5 Seduction of the Game Industry

The debate between Jenkins, Walsh, and their more radical counterparts barely registered in the gaming communities. For developers, the post-Columbine reality was the possibility that legislation, social pressure, or legal changes could affect games and gamer culture. The issue reached its fever pitch in 2002 when a federal court ruled that games were not entitled to the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution, sending a chill through the industry until the opinion was overturned on appeal. The next few years saw states pass numerous measures restricting how games could be sold or marketed to children and teenagers, although the Supreme Court would eventually rule in 2011 that there was no causal link between video games and violence, and that minors thus had the First Amendment right to purchase games without parental supervision.

As Jenkins had seen in DC, much of this was the most theatrical kind of politics. Legislators saw they could win easy political points by bringing in game company executives, showing clips of the games’ most violent elements, and then forcing the witnesses to defend their practices. Despite the legislature’s inability to stop the distribution of violent games, the theater could have real consequences: Jenkins worried that games would be derailed at a critical point in their development, not unlike comic books in the mid-twentieth century. Then too, a culture worried about corruption of its children found something to fear and criticize in a new entertainment medium, and comic books had suffered for it.

In the early 1950s the comic book industry looked much like the computer game industry in the early part of the new millennium. Comic books had started out as an entertainment medium for children decades earlier, but World War II had helped take the industry in a darker direction. Superheroes and shadowy detectives turned their attention to fighting the forces of Hitler, Mussolini, and international communism, and as a generation of children raised on comics grew up and went to fight overseas, they took comic books with them. War themes became common, and the art grew more violent. When the war was over, many companies kept publishing titles for adults featuring war or gory horror themes.

Meanwhile, fan communities were rising up around the comic books, in much the same way that contemporary fan communities gathered around TV’s X-Files or Garriott’s Ultima series. The comic book publishers helped support many of these. Author Robert Warshow later wrote of his own son’s membership in a club called the National EC Fan-Addict Club, which cost twenty-five cents to join and entitled its members to such perks as a membership certificate, an ID card, various paraphernalia bearing the Fan-Addict logo, and a newsletter that included gossip, articles, and interviews with authors and artists.

Not everyone was enamored with this growing pop culture phenomenon. A crusader against the comics rose to speak for broader parental concerns. Psychiatrist Fredrik Wertham believed that the bloody titles were a dangerous influence on children. Working as a consultant to ambitious senator Estes Kefauver, he helped spur high-profile hearings in 1954, spotlighting the excesses of the comic book industry. Just a few months before the hearings, he published a book outlining his thoughts on the issue, titled Seduction of the Innocent.

At those hearings, the psychiatrist testified that his own research, which was done without any financial support from either side, showed that comic books were certainly a contributor to juvenile delinquency. He went further than most other critics, focusing even on relatively tame Superman comic books along with the over-the-top horror and crime comics. It made “no difference whether the locale is western, or Superman or space ship or horror, if a girl is raped she is raped whether it is in a space ship or on the prairie,” he told legislators.

Wertham’s arguments badly conflated correlation and causation, but his conclusions’ flaws were overshadowed by the comic book industry’s almost laughable inability to defend itself (a failure echoed years later by game and film executives in similar straits). Taking the witness stand, EC Comics publisher William Gaines defended many of his bloody horror comics as having important moral lessons about intolerance and racism, even if told in ways that might make some people in America uncomfortable. He said he drew the line at publishing anything that fell outside the bounds of good taste.

Kefauver turned on him, and in an exchange that was widely publicized in the media, held up a comic cover that showed a homicidal man holding a bloody axe and the severed head of his wife. Trapped in his own words, Gaines avowed that the cover was in good taste, and that bad taste would have been if the head had been held at a different angle, and showed blood dripping out of the severed neck. It wasn’t an argument that went over well, any more than did a video game advertisement shown on the Senate floor in 1999 describing the game to be “As easy as killing babies with axes.”

Gaines’ argument was so ill-conceived his company was driven out of business just a few years later. He became a cautionary tale within the industry for those who were called to Congress.

Also testifying at that mid-century hearing were sets of psychiatrists on both sides of the issue. Those who defended comic books, saying that they found the graphic violence “more silly than shocking” were attacked and ultimately discredited in the newspapers as paid consultants for the comic book industry. It was true, although at least one witness’s remuneration for serving as an advisor to a comic company had reached no more than the princely sum of $150. [1]

Jenkins, who worked for several video game companies, found himself wary of similar treatment following the Columbine hearings.

In the case of comic books, no legislation was proposed or passed, but the intense public criticism ultimately helped push the medium into a kind of publishing ghetto until the artistic resurgence of the mid-1990s.[2] By that time, enough artists were creating complex, psychologically sophisticated stories that graphic novels, as they had come to be called, had begun climbing back to respectability. However, the years as culturally despised child’s things may not have been inevitable. In Japan, where no Wertham or Kefauver ever emerged to question the medium’s legitimacy so successfully, graphic novels had long been among the best-selling books in the country for adults and children alike.

To be sure, the financial power of the game industry argued against this kind of ghettoization. After a period of relative quiet following the Columbine shootings, the violence in video games debate re-emerged in late 2002 as critics drew parallels between violent video games and the weeks-long sniper attack in the Washington, DC, area. The success of the violent Grand Theft Auto III and its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was bitterly condemned by critics, including Walsh. His group launched a petition drive against the second game, spotlighting its developers’ decision to reward players for having sex with and then killing prostitutes.

“My own take is that the industry had better be careful,” Walsh said. “If developers push the envelope too far, then they make it tempting for politicians to jump on an absolutely no-lose issue.”

What neither Jenkins nor Walsh could see at the time was that it wasn’t the developers who would control what happened next inside game worlds. This debate over violent video games and minors was and remains unlikely to be settled in the court of public opinion anytime soon, as it has always been just a skirmish in a decades-long cultural war that extends far beyond gaming.

When random acts of violence like Columbine happen, the public wants—needs—an answer to the questions of why and how—an answer that appears to bring logic to the illogicality of terrible events. At times, games have appeared to offer just such an answer. They have made an easy target, because for many years they sat outside the typical experience of many adults, and could be criticized without introducing more contentious issues such as child-rearing practices or gun control. In moments of panic, genuinely reasoned arguments are often drowned out.

At least in the United States, the only protection game companies have—and it’s the most important protection that a medium with any artistic ambition can have—is the First Amendment. But, as with other mediums, this has proven a powerful shield indeed. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly argued that games not only have the privilege of First Amendment protection, but that minors too must be accorded the right to play those games. Though criticism surges every few years, this protection has given the game industry a broad and sheltered space in which to mature.

  1. Robert Warshow, " Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham," The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 53-74.
  2. Amy Kiste Nyberg, "The Senate Investigation," Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 53-84.


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