What the Video Game Industry Needs to Learn from the Comics Industry of the 1950s

This is long. I’d normally apologize, but I feel like it’s all very important to say. While it takes quite a while, I promise it gets around to video games eventually.

Crime SuspenStories

“I can see how you might get confused and think this is for kids.”

In the early 1950s, comics were a HUUUUGE business. More than 600 titles were published each month and annual sales topped a BILLION issues, industry-wide. It’s fair to say that comic books at that time were roughly analogous to video games today, both in terms of popularity and in terms of market scale. And that market was growing in size AND scope every year.

By the end of the 1940s, interest in superheroes had faded as the audience that first grew up on comics moved into adulthood. As a result, while there were still plenty of books aimed directly at children, many of the best-selling titles featured stories aimed at young adult and adult audiences. Comics featuring crime capers, detective stories and gruesome horror tales routinely topped the sales charts.

The content of these books was presented quite explicitly. The audience wasn’t being tricked into buying something with an innocuous cover or title only to discover an unexpected trove of horror within. It’s hard to imagine kids were routinely able to buy these books WITHOUT the local vendor’s awareness and no parent was going to mistake “Tales from the Crypt” for a kid-friendly “funny animal” book.

At the same time, the United States was in the midst of a panic related to the perceived scourge of “juvenile delinquency” and the public demanded action!

In 1953, the bipartisan “United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency” was convened to start the kind of “dialog” about the causes of delinquency that are now routinely being called for in relation to gun violence. This was no simple task, since vague ideas like “juvenile delinquency” tend to have extremely fluid definitions and rarely have overt – much less singular – causes. And, of course, there were the added issues of not wanting to target any group or cause that had significant political influence. What Congress needed was a scapegoat without any serious defenders. And it needed it FAST.

Seduction of the Innocent

Obviously a non-sensationalized portrait of solidly researched facts.

Enter psychiatrist Frederic Wertham.

Wertham published an anti-comic screed in early 1954 with the salacious title “Seduction of the Innocent”. The book was filled with a variety of claims and objections, ranging from the fairly reasonable (ads for air rifles being placed inside books featuring gun violence) to the utterly preposterous (assertions that images of nude women were “disguised” in the shadows of Batman’s costume and that Superman was fascist propaganda). While it didn’t sell well, it did find a small and extremely vocal audience that was willing to enthusiastically champion its cause.

The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was more than happy to oblige this small group of outraged parents and – by the spring of 1954 – it abandoned nearly all other lines of inquiry and focused its attention on establishing a direct link between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

What followed should be eerily familiar to anyone following recent events, where members of the video game development community have been called before the Vice President to discuss the role violent games potentially played in recent outbreaks of gun violence.

Major comic publishers were called before Congress and had cherry-picked selections from their publications blown up and put on display. “Experts” like Wertham were regarded as unbiased and authoritative. All the while, members of the Subcommittee reiterated that there was nothing ILLEGAL about the comics in question, instead making it an issue of “good taste”. By the time EC Comics publisher William Gaines began testifying, the public was already in a frenzy and when the following exchange appeared on the front page of the New York Times, irreparable damage had been done to the comics industry:

Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser asked: “Then you think a child cannot in any way, shape, or manner,be hurt by anything that the child reads or sees?”

William M. Gaines responded: “I do not believe so.”

Beaser: “There would be no limit, actually, to what you’d put in the magazines?”

Gaines: “Only within the bounds of good taste.”

Sen. Kefauver: “Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?”

Gaines: “Yes sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.”

Kefauver:(doubtful) “You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.”

Gaines: “A little.”


The Mark of the Beast… er… the Comics Code “approval” seal.

What followed the hearings was no surprise.

Parents confiscated not just horror and crime comics, but ANY comics their children might own. Across the country, comics were destroyed at public book-burnings. Stores refused to carry comics of any kind, sales plummeted and significant number of comic publishers went out of business in short order. The entire industry was in danger of collapse.

In a desperate attempt to get the witch-hunt to end, the surviving publishers went before Congress on bended knee with an offer:

In an effort to prove they had “learned their lesson”, the publishers would agree to self-censor their books from that point forward. They would establish and fund the “Comics Code Authority” and books that complied with the CCA’s rules and standards would carry a “mark of approval”. While there was no legal reason why stores couldn’t stock any titles they wanted, in practice, any title WITHOUT the CCA’s approval would be unable to find room on shelves and racks across the country.

The rules the CCA established were incredibly strict (and often weirdly specific):

– 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.
– Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
– Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
– 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.
– No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title.
– All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
– All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
– Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
– Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
– Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
– Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
– Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
– Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
– Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
– Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
– Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
– 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.

In the wake of the Subcommittee hearings and the creation of the CCA, the creative breadth of comics was dramatically curtailed. Superheroes made a comeback, but were almost exclusively oriented around simple morality tales without much by way of narrative complexity, violence or anything else that might smack too closely of narrative verisimilitude. The Code would remain in force for the next sixty years and while it was occasionally updated (as in the early 1970s, when the prohibitions related to “ghouls and werewolves” were removed), the overall preposterousness of its rules remained intact, demanding juvenile simplicity from “Code Approved” comics.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the Comics Code Authority was finally FINALLY dissolved. While some creators were able to work within the Code and generate impressive work over the years, it’s hard not to assume that a HUGE amount of creative genius was snuffed out as well.

And now we see the rumblings of a similar scenario facing video games. “Leaders” from our industry have been called before the Vice President to represent us all and while Joe Biden apparently conceded that there is no scientific link between video game violence and ACTUAL violence and the Supreme Court has clearly stated that video games are protected forms of expression, his overarching message is reported to have been that “just because you have [the law] on your side doesn’t mean you have public opinion on your side”.

In spite of the Vice President’s assurances that HE doesn’t believe there’s any evidence of a link between video games and violence, it is worth noting that Senator Rockefeller (D – WV) has already introduced a bill that will “direct the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the impact of violent video games and other content on children’s well-being”.

And yesterday, the President signed an Executive Order instructing the CDC to “research the causes and prevention of gun violence” and stated that – in addition to his Order – “Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds”, echoing Senator Rockefeller’s call.

It would be hopelessly naive to expect it to NOT result in some form of Congressional hearing when the report is delivered.

Also yesterday, a bill was introduced in Congress requiring ALL video games to be labeled AND for the sale of violent games to minors to be criminalized. Why bother heeding the existing scientific evidence, much less waiting for anything new to show up?

We already have the ESRB, so a video game version of the Comics Code Authority isn’t a difficult “next step” to predict. And, of course, indie games that currently release without the cumbersome process of ESRB compliance will suddenly find themselves beholden to a system that is designed to fast-track major publishers and generally ignore everyone else. Good luck trying to squeeze anything marginally innovative or edgy through THAT process without getting hit with a lazy (and devastating) “M”-rating.

Which brings me to a somewhat touchy point. I’m REEEALLY uncomfortable with the group of people that were called before the Vice President being the only people that will be allowed to represent our industry in this fight. If you’re an indie developer, do you believe for a SECOND that the CEO of a major publisher is going to do anything to protect your ability to create the games you want to make? Do you think they’ll lift a finger to make sure that smaller developers aren’t simply run over by this process? Do you think they WON’T pitch and cajole and maneuver to give themselves every advantage possible while hamstringing small, indie developers who have only recently started to REALLY have a shot at competing thanks to things like digital distribution?

Maybe I’m a cynic, but my gut response is “HELL NO”.

The wheels are already turning on this – and at an alarming speed.

If you’re an indie developer, you should be scared because you have no seat at this table and decisions that will SERIOUSLY impact your ability to create freely are being made as we speak – and NOT with your best interests in mind.

If you’re a gamer, you should be scared because you’re staring at a very possible future where all you get are middle-of-the-road products excreted by giant publishers and occasional indie titles that have been sanitized for your protection.

If you’re a developer at a major publisher, well… let’s be honest. Your chances of staying there for more than a few years are PRETTY slim. Do you want to be “restructured” and sent out into an environment with a vibrant, robust indie development community or would you rather see things deteriorate into borderline feudalism?

As a closing point, I want to be clear on something:

I do NOT believe it is impossible – or even DIFFICULT – to make great games that aren’t filled with graphic violence. Quite to the contrary, I generally find the use of over-the-top violence or otherwise “objectionable” material in most games to be lazy and boring. But I’ve ALSO played some games with graphic violence that were fantastic, creative, evocative and compelling. They were ART. They were fun. They had merit and value.

Any set of censorship rules (self-inflicted or otherwise) will necessarily hamper creativity, maturity and growth. I don’t want to see my industry go down the same path that comics did in the 1950s. I don’t want to waste 50+ years wandering in the darkness, burdened by paranoia and censorship, based on the lies of charlatans and the delusions of the fearful and the misinformed. As an industry, we’re just starting to learn how to create really worthy things. I don’t want to be knocked backward and trapped there until I am very, very old. I want to be able to create great things NOW and forever.

So please think hard. Write to your representatives. Demand sanity.

And don’t forget the past.

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