So it was that in 1931, some 40 religious and educational groups pressed Uncle Sam to regulate the film industry and thus protect minors from damage they might suffer from being exposed to "harmful" content.
Skip forward to 2005, and you can't mistake the echo of that familiar argument in the push by legislators and private interest groups to get government to do something about violent video and computer games--the only difference being the particular object of society's collective ire. Back then it was Hollywood hotties; these days it's digital psycho-droids. What exactly should be done remains as unclear and contentious as ever.
In the last century, each wave of new media technology has been met by hand-wringing and more. When television emerged as a mass medium at midcentury, some critics complained about its supposed role in the increase in juvenile delinquency rates and the vulgarization of the culture--and this was years before "Desperate Housewives"!
There's little doubt thehas attached a heightened sense of urgency to the debate. However, I can't say it's generated a heightened sense of clarity. If anything, it's just the opposite.
The widespread use of personal computers by minors certainly raises legitimate questions about what makes for proper content. But it's hard to escape the feeling that many politicians and advocacy groups are just grandstanding for the cameras.
Even when lawmakers are driven by good intentions, you run into problems when they spell out the details. Consider, for example, a recent push by Washington state legislator Mary Lou Dickerson that targets manufacturers and retailers of violent video games whose products wind up in the hands of minors.
Dickerson's bill would allow for wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits if "the game was a factor in creating conditions that assisted or encouraged the person to cause injury or death to another person."
That's a mouthful, and don't you know a good defense attorney could drive a truck through the holes in that argument. For starters, how do you define "factor?" Or how does a prosecutor prove that repeated exposure to games such as "Quake" and "Doom" encourages someone with an otherwise normal (or even borderline) personality to start blasting away in a school lunchroom? Easier said than done.
Dickerson's is only one of. But as long as the nation's punditry is intent on examining causes and effects that contribute to aberrant behavior, why stop with computer and video games? Page through the Bible sometime. Not only do you have your pick of X-rated segments--a parent should serve as chaperone when tender young readers get to the recounting of all that "begetting"--but the good book is also chockablock with tales of one neighbor smiting the next.
And what should we make of Dennis Rader, a man who was president of his church council and described as a faithful Christian? These days he's in custody and accused of being the notorious BTK killer.
You get the point.
I'm not looking to let the cybergame industry off the hook for its sundry stupidities. (Do we really need a game re-enacting JFK's assassination?) But laying blame for the coarsening of society and the desensitizing of so many of our youth at the doorstep of the game-development community is a cop-out. It's too pat and avoids the complicated truth that the potential for good and evil coexists in everyone.