Can you guess which volatile video game popular with kids Hugo Münsterberg was writing about when he penned the following comment: "The possibilities of psychical infection and destruction cannot be overlooked"?
Did "Grand Theft Auto" lead him to conclude that "the sight of crime and of vice may force itself on the consciousness with disastrous results"? Was it a lurid mod of "The Sims" that compelled him to write about how "the subtle sensitivities of the young mind may suffer from the rude contrasts between the farces and the passionate romances which follow with benumbing speed in the darkened house"?
Münsterberg, born in '63 — that is, 1863 — had the misfortune of never playing a video game before he died in 1916. Instead, he spent his days as a psychologist and occasional critic of the movies. Actually, he didn't call what was playing in theaters in the 1910s "movies." He called them photoplays, and he didn't think they were so bad. He certainly didn't find them as heinous as a criminologist he quotes, who said that "85 percent of the juvenile crime which has been investigated has been found traceable either directly or indirectly to motion pictures which have shown on the screen how crimes could be committed." (Does that sound like the blame leveled at first-person shooters and "GTA" these days?)
Last year, a collection of articles and reviews about movies called "American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now" was published. Roger Ebert made the book. So did A.O. Scott of The New York Times, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and other legendary critics, such as Pauline Kael. Harry Knowles and the crew at AintItCoolNews.com didn't.
What's notable about the book for a gamer is that it showcases pieces written by critics of the movies before the movies were even 40 years old — the same age that video games are just reaching. What stands out is how much of what people say about video games now resembles what people said about movies then.
Münsterberg wrote about the "movement toward Federal censorship" and defended movies — photoplays — by claiming that people always hated a new medium but inevitably learned to appreciate it. He reminded his readers of an older disdain for the newfangled invention of the orchestra: "Tone combinations which appeared intolerable dissonances to one generation were again and again assimilated and welcomed and finally accepted as a matter of course by later times."
Bear in mind that what Münsterberg was defending were silent films. Sound technology hadn't been incorporated yet. And still these new movie things seemed wild. Here's a 1921 review by Carl Sandburg of the silent horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari": "Are you tired of the same old thing done the same old way? Do you wish to see murder and retribution, insanity, somnambulism, grotesque puppetry, scenery solemn and stormy, wild as the wildest melodrama and yet as restrained as comic and well-manipulated marionettes?" If he had left out the sleepwalking part, he might as well have been writing a rave review of "Resident Evil."
The early movies were vulgar, the naysayers said. Even the boosters said that. Here was a form of entertainment nearly three decades old and all that was being made for it was fluff targeted at the lowest common denominator. Critic and movie defender Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1929 that the American movie "at the age of 25 [had] the mentality of a of a child of 6." The notion that movies could ever be sophisticated entertainment for the thinking person was ... funny? Misguided? Ludicrous.
The great American critic H. L. Mencken could hardly stomach cinema. Testifying in 1927 in such a way that probably proves he'd have hated MTV too, he wrote: "How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters 10 times a minute? Worse this dizzy jumping about is plainly unnecessary; all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movies seems to be entrusted." He preferred the stable look of live theater. People who went elsewhere, he said, were "movie morons."
Movies weren't just low art. They were potentially brain-warping. One early critic likened the appeal of movie-watching to entering a trance at the behest of a hypnotist. Seldes quoted a psychoanalyst who was concerned about how movies granted their viewers a "magic omnipotence wish" and that films showed the audience a world in which every problem could be solved and all questions could be answered. This meant the medium was uniquely seductive in taking viewers into another world. Or maybe movies weren't so unique, because games would be praised and blamed for doing the same 80 years later.
These were different times, but with so many beats that would echo into the gaming era. Some early lovers of silent films feared the addition of sound, making comments that foreshadowed the fears of gaming's own early major transition from 2-D to 3-D. In 1932, movie critic Rudolf Arnheim did his best impression of a side-scrolling "Sonic the Hedgehog" fan lamenting the genre's transition into the third dimension by suggesting that the new films of the sound era were horsemen of film's apocalypse. He envisioned the film critic of tomorrow — who he thought might be called a "television critic" — and said that that unlucky person, removed by a decade or two from the great early films, would be left with drivel. "He thinks he is seeing bad films instead of understanding that what he sees is no longer film at all." Arnheim, who was born in 1904 but died just 10 days ago, thought the lack of sound made early films special because it forced filmmakers to find original ways to tell classic stories. "With the advent of the talking film, the necessity of using all these tools disappeared."
Were early movies like "King Kong" the dismissed equal of games today? Here's Arnheim again, revealing just how low expectations of cinema were: "To us, the question of whether film is art or not seems misplaced, and ought to be replaced by one regarding the degree to which it might become art."
Things changed, of course. The reputation of Hollywood and the movies rose above that of boot-bottom scum. But down there is where it seemed to start. What would these critics have made of video games? Could they have seen a day when gamers weren't the equal of "movie morons"?
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