Earlier this week, NBC aired an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that will go down in history as one of the greatest unintentional comedies in television history. The show is famous for turning sensationalised news stories into barely-believable police drama, but this week’s attempt to wade into gaming was, even by its usual standards, hilariously dire.
The episode, entitled “The Intimidation Game”, is a damsel-in-distress story, following the trials and travails of Raina Punjabi, a game developer who faces grief because she creates a “non-violent” game called Amazonian Warriors. (Non-violent warriors! Good one.)
The victim’s persecutors are a vigilante group of misogynistic gamers, who are portrayed as a cross between ISIS terrorists and the creepy serial killer from Silence of the Lambs. Gamers are also portrayed, hilariously, as master hackers and cyber-criminals, at one point hacking into one of the billboards on Times Square to broadcast their hate-filled messages. While not all gamers are portrayed as violent misogynists, they are portrayed as complicit in that sort of culture.
It’s all perfectly believable, of course. After all, it’s common knowledge that the denizens of redchan.it regularly use Times Square for hacking practice, isn’t it? In fact, they’ve done it once a year, every year since 1978, when the website was founded. Their usual procedure is to replace the billboards with livestreamed executions of console peasants, complete with level-up noises whenever beheadings are completed in one swing. As Ice-T eloquently explains in the episode: “It’s all just a game to them.”
I jest. None of that is true, of course. What is true, though, is that much of the mainstream and gaming press has spent the better part of the last six months demonising their core audience as reactionary, hateful, and violent – and that’s where the show’s creators found the sensational material they were looking for. The now-infamous line about gamers seeing sexual assault as “leveling up” was plucked straight from the op-ed pages of Slate. (The depiction of gamers as ISIS-style terrorists wasn’t exactly an original creation either.)
The truth is, the gaming press gave the writers of Law & Order: SVU all the ammunition they needed and more, because they have spent the past six months whipping up the greatest pop-culture panic since Dungeons & Dragons was accused of spreading Satanism in the 1980s. And all because they were upset about a little professional scrutiny and calls for better standards.
Sanguine as ever, gamers have taken it in their stride, creating memes and even songs to mock the hysteria erupting all around them. Many of them, especially the inhabitants of 4chan’s /v/ board, are quite happy to be seen as dangerous social outcasts again. For them, it’s a return to the good old days of liberating obscurity. But if games journalists are wondering why their industry has suddenly ceased to be “hip” or “geek chic”, they should go back and read their own articles.
Even journalists who previously went along with the anti-gamer narrative have baulked at defending this portrayal. With the exception of Polygon, a site that is rapidly becoming the epicenter of crazy in digital media, Law & Order received almost universal condemnation.Jason Schreier of Kotaku, Erik Kain of Forbes, and Chandra Steel of PC Mag all published damning verdicts on the episode. Even Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn couldn’t bring themselves to defend the show, despite the fact that it borrowed heavily from their own media narratives.
I suspect what really annoys them all about last week’s episode is that it unintentionally revealed the prevailing media narrative for what it is: a moral panic. As Kain and Schreier both note, it is impossible to watch the show without seeing the resemblance to the panics of times gone by. Comparisons to other famous exploitation films, like Reefer Madness(1936) and Mazes & Monsters (1982) are already being made.
But what’s interesting about the moral panics of today is where they come from. In the past, finger-wagging censoriousness tended to be driven by what was then called the “moral majority”, a large constituency of small-c social conservatives, often from strict Christian backgrounds. It was they who led boycotts of Monty Python and Kevin Smith movies, who accused Dungeons and Dragons of spreading Satanism, and who led campaigns against violent video games and music lyrics in the 1980s and 1990s. Virtually every moral panic of the late twentieth-century bore the fingerprints of the moral majority.
Today, that picture has changed dramatically. It was not conservatives, but progressive campaigners who championed the removal of Grand Theft Auto V from shelves in Australia. It was not conservatives, but progressive campaigners who banned a “corrupting” pop song on 20 campuses. And it is not conservatives, but progressive campaigners who are currently trying to whip up a boycott against Fifty Shades of Grey.
In the world of gaming, we find the same pattern. The moral panic so starkly represented in Law & Order: SVU was not created by conservatives. Indeed, when conservatives have been involved, they have usually taken the side of gamers. Once again, it was driven almost exclusively by progressives and their cheerleaders in the media. Ordinary gamers, most of whom are moderates or liberals, now look to right-wing and libertarian media for fair coverage – an almost unimaginable position just a year ago.
Moral panic has once again returned to gaming. But, this time, it comes wearing neon hair dye, hoop earrings and plaid shirts, rather than blue rinses and Christian crosses. And people are starting to notice.