According to MarketWatch, “videogames are a bigger industry than movies and North American sports combined.” While the videogame industry has financially benefited from the 2020 pandemic, it was already heading in this direction long before Covid-19. With this industry quickly becoming a pillar of American entertainment and culture it has been the target of moral panics and political attacks for years. As such, it is crucial for people to understand the impact video games are having on society as well as the motivations behind criticisms of video games, and few books examine these issues better than Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Games is Wrong. Written by Dr. Patrick Markey and Dr. Christopher Ferguson, Moral Combat is a 2017 analysis of video games in American culture. Wanting to learn more about this text, I was able to interview Dr. Ferguson for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you enjoyed playing? Are there any games you are currently a fan of?
Christopher Ferguson: I grew up during the real “classic age” of video games when both the coin operated cabinets and the Atari 2600 were popularized. That was a great time to grow up and, not unlike cats needing to be habituated to humans when kittens, there’s almost a clear dividing line regarding attitudes toward video games. Those who just missed growing up at that time because they were older tend to have much more negative attitudes toward games than those who grew up then or later.
Right now, I’m playing through a bunch of older games my son has played (just finished the Dead Space series) as it entertains him to watch how bad I am, haha. My favorite recent game was, hands down, Assassins Creed: Odyssey.
Yanes: As a fellow academic, I am aware that a lot of scholars are researching video game. Why do you think this field has grown so quickly?
Ferguson: Beginning particularly in the 90s there were moral panics evolving around both the violent content and the alleged addictiveness of those games. Moral panics are catnip for researchers and set up incentive structures for scholars to get attention, publications and grant funding. Sounds cynical, but that’s how it works. Look at the plethora of mostly useless social science papers about covid19 that sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
Yanes: From a professional stand point, do you worry that this field is becoming too saturated with scholars? For instance, if a student said they wanted to pursue a career in academia studying video games/popular culture, would you think that is a good idea?
Ferguson: It depends. I wouldn’t discourage it, but the real problem is so much of the scholarship is rubbish. That started with social psychology, which flooded the market with dozens of methodologically poor and probably p-hacked invalid studies they tried to generalize to school shootings. We’ve more or less fixed that issue, but the issue now seems to be an incoming glut of poor quality “narrative” moral grandstanding papers from the humanities which, often based on just the scholar’s imagination, try to connect gaming to the alt-right, Nazis, misogyny, etc.
If a student is interested in doing rigorous, preregistered research with clear, falsifiable hypotheses (whether quantitative or qualitative) than I would encourage this. If a student just wants to beat up popular culture to show how virtuous they are, I’d say perhaps its best to rethink what they are doing. It won’t play well long-term, and we already have too much of that.
Yanes: One of your many publications is Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong. What was the inspiration behind making this text?
Ferguson: We (Patrick Markey and I) wanted to write a book for the general public. We wanted to let regular folks know what had happened in the research, in politics, etc., around video games. But we wanted to make it fun, not just a bunch of dry stats, so it would be accessible.
Yanes: While conducting research for this book, what was some information that surprised you?
Ferguson: We were knee deep in the research already, so not sure it was a surprise by the time the book came around. The real surprises though were the degree to which scholars were willing to say some truly shocking and dumb things…like 30% of societal violence could be attributed to games or TV, or the effects were as powerful as smoking and lung cancer…based on really flimsy data. We expect that from politicians, I guess, but scholars should be held to a higher standard. Most disappointing is how professional guilds like the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have consistently failed to admit they were wrong, despite increasing piles of evidence.
Yanes: In the process of writing Moral Combat were there any criticisms of video games you found to be legitimate? If so, what were they?
Ferguson: I think most of the legitimate criticism about games come from within the industry itself. There’s a lot of talk about crunch and overwork and, at times, rushing games into the market (particularly in the wake of Cyberpunk 2077). Some aspects of the industry culture, taking care of workers, might need looking at.
Yanes: In the book you write, “One of the fundamental problems with moral panics, particularly longer lasting ones, is that they damage the scientific process.” In your opinion, what are signs the average person can look for to determine if scientific research hasn’t been compromised by a moral panic?
Ferguson: With a moral panic you tend to find a few things:
A.) The claims made are often very extreme. So, it’s not so much “video games might make you feel a little bit angrier for a few minutes” but “this is a public health crisis on par with smoking and lung cancer.”
B.) People express no doubt whatsoever about the belief in question.
C.) Anyone who questions the belief is somehow bad, stupid or evil. Ad hominem attacks, deplatforming, attempts at firing aren’t unheard of.
D.) Proponents engage in reverse falsifiability “Can you prove there *isn’t* a cult of Satanists kidnapping babies?”…”Can you prove video games *don’t* cause mass shootings?”
E.) Proponents of the belief start using buzzwords to describe the concern. For instance, in 2020, everything people panicked over started using the word “pandemic.” Covid19 *was* a pandemic…most of these other things were not.
F.) There appear to be close relationships between scholars and advocacy groups about the panicked thing.
Yanes: Moral Combat came out in 2017. Since then, are there any new topics or news stories you would like to include in a new edition?
Ferguson: We didn’t cover all the goofiness around gamers or GamerGate causing the alt-right, #MeToo, Nazis, Trump, covid19, death asteroids from space, etc…much of this is coming from the too-online left, which is interesting.
Yanes: When people finish reading Moral Combat, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Ferguson: I hope they’ll have a clearer sense of moral panics happen and be readier to notice when they’re in the middle of the next one. And they will be.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward?
Ferguson: I’ve been working a bit on fiction lately…hopefully some of that will find its way to market. I’ve been toying with nonfiction ideas as well. My latest book How Madness Shaped History came out this year (it’s pretty much what it says it is on the tin). Although it was written before covid19, it details a bit with our (up to 2019) recent struggles and how societies melt down, but it’s also a fun read, I think!