A short history of game panics: from pinball to porn to online poker.

Author:Walker, Jesse

For decades moral guardians have warned us about the alleged evils of video games. They make people violent. They make people gamble. They're too addictive, too hypnotic, too bloody, too risque. If they aren't leading kids to drugs or delinquency, they're turning them into school shooters. And they might even make you fat.

Here are some highlights from the history of game-driven moral panics.

The Evil Arcade

Video game arcades did not exist before the 1970s, but amusement arcades have been around for more than a century, giving people a place to play pinball and other coin-operated entertainments. They were tightly packed, anonymous environments filled with young people and working-class immigrants, a perfect recipe for middleclass anxieties. (There were even rumors of girls being kidnapped at arcades and sold into white slavery.) Throw in the fact that gambling was known to take place on the premises, and the venues' shady reputation was assured.

Moral opposition led to legal crackdowns. The most infamous effort began in 1942, when New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sent his gendarmes to seize the city's pinball machines. They brought in more than 2,000 on the first day, and newsreel crews filmed the mayor smashing some of them with a sledgehammer. New York did not relegalize pinball until 1976.

When video arcades started booming in the early '80s, many of those fears came rushing back. Parents worried that Pac-Man dens would encourage truancy, that kids would smoke cigarettes or buy drugs, that young children would come into contact with bad elements, that violence might break out. In 1982 The New York Times quoted a Long Island mom who believed video arcades "mesmerize our children," "addict them," "teach gambling," and "breed aggressive behavior." Zoning and permit fights were common, as fretful grown-ups urged the authorities to keep the arcades away.


These days, the arcades have virtually disappeared. But the anti-arcade scare petered out first.

Death Race 1976

The first individual video game to inspire a major moral panic was Death Race, a 1976 release inspired loosely by the cult film Death Race 2000. The movie was a science-fiction satire about a road race whose drivers ring up points by deliberately running people down. The game, which had not been licensed or endorsed by the filmmakers, put the player in the driver's role. It also changed the setup so that they were running over gremlins, not human pedestrians, but there's no sign that this prompted the critics to moderate their tone.

"On TV, violence is passive," a psychologist at the National Safety Council told The New York Times. "In this game a player takes the first step to creating violence. The player is no longerjust a spectator.... I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory." A former San Quentin psychologist told the Associated Press that "the prisoners I dealt with ... would have loved the game." The Tucson Daily Citizen wondered whether "chasing down pedestrians on a TV screen now" would "encourage" players to kill people "on real highways later."


Public protest prompted some venues to remove the game, but all the publicity ended up bringing Death Race's manufacturer more business, not less. It would not be the last time that anti-game...

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