Moral Combat (Patrick M. Markey & Christopher J. Ferguson)

I don’t care whether you like video games or not.  Honestly, I don’t.  Just because they’ve been a major source of happiness in my life, for most of my life, doesn’t mean that they play the same role for you.  I have no issues with you putting your time into the particular hobbies you’ve got.  My problem comes when well-meaning people start making claims that one of my hobbies (video games, of course) is a terrible way to spend my time.  That, my friends, is a short slope away from the argument that games are causing our children to act violently, that they are responsible for the decline of Western civilization, and that they typify so much of what is wrong with the world.

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Moral Combat addresses this argument head-on.  Over the course of its exhaustively-sourced 256 pages, this book doesn’t shy away from looking at all the anti-video game arguments and systematically demolishing them.  I don’t think I have to tell you that I enjoyed reading it, immensely.

Oh, and I apologize for taking so long since my last book review.  Life’s been busy.  Anyway.

One could suggest that the reason this book resonated so greatly with me is because I agree with its basic premise.  Which, okay, is a fair argument–except for the great lengths the authors go to to present a balanced, fact-based look at video games, particularly violent video games, and their effects on us and our children.  This is a piece of scholarship that I wish got a massive audience, mostly because the information presented here is information we all need to have at our disposal.

The first section of Moral Combat explores the history of video games, from their earliest incarnation up to the mid-90s, a time when home-based gaming systems were powerful enough that most children could play the newest games in the comfort of their own homes rather than congregating in arcades, away from their parents.  Games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, and Doom had depictions of cartoonish, mostly silly violence that would be viewed as pretty ridiculous by today’s standards.  But parents (and Congress) were horrified at these games.  Thus began the anti-video game violence hysteria that continues today.  Here’s where the authors make their first interesting argument: those three games (while far from being the most violent things even in their day) each popularized a new technological advance that made them stand out.  Doom was the first chance people had to play against (and kill) their friends online, which was  a surprising new advance in the gaming technology of the time.  Mortal Kombat was one of the first games able to use digitized video footage of actual actors.  Ditto for Night Trap, which lawmakers decided necessitated Congressional hearings due to its potential to destroy our children’s minds.

These hearings led the gaming industry to establish the ESRB rating system, which has been shown to have more of an impact on retailers than the music or movie rating systems (PG-13 and the like).  In fact, the authors show, children have a much more difficult time buying an M-rated game than consuming other forms of media that are supposedly more mature than they can handle.  M-rated games, by the way, only make up approximately 11 percent of video games produced each year.  The ESRB rating system is working, which is a good thing, regardless of the alarmism from Congress that led to its inception.

The next section of the book explores the concept of a “moral panic”, which is defined as “a tendency for societies to develop overblown fears of an innocuous scapegoat or ‘folk devil’ which is then blamed for a real (or often imagined) social problem”.  We’ve had plenty of moral panics in the United States over the past few years.  Remember all the (unsubstantiated) freakouts about Satanic cults snatching hundreds of thousands of runaway children and sacrificing them in basements somewhere?  Remember the myth of the “super predator” kids?  Remember the legend of the “crack baby”?  What about the gangs taking over your neighborhood?  What about Pizzagate?  We in 2017 are far from sophisticated enough to avoid even the most ridiculous moral panics, and we need to recognize the corrosive impacts of this fear on ourselves and those we care about.  Fear of violent video games clearly falls into this same category, a category the authors term “juvenoia”–a fear of youth.  As they say, “every generation seems to think the next has slipped to some new depth of moral depravity shocking in comparison to the idyllic memories of their own long-gone childhood”.  Does this hit a little close to home?  It should.  I’ve seen otherwise logical and well-educated adults making claims about “kids today” that are, frankly, ridiculous.  The mistrust many adults have toward kids has, in this case, become generalized to the activity many kids enjoy (these games).  If we don’t understand something, we often fear it.  Hence our demonization of video games.

The authors describe the process as being something like this: there are typically gaps from generation to generation when it comes to the acceptance of new forms of technology.  Those gaps lead to a feeling of powerlessness on the part of adults, who see society changing in ways they don’t understand.  Look back at history, and you’ll see a massive history of adults fearing new technology, from the printing press to the phonograph, to rock and roll music, to the comic book, to Night Trap.  It’s a societal trend that has repeated (and will keep repeating) for a very, very long time.

What about school shootings?  Aren’t the perpetrators of these acts often huge fans of violent video games?  Well, this is a fallacy, as the book clearly shows.  The next time you see a school shooter profiled in the media, take note of their race.  As the authors point out, when adolescents from minority communities commit acts of violence, that violence is attributed to the community or to the adolescents themselves.  But when white adolescents do something like this, the violence gets blamed on something external to them–which is where violent video games come in.  We can’t blame ourselves, so we must find something else evil whose fault it must be.  Video games it is.  When Columbine happens, when Sandy Hook happens, we must find a scapegoat.  And it must be something other than the availability of guns, or any other factor we could examine instead.

Systematically, the authors go through all of the most commonly used arguments against violent video games and demolish them all with a combination of common sense, research results, and the judicious use of the scientific method.  Ultimately, the reader is left with a very clear picture of these facts:

  1. Violent video games do not desensitize us to violence in real life (in fact, those who play violent video games actually appear to be more impacted/upset by real life violence).
  2. Violent video games do not teach kids to use guns, or provide “practice” for real world acts of violence (pushing “x” on a controller is a vastly different piece of muscle memory than pulling a trigger).
  3. Video games haven’t had all that many studies that were rigorous in terms of defining their categories.  What is “violent”?  Different researchers have defined this to mean everything from Pac-Man to Doom.  If we have no common standard definition of “violent video games”, it’s impossible for us to make the argument that they have any impact whatsoever on anything.
  4. Video games HAVE also had many intentionally-skewed, high-profile studies that had clear conflicts of interest in terms of funding, methodology, and other major components.
  5. Much of the panic about violent video games has taken the following form: politician A decides that violent video games are bad, tells politician B this “fact”, so they convene some hearings and establish a pot of federal funding for research into this “fact” that they’ve already established.  Researcher A goes ahead and finds “proof” of the aforementioned “fact”–hooray!  Researcher B wants funding for his or her school/lab as well, so they research the same “fact”, using their own set of rules (with a preconceived notion of what their findings will be) and–hooray again–they find out something similar to the first “fact”.  The (biggest) problem with this whole paradigm is that science doesn’t work that way!  Scientists shouldn’t be told that they can have money IF they establish that something the funder previously decided–and announced–must be true!
  6. This has led to a whole slew of “researchers” and “experts” on violent video games who have made a career out of going on TV shows and saying the things that adults who didn’t grow up playing video games believe on a gut level–that this new medium of artistic impression MUST be bad, since they just don’t get it.

This list could go on for another thousand words.  I’m very passionate about this topic, and I’m also (naturally) very passionate about Moral Combat.   The book is exceptionally well-written, in a conversational tone that still manages to convey a great deal of information from multiple theoretical viewpoints (be it anthropological, psychological, or sociological).  I’m impressed by the work that has gone into backing up their points, and while the authors have their own opinions, obviously, they don’t shy away from announcing those opinions right up front.  There’s no attempt here to present a set of facts that is slanted one way or the other, or cherry-picked data.  I appreciate the skeptical point of view that the authors employ to examine video games (even the potential positive impacts of playing them).

Although they were preaching to my choir with their conclusions, Markey and Ferguson do an excellent job of taking a good look at video games from a variety of perspectives.  I’m confident that even those individuals who’ve decided video games are the worst invention since the guillotine would be able to glean something from this book.  It’s my opinion that critical thinking is an art, and that we can only build our critical thinking skills through conscious effort and self-education.  Reading about the shoddy science used in many anti-gaming research studies can only serve to make us all better, choosier participants in our own opinion-forming process.  We need books like this, whether we agree with their conclusions or not (spoiler: I did, with this one), to help train us to be better able to spot the charlatans.    Because charlatans abound in this world of ours.

That said, you need to read this book.  Maybe you’re a parent and are trying to form solid opinions on how you wish to shape your child’s intake of various forms of entertainment media.  Maybe you work with kids and parents, and want to know how you should be advising them to approach video games from the healthiest direction.  Or maybe you’re like me–a nearly 40-year old guy who would get a Triforce tattoo if you weren’t so scared of needles poking your skin ten thousand times to achieve that worthy goal.  No matter who you are, you need an informed perspective on which to base your opinions on this subject.  Video games are here to stay, and will continue to form an ever-greater proportion of our society’s entertainment needs.  It’s important not to bury your head in the sand and pretend they’ll just go away (that worked really well for people who hated the printing press, didn’t it?)

I love video games.  That’s something that’s gotten more okay for a mental health professional such as myself to be open and forthright about over the years, and I’m glad of that.  But I still hear plenty of misinformation, even from others in my field.  Don’t be that guy.  Educate yourself, then make an opinion.  Not the other way around.

Buy this book right now, here.Then thank me later.

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