There has never been a popular entertainment that has not been attacked on moral (but shaky) grounds. Popular being the key word since the content is only secondary and moral guardians usually skim over it until they see something “problematic” enough to create the desired controversy out of thin air. While there have probably been moral panics about what people read, listened, saw, or played since someone painted on the walls of his cave a bunch of stick figures engaged in something problematic or violent, the 19th century was a defining moment. Literacy rates went up and, for the first time, masses of people could -and wanted- to read, and usually not what the intellectual elite wanted them to read. So, the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels appeared (and the chapbook before them); cheap books of adventure, romance, pirates, proto-science fiction, fantasy, detectives, criminals, with a lot of fighting and unapologetic or cliché masculinity. Many were sold by the hundreds of thousand and were the bestsellers of that time, but they were also the predecessors of most of what we now would describe as popular culture.
Moral guardians, concerned religious authorities, some progressive reformers, and many intellectuals (a subset of the later group) were outraged. Kids reading about detectives, bandits, and pirates; and look at all that violence and unladylike behavior! But as with most moral panics, the whole thing was forgotten quickly, and now their arguments seem silly, probably like in twenty years the controversies about video games teaching misogyny and violence will also look silly and ridiculous.
That pattern has become so repetitive that finding an exception is, well, the exception. But I found it.
On 20 May, 1981, in the House of Commons (UK), Mr. George Foulkes (Labour MP, currently still a politician) warned the honorable members of the parliament against a dangerous new threat to the young. It was a product so dangerous that it had addicted many young people. Some of them became “so addicted […] that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction.” Was he talking about heroin, crack, or a new mysterious drug? No, he was talking about Space Invaders.
The threat was not a minor one, and he had seen the terrible effect of that dreadful game with his own eyes.
“That is what is happening to our young people. They play truant, miss meals, and give up other normal activity to play ‘space invaders’. They become crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them, as they play the machines. It is difficult to appreciate unless one has seen it for oneself.”
“I suggest that right hon. and hon. Members who have not seen it should go incognito to an arcade or café in their own areas and see the effect that it is having on young people.”
You may laugh at the idea of the hon.Members of the Parliament sneaking in an arcade café to spy on kids, but that’s because you don’t understand how dangerous Space Invaders was. Economically, even.
“There is, of course, much money to be made from the 80,000 or more machines that are currently in operation. It is estimated that the profit from each machine is in excess of £200 per week. That is a conservative estimate. It is blood money extracted from the weakness of thousands of children.”
Blood money! Kids were so desperate to play the damn machines that they resorted to the worst crimes, stooping so low as to steal money from their own grandma’s almost dying breath:
“In Dudley, in Worcestershire, a 13-year-old schoolboy is reported as having stolen £106, which his grandmother had collected for her funeral, in order to play the machines. Two schoolboys in Barnsley blackmailed a classmate, who had bought stolen property, to get money to play the “space invaders”. A Sheffield mother is quoted as saying that a Jekyll and Hyde change came over her 14-year-old son when he became hooked on ”space invaders”. In London, a 13-year-old vanished from his home for 10 days, visiting arcades to play the machines.”
And my favourite:
“Also in London, a 17-year-old boy was so desperate for money to feed the machines that he turned to blackmail and theft, demanding £900 from a clergyman with whom he had previously had sexual relations.”
Pedophilia and blackmail aside, something curious was said then. I have seen and read about many moral panics, but I had never seen a fellow member of the “concerned class” speak up and say “I’m sorry, but I actually enjoy that thing and I think you are full of shit.” And something like that was what Mr. Michael Brown (Conservative MP) said. Mr Brown, by the way, is not a politician anymore, and his resignation (he still tried to get elected again once more) happened after another kind of moral outrage, but this one about his homosexuality (something even worse than playing video games.)
“The measure proposed by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) is outrageous and ridiculous. If I have glazed eyes, it is perhaps because I am the one hon. Member who is an avid player of “space invaders”. I make no apology for the fact that before I came to the House early this afternoon I had an innocent half pint of beer in a pub with a couple of friends, put lop in a machine, and played a game of “space invaders.
I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is a Socialist, should extend his Socialist beliefs in restriction and control, and all the other words that sum up a Socialist, to trying to restrict the innocent pleasure of young people. For every example that he gave, there are many thousands of examples of young people who genuinely enjoy themselves playing “space invaders”, and who do not go around with, as the hon. Gentleman said, glazed eyes, though there may be young people who are addicted to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol.
I also ask Opposition Members to remember that many thousands of young people could be doing many worse things: tramping the streets, engaging in violence—all the things that we in this House oppose.
Young people should be able to enjoy the innocent pleasures that the hon. Gentleman wishes to control. I ask the House to reject this petty-minded, Socialist measure.”
The measure lost (94 vs 114), and a Mr. Michael Brotherton, from Louth, said this:
“On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you enlighten the House on how it will be possible to deal in future with the sort of trivia that has just wasted 22 minutes of the time of the House?”
That probably cause a ruckus because The Speaker had to call to order, and then he said one of the best lines I have ever read in any Parliamentary debate:
“Nothing said in this House is ever trivial.”