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Care and Feeding of Your Scapegoat on Game and Player

Care and Feeding of Your Scapegoat

Michael Ubaldi  //  January 28, 2009

On moral panics.


lose your eyes, suppress any disclosing historical familiarity, and try to identify the time and object of this public statement: "Children process reality differently from adults, a fact we too often forget. These images have powerful and terrifying effects on young minds. To market explicit sex and graphic and sadistic violence to an audience of preteens and teens is a secondary form of child abuse. A society whose mass media peddles these themes unchallenged is abdicating its responsibility to an entire generation of young Americans."

That was Tipper Gore, charter member of the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, when she addressed a US Senate hearing on rock music, the effect she feared it would have on youth, an excessive modern culture and the plan for its induced remediation. Mrs. Gore served as evidence lyrics to and connotations of songs by Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Prince and others. "The pendulum has swung too far" towards the onset of saturnalia, claimed Gore, influenced by what sounds pretty quaint after nearly twenty-five years witnessing net declines, among American youth, in teen pregnancy, substance abuse, dropouts, cigarette smoking, peer approval of moustaches or hairsprayed bangs, and sundry delinquencies.

Imputations of violence and antisocial behavior to new media, says Christopher Ferguson, are faulty.Even Time magazine condescended to a lawsuit filed a few years later against Judas Priest: "Did the Music Say 'Do It?'" posed an article without a trace of irony. Two men, aged 18 and 20, with records of doing harm to themselves and those around them, indulged in some beer and some dope, then settled the matter of empty living with respective self-inflicted shotgun blasts. Backmasking, charged the plaintiff, inculcated the pair with subliminal messages. Lurid stuff at the time, enough to persuade a judge to subpoena CBS Records' master tapes — yet record players haven't brainwashed anybody beyond those two unfortunate Nevadan deadbeats. Contemporary obeisance to Judas Priest amounts to imitating Rob Halford in falsetto.

Christopher Ferguson, professor at the Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice Department of Texas A&M University, argues in The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship or Moral Panic?, published last year, that imputations of violence and antisocial behavior to new media are faulty — but ably provide grist for ambitious statists and, one can observe from the day's headlines, felicitous alibis for the deranged. Ferguson reaches quod erat demonstrandum for his titular thesis not halfway through the paper: but for the Columbine murderers, shooters aren't warped video game addicts, nor do they give significant attention to the hobby, but instead are by all appearances plain, old sociopaths.

The real meat can be found in a direct challenge to presumptions. Ferguson's posture is measured, although the professor's statements impress because they tilt cant on its head. Some of the varied experiential and correlational studies of gaming and violence "[support] a link between violent video games and minor acts of aggression and others [find] no link, or even [find] reduced aggression because of violent game exposure." For the stubborn, Ferguson presents a bar/line graph from the Entertainment Software Association depicting year-over-year leaps in video game sales athwart lessening violent crimes committed by minors: "The correlation (an astonishing r = ?0.95) is simply in the wrong direction."

When variables for personality, family violence or genetics are introduced to studies, the link between gaming and aggression weakens.Now, who could have learned that from a mainstream news source? Misinformation circulates, explains Ferguson, along a "moral panic" wheel. Sentiments and apocrypha earn media coverage and publicized research, political and commercial powers encourage and emphasize studies corroborating beliefs, fiction becomes institutionalized, round and round.

This should cause worry for the economic or cultural damage inflicted, and for "the cost . . . to personal freedoms, the threat of increased government intrusion in parenting (i.e., the so-called 'Nanny State'), and loss of credibility for social science." And more so because the moral panic wheel has spun at least thrice in the last quarter-century, once for bad television and again for trashy music, now for video games — but never for "'third' variables such as personality, family violence, or genetics." When these variables are introduced to studies, Ferguson writes, "the link between video game violence and aggression is greatly weakened."

This month, within days of a California congressman authoring a bill to "hold the video game industry accountable" for a link that has yet to be proven, a member of the New York State Assembly resubmitted a bill restricting this and that and "derogatory language" after his first expired in committee. Medicine has a term, iatrogenesis, for unintentional complications from a procedure, through inadvertence or even negligence. If the body public suffers from any maladies, it could worsen because a great many misled poke and prod at the wrong end.

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