act of play' is an integral part of gaming.

GTA V Playground Screenshot, video games

A playground in GTA V- but where are the children?

Despite this, there is a possibility in the future that more serious topics will become acceptable in video games. We're already beginning to see this in games such as The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, which frequently includes serious topics like war crimes and child death, and has gained praise for doing so. If society starts considering games as more than just light entertainment, we could see a reduction in moral panics around video games.

Predictions for the future

So to round up, video games may become less controversial in the future as they become a more accepted medium in society. The interactive element of games, however, means that they will probably always be criticised more frequently than films and books. It will also take some time for society to accept that games are able to explore serious topics.

So buckle in and expect there to be more complaints about video games for the next few decades. At least when we're old, our generation won't be so scared of them.

Gaming Graph, video games

Final year Liberal Arts student and Redbrick Gaming Editor. Star Wars enthusiast, American politics nerd, wine and cheese guru. (@GoneEFK)


22nd October 2017 at 9:00 am

Last Updated

22nd October 2017 at 4:32 pm

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