DIGITAL YOUTH RESEARCH

Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Moral panics, bad journalism, videogames, and Italian melodrama

I guess we all know, more or less, what a “story” is. But what do we mean, exactly, by “field”? Dictionary.com provides more than 40 definitions for this term. In sports, for example, “field” is “the area in which field events are held, the playing field”. A field is also defined as “a sphere of activity, interest, especially within a particular business of profession”. In military jargon, a field is a synonymous for “battleground”. In ethnographic studies, “to be in the field” means “being in contact with a prime source of basic data”. The Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines “field” as “a complex of forces that serve as causative agents in human behavior”, but also as “an area that is perceived or under observation; especially the area visible through the lens of an optical instrument; the visual field”. In everyday life, an expression like “taking the field” means “to begin to play, to go into action” but also “to go into battle”.

You are probably wondering, at this point, what is the reason behind this slightly pedantic etymological walkthrough. Fair enough. My explanation is simple: I am going to tell you a story in which the different meanings of “being in the field” play a major role. The “field” I am about to describe is both a playground and a battleground. This field happens to be my sphere of interest but also a contested space, where different ideas, values, and areas of expertise collide.

As I write this, a specter is haunting Europe: the specter of videogames. On November 17, 2006, The Times of London ran a front-page story titled ‘Violent children's game investigated by Europe’. (Interestingly, the printed story is juxtaposed to an article that mentions Army's approval of prisoner abuse).

The piece focuses on European Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini's decision to put an end to videogames that "display and even glorify violence, sometimes extreme violence." Specifically, Frattini is outraged by "Games where you are supposed to shoot down ordinary people walking on the streets or where you have to bully children at schools are other examples of obscene and perverse games. These types of games are dreadful examples for our children." Among the most disturbing videogames that Frattini is referring to is Rule of Rose, a survival horror produced by Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan, but distributed in Europe and other territories by 505 Game Street, a company owned by Italian firm Digital Bros. [Rule of Rose] has shocked me profoundly for its obscene cruelty and brutality," Frattini is quoted saying.

At first, it would seem that nothing unusual is taking place. Crusades against videogame, especially in technophobic Italy, are as common as rain in November. However, this particular case is fascinating because it is the result of a series of media industry abuses, crass incompetence, and moral panics. The story I am about to tell is a story of urgent distress, irrational behavior, misunderstandings, frustrations, erroneous media reports, over-zealous political responses, surprising coincidences, and downright dumb headedness. A tale that despairs at the state of affairs even in the absence of bad intentions or outright malevolence on the part of anyone involved.

Prologue: Hooked on 2 Million Euros

It all started in Milan, Italy. On May 22 2006, Digital Bros, an Italian company that owns the largest distributor of videogames in the country, Halifax, announces that it has obtained the exclusive rights to distribute in Europe, Australia and South Africa Rule of the Rose, a game developed in Japan by Sony Computer Entertainment. Rule of Rose is to be distributed through 505 Game Street (as I write this the website is surprisingly down), a subsidiary fully owned by Digital Bros. This deal, the official press release says, is worth it more than "2 million Euros" for the company(Link to the press release, in Italian).

"We are proud of this deal - says Raphael Galante, CEO of the company in the press release - Sony has chosen us as a partner, granting us the exclusive rights of publishing and distributing this game in Europe, South Africa, and Oceania. Rule of Rose is a high-quality game that will entertain millions of players around the world"
(Rudolph Galante, May 22 2006, my translation)

Rule of the Rose is set in 1930s England and revolves around Jennifer, a 19-year-old girl who is held captive in an orphanage by a group of deranged, sadistic children known as The Aristocracy of the Red Crayon. The player becomes Jennifer who, assisted by her dog, must keep herself alive by offering gifts to her mad captors and buy time as she searches for a way out of the orphanage. Although the game relies more on psychological horror than explicit gore, it does feature violence as well as hints of sadomasochism and lesbianism. During the course of the game, Jennifer is repeatedly beaten and humiliated as she tries to break out of an orphanage. "She is bound, gagged, doused with liquids, buried alive and thrown into the "Filth Room"" writes a gamer on Joystiq. In other words, Rule of Rose is a horror game. Albeit no more violent that fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm, it certainly contains scenes not intended for children. For this reason it carries an "M" for Mature rating in the United States, and a 18+ rating in most European countries.

Back to Milan, it is early November. Rule of the Rose is supposed to be launched across several European countries - including Italy - on November 24 2006. Digital Bros, however, is disappointed by the fact that most game magazines have basically ignored the game. Reviewers criticized the inefficient combat system and the mediocre graphics. All of a sudden, the 2 million euros that Digital Bros hoped to gain from the prestigious deal are in danger. When all seemed lost, a marketing manager at the company has an epiphany. Instead of using traditional techniques to promote the game - such as printed advertising, billboards, television commercials, internet banners etc. - he contacts Media Hook, a Milanese communication agency founded in 2003. An advertising "task force', Media Hook is very popular with Italian videogame distributors. For instance, in 2004 Electronic Arts Italia worked with Media Hook to organize the launch of The Sims 2. Halifax/Digital Bros also collaborated with Media Hook to promote Pro Evolution Soccer 5, Tomb Raider: Lara Croft Legend, and Pirates of the Caribbean (Note: Buena Vista Games are distributed in Italy by Halifax/Digital Bros). The philosophy of Media Hook, as described in the company's website, is to create "hooks", stories that media will find interesting. (Note: the connection between Digital Bros and Media Hook was first revealed by journalist Ivan Fulco on Turin's newspaper La Stampa on November 16 2006).

Coincidentally, On November 10 2006, the cover story of Italian popular newsmagazine Panorama features Rule of the Rose. The headline screams: "He who buries the little girl wins" (Vince chi seppellisce la bambina"). The subtitle is equally extreme: "A journey into the horrors of electronic entertainment" ("Viaggio tra gli orrori del divertimento elettronico"). The author of the story is Guido Castellano. The story contains vehement criticism directed not only against Rule of the Rose, but to the videogame medium as a whole. Other games are criticized, including Bully, Grand Theft Auto (hilariously translated in Italian as "Il Grande Ladrone", i.e. the literal translation of the title), and Postal 2. The story is immediately picked up by major television news programs. Two popular television channels, Canale 5 and Rete 4 discussed the case during prime time newscasts (Note: both the newsmagazine and the network channels are owned by Mediaset, a Silvio Berlusconi's media company. Silvio Berlusconi is Italy's former prime minister. Berlusconi owns several media industries in Italy although none of them are related to videogames).

In his article, Castellano talks to Anna Serafini, a member of the Democrats of the Left party, who is also Italy's President of the Committee for Childhood. In the interview, Serafini states that she terrified by the content of game - although she candidly admits that she does not even know how to switch on a Sony PlayStation 2, let alone playing a game - and wonders why such products could reach the market. She calls for an investigation and laments the lack of an authority that monitors the content of the videogames. Apparently, Serafini is not aware of PEGI, the Pan European Game Information age rating system which was established in 2003 to help European parents make informed decisions on buying interactive games. "Designed to ensure that minors are not exposed to games that are unsuitable for their particular age group, the system is supported by the major console manufacturers, including PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo, as well as by publishers and developers of interactive games throughout Europe" (from the PEGI website). Serafini seems to ignore also the fact that Rule of Rose is intended for mature audiences only and not for children.

Corrado Buonanno, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of Italy, told Castellano that Sony decided not to distribute the game because its quality was deemed inconsistent with the company's standards. It is more likely that SCEE decided not to distribute the Sony the game developed by its Japanese counterpart because of its controversial content. In fact, The Times' David Charter suggests that "Sony did not release Rule of Rose in the US for fears of an outcry, particularly over alleged overtones of lesbianism and sadomasochism, but its distribution was taken up by a small independent company". (In the United States, small publisher Atlus snapped up distribution rights for Rule of The Rose).

Incidentally, the same day, November 10 2006, online magazine Life in Italy reports that, after reading the article on Panorama, Rome's major Walter Veltroni woved to seek an Italian ban on a Rule of Rose: "There is no way that a violent video game should be sold and distributed in our country... this game must not enter Italian homes]," said the popular left-wing mayor according to Life in Italy. "Our youngsters are living through difficult times, with violence present on a daily basis in all the media... Small children have the right to be shielded from violence". The mayor pledged to do everything possible to get Rule of Rose withdrawn in Italy.

It is interesting to note that Guido Castellano's article is not only written in a style that reminds us of the "best" examples of Yellow journalism, but it is replete with factual errors, mistakes, and inaccuracies. The plentiful slips have been highlighted by game journalists, game players, and representatives from the game industry. Panorama's forum has been literally inundated with letters from users that are outraged by Castellano's accusations. The collective intelligence of the net responds to the mass media using the tools available to them: blogs, email, websites, and forums.

It is not uncommon for Italian mass media to attack videogames. In early Nineties, for instance, journalist Cesare Fiumi and psychologist Vittorino Andreoli suggested that a series of gruesome youth-related crimes that took place in Italy had been directly instigated by violent videogames. But at that time, the internet was not available. Now, however, the game community responded in real time to the ludicrous allegations. Gamers provided a smart commentary, acting - unlike Castellano - as true investigative journalists. Some users, for instance, underlined the fact that Castellano's article was surprisingly similar to a review written by a review written by a gamer that was previously published in a videogame forum. Other readers suggested that Panorama's so-called scoop had been clearly doctored. Others underlined the fact that another mainstream publication, La Repubblica's monthly supplement XL had discussed Rule of the Rose six months earlier.

However flawed and misdirected, Panorama's cover story prompted the Italian government to launch a parliamentary discussion on videogames. On November 14 2006 - with unusual alacrity for Italian standards - the members of the Parliament gathered to discuss the creation of an independent committee that will evaluate the content of videogames. None of the politicians seemed aware of the existence of the PEGI initiative. According to Clemente Mastella, the Italian Minister of Justice who proposed such committee, videogames deemed too violent should not be released at all in Italy. Mastella urges immediate action to limit the availability of "obscene" material to young people. During the parliamentary discussion, representatives from both parties agreed that violent games are directly responsible for the moral crisis of the country (e.g. the abundance of videos of students bullying teachers and other peers on You Tube and Google Video). After reading the transcripts of the discussion, one thing is obvious: most of the politicians that took part in the debate are not familiar with videogames at all and they tend to confuse videogames with online videos (it sounds comical, but it is true - the same mistake has been made by several journalists as well). Bias and misconceptions abound. The representatives of the major parties applauded the invoked ban on violent games and the creation of a committee to monitor and possibly censor 'questionable' content. (As Paolo Pedercini notes, there are a few notable exceptions: Titti De Simone of the Rifondazione Comunista party invokes a less demagogical approach and urges an investigation on the cultural and social causes that lead to youth violence; likewise, Luana Zanella from the Green Party notes that banning a single videogame is useless; Sergio D'Elia of the Rosa del Pugno party is the only politician to note that the Government is acting upon a single journalistic story and encourages a wider discussion with other European members). (Note: The complete report from the discussion is available here, in Italian - I have translated the whole discussion in English - the transcripts are available here).

Epilogue: Moral Panics, Chaos Theory, and Participatory Culture

This episode is remarkable for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a textbook example of moral panics. This term is used to describe "a reaction by a group of people based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group – frequently a minority group or a subculture – is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. It has also been more broadly defined as an "episode, condition, person or group of persons" that has in recent times been "defined as a threat to societal values and interests." (quote from Wikipedia). Moral panics, Wikipedia continues, are byproducts of controversies that produce arguments and social tension, or aren't easily discussed as some of these moral panics are taboo to many people. These panics are generally fueled by media coverage of social issues, although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality and is usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Moral panics (as defined by Stanley Cohen) revolve around a perceived threat to a value or norm held by a society normally stimulated by glorification within the mass media within societies. Moral panics have a number of outcomes, the most poignant being the certification to the players within the panic that what they are doing appears to warrant observation by mass media and therefore may push them further into the activities that lead to the original feeling of moral panic (for more information about this, see "'Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games' by Kenneth A. Gagne, 2001). Unfortunately - but unsurprisingly - Cohen's book has never been translated into Italian.

Moreover, this case illuminates the complex relationship between society and media. Two factions - mass media + (most) politicians on one side and the collective intelligence on the net on the other - are fighting a battle. They have different goals, priorities, and tools. The first group demands strict regulations for videogames. The second group demands the truth about the Rule of Rose's scandal. The first faction condemns a priori phenomena that does not seem or care to fully understand. The second faction is striving to see games recognized as an art form, as it happens in countries such as France or Great Britain.

Thirdly, this is a struggle between two antagonistic media paradigms. Old media - television, newsmagazines and newspapers - are increasingly challenged by new media - primarily, videogames and the internet. This is not a mere confrontation, but an overt war between antithetical philosophies. The former is inspired by a feudal, dogmatic, autocratic model of knowledge. The latter promotes shared knowledge, participation, and dialogue. The collective intelligence of the net quickly revelaed that the emperor is naked: the kind of journalism expressed by Panorama is misleading, untrustworthy, and unreliable.

Gamers have responded to the accusations made by politicians and journalists with clever comments. What really worries me, however, is the millions of Italians who do not have access to new media, but rely on their understanding of the world on the descriptive/prescriptive models offered by Panorama, Canale 5 and Rete 4. The millions of Italians who do not play videogames. The millions who Italians who think videogames are evil because Mediaset says so. This thought is truly terrifying.

This episode is an assemblage of chaotic, erratic practices. A butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forests, setting off a chain reaction that affects a global eco-system - the world of games, politics, and media. This kaleidoscope of cumulative mistakes reminds us, sadly, that it really does not take much to create widespread moral panics. The real problem is that in Italy a 12 year old kid can easily buy Grand Theft Auto o Rule of Rose in any store - no question asked by the clerk. What the legislators can - and should - do is to enforce sale restrictions on videogames rated 18+ as they do with other cultural artifacts, rather than ban the content of the games.

The only winners in this disgraceful querelle are, at least in the short term, Digital Bros, the company that distributes Rule of Rose. They clearly benefit from the enormous and exaggerated publicity generated by this controversy, a controversy that they cunningly crafted through the aid of Media Hook. The long terms consequences of this scam, however, are yet to be determined.

This episode also proves that journalism, as a practice, is in dire state in Italy. The fact that Guido Castellano concludes his story with such a statement as "One can say everything and its opposite" perfectly summarizes the modus operandi of those who have great powers and great responsibilities, but use them carelessly.

What is happening in Italy right now is discouraging and discomforting to say the least. I can easily see how this episode could become the subject of mockery. The history of videogames is littered with a series of moral panics, but I have rarely seen such incompetence at work. The fact that a single story prompted an entire Italian government to launch a massive, state-sponsored intervention to regulate and censor videogames is unsettling. At the same time, the case of Rule of Rose reminds us that, as researchers, we are working in a field where opposing forces are constantly changing the rules of the game. It hard to maintain objectivity and balance when confronted with such abuses of power, and yet, we must resist the temptation of giving up. Miscalculated as it is, the moral panics over videogames that is taking place in Italy right now has had the parodoxical effect of stimulating gamers and players to intervene as well in defense of the medium. Politicians and mainstream journalists should take note.

Welcome to the field.

For more information

Link "Viaggio tra gli orrori del divertimento elettronico" a cura di Guido Castellano, Panorama (in Italian)

Link Readers respond on Forumeye.it (in Italian)

Link: Readers respond on The First Place forum (in Italian)

Link Readers respond on Panorama's online forum (in Italian)

Link Readers respond on Joystiq.com

Link Readers respond on Kotaku

Link My letter to Anna Serafini