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Great Comic Book Scare

I made a passing reference to the great comic book scare of the 1950s at the end of the previous post, you can learn more about it here and read the absurd details of the original Comics Code if you're interested. Unlike with weird philistine condemnations of "indecent" content in film or television (or comic books, for that matter), I sort of doubt that anything of real social value will be lost if we succeed in haranguing game manufacturers out of portraying Bad People Who Do Bad Things And May Be Bad Influences On Our Children, but the anti-indecency mindset -- from comics to movies to video games to TV shows to the geniuses to tried to ban Ulysses -- is of a piece. A new day, a new hysteria.

Interestingly, as one commenter pointed out, no one ever seems to want to ban Risk or Diplomacy (or, on the computer, Civilization) games that in a non-graphic way seem to strongly imply that it would be a good thing to conquer the entire world through a long series of wars. Indeed, Axis and Allies players may even come to the conclusion that it would be really neat if Hitler won world war two. But of course this is silly, as everyone understands.

UPDATE: As one commenter notes, games of Diplomacy have, in fact, been known to lead to real-world violence. I recall one time when my Turkish armies were ready to sweep into Southern France from my forward bases in Piedmont and Spain when my march toward victory was suddently interrupted by my erstwhile Russian ally....

December 8, 2004 | Permalink


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» Important Lessons from Loud Liberal
Of course we can't ban it, without Risk, how would I know that invading Iraq is a bad idea? [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 10, 2004 9:11:18 AM


Matt, you're my new hero, too.

Your example of Axis and Allies points to an essential truth. Games are often abstractions that don't point in any moral direction for the people who are looking for a challenge and the simple desire to win a game. Winning as an Axis player in Axis & Allies doesn't mean you endorse fascism -- it's the same as winning as 'black' rather than 'white' in chess.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 9, 2004 12:17:57 AM

I'm not so sure about that. I played Risk as a kid and it affected my squishy, impressionable brain. Now I've become desensitized to aggressive, unprovoked military domination of neighboring countries, and by now it's lead me into a slide towards depravity that includes booze, drugs, cheap women, and the endorsement of a foreign policy based on unreasoning faith in the power of military arms. I blame you for my Weekly Standard subscription, Milton Bradley!

Posted by: Cmas | Dec 9, 2004 12:29:34 AM

Cmas, I just tied off with my licorice whip and injected my arm with heroin, and am now ready chew bubble-gum and rub cocaine into my gums while fantasizing about Ratchet and Clank killing Sonic the Hedgehog. Cool!

Maybe we can subvert the Monopoly set with Marxist ideology together.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 9, 2004 12:40:41 AM

Real dictators play Rome - Total War and conquer the world with archers, cavalry, and Roman legionaries. Or not.

Posted by: Mario | Dec 9, 2004 12:45:16 AM

" . . . as everyone understands."

If they did, would you have to write this post?

Posted by: Tbag | Dec 9, 2004 12:48:23 AM

I object to your characterization of Diplomacy as inherently a game of conquest. Other Diplomacy players may be warlike and aggressive, but the only reason I ever want to liberate Europe is to extend the benefits of my wise and benevolent rule to as many people as possible.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Dec 9, 2004 12:50:21 AM

the only reason I ever want to liberate Europe is to extend the benefits of my wise and benevolent rule to as many people as possible

Spoken like a true benevolent dictator. I love it!

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 9, 2004 12:56:35 AM

One peculiar feature of this new crusade against indecency is the extent to which the portability and shelf life of popular culture makes censorship a rather difficult goal to achieve in real terms.

The last great groundswell of moral panic about the state of popular culture wasn't I think really the comic book scare of the 50s (which was limited to a particular youth subculture) but the uproar over indecency in pop culture, and specifically Hollywood movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s - an uproar which ultimately led to the adoption of the Hayes Code, which regulated Hollywood until the 1960s (Bonnie and Clyde is generally considered the movie that put in the final nail in the coffin of the Hayes Code.)

After the adoption of the Hayes Codes, prints of many, many great early talkies were permanently mutilated to meet the rigid criteria set by the code, and because movie distribution was a rather top-down affair (ie no VCRs or DVDs) you could genuinely restrict access to "indecent" films.

One wonders what the latter day moralist crusaders have in mind for the millions of copies of CDs, MP3s (not to mention good old fashioned records and tapes) of everything from Eminem to the Sex Pistols out in circulation. Or the millions of copies of VHS and DVDs of everything from Bonnie and Clyde to Kill Bill. Or the millions of copies of Grand Theft Auto or other allegedly offensive video games. And what about the more than 700 million a year that's spent on porn? Surely there a few videos lying around out there.

Will Jerry Fallwell be coming to my house to confiscate all my obscenity or will it be a voluntary system?

Add to this fact that in a few years time broadband will make internet broadcasting of edgy streaming content possible and profitable, as well as widespread internet-based distribution of video games.

If America wants to play nanny state, you can be sure that there are quite a few other, less priggish countries both in the west and in the developing world that would love to lure American media companies (both content producers and distributors) to re-incorporate in their respective countries, taking potentially thousands of high wage jobs and billions in tax revenues with them. In a global economy, theocracy is bad for the culture business.

Posted by: Green Dem | Dec 9, 2004 3:00:24 AM

The modern-day crusaders really aren't interested in protecting kids from "harmful" movies/games/websites/rap lyrics, so the fact that they can't actually protect anyone from anything is really irrelevent. It's about gaining and exerting power, cowing media companies, and harvesting donations and funding.

Heck, if they succeeding in getting all of the Bad Stuff taken away, then they lose their leverage and their raison d'etre. The fact that the war against Bad Thought is inherently unwinnable is a feature, not a bug.

Abstinence education is another example. The fact that it doesn't work doesn't matter - it lets religious rightniks push their views in the schools (on the taxpayer's dime, even), and when the results come in (increased pregnancy and STD rates), well, it just shows how much MORE we need abstinence and Jesus in the classrooms (and on TV and in government and...). It's a machine that keeps on giving, utterly heedless of actual results.

See also: The War On Terror.

Anyway, always glad to see Diplomacy get a shoutout. The game encourages violence only in that you have to redgularly supress the urge to reach across the table and choke the life out of your so-called "ally" who sits there smirking as the results of his betrayal play out before you (The rage is intensified by the fact that you were going to betray him and win the game on the next turn).

Posted by: FMguru | Dec 9, 2004 4:01:30 AM

"(or, on the computer, Civilizations)"

Civilization was a board game (and one of my favorites) long before it was a computer game.

Posted by: Dantheman | Dec 9, 2004 8:48:44 AM

While violent video games may or may not lead to real-life violence, I have complete confidence that the game, "Diplomacy" does. It should be played on-line, anonymously, with strangers.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 9, 2004 8:54:59 AM

Someone should produce a "Watergate" video game, and see if subverting the Constitution causes as much of a ruckus.

Posted by: Jon H | Dec 9, 2004 9:09:45 AM

As parents of teenagers, we allow them to have computers and play PC games, but have firmly and irrevocably stated that we will never have any standalone game machines (Game Box, Nintendo, etc.) in our house.

The game machines strike me as not only a huge waste of money for software but also tilted toward the type of mindless visual stimulation which wastes enormous amounts of time without providing much in the way of logical problem solving or intellectual stimulation. The best PC games are in a whole different category, requiring imagination and critical thinking.

I'm certainly not saying that game boxes should be banned, but parents might want to consider keeping them out of their homes. Yes, it is possible to "just say no" to your kids.

Posted by: wvmcl | Dec 9, 2004 9:21:15 AM

If ugly images cause direct social harm, what do we do about Japan? You go on the subway, you see tremendously violent sado-porno manga all the time. And yet, Japan is a tremendously orderly society, with a very low crime rate. I guess they must have a law against crime, or something.

Posted by: Joe S. | Dec 9, 2004 9:52:46 AM

Driving a speeding car into a crowd of protestors is something that shouldn't be portrayed in a movie either, unless the protestors are Nazis - especially Illinois Nazis.

Posted by: David W. | Dec 9, 2004 10:00:16 AM

"Winning as an Axis player in Axis & Allies doesn't mean you endorse fascism -- it's the same as winning as 'black' rather than 'white' in chess."

That may work for you, but lately it isn't working for me.

I have "Panzer General 3 - Scorched Earth" (an old game I still have on my computer) that emulates the WW2 Eastern Front, and I have been playing it lately but only the Russians.

I just can't bring myself to play the Germans because they remind me too much of why I don't like Bushco.

Posted by: liberal elitist | Dec 9, 2004 10:11:00 AM

Read Kavilier and Klay (sp?) by Michael Chabon for insight into comic books and comic book censorhip

Posted by: Cathy | Dec 9, 2004 10:28:12 AM

It's clear that people make a distinction between Civilization and Grand Theft Auto (*). I can think of two reasons.

The first is just that people are a lot more accepting of indecency in the abstract. If Civ had cutaways to fights played as realistic shoot/hack 'em up games, then I would expect the same complaints about violence. Heck, the Civ variant Call-to-Power has slave-taking as one tactic--with captured slaves shown as animated icons in bondage, tilling fields outside the city--but I checked my copy and it is rated for everyone.

Hmm... maybe it's not even a distinction between abstract and graphic violence. Maybe it is truly a lack of due diligence on the part of would-be censors. If they have to understand the game to criticize it, then they let it pass.

The second big difference, though, is that conquering the world may not be considered criminal. Would be world-conquerors are treated very differently by historians and by opposing sides. All jokes aside, Civ provides you with an opportunity to act as either tyrant or liberator in your own mind.

So a better test case would be an abstract strategic game in which the intent was clearly criminal. If there was a Civ-like game in which the goal was to unify competing crack cocaine rings (or car theft, or prostitution, say) into one city-wide organization without any graphic violence, then how would that be received? As a parent, I would consider this a bad influence on my kids. On the other hand, I don't know if there would be the same movement to stop publication of such a game.

(*) Matt's comments started to make a lot more sense after I realized there was a video game of this name and he was not referring to the 1977 Ron Howard movie. I AM getting old.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Dec 9, 2004 10:35:46 AM

Personally, I've found that having played Diplomacy has contributed more to my understanding of what's going on in Iraq than the writings of any expert (or pseudo-expert) commentator.

Posted by: Swopa | Dec 9, 2004 10:53:51 AM

Maybe Bush or Cheney is a Civ II player. I always got upset when I'd be on the verge of wiping out an enemy and then the stupid Senate would force a peace treaty. And the only way to finish them off was to change the government to Fundamentalism. Eerie, huh?

Posted by: Mac Thomason | Dec 9, 2004 1:36:04 PM

Mac: That's why -- in the original Civilization -- my sudden adoption of communism was a sure sign SOMEONE was getting an ass whoopin'.

I'd switch back to Democracy once I started the war (Love those Pyramids, baby!) and simply refuse to speak to the country in question.

If you don't let the diplomats talk, they can't offer a peace treaty that you're forced to accept.

Hmm....maybe that's where Bush learned his style.

Posted by: Morat | Dec 9, 2004 2:15:01 PM

Swopa: I don't see Diplomacy shedding much light on the internal Iraq situation, but it certainly holds lessons about the diplomatic situation. I picture Bush playing Diplomacy and getting eliminated in A03 because he thinks he doesn't have to work with anyone.

btw, any of you DC-area types play with the Potomac Tea & Knife Society?

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Dec 9, 2004 3:12:02 PM

Well, I've been a wargamer for decades, and a librarian with an interest in Intellectual Freedom issues for less than that, but it does seem to me that there is some...extremely narrow..."sympathy for germany" sentiment that can crop up when you examine ww2 (or *any* conflict) and ask "what if" or admire the military accomplishments of a brilliant general (Rommel, Hannibal, Napoleon) on the wrong side of history.

Of course, in the case of ww2, what trumps admiration for the Germans is disgust at the Nazis, if everyone sees the distinction. But I do think that it's at least theoretically possible that that admiration can lead to some German-admiring historian getting "captured" by holocaust deniers and the like. (As opposed to them secretly having been an Anti-Semite all along).

Not that I'm arguing for a ban on Risk, just playing devil's advocate.

Posted by: Wrye | Dec 9, 2004 3:25:24 PM

I style my Risk strategy after MAD. I flat out tell everyone what lands and countries will be mine, and if they argue with me or interfere, I shall unleash the full force of my armies upon them. While that will result in me losing, they will be so badly weakened they'll go next.

You really only have to do it two or three times before they leave you alone and start playing for second place.

And it only works in larger games. I generally use it to gain control of a continent and thus build forces rapidly.

Posted by: Morat | Dec 9, 2004 3:41:11 PM

Civilization was a board game (and one of my favorites) long before it was a computer game.

The Avalon Hill board game Civilization has very little to do with the popular computer game franchise Civilization, except for a nasty trademark lawsuit that ended, IIRC, when the owners of both got snapped up by the Hasbro, rendering it rather pointless.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 9, 2004 3:44:28 PM

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