Thoughts on Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat (Tang, 2010)

Gamepolitics posted the release of Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat being shown online in Babelgum which is available until the end of February. The documentary explores the controversy surrounding violence in video games, and the observable influence it has in society. For example, from the creation of the ESRB to the school shootings. It is a thoughtful and well made documentary with interviews from various experts known to the video game world, from Dr. David Walsh, Henry Jenkins, Jason Della Rocca to Jack Thompson.

Writing as an amateur media effects scholar, I am very satisfied with media effects researchers’ perspectives on video games, their respect of the medium, and their explanations from psychological sciences video games have on individuals. They understood the complexity of video games, its potential benefits and dangers, and parental responsibility towards the medium, which is also discussed by other interviewees too. I am particularly happy with Henry Jenkins’ constructive criticisms of media effects research, in particular of the ‘meaningless’ research that psychology researchers have been undertaking over the decades. IMO, What he meant through the use of the word is that researchers ignored the reading or, in technical terms, information processing and interpretation, of the medium that individuals are going through these ergodic texts.

On the other hand, I found the interviews with Dave Grossman and Jack Thompson particularly at odds with the rest of the documentary. It might’ve been from my extensive knowledge as a academic gamer or their comparatively short screen time, they just repeated their spiel (from over 10 years ago) over and over throughout the film, it’s showing their stagnancy and their unwillingness to see beyond the surface content of violent video games. I’m particularly annoyed at Grossman’s describing actions within Postal2 or his lack at elaboration in comparison with Walsh and Rich. Although, it might have been the director’s editing or they’re truly stagnant.

Henry Jenkins stood out the most in the documentary and he had a particular important point, that I would expand upon. It is about video games’ status within American society, and to an extent Western society. Video games are crossing a threshold that would determine its place within society, either as a mainstream or a fringe medium. This threshold Jenkins mentioned is very important for media effects researchers for the following reasons. First, its acceptance as mainstream would legitimize and raise the importance of media effects research, this would prompt a base funding level for continuing research into media effects. This is contrasted by the dearth of social science research on comic books, when it was pushed into the fringes of American society, academic studies of comics books were mostly from media and literature scholars. This is in thanks to Fredric Wertham, who essentially closed the door to social scientists from studying comic books.  I suspect the same would happen if video games were pushed into the fringes. Second, it would allow the expansion or even the creation of a new field of study within the social sciences. The signs are already there, new theories are postulated and old media theories are modified to adapt to this relatively new media. It would eventually bring Jenkins’ ‘meaning’ into the research. Third, the potential benefits and costs is not determined by the medium, but how we produce, we consume and we reproduce, it is up to the mind of beholder. We cannot see the full range if it is kept at a distance and parts of it obscured because we fear of its perceived dangers. Thus, video games’ cultural rite of passage is a decisive factor for future academic studies and how it would be given attention by future scholars and students.

Whether it becomes mainstream or fringe, it would not be the end of the world, it would not impact a society’s standing in the world or cultural sophistication, it would just lead society into a different path. Again, I take the comic book example of how they are widely published in Europe and Japan, it gives them a distinctive cultural image and a cultural thread with each other. I hope that video games would become mainstream (which probably is) and continues to mature that allows us to connect with cultures around the world.

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