Comic Books' Disastrous Self-Censorship Offers a Lesson for Games Publishers, Too

"Censoring violent comic books did not reduce juvenile delinquency or increase literacy," reasons the International Game Developers Association. "It decimated the production of one of the few kinds of literature that at-risk youths read for pleasure."

The IGDA, the foremost group representing video games developers, wrote that to Vice President Joe Biden in a letter dated Tuesday. A lot of constituencies are weighing in on the gun violence debate as Biden's task force examines the issue, which will mean looking at cultural influences, violent media and mental health concerns in addition to gun control proposals.

The IGDA asked Biden to carefully consider how he led the discussion, sounding the usual cautions about the rush to scapegoat popular entertainment, video games' upheld status as works of free expression protected by the Constitution, and studies disclaiming links between violent media and violent crime.

Comic Books' Disastrous Self-Censorship Offers a Lesson for Games Publishers, Too

But it's interesting that the IGDA would bring up the censorship of comic books. It was legitimately devastating not just to specific titles and publishers, but to an entire genre and the industry as a whole. And it was self inflicted. In fact, the development of the Comics Code Authority is almost a template for the creation, 40 years later, of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.

Comics aficionados are well familiar with Seduction of the Innocent, the book by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, which in 1954 incited one hell of a moral panic against horror comics and, among other things, insinuated Batman and Robin were gay lovers. The Comics Magazine Association of America formed that year, introducing along with it the Comics Code Authority. The CCA wiped out EC Comics' popular horror and crime titles, and it took 15 years before a major publisher challenged its authority.

The ESRB arose from similar circumstances in 1994. Senate hearings on video game violence echoed the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigating comic books 50 years earlier. Rather than fight the threat of federal regulation, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board was born. Nowhere near as petty or as draconian as the CCA—which banned undead creatures (no, really) and prohibited depicting law enforcement in ways that encouraged disrespect for authority—the ESRB is likewise criticized for a fixation on sex as more objectionable than violence. And more than just the broad ratings of E, T, M and the like, they come with content descriptors that themselves can result in damaging self-censorship. I've written about the absurdity of "drug reference" and "alcohol reference" before.

Today, Biden will meet with the president of the Entertainment Software Association, among other chiefs of major entertainment publishers or their lobbying associations. Some are skeptical that this meeting will do anything for video game publishing, if not suspicious that the industry will give in to government requests for more self-regulation, such as in when and where advertisements are run.

So the IGDA calling on Biden to lead this discussion in proactive and rational way is entirely appropriate. Yet as this was an open letter, to me, bringing up the self-censorship of comic books, and the damage that creative industry did to itself, is a useful between-the-lines message from developers to their publishers, too.