A Virtual Space to Call One’s Own

Nearly two weeks after the Colorado shootings, MIT’s Henry Jenkins got a telephone call from Washington, DC. A Senate committee was holding a hearing on media violence and children in just a few days, and they wanted him to testify. He thought hard about it, having never participated in political hearings before. He looked at the witness list; it looked stacked against what was probably the officially designated wrongheaded side. He expected to be painted with the broad brush of “game apologist,” but believed that the chance to defend what he saw as a necessarily complex reading of modern culture, including even the video games that the Columbine killers had played, was worth taking a risk.

This role was increasingly familiar to him. A year earlier, as director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, Jenkins had published a book on gender and video games called From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, which had helped trigger some discussion in academic and industry circles on issues of gender in gaming culture. The wider media had focused on the elements of the book that dealt with violence in games, and almost overnight he had entered media culture as the professor who defended violent games. The complexities of his argument tended to get lost in most newspaper articles, but he kept trying. Now the Senate wanted him to play the same part on a larger stage.

Of course he was apprehensive. Jenkins was an academic, used to teasing complex conclusions out of ambiguous cultural material and discussing his theories with other serious thinkers. His work was painstaking and exhaustive, and oftentimes went through both scientific and public vetting processes as he wrestled with his research and data. Academia was the antithesis of the posturing and simplification of a Washington, DC, hearing room. But after considering the risks and potential rewards, he agreed to attend.

Jenkins wasn’t an avid computer game player himself, but in some senses did look the part. Balding slightly, and carrying a little extra paunch beneath a pair of suspenders, he had a modest shuffle to his walk, and the soft voice and gentle mannerisms of a therapist. Someone catching a glimpse of him across the MIT campus in Cambridge might easily have mistaken him for a grandfather gamer, though he was only forty-two at the time of the hearing.

Growing up largely before video games came into prominence, Jenkins spent his childhood playing board games like Monopoly and Candy Land—simple games that required at least one other person. He and his friends took the same games outside on a grander scale when they tired of sedentary play. Near his house in suburban Atlanta, there was a sandlot that they could transform into a giant game board. A tree house doubled as a pirate ship, as Tom Sawyer’s raft, or as a hot-air balloon that could take them anywhere they wanted. The structure  was versatile, malleable, and best of all, it was his. In his years studying video games, that concept of physical play space—and particularly the loss of physical space in which children could run, play, push, and fight—would assume an important role in his thoughts.

Jenkins was exposed to video games when young, but was never a dedicated player himself. His younger brother bought a Pong machine while they were still kids, and in the late 1970s, his future-wife’s brother owned an Atari gaming system. He occasionally played the games with her brother, but ultimately real life called, Peter Pan grew up, and the games were abandoned in favor of term papers and academic study.

By the mid-1980s, Jenkins was a graduate student in film studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He and his wife had a son, also named Henry, and when the boy turned five, he asked for a Nintendo Entertainment System game console. Having paid little attention to games’ progress in the years since he’d played with his brother-in-law’s Atari system, Jenkins assumed he’d be playing something similar, with blocky graphics, simple game screens, and digital bleeps and bloops playing the twin roles of sound effects and background music. What he saw instead came as a revelation. The machine was packaged with Super Mario Bros., the latest title from Nintendo’s wunderkind, Shigeru Miyamoto. The lush graphics and the musical score brought to life the world and its main character, Mario—the very same Mario from Miyamoto’s earlier Donkey Kong. With Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto had created a world to inhabit and explore. “I felt like Rip Van Winkle,” Jenkins said. “I thought I had taken a catnap and slept through a revolution. I felt myself in the presence of a medium that had transformed itself overnight.”

Just as interesting was the way his five-year-old son and his friends began interacting with the game. They played it obsessively, talking about it all the time. They brainstormed over the best ways to complete levels and swapped information on strategy, hidden treasures, and stunts. For the boys, it was very much a social experience, with groups gathering in front of the television set, cheering each other on, and swapping the controller around so that each kid’s strengths and skills could be used to best advantage. A few kids in the neighborhood became temporary celebrities as they learned how to beat particularly difficult “bosses,” the chief monsters that guarded the end of each level of play. These kids would do victory tours around the neighborhood, showing off their newfound skill and knowledge on other kids’ machines.

The more he watched the kids in front of the TV, the more Jenkins thought he recognized what they were doing. This was similar to what he’d done in his own suburban backyard and out in the forest as a kid. They were exploring, bonding over the territory they conquered in their imagination. “I realized they weren’t doing this for points. They were exploring space,” Jenkins said. “My original insight was that it wasn’t about saving Princess Toadstool. It wasn’t about narrative.” For Jenkins, that insight was enough to add games into the body of popular media works that he would spend his life studying. It would take time before many others agreed that it was a worthwhile subject for scholarly attention.

Just as he’d met skepticism from professors when he’d lobbied to have television issues added to the film studies curriculum, he discovered that many in the academic world weren’t sure what to do with his work on games. Video games fell between niches. They weren’t film, they weren’t literature, and it wasn’t immediately clear that they were even an expressive art form at all. But as the medium advanced, others joined Jenkins, and by the late 1990s, papers and books were streaming out; conferences on the issue were being held all over the world. Jenkins, by that time co-director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, had become one of the godfathers of video game studies.

Those initial observations about his son’s use of games remained a cornerstone of the way Jenkins understood computer and video games. To be sure, he recognized that many games made little attempt to tell stories or produce the emotional effect created by earlier, more narrative art forms such as films or novels. Yet if the industry was given a chance to mature, he argued, games with these characteristics would likely evolve. He took time away from academia to work with game companies, including Electronic Arts, training developers to build games with character, story, and plot development. In these lessons he made reference to classic literature and film as models, trying to help developers identify what made Homer’s Odyssey so compelling and to encourage them to incorporate those lessons into designs for their game worlds.

Still, he said, these studies in narrative and character weren’t necessarily the fundamental strength of games. Many game makers from Miyamoto onward had focused on creating environments or worlds to explore rather than on trying to tell complicated stories. Watch a game being played, and it quickly became clear that it was an exercise in dexterity and movement, not the physically passive experience of reading or watching a movie. A more appropriate metaphor than film for gaming might be dance, he argued. Certainly dance productions could tell stories, but the real expressive core of the art was the relationship between motion and space. A dancer moved, and the motion was the story. So too in a video game, the movement of the digital character through space and the act of exploring the virtual environment could be more important than the game’s superficial content.

That interpretation helped explain why kids, and particularly boys, had long been drawn so strongly to games. He contrasted his own childhood environment—which had lawns and whole forests to explore and turn into fantasy lands—with his son’s world of city apartments—which offered only a tiny stretch of green on which to play. Exploration of the environment had long been a critical part of growing up, particularly for boys, and video games had become that space for urban children without access to forests and fields.

That type of indoor exploration, in turn, had helped lead to the moral panic over violence. From the beginning, he contended, games had to be hypermasculine in order for adolescent boys to feel comfortable staying inside and playing them. No boy wanted to be seen as a mama’s boy, sitting inside when peers were roughhousing outside. As the boys played these macho games, their parents—and particularly mothers—were suddenly exposed to the content of adolescent fantasies that traditionally had been kept well outside parental view. “This means that mothers are for the first time seeing the content of boys’ fantasies as they grow up,” Jenkins said. “They are shocked by the scatological content and by the competition. But any boy growing up in America wouldn’t be shocked.”

Jenkins had spent much of his professional career arguing against the analyses of what he called the “media effects” establishment, by which he meant the body of doctors, psychologists, parent groups, and others who focused on a one-way line of influence between entertainment media and viewers, particularly children. In these critics’ minds, there was a fairly simple cause-and-effect relationship between a child and a game of Quake: The game affected the child in any of several different ways, such as contributing to violent behaviors or desensitizing him or her to real-world violence.

Once studied, the audience’s responses to media were much more complicated, Jenkins contended. Children and adults alike took the raw materials provided by the media and transformed them to fit their own purposes. Kids played superheroes or army as a way to exert control over the environment. Jenkins’ early studies were of groups such as Trekkies (dedicated Star Trek fans). Just as those people had turned the world of the Starship Enterprise into a screen on which to project their own fantasies and theatrical productions, he saw video game players using game worlds and characters as tools for their own creativity, either while playing or in later imagining different variations on the game, as his son had done. Even the most violent games could act as catharses or as near-therapeutic tools. Games like Doom and Quake provided a welcome release of frustration over societal constraints, giving children a playing field with different rules. “All play is about liberation from constraints and taking action in an environment with less consequences,” Jenkins said.

It’s easy to see how Jenkins might have been portrayed as an uncritical defender of bone-crunching, mind-numbingly violent games. In fact this was far from true. Seeking a middle ground in the gaming-content debates, he encouraged companies set on making violence a part of their games to prompt people to think of the ramifications of their actions, in much the same way that Richard Garriott had tried to force his players to ask questions of themselves and to see their in-game actions in a broader light.

“The formulaic nature of violence I don’t like. It’s a crutch that game designers fall back on,” Jenkins said. He saw his work with companies as a potentially tempering influence: “My hope is that I may be more effective in doing some of the things that parents’ groups have been trying to do.”

* * *

Jenkins arrived in Washington for the post-Columbine hearings only to see his worst fears realized. The wall of the hearing room was hung with posters, mostly depicting blown-up advertisements for the bloodiest video games on the market. The room was full of reporters, legislative staffers, other witnesses, and supporters of the anti–game campaign. One section of the audience was filled with a group of women, mostly mothers, representing a group staunchly opposed to violence in children’s media. He was snubbed by some of his fellow witnesses. Leery of being labeled, he stayed away from the representatives of the entertainment media and the heads of the film and video game developers’ trade associations. He was on his own.

No specific bills or proposals were on the table. This was an informational hearing ostensibly aimed at shining a spotlight on the way violent images and stories were being sold to children. It was a means of putting informal pressure on the industry, but very clearly also a stage for politicians to grandstand for constituents and donors.

“We are in the strange intersection between freedom of expression and the damage that can be done when freedom is abused,” said Senator John Ashcroft, the conservative Missourian who would become U.S. Attorney General just a few years later, in one of fourteen opening statements by the assembled legislators. “And it’s a very difficult place to be.”

The senators and successive witnesses denounced films, music, and video games for wantonly giving way to, and ultimately encouraging, the most violent impulses of the human psyche. The bloodiest bits of games like Mortal Kombat, Postal, and Resident Evil were shown wholly out of context, as were short clips of a handful of movies. Former education secretary and cultural critic William Bennett excoriated films that depicted gratuitous violence, contrasting the violence of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hollywood’s Clear and Present Danger, which he claimed was there to serve a purpose in the story, with the mere titillation of Scream or The Basketball Diaries (an autobiographical tale of drug addiction and recovery written by poet and rock musician Jim Carroll). Former military psychologist Dave Grossman told the legislators that violent video games were literally teaching kids to kill, using precisely the same techniques the military used with its soldiers. Criticizing the dark images of singer Marilyn Manson, one senator joked about whether the musician was actually a he or a she.

Jenkins was shaken by the discourse at the hearings. The anger and fear people felt after the Columbine shootings had reached the Senate, manifesting in ways that could only make children who played in virtual worlds or participated in Goth culture feel more alienated. This was “[p]recisely the kind of intolerant and taunting comments that these [Columbine] kids must have gotten in school because they dressed differently or acted oddly in comparison with their more conformist classmates,” Jenkins wrote later in an article published in Harper’s Magazine[1]

Jenkins nervously took the stand late in the day, when most of the reporters had already departed. He pleaded with the senators to understand that young gamers weren’t puppets manipulated by media images. Instead, they were constructing their own fantasies out of the raw materials available to them. Disturbed teens like the Columbine killers might create disturbing fantasies—but even the darkest images could wind up being used in positive ways by kids hungry for images that spoke to them, he said.

Don’t rush to judgment on the basis of twenty-second clips of violent power fantasies, Jenkins pleaded. The real issues were complicated, just like kids’ lives. “Listen to our children,” he told the senators. “Don’t fear them.”


  1. Henry Jenkins, "Professor Jenkins Goes to Washington," Harper's Magazine (July 1999): 23.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *