Last week, Kotaku posted a critique of the use of scare tactics to represent video games in a recent episode of Katie Couric’s new show. The post included video from Couric’s show that featured dark, shadowy images of young men playing fiercely with controllers while a deep, gravelly voice-over described the dangers of video games to children everywhere. While I don’t necessarily think that video game proponents should adopt a reactionary or overly defensive position with respect to the question of representations of violence in video games, it does seem that popular airings of this debate slant toward sensationalizing what is really just a general sense of unease related to video games. As it often is with such programs on video games, the presenters and commentators rarely seem to have played video games on their own. In fact, the criticism is often a criticism of distance–of looking at something askance as much for its unfamiliarity as anything else.
Particularly telling was Couric’s exchange with Jim Steyer, who lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant’s Association to affirm the protection of video games as free speech (PDF of ruling). Indeed, Couric takes a moment to quote from the majority decision, which points out that “the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. [...] As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ’til she fell dead on the floor’” (8). Streyer’s response to this argument is simply to say that the justices were wrong to make a comparison between literary depictions of violence and those in video games.
I would not want to go so far as to suggest that representations of violence in literature and video games are precisely equivalent, but I was intrigued by this question about the effect of violence in video games, paired as it was with the dismissal of any suggestion that violent literature could be dangerous. In the aftermath of television, film, and video games, the notion of literature as a dangerous form of entertainment may seem a little ridiculous (despite the annual lists of banned books that circulate the Internet), but of course, this was not always the case. Indeed, the recent renewed focus on video games brings to mind the controversy that rose around a subgenre of adventure novels that appeared in England in the 1830s; they were known as Newgate novels after the famous Newgate prison in London. The novels took as their subject the lives and exploits of famous criminals, some historical, others fictional. The books were wildly popular until the high-profile murder of Lord William Russell in 1840 essentially killed the entire genre.
Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who went to great effort to make the murder look like a robbery gone wrong. It was soon reported that Courvoisier had been reading William Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839), which was one of the most popular and widely read of the Newgate novels. The novel’s eponymous hero was an actual eighteenth-century criminal, and Ainsworth’s apparent glorification of Sheppard’s criminal successes was denounced by many reviewers. But these concerns were exacerbated when, during the inquest into Lord Russell’s death, Courvoisier testified that reading Jack Sheppard had given him the idea of murdering his master. Much of the popularity of Jack Sheppard wasn’t due to the novel alone, however; Ainsworth’s rendition of Sheppard’s life inspired many stage adaptations, which were themselves quite popular. But in the aftermath of the association between Courvoisier’s crime and the fictional representation of a life of crime, the Lord Chamberlain essentially banned all plays based on Jack Sheppard or similar material. While the Chamberlain’s office was tasked with approving theatrical productions, because Courvoisier’s testimony suggested a clear connection between the representations of violence in Newgate fiction and an actual act of murder, the censorship office essentially stamped out the genre.
Of course, the parallels between representations of violence in Newgate novels and in video games are palpable in the history of Newgate fiction. In England, a mechanism for restricting and removing objectionable material was already in place and made the censorship of Newgate fiction relatively easy and immediate, but we are fortunate that such a mechanism is not present in twenty-first-century America. While the conversation about the impact of representations of violence will (and should) continue, we should keep in mind that novel ways of representing (or glorifying) violence are not uncommon. Banning or restricting access to creative works has a dubious history at best, and a longer historical view of such debates would be a welcome addition to the discussions surrounding video games. As it is, though, the divisive rhetoric that characterizes much of political and cultural life these days seems to be mirrored in the video game debate. I would hope that proponents of restricting video games would think twice before trying to establish a contemporary censorship office on the grounds that such restrictions will prevent tomorrow’s tragedy.
Sources: William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard. Eds. Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourao. Broadview, 2007.
Jan-Melissa Schramm, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Cambridge UP, 2012.