The holiday season is upon us once again, as thoughts turn to what gifts to get grandchildren, nieces and nephews. These days, those reflections are bound to include video games. After a recent conversation with a co-worker, Mister Boomer realized what a dilemma this is producing for many boomers, especially when it comes to the level of violent content in these games.
In our boomer youth, parents did not have to worry about violence in our games. Most of our games were either sports-related or board games. Possibly as violent as they got was, Operation, or maybe Clue (the butler in the pantry with the candlestick). Today, there is realistic violence portrayed in gaming that encompasses shoot-em-ups of people and aliens, bloody dispatch and dismemberment with assorted weaponry, and flesh-eating zombies who in turn get sliced and diced to the Netherworld. It’s a far cry from our day … or is it?
The truth of the matter is, the debate about exposing children to scenes of violence — how much and when, especially — has been a hot topic since the dawn of entertainment. Before World War II, movies were filled with violence (and, horror of horrors, sex!). Historians point to the Roaring 20s as a time of a sense of unbridled freedom for individuals, which was echoed in their entertainment. More than a few eyebrows were raised at what was thought to be the abandonment of morals, and talk of government intervention was already being debated.
After the War, the Boomer Generation produced more children than the country had seen in decades. The perfect storm of more children and the popularization of television were bound to throw a few logs on the debate fire. While proponents of the First Amendment argued the rights of TV writers and producers were unlimited by law, others wondered aloud whether it was time to take a look at those laws.
In 1952, the National Association of Broadcasters adopted a code of ethics as a way of self-regulating, to avoid further involvement of legislators looking to protect children from the evils of the world on this new medium with a proposed Advisory Board. Though there were no clear-cut paths to enforcement or punishment, the code was far-reaching. Included were:
• prohibition of profanity
• prohibition of nudity
• no portrayal of irreverence toward God and religion
• no portrayal of drunkenness and addiction
• no portrayals of cruelty or crime details
.. and perhaps more controversial:
• no negative portrayal of family life (i.e., “family values”)
• no negative portrayal of law enforcement
• “decency” guidelines that stated how performers were to dress
Is it any wonder, then, that boomers watched shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver? The TV westerns of the 1950s showed a great deal of violence, but it was sanitized for viewers. When the bad guy was shot, he’d inevitably grab his chest and fall over, whether that was off his horse, off a roof or balcony, or merely to the ground. Turning his head and closing his eyes were the indication for boomers that this character had met his Creator. There were no wounds present, and boomers never saw a drop of blood. That was the case, whether the show was about westerns, the War or cops and robbers.
In 1976, the broadcaster code was ruled to violate the First Amendment by a Los Angeles federal court. Nonetheless, some semblance of the code remains today.
The path that movies took was similar, but also different. The studios adopted their own set of standards as well, but abandoned it by the middle of the boomer years. Some say French Cinéma Vérité in the 1960s influenced American moviemakers to want to portray more realism in telling their story. Others point to the Vietnam War as influence — called the first televised war because violent scenes of action and trauma and a nightly death toll were displayed on our TVs. Others still look at the the Boomer Generation itself, and a decade of civil unrest and protest, as a contributor to a backlash against regulation of violent content. Compare the war violence of a movie like The Guns of Navarone (1961) to that of The Deer Hunter (1978) and the difference between the ’60s and ’70s is apparent. Despite the added arguments against these depictions, movies of the 1970s are now looked at as a new Golden Age of American Film, exactly for their raw portrayal of life.
As boomers aged, video games appeared and were popularized. The first to appear were video versions of two-player games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Table Tennis; that evolved into Pong around 1972, the one that most boomers will recall as their first serious foray into the genre. There wasn’t much room for violence when the monotone screen had nothing more than dots and lines on it.
The questions surrounding the depiction of violence are still debated. The question of whether the viewing of such violence has an effect on the child viewer, and if so, to what degree, is still unanswered. However, many point to the sophistication of today’s youth in understanding that what they are watching is not real. Something that comes to mind for Mister Boomer is remembering how comic books were thought of in the same way for our generation. Not only that, but rock ‘n roll was going to be a big disruptor of the American way of life.
Meanwhile the holiday gift list awaits. Naturally, the parents have to be consulted in any decision, but maybe this is the year to reintroduce the children to Monopoly and Uno?
What hard decisions have you had to make, boomers, regarding the violent content of video games for your children and grandchildren?