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Grand Theft 2

CHAPTER 2

Deja Vu AllOver Again, and Again

The difference between the surreptitious pornographic litera­ture for adults and children's comic books is this: in one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other of making them.

-Fredric l#rthanz, MD, Seduction of the Innocent (1954)

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS IN WASHINGTON, DC, CALLS ITS collection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century popular novels, known as dime novels, "American Treasures." It has proudly accumu­lated nearly forty thousand titles.'

Film scholars and social scientists have written hundreds of books on the gangster films of the 1930s, starring the likes of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. They are considered film classics and are required study for aspiring filmmakers around the world.

Cultural historians consider the late 1930s through the 1950s to be the golden age of comic books. Characters introduced in that era, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Crypt Keeper, are still cul­tural icons and have been reinvented for other media and new genera­tions of children.

By today's standards, the writing and plotlines of those popular nine­teenth-century paperback novels about street life in the city and the tam­ing of the western frontier seem quaint, charming and simplistic. Scholars see the social and economic upheaval of Prohibition and the Great Depression reflected in the celluloid images of fictitious mob

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bosses and glamorous speakeasies. The early gangster films were like classic Greek dramas, with larger-than-life protagonists who suffered a predictable fall from power and a tragic ending. The one-dimensional characters and heavy-handed "crime does not pay" messages of the comic books are now overshadowed by an awareness of their artists' cre­ative use of shading and perspective. and their writers' sly social and political commentary.

Today we view dime novels, gangster films and comic books as fanciful and harmless period pieces. Yet in the years following their introduction, they were each labeled by politicians, religious leaders, social activists and even some health professionals as bringing about the imminent destruc­tion of moral values, culture, the rule of law--even of civilization itself. Among the claims: Reading adventure tales would lead children into lives of corruption and degradation. Watching films would cause children to abandon their moral values and to rob stores and dynamite trains. Comic books would teach and inspire readers to commit rape and burglary.

In retrospect, such charges seem preposterous and even laughable.

History has shown that those horrific fears were completely unjustified. Yet, outrageous as they were, they bear a striking resemblance in both tone and content to today's concerns about the effects of violent media­especially violent video games--on youth. Indeed, an article on violence and horror in entertainment media published in the March 24, 2007, edi­tion of The New York Times described a then-upcoming Federal Trade Commission report:

It will examine the selling practices of a mainstream entertain­ment industry that ... has become increasingly dependent on abductions, maimings, decapitations and other mayhem ....

If the new study were to find that the industry has violated or has outgrown its voluntary standards, it might kick the issue back into the political arena ahead of a presidential election. There it could trigger fresh calls for regulation .... 2

To gain perspective on the current fears, political posturing and industry responses, it's useful to look at the past, for that past truly is prologue.

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He Thought We'd Wind Up with Brains Full of Mush ...

"When I was growing up, my father thought that my brothers, my sister and I watched too much TV," says Jonathan Bloomberg. His father is a psychiatrist.

"He thought we'd wind up with brains full of mush because of what we were watching. He also thought, like a lot of people back then, that we might get cancer of the brain because we watched so much and we sat so close to the TV set. In fact, we even took out a tape measure to make sure that we sat at least six feet away. n

These days Dr. Bloomberg, like his father, is a psychiatrist. He directs the Bloomberg Institute for Child and Adolescent Development in Northbrook, Illi­nois, and teaches at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

"My happiest childhood memories are of my brothers and sister and me watching the Saturday night shows on television," he recalls. "It was two hours of bliss. I learned social skills by watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Mary Richards character that she played was someone to look up to, not just for little girls, but for little boys, too."

Now that he's the father of five boys, Dr. Bloomberg admits that he's con­flicted about how his own children use media. They playa lot of sports video games. He likes it that his younger children try to copy the skateboard moves they see on Tony Hawk games. He's impressed by how his sixteen-year-old, an avid basketball player himself, has taken notes on how the animated play­ers in a basketball video game move when they dunk the ball. "He's studied it like a choreographer and then tries to replicate what they do on a real court. He's less than six feet tall, but because of that he can dunk the ball, too:' Dr. Bloomberg said.

But he's disturbed by a few of the other games they play, adding, "Some of the games can be a bit much, especially when they involve things like hold­ing prostitutes hostage in Grand Theft Auto. I also sometimes have second thoughts about some of the television shows they watch, like South Park and The Simpsons. But those shows are so funny, and they really enjoy them. In retrospect, watching television was good for me. And probably South Park is good for my kids. There's a lot of laughter at the dinner table."

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The Perils of the Printed Word

It was the change in technology that triggered grave concerns about the influence of violent media on youth. Not today's youth, mind you, but the children of the mid-1S00s.

There's no doubt that the popular media of that time were filled with violence and sex. Horace Walpole's book The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 and generally considered to be the first gothic novel, set the tone for the popular literature of the day. (Within the first two pages, sickly Prince Conrad is crushed to death by a giant feathered marble helmet on his wedding day. Soon, his father declares his aim to have sex with Con­rad's fiancee so that she can bear him another son as a replacement. The eighteenth-century novel's over-the-top plot is surprisingly similar to the story lines of some of today's fantasy video games!)

When Walpole's book was published, there were no worries about the detrimental effects that such violence, sex, graphic imagery and gener­ally questionable behaviors might have on children. The reasons were simple: few people could read, and books were too expensive for most poor and working-class people.

All of that changed in the first half of the nineteenth century through a confluence of events. Shifts in the English educational system increased the number of children being taught to read. In lS10, Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer developed the steam-powered printing press, which could print tens of thousands of pages each day, many more than the old hand-powered Gutenberg presses that had remained largely unchanged for about 350 years. Koenig and Bauer sold one of their first working presses to the publishers of the London news­paper The Times, which spearheaded a dramatic growth in newspaper publication and readership. Paper itself was also becoming less expen­sive because of a combination of improved manufacturing at paper mills and the use of less expensive raw materials such as esparto grass.

As a result, printed publications of all types became much more affordable. People-ordinary people, including children and members of the working class-were now not only able to read, but could purchase reading materials of all types.

Some of these nineteenth-century publications drew upon and

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adapted the literary techniques of the gothic novel authors and made them more attractive to hoi polloi. Serial publications-the precursors of today's magazines-flourished and were filled with violence, crime and adventure. The Newgate Calendar recounted the lives and deeds of famous criminals. The Terrific Register offered lurid and supposedly true tales of murders, torture, ghostly sightings, perilous escapes and bizarre customs. Charles Dickens is said to have avidly read The Terrific Regis­ter each week.

Edward Lloyd, a publishing entrepreneur, exploited the public's grow­ing taste for violent stories through such financially successful serials as Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads," etc. (sixty issues) and History of the Pirates of All Nations (seventy-one issues). He also plagia­rized Dickens with such thinly disguised titles as Oliver Twiss and Nick­elas Nicklebery. Because his serials were both inexpensive and filled with scenes of gore, he referred to them as "penny bloods."

In 1866, Edward Brett decided that he could improve upon Lloyd's marketing techniques by publishing violent stories aimed specifically at children using a serial format known as a story paper. Schoolboys were the protagonists and heroes of his tales, such as The Wild Boys of Lon­don, or The Children of Night. This 105-issue serial featured a gang of boys who lived in the sewers, robbed corpses and battled the police.

One critic at the time described this genre of children's literature as "penny dreadfuls." It was, perhaps, a misleading appellation. The stories were filled with adventure and fantasy. Almost all condemned vice and promoted virtue, although occasionally with a nod and a wink. Still, many of these stories were held up as moral lessons.

At the same time, an inexpensive form of theater known as the penny gaff was cropping up in the cities, offering similarly gory stories as diver­sions and entertainments to working-class adults and, especially, to chil­dren. One critic described the cultural shift and its implications:

On another occasion it chanced to me to visit a penny gaff in that dark and dolorous region, the New Cut. There the company and the entertainment were of a much lower character. A great part of the proceedings were indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfac­tory to the half grown girls and boys present. In the time of the

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earlier Georges we read much of the brutality of the lower orders. If we may believe contemporary writers on men and manners, never was the theatre so full-never was the audience so excited-never did the scum and refuse of the streets so liberally patronise the entertainment as when deeds of violence and blood were the order of the night. This old savage spirit is dying out, but in the New Cut I fear it has not given way to a better one.'

Victorian society blamed juvenile crime on these cheap publications as well as on the penny gaffs, and paid little attention to the contributions of poverty, urban migration and prostitution. In fact, crime was decreas­ing dramatically in England during the peak of these stories' popularity,"

American publishers caught on quickly to the demand for violent seri­alized fiction and produced their own versions, known as dime novels. Among the most successful early publishers were the brothers Erastus and Irwin Beadle, who created Beadle's Dime Novels in the mid-1800s. The brothers gave explicit instructions to their authors, including:

Authors who write for our consideration will bear in mind that We prohibit all things offensive to good taste in expression and incident-

We prohibit subjects or characters that carry an immoral taint­We prohibit the repetition of any occurrence which, though true, is yet better untold-

We prohibit what cannot be read with satisfaction by every right­minded person-old and young alike"

It was a nice thought. While some publishers aspired to such stan­dards, others catered to the growing demand for the kind of vivid writing that had appeared in the penny bloods and penny dreadfuls.

The early dime novels came wrapped in orange paper, with their soft covers nearly absent of illustration. A typical book cover from 1861 read:

"Beadle's Dime Novels. The Choicest Works of the Most Popular Authors. A Sea Tale of '76. The Privateer's Cruise and the Bride of Pomfret Hall. By Harry Cavendish." The focus of the cover was the name of the publisher. The only illustration was a symbolic dime.

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Over the next few decades, the appearance of these dime novel cov­ers shifted dramatically. Detailed engravings illustrating a vivid scene from the book, initially in black-and-white and later in color, soon appeared. Many of these cover illustrations depicted violence, especially fights. Sometimes the people doing the fighting were young women.

Such images were often quite shocking and titillating to the readers of the time. For example, the black-and-white cover of DeWitt's Ten Cent Romances' The Female Trapper (1873) shows a young woman in a diaphanous dress firing a pistol at an unseen target. Log Cabin Library's Jesse James the Outlaw (1897) has a full-color illustration of a woman fir­ing a pistol during a train robbery at one of the robbers who is threaten­ing a male passenger. (Interestingly, all of the train robbers are dressed formally in jackets and ties!) Rough Rider Weekly's King of the Wild West's Cattle War, or Stella's Bout with the Rival Ranchers (1907) depicts Stella in a windblown skirt improbably standing atop a hog-tied steer and threatening two men with a hot branding iron.

Vice City

Enter Anthony Comstock, the chief special agent for the New York Soci­ety for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock was a media darling of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His crusades against pornog­raphy, alcohol, tobacco, birth control and abortion made headlines for more than thirty years.

In 1872, Comstock accompanied a police captain and a reporter for the New York Tribune on a raid of two stationery stores where he had purchased pictures and books that he declared obscene. Six people were arrested, and Comstock made headlines. Eager to build upon his suc­cess, he took a suitcase filled with the pornographic items he had col­lected to Washington, DC, where Congress was dealing with some much more serious scandals of its own involving bribes of its members by the construction company Credit Mobilier and fraud involving congressional underwriting of the expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad.

The legislators seized this opportunity to divert the attention of the press and the public from these growing political scandals and crimes. They embraced Comstock's cause and passed legislation he had written

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(known today as the Comstock Act) that prohibited the possession, advertising, sale and interstate transport of "obscene" materials, as well as information on contraception and abortion.

Then, as now, politicians and other public officials recognized that they could gain tremendous political leverage by rallying to protect chil­dren from both real and imagined threats to their innocence and virtue. The press flocked to such stories, no matter how little data supported the sometimes outrageous fears and claims. Few people dared to point out the flaws, for doing so exposed them to the risk of being labeled "anti-child."

The Congress of 1872 took full advantage of this hysteria to deflect attention from its members' financial and ethical transgressions. They appointed Anthony Comstock a postal inspector, which gave him broad police powers that he exercised with great vigor and much press cover­age. His motto was "Morals, not art or literature." By the year 1900, according to a report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, he had arrested 2,385 people and destroyed 73,608 pounds of books, along with many other items.'

But Comstock's concerns were not limited to sex. He worried that the crimes depicted in dime novels-including those stories aimed specifically at girls-would lead to copycat murders, burglaries, abduc­tions and counterfeiting. In his 1883 book Traps for the Young, Comstock referred to dime novels and storypapers as "evil reading [which] debases, degrades, perverts, and turns away from lofty aims to follow examples of corruption and criminality:" He added with typical melodra­matic flair that such "vile books and papers are branding-irons heated in the fires of hell, and used by Satan to sear the highest life of the SOul." 9

Even Comstock and his colleagues would be quick to point out that not all dime novels focused on crime and sex. By the end of the nine­teenth century, books by Horatio Alger, jr., were a treasured staple in American homes. Alger is best known for his more than 130 dime nov­els, almost all of which embraced the same basic plotline: a young boy works hard to escape the clutches of poverty. It's not the work itself that helps the boy succeed, but rather an extraordinary act of bravery or self­less honesty that brings the child into contact with a rich and powerful older man who often takes him on as his ward, tutors him in the ways of

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accepted society and changes his life for the better.

The underlying messages in these books were held up as exemplars of the strict Victorian morality being promoted by Comstock and oth­ers-an image that was further reinforced by the fact that Alger had graduated from Harvard Divinity School and had worked as a minister while starting his writing career. Surely there could be no better leader of a moral cause and no more appropriate defender of children and sup­porter of the innocence of childhood. This, cried the pundits, is what chil­dren's media should be.

Home libraries proudly displayed his books as a sign that they shared the author's views on the importance of moral rectitude and selfless behavior. To this day, the Horatio Alger Association provides scholar­ships and other awards to people who have overcome great adversity to become successful. Indeed, the phrase "a Horatio Alger story" has entered the vernacular as a term for a morally enlightening tale about achieving success through a combination of hard work and righteous, unselfish behavior.

Yet Alger's own behavior and values shed quite a different light on his writings. II) True, he was an ordained minister. He left his church in Brew­ster, Massachusetts, in 1866 for the life of a full-time writer after being confronted with evidence and admitting that he had sexually abused at least two boys in his congregation. The formal findings of the investiga­tion that were submitted to the Unitarian Church stated it in more flow­ery terms:

Horatio Alger, Jr., who has officiated as our minister for about 15 months past, has recently been charged with gross immorality and a most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys, which is too revolting to think of in the most brutal of our race ....

Alger skipped town before anyone could press criminal charges. His father, also a Unitarian minister, helped quash the scandal and wrote a let­ter to the American Unitarian Association promising that young Horatio would resign from the ministry and never again seek another church.

Once he moved to New York City, Alger became involved with

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orphaned and abandoned boys, some of whom are said to have inspired the characters in his books, such as Ragged Dick; or Street Life in Neu:

York with the Boot-Blacks (1868). He also "adopted" three teenage boys. The extent of his ongoing predatory sexual relationships with these and other children is unclear, since his sister followed his request and destroyed all of his personal writings upon his death in 1899.

Few of Alger's contemporaries were aware of the subtext of his boy­saved-by-kind-older-gentleman plots; they simply embraced the surface messages. Indeed, the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), an organization that promotes sexual relationships between men and young children, named its New York City chapter after Horatio Alger.

In retrospect, we can also see the stirrings of feminism in the plot­lines written by other Victorian-era popular writers. The independence and assertiveness that social critics of the time found scandalous and worrisome are now encouraged as a healthy part of girls' emotional and social development. It would not be the last time such changes in per­spective would take place.

Silent Killers

The early twentieth century ushered in a new popular medium and a new source of concern: motion pictures. Crime stories and violence were sta­ples of the early film industry, just as they were for early publishers. But it was the nascent craft of film editing that would soon cause politicians, religious leaders and social reformers to fear the influence of motion pic­tures on children's morals and behaviors. Indeed, the conventions of film editing paved a clear and direct path for the creation of video games.

Many of the early commercial motion pictures consisted of a single scene or event, such as a romantic kiss or the slapstick attempts of a gar­dener desperately trying to control a spraying hose. (Similarly, the first video game, which was developed at Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1958, was a simple two-dimensional tennis game displayed on an oscilloscope.) As filmmakers became more sophisticated, their films started looking like scenes from stage plays, with actors on static sets.

The earliest of these minute-long films were unedited; they showed a

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single event from a single perspective. Within a few years, filmmakers started editing films to show the same events from two or more different perspectives. A movie about the rescue of a woman from a fire might cut between shots of the woman and shots of the firefighters. Still, the plot consisted of a single event shown from beginning to end.

While some early silent films were shown in storefront theaters, most were projected on a screen in between live acts on a vaudeville stage. For example, the Edison Company's 1899 film Love and War con­sisted of six minute-long modules that told the story of a young soldier who goes off to fight in the Spanish-American War as a private, is wounded, gets promoted for bravery, meets the girl of his dreams (a Red Cross nurse) and returns home in triumph.

Audience members could follow the young man's heroic story through each of the six acts and listen to each act's accompanying song, which was commonly played after the film segment: "Parting" ("Our Hero Boy to the War has Gone"), "Camping" ("What! A Letter from Home"), "Fighting" C'Father, on Thee I Call"), "Convalescing" ("Weep­ing, Sad and Lonely"), "Sorrowing" ("Come Back, My Dear Boy, to Me") and "Returning" ("The Star-Spangled Banner").

The film was a multimedia event, complete with musical arrange­ments for soloist, quartet or full orchestra and with accompanying stere­opticon slides that could be projected on the screen during the songs. Like other early silent films, it wasn't viewed in silence. Rather than pro­viding a piano or organ accompaniment, which would become common in later years, exhibitors added live sound effects, such as train whistles or pistol shots, to make the audience's experience more realistic and emo­tionally arousing.

Theater owners would show these early films in different ways. In one venue, Love and War could be spliced together to form a continuous narrative. In another, it might be shown in pieces throughout a vaude­ville performance. In a third, each of its modules might be shown on dif­ferent weeks.

The film world changed in 1903 with the release of the Edison Com­pany's twelve-minute motion picture The Great Train Robbery. Unlike earlier films of this length, the producers intended it to be shown in its entirety and without interruption.

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The Edison Films catalog that was sent to exhibitors promoted it vividly:

This sensational and highly tragic subject will certainly make a decided "hit" whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made. It has been posed and acted in faithful duplication of the genuine "Hold Ups" made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West, and only recently the East has been shocked by several crimes of the frontier order, which fact will increase the popular interest in this great Headline Attraction."

The Great Train Robbery was seminal for several other reasons as well, not the least of which was its intense and graphic violence. The brief plot contains multiple murders, including throwing a body off a train; shooting a fleeing passenger in the back; several robberies; an attack on a telegraph operator and the subsequent discovery of his tied and beaten body by his young daughter; the dynamiting of a safe; and a square-dancing posse that sneaks up on and kills the thieves. (The square-dancing scene, which is interrupted by the injured telegrapher who'd been untied by his daughter, is apparently the writer's way of let­ting us know that the vigilantes who 'will eventually hunt down and mer­cilessly shoot the robbers are just ordinary folk.)

The final scene shows a close-up" of the mustachioed and menacing outlaw leader, Barnes, firing his six-shooter point-blank at members of the audience. Exhibitors were told by the Edison catalog that they had the option of showing this snippet at either the beginning or the end of the film.

The Great Train Robbery was a blockbuster hit that played for several years. It also popularized a new style of film editing. Instead of following a single series of events, the film took the audience to different locations in which different things were happening simultaneously. For example, the editor cut between the robbers making their escape on horseback and the telegraph operator lying bound and gagged on the floor of his office, mustering the strength to call for help.

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This use of editing to allow the audience to move instantly through time and space became fundamental to the grammar of future films, and eventually to video games. It increased the emotional tension and sus­pense of the film because, unlike in earlier motion pictures, the scenes did not automatically play out to their natural conclusions. No longer would a movie be limited to a single plot thread. Time and perspective could be manipulated freely. The audience could know things that the on­screen characters did not. The era of the modern film had begun.

Who Put the Sin in Cinema?

As the motion picture industry grew, so did concerns about the immoral content of films and their effects on viewers, especially children. Matters came to a head in the early 1920s with the intense national publicity that surrounded two scandals.

At the height of his popularity, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was second only to Charlie Chaplin in his renown as a silent-film comedian. By 1921, he was under contract to Paramount Pictures for a reported $1 million per year. His career imploded that September when he was accused of the rape and murder of a young actress, Virginia Rappe, who had been partying with Arbuckle and some other friends from the film industry in their hotel rooms in San Francisco.

The scandal was a newspaper sensation, especially in those papers owned by William Randolph Hearst, who had been railing against "liquor-and-sex orgies" and other decadent behaviors of Hollywood actors and moguls. Given Hearst's own reputation for decadence and partying, as well as his closeness to studio heads, actors and others in the film industry, it's doubtful that his complaints grew from a sense of moral outrage. Rather, Hearst knew that sex and scandal sold newspa­pers. The juicier the scandal-the more sexual depravity and moral decrepitude he could describe or imply-the more money he could make. He set out to make a lot of money off the trial, even if there were few facts to back up his newspapers' stories.

The grand jury indicted Arbuckle for manslaughter, much to the dis­appointment of the prosecutor, who had been pushing for a charge of


..

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first-degree murder. Theaters and state film boards started banning Arbuckle's films. Protests against the film industry sprung up around the country. The director of youth programs at the National Presbyterian Temperance Board stated,

The entire film business should be closed for at least one month and then opened only under intelligent management. Under pres­ent circumstances, I contend that cities would be justified in declaring martial law in respect to the mad mob spirit growing out of the rnovies.!'

Arbuckle was tried on the manslaughter charge three times. The first two trials ended with hung juries; the third acquitted him of the charge. Indeed, that jury read him a note of apology in the courtroom stating, "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a great injustice has been done him .... Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame." !' Most historians who have studied the trials have concluded that he was innocent and that much of the derogatory speculation about him in the popular press was inaccurate. His career never recovered.

In the time between Arbuckle's second and third trials, another Hol­lywood scandal captured the imagination of the press and the public. William Desmond Taylor, a well-known silent-film director, was mur­dered at his home. The press speculated on whether Taylor's lifestyle­described in various conflicting reports as including opium use, homosexuality, multiple affairs with young actresses and throwing and attending "wild parties," as well as his attempts to help drug-addicted friends in the industry kick their habits-had led to the crime. The mur­der has never been solved.

These and other Hollywood scandals of the early twentieth century fueled the flames of both religious and governmental groups that wanted to protect people, especially children, from the influence of the motion picture industry as talking pictures came onto the scene. "Silent smut had been bad," wrote Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest and prolific social critic at the time. "Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance."

In 1921, New York State established an independent commission to

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"review and license" films for distribution. During its forty-four years, the New York State Motion Picture Commission reviewed more than seventy-three thousand films. About three hundred were rejected in their entirety; another seven thousand were asked to make changes before they could be issued a license. IS

In 1922, Commissioner Joseph Levenson defended the government's right to censor motion pictures:

All those who attack motion picture regulation ignore the basic reason for such regulation. The motion picture draws an enor­mous proportion of its trade from children of immature years, from a great many of mental defectives, and a vast number of illit­erates and the ignorant. The non-English speaking foreigners contribute great numbers to everyone of those classes. After all, the way these elements receive their impression of life, of moral standards, of the obligations of citizenship, will ultimately affect in great degree the welfare of the state.

More far-reaching than the schoolhouse is the motion picture theater. If one bad picture can undo years of schooling to those who receive instruction, what must be the influence of the motion picture on the minds of those who never receive any schooling; or on those who were schooled in foreign lands, and whose concep­tion of life in America is entirely different from that of our people.

These conditions made it clear to those who gave serious thought to the subject that the attitude of many of the people in the motion picture industry that they could present to the public all types of pictures, crime-inciting, immoral, indecent, sacrile­gious without restraint would result in a decided lowering of the standards of our citizenship.

A careful study of the facts convinced students of the situation that failure to regulate and supervise the work of the motion pic­ture producers was resulting in an increase of crime in all commu­nities, particularly among our young, and affecting the moral welfare of all classes of our people. These were the main reasons that brought about the legislation of last winter creating the Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York."

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Better the Devil You Know ...

The film industry was rapidly being outflanked. Social critics, politicians and religious leaders blamed motion pictures for a wide swath of social ills. At the same time, cinema attendance was down. Some of this decline came from the influenza pandemic of 1918 and consequent public con­cerns about "exposure to crowds." Some of it came from the increasing popularity of radio as an entertainment medium.

A growing number of states and cities were establishing censorship boards of various types. The decision by New York State, the largest and most profitable domestic market for films, to start its Motion Picture Commission was apparently the tipping point for the industry. In an attempt to regain public confidence and to stop the growth of govern­ment censorship, the studio heads formed their own censorship board and public relations group, the Motion Picture Producers and Distribu­tors of America (the MPPDA, now known as the Motion Picture Associ­ation of America).

Will Hays was the U.S. postmaster general at the time, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and an elder of the Presbyterian church. With his deep political connections and savvy, as well as his flair for public relations, studio executives viewed him as a natural choice for president of the MPPDA. Hays took the job in 1922, and would soon become one of the most influential men in the history of motion pictures.

Pressures for censorship continued. Congress held hearings in 1925 and 1926 to explore establishing a Federal Motion Picture Commission. Hays attempted to fend off federal regulation by, among other things, issuing a memorandum in 1927 containing guidelines for producers that became known as the "Don'ts and Be CarefuJs." The Don'ts consisted of prohibitions on profanity, suggestive nudity, use of illegal drugs, sexual perversion, white slavery, miscegenation, venereal diseases, childbirth, children's sex organs, ridicule of the clergy and willful offense to any nation, race or creed. The longer list of Be Carefuls was a hodgepodge of items that could potentially cause trouble if they were construed as vul­gar or suggestive. Most of these involved violence, crime or sex.

It didn't work. The studios saw the guidelines for what they were:

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suggestions with little hint of enforcement behind them. Pressure from the state and federal governments increased. Hays responded by expand­ing the Don'ts and Be Carefuls list into the Motion Picture Production Code, later known as the Hays Code. It gave detailed instructions for what would and would not be acceptable in a commercial motion picture:

No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin .... Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method .... The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pic­tures shall not infer [sic] that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

All of the attention paid to sex and crime in the Motion Picture Pro­duction Code hints at what was drawing audiences of all ages to their local motion picture theaters. Hollywood was happy to oblige, of course. The film industry's attempt at setting moral standards for motion pic­tures was fundamentally a business decision, an attempt to ward off costly distribution problems if state governments developed different standards for what could be shown in their theaters. It was an approach that would later be copied by the creators of other entertainment media, including video games.

The Public Enemy

Compared with the violent content of The Great Train Robbery, most gangster films of the 1920s and 1930s were relatively tame. They were also structurally more complex, with far more sophisticated acting, pho­tography and editing. But it was probably one technological improve­ment that made gangster films so popular: sound.

The iconic sounds of gangster films are immediately identifiable: The screech of brakes and squeal of tires in a car chase, the smack of a closed fist against a chin or an open hand across a cheek, the rat-a-tat fire of a machine gun, the dull thud of a dead body as it hits the ground. Indeed,

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the first "100 percent all-talking" feature film to be released,* Lights o_ New York (1928), was a gangster film. The film was produced for a paltry $23,000. During its first run, it grossed well over one million dollars Thus, the future of gangster movies was assured.

The plots of this first generation of talking gangster films played oil the headlines of the day. Prohibition and the Great Depression hac: turned the likes of Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger intc celebrities. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929 had captured the public's imagination about gangland turf battles. The larger-than-life sto­ries and characters were tailor-made for Hollywood.

Indeed, the plots of these films turned traditional morality tales on their heads. The protagonists used their wits and skills to pursue long­standing American goals of wealth, power, social status and material goods. But they did so through selfish, immoral and often violent behav­ior, without regard to the consequences of their actions.

Concerns over the influence of movies on children turned the book Our Movie Made Children by Henry James Forman into a national best­seller. It detailed a combination of supposedly scientific experiments and case histories to show how motion pictures posed a significant danger to the youth of that day. In retrospect, many of these stories, like the movies themselves, seem quaint.

"I saw a picture, 'Me, Gangster,''' writes a high-school boy of sev­enteen. "This gave me a yearning to steal. ... I went to our regis­ter and took out a quarter and went to a show. I did this in a sly manner just as in the show."

Numerous minor delinquencies are attributed by boys to the movies-stealing small sums, robbing a chicken coop, a small newsboy or a fruit vendor-little is thought of these acts by the boys or even by their elders. Criminologists, however, are well aware how often this type of early minor delinquency leads to more serious acts and graver forms of crime. Experienced crimi­nals, moreover, join the criminologists in this belief and frequently

*Films such as The Jazz Singer (1927) and Dream Street (1921) contained limited syn­chronized sound effects. songs and dialogue, and are known as "part-talkies."

Deja Vu All Over Again, and Again

condemn the movie influence and touch upon it with bitterness as a factor in their own unfortunate careers."

A few pages later, a seventeen-year-old boy who was charged with burglary adds:

"I learned something from 'The Doorway to Hell.' It is a gangster picture. It shows how to drown out shots from a gun by backfiring a car." This is one of the numerous techniques learned from the movies, as one ex-convict explains it. There is a large amount of such terse testimony as to the education source-the movies­for a great many methods and techniques acquired by young criminals. 18

Late in 1933 the American Journal of Public Health featured a book review of Our Movie Made Children. It was sandwiched between reviews of a White House conference on infant and maternal illness and the book A Short History of Dentistry.

Easy money, fine clothes, luxury, wild parties, sex suggestion, exert an insidious appeal. Young people report the movies a liberal education in love-making with the sex side often over-empha­sized. "The road to delinquency is heavily dotted with movie addicts and it needs no crusaders, or preachers, or reformers to come to this conclusion."

Everyone interested in the physical, mental, or moral welfare of children should read this book and take a positive stand against the evils that are exposed. Parents should consider carefully the seriousness of the facts and supervise the movie-going habits of the children as far as possible. 19

No groups took up the cause more enthusiastically than the pro-cen­sorship religious activists. Protestant and Jewish movie censorship groups were mostly local. The Catholic Church, however, took a national approach. They organized the Catholic Legion of Decency, inspired by a 1933 speech made by a politically savvy Italian priest named Amleto

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Cicognani at a Catholic Charities convention in New York City, in which. he railed against the movies' "massacre of innocence of youth." (Cicog­nani would eventually become the cardinal secretary of state at the Vati­can.) The organization was renamed the National Legion of Decency in 1934 in an attempt to become more ecumenical, and perhaps to shed itself of the acronym CLOD. Its membership pledge read:

I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pic­tures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.

The National Legion of Decency came up with a film rating system that was a precursor to the current industry-sponsored rating systems for films, television and video games. The Legion assigned films ratings of A ("morally unobjectionable"), B ("morally objectionable in part") or C C'con­demned by the Legion of Decency"). A slightly revised version of this rat­ings system is still being used by the successor to the Legion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Horror in the Nursery

In some ways, the crime and horror comics of the late 1930s through the 1950s were a throwback to the popular storypapers of the nineteen cen­tury. Many of the plotlines featured violence and gore. The artwork exag­gerated men's muscles (if they were heroes) and women's legs and breasts. This approach to portraying women, known as "good girl art," was a natural successor to the popular pinup and calendar girl art of World War II. The term "good girl" does not refer to the morals or behavior of the subject, but to her physical features. Indeed many of these exagger­ated women were shown in violent, sexually provocative, or downright ludicrous situations.

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Cicognani at a Catholic Charities convention in New York City, in which he railed against the movies' "massacre of innocence of youth." (Cicog­nani would eventually become the cardinal secretary of state at the Vati­can.) The organization was renamed the National Legion of Decency in 1934 in an attempt to become more ecumenical, and perhaps to shed itself of the acronym CLOD. Its membership pledge read:

I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pic­tures that are dangerous to my mora] life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.

The National Legion of Decency came up with a film rating system that was a precursor to the current industry-sponsored rating systems for films, television and video games. The Legion assigned films ratings of A ("morally unobjectionable"), B ("morally objectionable in part") or C C'con­demned by the Legion of Decency"). A slightly revised version of this rat­ings system is still being used by the successor to the Legion, the Unitec States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Horror in the Nursery

In some ways, the crime and horror comics of the late 1930s through the 1950s were a throwback to the popular storypapers of the nineteen cen tury. Many of the plotlines featured violence and gore. The artwork exag­gerated men's muscles (if they were heroes) and women's legs anr breasts. This approach to portraying women, known as "good girl art,' was a natural successor to the popular pinup and calendar girl art of Worl( War II. The term "good girl" does not refer to the morals or behavior 0 the subject, but to her physical features. Indeed many of these exagger ated women were shown in violent, sexually provocative, or downrigh ludicrous situations.

Deja Vu All Over Again, and Again

49

They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown .... It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals liv­ing together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclin­ing and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm. Like the girls in other stories, Robin is

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The contents of these comics were outlandish in their creativity.

They both reflected and mocked the conventions and mores of the time. The cover of an issue of Crime Does Not Pay ("All true crime stories!") shows a sexy young woman in a low-cut red dress running away from a diner. She has a pistol in each hand, which she has clearly used to shoot several men around her. There's blood everywhere. In an issue of Baf­fling Mysteries, two green-scaled humanoids abduct a scantily clad blonde, telling her, "We have long sought a queen! You shall reign as queen of the Lizard Men!"

There were deeper metaphors as well, perhaps conscious, perhaps not. An issue of Tales from the Crypt features a story about a criminal who survives a prison electrocution and seeks revenge on the judge who sen­tenced him. Indeed, this theme of someone rising from the dead to chase down and kill his former torturers recurs regularly in the horror comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was only a few years after World War II and the public's recognition of the real-life horrors of the Holo­caust. Many of the editors and executives in the comic book industry were European Jews, so this theme had special resonance.

Predictably, concerns about these comics' influence on children led to articles with titles like "Horror in the Nursery" and "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books" that appeared in national magazines. A child psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, MD, led the charge against crime comics in his bestselling 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent.

Wertham, a social activist and classically trained psychoanalyst, railed against the criminal behaviors portrayed in the stories. He also pointed out a partial image of a nude woman that was seemingly embedded in an illustration of a man's shoulder, and warned loudly and repeatedly about the influence on youth by what he claimed to be the homosexual rela­tionship between Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Robin (Dick Grayson).

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sometimes held captive by the villains and Batman has to give in or "Robin gets killed."

Robin is a handsome ephebic [adolescent] boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on Earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.

In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, suc­cessful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick."

Because of these and other concerns, at least fifty cities tried to pre­vent or regulate the sale of comics. The New York State legislature passed a bill to make it a crime to sell comics that might incite minors to violence or immorality, but the governor vetoed it out of concern that the ban might be unconstitutional. The l'.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on juvenile delinquency held hearings in 1954 about the pernicious influence of comics. Its interim report stated,

It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in mur­der, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are pre­sented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children. These books evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable. Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women."

Dr. Wertham's testimony at the subcommittee's hearings in New York City started with that premise and took it even further.

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sometimes held captive by the villains and Batman has to give in or "Robin gets killed."

Robin is a handsome ephebic [adolescent] boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on Earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.

In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, suc­cessful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick."

Because of these and other concerns, at least fifty cities cried to pre­vent or regulate the sale of comics. The New York State legislature passed a bill to make it a crime to sell comics that might incite minors to violence or immorality, but the governor vetoed it out of concern that the ban might be unconstitutional. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on juvenile delinquency held hearings in 1954 about the pernicious influence of comics. Its interim report stated,

It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in mur­der, mayhem, robbery, rape. cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are pre­sented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children. These books evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable. Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women."

Dr. Wertham's testimony at the subcommittee's hearings in New


Deja Vu All Over Again, and Again

51

If it were my task, Mr. Chairman, to teach children delinquency, to tell them how to rape and seduce girls, how to hurt people, how to break into stores, how to cheat, how to forge, how to do any known crime-if it were my task to do that, I would have to enlist the crime comic book industry. Formerly to impair the morals of a minor was a punishable offense. It has now become a mass indus­try. I will say that every crime of delinquency is described in detail and that if you teach somebody the technique of something you, of course, seduce him into it. Nobody would believe that you teach a boy homosexuality without introducing him to it. The same thing with crime.

Wertham had similar concerns about the sexual orientation of Wonder Woman and her potential influence on the young girls who read her comics.

The homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable ....

For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls, she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is anti-feminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-mascu­line .... In a typical story, Wonder Woman is involved in adven­tures with another girl, a princess, who talks repeatedly about "those wicked men." 22

Following in the footsteps of Hays and the film industry, the comic book publishers set up the Comics Code Authority the same year as the Senate hearings. Highlights of that original industry code included:

.: . Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals .

:. If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity .

  • :. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.

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.: . In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal pun­ished for his misdeeds .

  • :. Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal tor­ture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated .

  • :. Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any phys­ical qualities .

  • :. Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.

The introduction of the code marked the end of the golden age of hor­ror and crime comic books. Many of these comics are now valuable col­lector's items and are even integrated into university courses on popular culture and art. In 2001, Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about this heyday of comic book publication.

The Largest Comic Book Collection in My Neighborhood

It comes as a surprise to many parents and educators when they learn that Jim Trelease is a big fan of comic books. After all, he's a nationally known reading consultant and the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. 23 He lectures all over the world on how to improve children's reading ability and increase their love of reading. He says that studies clearly show that top students in all grades are more likely to read comic books than lower-ranked students.

"In the early 1950s, I had the largest comic book collection in my neiqh borhood." says Trelease, who has a framed Call of the Wild Classic Comic Book hanging on the wall of his office. "I had Batman, Superman, Tarzan-a lot of boy adventure comics. Also, Mad magazine and Donald Duck comics. Mad magazine was forbidden fruit, which made it more attractive. We were reading stuff that the adults didn't want us to read."

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53

He's such a fan of this era's horror comics that when his son was twelve years old, he gave the boy a bound collection of them. "He loved thernl" he says, adding that he's not sure his ten-year-old grandson is ready for the level of graphic violence and gore that were commonplace in those comics. As with all media, including video games, he recommends making sure that the subject matter and approach are developmentally appropriate for the child. His son was ready to handle the comics at age twelve; his grandson will still have to wait a few years.

Trelease attributes the widespread fears about the influence of comics when he was a child to parents and other well-rneaninq adults trying to cope with the significant social and cultural changes that took place after World War II. "The changes made them uncomfortable," he adds. "Nobody likes change. It was a way for them to fight those changes. I see a repetition of this paranoia today in some evangelicals' concerns about books like the Harry Pot­ter series."

Broadcasting Sex and Violence

Predictably, radio and television were the next media to be attacked as destructive to children, using many of the arguments and approaches employed by earlier critics of comics, gangster films and dime novels. One would think that Wertham would have anticipated this in his writ­ings about the dangers of comic books. Quite the contrary!

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Television is on the way to become the greatest medium of all time. It is a marvel of the technological advance of mankind. The hopes it raises are high, even though its most undoubted achieve­ment to date is that it has brought homicide into the home .... Television has a spotty past, a dubious present and a glorious future. That alone distinguishes it from crime comic books, which have a shameful past, a shameful present and no future at al1.24

Oddly, Wertham wrote this opinion at a time when, in retrospect, tel­evision programming--especially programming for children-was chock-full of gratuitous violence. Westerns, the most popular television

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genre in the 1950s, routinely involved multiple shootings, stabbings scalpings and torture. Disney's Davy Crockett ("Kilt him a b'ar when h was only three!" proclaimed the hit theme song) got into a tomahaw fight in his first episode, "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter." It also trig gered a fashion and cultural craze that had millions of children suddenl wearing coonskin caps like their hero and begging their parents to bu them plastic or wooden replicas of his faithful rifle, Old Betsy.

For many Americans, an iconic photograph of suburban life in th 1950s might show a young boy with a serious look on his face, a squin in his eye and an oversized holster strapped to his leg. He's firing a cow boy six-shooter at an unseen villain or varmint, just as he'd seen OJ Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger. These once-ubiquitous children' cap pistols, such as the Mattei Fanner 50 and the Kilgore Buc-A-Roo, an now valuable collector's items.

Killers for hire, like Paladin on Have Gun-Will Travel, were por trayed as heroes on television. Marshal Matt Dillon, the protagonist 0 Gunsmoke, began each episode by gunning down a man in the street often following that with another shooting later in the show. During tlu program's twenty-year run, it was also broadly implied that he was hav ing a long-term affair with the town's saloon owner, the provocativel­named Miss Kitty. The adults who watched had a good idea how she anc her attractive barmaids really made their money, even if the children it the audience didn't.

Perhaps Wertham had such high hopes for television because, durin! the 1950s, the electronic medium of greatest concern due to its suppos edly detrimental influence on children was radio, which was shifting ir both tone and format. Irving Caesar, the music publisher and lyricist whc wrote such songs as "Tea for Two," graphically summed up one popular perspective on why parents should be worried about the salaciousness 0 the new music-rock and roll-being broadcast by radio stations:

Parents have a right, because they sense not the content but the intent. The leering clarinet, the moaning, sensuous trombone. It's interpretation. The very fact that it appeals to a certain kind of interpreter. For instance if I say, "I love you truly, truly." But if I

sr.v "T l""p VAll trl1hrH ","r1 ............... n .................. ~ •... --- - - 1.

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55

I say it, "I love you truly," you know what I intend to convey when I say, "I love you truly" that way .... You know the rock and roll business. It was born out of rhythm and blues and race. Written by people who didn't know the English language. Didn't know how to spell, didn't know how to play but could accompany himself on the gee-tar and so forth and that's how rock and roll was born."

Deja Vu

What does all of this have to do with video games? The parallels are strik­ing. Until the early 1970s, access to computers was restricted to an elite class, such as programmers and engineers at corporations, government agencies and schools. These were mainframe computers, the Gutenberg presses of their day. As with those first hand-powered presses, these early computers had started a revolution that had not yet directly reached the masses.

As had happened with printing, a confluence of events-the use of new technologies, more efficient manufacturing and distribution, increased demand and cheaper raw materials-led to the development of the personal computer in its many forms, including video game consoles. What was once available only to a few people has, like printed books, become inexpensive and commonplace.

Today, an amalgam of politicians, health professionals, religious lead­ers and children's advocates are voicing concerns about video games that are identical to the concerns raised one, two and three generations ago with the introduction of other new media. Most of these people have the best of intentions. They really want to protect children from evil influ­ences. As in the past, a few have different agendas and are using the issue manipulatively.

Unfortunately, many of their claims are based on scanty evidence, inaccurate assumptions, and pseudoscience. Much of the current research on violent video games is both simplistic and agenda driven.

As with Alger's books in the nineteenth century, violent video games that are associated with religion are sometimes viewed differently and with less scrutiny than other commercial games. (There are exceptions, as we'll see in chapter 6.) For example, many families embrace the vio-

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lence in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a video game in which Christias players score points for gunning down nonbelievers.

The video game industry, like the motion picture and comic boo) industries before it, has developed voluntary standards for content in a:J attempt to stave off state and federal regulation. Governors, legislator: and presidential candidates have all chimed in with their opinions on the supposed dangers of violent video games for children, and in some case: have introduced legislation in an attempt to quash the same type 0 threat that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had beer warned about regarding the new media of their times.

Throughout the rest of this book, we'll examine some of the researc1 on video games and help you make sense of it. We'll describe our OWl research, discuss its implications and limitations, and suggest practica things you can do as a parent, teacher or health professional to make the most of the good and limit the potentially bad aspects of violent videc games. We'll also explore the concept of differential risk: the idea that w( should be more concerned about some children and less concerned abou others.

DMU Timestamp: February 01, 2013 22:13