Once upon a time, rock ’n’ roll was controversial. To concerned parents and clergy, Elvis Presley’s dance moves on late-night television prefigured some hip-swiveling apocalypse that would bump traditional moral values right off the planet's outer rim. In 1985 there were even Senate hearings (Senate hearings!) in which Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister were forced to answer for rock’s moral transgressions before Tipper Gore and her colleagues in the Parents Music Resource Center.
Though the Senate proceedings felt deadly serious at the time—this was about artistic censorship, after all—watching footage of these hearings on YouTube today elicits a few chuckles and that’s about it. You’ve got Dee Snider walking into the chamber in denim cut-offs, his hairdo pyrotechnics bringing new meaning to the expression “permadeath.” Without so much as a smirk, he accuses Tipper of having a dirty mind for hearing themes of bondage and sadomasochism in a song about his guitarist’s throat surgery.
In a bizarre reversal, the clowns in this particular circus were the ones without garish face makeup. And the clowns wanted to put parental advisory labels on your Naughty By Nature album. (The logic seemed to go, ‘How can we make these albums even more enticing to kids with an anti-authoritarian streak?’)
During my childhood years, our house was decidedly inhospitable toward rock music. At my older brother’s 13th birthday party, a friend gave him a cassette single of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun.” The next morning he discovered our mom had smashed the tape to bits with a hammer on my dad's workbench in the garage, but not before she’d transcribed the lyrics to the b-side track “Voodoo Medicine Man,” which she left with the shattered tape so that my brother could reflect on the track’s harmful occultic imagery. What our mom didn’t take into account is that the only thing kids paid less attention to than the meaning of song lyrics were cassette b-sides.
We were encouraged to only listen to Christian music with positive messages, like Carman’s 1991 track “Addicted to Jesus,” featuring D.C. Talk, which shamelessly aped Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” and Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” overlaying some of the most cringe-worthy rap lyrics ever conceived by a human being. (“Straight-up A2J, ya know what I’m sayin? / We here to get busy in the name of the Lord! / ...Bust the devil! / Bust him up!”)
At church youth camps, my friends and I publicly destroyed our Alice in Chains and Candlebox CDs, renewing tearful promises to rid our lives of secular music. A few weeks later we’d sign up for the Columbia House Record Club (again) and replace our favorite albums as part of our allotment of introductory free CDs. It was a vicious cycle. Our youth pastors might as well have been hired by the major labels to boost repeat purchases. We were told rock music was dangerous and had no place in the life of a well-adjusted teenager, but we adored it anyway.
Was heavy metal truly dangerous? I remember a story ciruclating among my friends about some kid who’d committed suicide after listening to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution.” Then again, I’d also heard legends about how the red stain on a wall near my house was actually dried blood from a kid who’d been kiled by a candy gobstopper fired from a slingshot. A giant man-made lake near our home in Mission Viejo, California, had a floating platform out in the deep end of the swim area that kids could run around on and dive off. Occasionally we’d hold our breaths and swim beneath it, even after hearing stories of some poor kid who’d drowned after getting tangled in the heavy chains anchoring it to the lake bottom. These kinds of stories made life more interesting for suburban kids like us, forced to while away our days in a dismally safe neighborhood.
Now that I’m grown, I don’t seem to hear parents freaking out over rock music anymore. The idea seems almost passé. Mainstream rock music has become the soundtrack to the establishment and the once gasp-inducing sexuality of artists like Madonna and Prince are now little more than songbook fodder for American Idol wannabes and the scary, auto-tuned cyborg singing of Glee’s teen chorus.
If rock music is considered generally benign at this stage, the same is hardly true of videogames. Ask any alarmist moral arbiter today and he'll tell you the same thing: videogames are destroying the moral fabric of America’s youth. The pair of students responsible for the massacre at Columbine High School might as well have perpetrated the crime with lethally modified Duck Hunt NES Zappers. And to hear the not-so-venerable anti-games activist Jack Thompson tell it, the Grand Theft Auto games offer step-by-step tutorials on how to most efficiently pull an elderly woman out of her Chrysler sedan by her thinning silver mane. And there might as well be an iPhone version of Modern Warfare 2 that uses an augmented-reality interface to guide you to your nearest airport where you can open fire on innocent civilians.
This coming October the American Supreme Court will convene its first hearings on violent videogames. Even though we all know that history repeats itself, I find it remarkable how quickly the "king of controversy" mantle has passed from pop music to videogames. Games poke and prod traditional moral values in ways that have today’s cultural watchdogs frantically chewing off their leash. The core issue here seems to be the tension between so-called civilized society's desire to limit the potentially combustible freedom of young people and game designers' invitation to players to experiment/deviate to their little hearts content.
Just as information wants to be free, so do our in-game selves. We play games to test rule systems. The first thing we do when we pop in a new game is start pressing buttons to see what happens. Naturally, as the technology underpinning games has grown more sophisticated, the simulations it enables have followed suit. We’re now offered hypothetical worlds in which we can toy with the consequences of aberrant moral action. We can drive the wrong way into oncoming traffic. We can kill foes. Sometimes the designer permits us to kill friends or civilians. Before the advent of videogames, music and movies and books only left us to tinker with such compelling hypotheticals in our own heads.
The longer I consider the subject, the more the experiences provided by videogames begin to resemble the urban legends my friends and I circulated as kids. They never happened, strictly speaking, but captivate the imagination utterly as if they had. They’re frequently violent. They’re always memorable. And they force us to question the nature of the world we inhabit—human cruelty, death, loss, pain, heroism, right, wrong, and on and on. These are hardly issues you solve like a Rubik's Cube and then tidily stash away in a box once you enter adulthood. We grapple with these perplexities throughout our lives; games just let us view the process in high-definition 1080p.
A game developer's job description is to press buttons and help players do likewise. It seems that, in certain cases, they're just a bit too good at what they do.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonkill or drop him a line at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.