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Sex, Violence, Tension and Comic Books - An Interview with Gerard Jones

Noted author Gerard Jones (Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence) discusses the ability for video games to relieve aggression, and the acceptance of new forms of media on a government level, in this exclusive Gamasutra interview.

Gerard Jones is the author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence, as well as a former scripter for DC and Marvel Comics, among others.

At the 2006 Montreal International Games Summit, Jones spoke about repressing violence, and how video game gore can act as a release valve for our unexpressed aggression. Following his speech, Gamasutra sat down for a Q&A, to discuss violence, tension, and the acceptance (or lack thereof) of games as mainstream media.

Gamasutra: In your talk this morning, you mentioned you don’t really deal with video games directly, yet you keep getting invited to these games conferences. What do you think it is in your work that resonates with the gaming community?

Gerard Jones: Video games have been so much under attack recently, that I think there’s a certain nervousness. Most people in this business are very pleasant and non-confrontational and the fact that they are being reviled as the causes of crime, causes of violence, is disturbing. On the one hand, I think people want to know how to respond to those criticisms. But on the other hand, I think there’s some genuine anxiety that maybe games have a bad side, maybe there is a problem, and how do we deal with any guilt or fear?

I think anyone who’s a decent person but who finds himself or herself attracted to aggressive or violent imagery is a little troubled. Why do I like this? It’s not really something that we’re taught in life to examine. It just sort of sneaks up. So I think a desire to understand what’s happening inside ourselves is a big part of it. People in the games business are particularly inclined that way, being, for the most part, a gentle group in a medium where violence has become so prominent.

GS: In your work, you use sociology to take a historical approach to this issue. How do the current attacks on video games compare to attacks on other mediums in the past?

GJ: Attacks like this are very common. It started in the mid-nineteenth century. As that whole Victorian industrial complex was being pulled together, it was suddenly a very popular opinion among the shapers of taste and teachers that the material children or the uneducated masses were consuming, their entertainment, was going to lead to major social trouble. It makes sense in the context of a society trying aggressively to pull together, to minimize the chaos and day-to-day confrontations.

The first big attack in the United States was against popular novels, dime novels, yellow backs, cheap five and ten cents bits of fiction that were often romance stories with no real sex in them, but sexual overtones, a lot of young women barely maintaining their virtue. And then there were a lot of crime stories: dashing detectives, nests of counterfeiters, sex and violence material. So there was a huge outcry driven by teachers and doctors, bought into by parents and politicians--who saw a way to generate votes. This outcry was probably more virulent and widespread than the attacks on video games now.

You find it about movies in their early days. You find it again about movies in the late 20's and early 30's when they got sexier. You find it again about movies in the early 90's when gore was coming up. And certainly music too: ragtime, then jazz, then rock and roll, then the whole goth rock, death metal thing, and gangster rap. Whenever there’s a new medium, or there’s a distinct new style, there will be this.

If you look at the way furors begin and play out, they’re very predictable. I would say now we’re kind of at the tail end. If games continue to push boundaries, particular ones could come under attack. A lot of it’s just the medium being around long enough that people have realized the world hasn’t gone to hell. It’s just something else people are doing with their spare time. But somehow the bigger issues are the same as ever.

GS: You say we’re at the tail end of the attack. But in the past few months, anti-game fervor on the part of the government has really grown. It was even a big topic in the recent elections.

GJ: That’s rather typical actually. First there’s this rising chorus of voices, say from the clergy or some part of the pedagogical community. Then there’ll be growing community anxiety, where you’ll find large parent or church groups getting involved. Then the politicians start to catch on that there’s material here and votes to be gained. What’s happened most recently is first it was the cultural conservatives who realized they could motivate their voters with the argument that once again the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Then the democrats in the U.S., the people sort of left of center, realized they were losing the moral high ground, and they needed some way to say, well, we’re morally righteous too, and since they’ve already come out for free speech and contraception, video games was an easy way to do it. You get into this sort of duel, who’ll come down harder on video games.


GS: As far as getting votes go though, at this point both parties are anti-game.

GJ: What happens is, bills get written. So you start to see legislation popping up late in the cycle. Once a bill’s been written, even if the courts subsequently knock it down, which seems to be happening, just the fact that the bill got passed, and now it’s in some politicians resume. The pressure to keep doing more begins to dissipate. Then, I think a lot of regular people who are worried about it, at least they’ve heard that the government’s doing something. So it’s not unlikely that during the flurry of legislation, which might be when the industry is most frightened, that might actually be when it’s about to stop.

GS: Your background is largely in comics. How are these moral attacks against games similar to historical attacks against comic books?

GJ: When I started Killing Monsters, what was informing my research is that I knew, in the early 50's, comic books in the U.S. had been attacked ferociously, and I knew that had passed; nobody was much worried about it. Doing more research I discovered back in 1940 and 41 there had been an earlier flurry. It’s the same thing. With a new medium, suddenly kids were reading these things and collecting them fanatically.

What scares adults most is when kids aren’t just picking up something casually, but seem crazy about it. Pokemon was scary a few years ago. Suddenly they’re so into this thing, and it’s not something that we as adults gave them. So there’s the sense of some other, something seducing my child. Most new media tend to be rather crude. They’re hitting the high notes before they’ve got the nuances. So the first impression through adult eyes is that my kid’s heart has been stolen by this cheesy thing. It’s a threat.

Again, as you get to the point where the middle-aged people who tend to drive these cultural dialogues actually grew up on the thing, it gets better. By the 1960's, the people who were writing the articles, teaching the psychology, rising in government, they had all read Superman when they were young. The idea that Superman was harmful seemed absurd.

GS: But comic books still haven’t really entered the mainstream.

GJ: Comics, in their early days, were pretty much ubiquitous. There was a point where almost every kid at least read them occasionally. But comics is one medium that never really hit the mainstream, which I think is the carry-over from that furor in the fifties. That’s one case where I think the alarmism really did change the direction of the field. Also, I think when T.V. showed up it pulled a lot of that kid time and attention elsewhere, and left comics as sort of a geek thing.

GS: But couldn’t the assignment of that geek status be a response to the threat of the new medium you described?

GJ: Games seem to be going universal at this point. The numbers are extraordinary. True, there are still stigmas. Part of that is the fact that the people who are forty and up still kind of dictate the status quo. It’s younger people who drive mass culture tastes, but it’s people, say forty to sixty, who drive arguments about what’s scary or threatening or in bad taste. There’s this definite generational split. It’ll be interesting to see how games are viewed a little further down the line. Pretty soon we’re going to get to the place where our tenured professors probably grew up on games.

GS: As a kid growing up with comic books, not video games, were there certain comics that you remember as your personal violence release valves?

GJ: Back to your geek question first, because I think the two relate. People, especially when they’re young, if they get in to a medium that’s shunned or looked down upon or criticized, and they discover the joys of it, fall in love with it, there is very much a desire to identify themselves around it. That’s what all these geek cultures are. It’s a duality though.

I remember comics going through this in the 80's. Oh, I wish we were respected; I wish they loved us. In fact, Alan Moore, a comic book writer who helped adult-ify comics, he was one of those who was saying, comics are a real art form. Years later he wrote a great editorial. We used to want comics to have just as much respect as every other medium. What on earth were we thinking? Because the more they got out there, the more those same things happened. I think there’s almost been a willful retracting of the geek culture.

GS: But in the last few years, it seems comics have been given another shot at the commercial mainstream, through venues like Barnes and Noble that carry graphic novels and manga.

GJ: What’s happening, and I think this is a good thing for the field, is there are works that can be reviewed in the New York Times, and there are areas that are still safe for geekdom. I think manga initially had that appeal. Then there’s the cheesy Spider-Man stuff, which is a bread and butter for many of the publishers.

GS: And which has a lot in common with the repetitive licencing issue in video games.

GJ: Really, it becomes a corporate strategy for keeping the trademark alive, rather than expressing itself. But in terms of my own experience, I grew up in a pretty depressed household, and was in fact sort of locked in on myself, and over strained in the beginning of adolescence, and for me it was Marvel comics that provided this whole other self.

Back then it was still the initial creative surge. A lot of the material was being done by Stan Lee and a lot of the guys who kicked it off. I remember feeling this liberation, a sense of acceptance, like someone else knew what I was feeling. For maybe two or three years I was a really big comics fan, then I left it behind. I ended up writing them later. They very much served a purpose. I really look at that period as a watershed for me, even socially. At a time when I was having a really hard time connecting to anyone, my strongest links were with other comics fans.

GS: You mentioned in your talk that, compared to movie characters, people are less likely to emulate vide game characters, because they’re “smaller.” Where do comics fit in there?

GJ: With super hero comics anyway, which was pretty much all we had at that time, little kids can want to be Spider-Man, but that begins to seem sillier as you get older. I think one of the things that makes super heros so not scary, is it would be absurd to be them. Wishing I were the Hulk, that I’d get all big and green, that’s just fantasizing. It’s different when you start to get into movies. Most of us can watch a movie about a bank heist and know that we’re never going to do that. But a few people, who are probably already at the edges of society, might think, I wish I could do that, and maybe I can.

My hunch though is that video games would inspire less of that. Because you are actually doing it, in a way, so you have the experience of completing this process, as opposed to just watching a movie star do something. But also, there’s something inherently unglamorous about a character you are controlling. Part of what makes people want to emulate movies is that those people seem so much bigger and more glorious. Even while exciting us, they stir up our feelings of inadequacy. And I don’t know if that’s very likely to happen when you are, in effect, the god.


GS: Your talk this morning focused on childhood aggression, and how we require children “to be good.” But our society really lacks outlets for aggression at any age.

GJ: I think at a certain point we calm down a little internally, as our body just gets used to the conflict between inner drives and outer constraints. Part of it may be our metabolism slowing, too. Certainly through adolescence and into our twenties the testosterone is pumping; we’re also still learning that painful transition from childhood to the increasing need to behave in adulthood. In some ways our social sphere almost gets tighter as we go through high school and into college. So I think those ages, say thirteen to thirty, that long stretch, you’re still riding this internal roller coaster of being forced to act more and more mature.

GS: You bring up another point: testosterone. Why is it, in these discussions, we focus almost exclusively on young boys. Don’t young girls have pent-up aggression, too?

GJ: Boys have more testosterone, girls have more estrogen, and that definitely has an effect on affect, but then there’s certainly a cultural system reinforcing that as well. From a quite a long time ago, girls have been expected to be the stay-at-homes, the local maintainers of the system. Boys have been expected to be the ones who go out and procure. This is obviously shifting. I think as more generations go by, we’re going to see further shifts in the way kids behave. Still, there’s a tendency for boys to be more interested in extreme violence. Though girls can certainly love action.

GS: If we’re a culture with few outlets for boys’, we’re a culture with zero outlets for girls.

GJ: There are people who are arguing that the greater verbal and social nastiness of girls in elementary school and middle school may be partly a product of that, that they still have the aggression, they still have the frustration, but they have fewer ways to process that in fantasy. Boys may slam into each other, but girls are more likely to do the excluding and gossiping. Then another aspect of that is that girls tend to be more interested in social systems, relationships, subtle cues between people.

Part of it has to do with definitions. This word violence is rather old, but the way we use it now to mean physical damage to someone’s body is pretty recent. I think that a good verbal drama has its own psychological violence. And of course, we’re talking generalities. There are women who love violence. My next-door neighbor plays Halo; that’s just how she unwinds. But with girls there’s the tendency to take aggression to a verbal level, where with boys there’s this fascination with bodies flying around.

Pretty early kids are getting this message that there’s a boy way to be and a girl way to be, and one of the positions we adopt is that girls are squeamish about blood and boys like blood. When we’re talking about defining maleness, part of that is saying, I love gore, and therefore loving these games. What’s interesting though is how many adolescent girls like horror movies.

GS: Or even how female violence comes out in something like self-mutilation, cutting.

GJ: It’s this sort of internalized violence–which again, horror movies have, because you’re identification tends to be with the person being pursued, with the classic structure of the female protagonist. She’s the one who survives, but she’s also the one whom all the evil forces beat down on. So there is a tendency again to move things inward. Perhaps not surprisingly, so far very few women have committed these anonymous rampage killings. There was the “I hate Mondays” girl–a depressed sixteen-year-old who got a gun somewhere and was shooting kids in the school yard across the street, and when she was arrested, she said, “I hate Mondays.”

GS: What about the idea you brought up in your talk about video games violence as fetishized. What do you mean by that?

GJ: By fetishized I mean something that evokes anxiety or feelings of disturbance, something that we form into a symbol that exaggerates what is disturbing. In video games its gore, damage to the body, pain and fear being shown. What makes it a fetish is that we partake in it at the level of horror, that it’s meant to stimulate the feelings of aggression, possibly sexual excitation. There’s also a pornographic quality to game violence: the careful loving attention to excess that create a visceral excitement, the thrill of portraying something that is normally forbidden.

GS: Do you see a larger relationship between video game violence and video game sex?

GH: Very much. There is a certain absurdity that parents make peace with Grand Theft Auto, until naked women appear in it. It has something to do with the fact that it was snuck in. In that way, it’s similar to people’s reaction when S&M is introduced in mainstream porn. Bondage gets a lot of heat. It’s okay to watch human sexuality, but when you bring power relations into the equation...

With violent games, we’re learning to accept it. Your kids’ friends have these games too. But then our threshold for violence has always been higher than for sex.

GS: Can sex in games play the same role as game violence, as a release valve?

GJ: For teens, one of the functions of porn has always been the release of tension. Even if its not masturbatory, this is something they’ve been hearing about; they know it’s something out there waiting for them. Porn offers a safe arena that you know you can handle. Certainly when I was like eleven or twelve it was fascinating to be able to peek into Playboy–somewhere safe you can enter that provokes less anxiety and shame. Then again, with porn, there is the real concern that teens that will have sex too early, get pregnant, etc. But as with violence in games, the excessive anxiety is wrong headed. Though there is less of a concern that kids will be violent.

Sex seems more real. It hits closer to home. As for games, I don’t know if that many people are really that upset. There are political gains to made. At least with porn, people aren’t terribly concerned. With new tech, like the internet, it becomes a question of availability: you can’t really make anything taboo any longer. Violence in games is just a flash point for a more generalized worry.

GS: So if you had Hillary Clinton in front of you now, what would you say to her on the topic of video-game violence?

GJ: Well, I’d want to be sympathetic. I understand that she’s trying to appear morally upright, and not let the Republicans steal that. But I’d tell her to remember that so many things that we now understand to be good were once attacked at this level, and that things look differently from the outside than the inside when you’re not used to them. In my experience with kids and adults who have played video games, they’ve turned out fine. So I’d say, let’s take another look at this material as part of the upbringing of decent people.

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