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Chess trumps  Mortal Kombat  as the first game to incite moral panic

Chess trumps Mortal Kombat as the first game to incite moral panic

May 22, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

"With the distance of time, all these panics start to look foolish and quaint."
- Author Scott Cunningham suggests that video games are simple the latest victims of the cyclical nature of moral panic.

According to the authors of "Bad For You: Exposing The War On Fun," video games are but the latest in a long line of popular pastimes painted as threats to the nebulous "youth" of the era that includes movies, comics, television, chess, and the written word.

"The headlines from the 1800s about penny dreadfuls and their ghastly influence on young readers are worded almost exactly like what critics of violent video games are saying today about their influence on kids," said co-author Scott Cunningham in an interview with GeekDad.

Cunningham and his co-author Kevin C. Pyle make an effort to document the rise and fall of public outcry over new forms of popular entertainment in their graphic novel, using timelines like "Fear of the New" to correlate common trends across centuries of human history.

"Each new wave of fear over the latest technology that interests kids is just that: a wave," says Cunningham, speaking about what he's learned from studying the similarities between the demonization of video games and the demonization of, say, chess. "The wave comes, it crests, and then it crashes against the shore and fades away."

During the interview Pyle points out that chess was once believed to attract children "of very inferior character", an anecdote that inspired writer Clive Thompson to dig deeper into why people once thought that chess would destroy children's minds.

Writing on Medium, Thompson quotes heavily from a Scientific American article published in the summer of 1859 that paints chess as an "adder's nest" which ensnares and exhausts a player's mental energy.

"No young man who designs to be useful in the world can prosecute it [chess] without danger to his best interests," reads the article, and Thompson points out that there's a kernel of truth there -- improving your skill at chess requires deep focus and time spent sitting at a table memorizing strategies that are chiefly applicable to the game.

Like video games, chess was once decried as a time-waster that kept kids entranced at a desk for hours when they could have been outside playing or studying something useful.

Like chess, games will likely become better accepted into popular culture if the wave theory of moral outrage proposed by Cunningham and Pyle proves true.

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