Dissertation Notes: Gamers vs. C. Everett Koop

“Dissertation Notes” is the oh-so-clever name of my (semi) regular segment briefly highlighting the interesting, unusual, or thought-provoking materials I have come across while working on my dissertation.  

On November 9, 1982, US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop delivered a lecture on family violence at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, PA.  Following his talk, discussion turned to the subject of the effects of video games on children whereupon Koop denounced video games, arguing among other things they created “aberrations in childhood behavior” and fostered addiction, saying (in a phrase that was later frequently repeated by the press) children became addicted “body and soul” (“Around the Nation; Surgeon General Sees Danger in Video Games,” New York Times, November 10, 1982)

His comments attracted national press attention, followed by significant backlash from child psychologists,  educators, and game designers who were quick to refute the Surgeon General’s assertions (C.W. Miranker, “Defenders strike back after video games get zapped,” Daily News, November 10, 1982).

"Koop-Man" News and Observer, Nov. 11, 1982 (Source: National Library of Medicine)

“Koop-Man” News and Observer, Nov. 11, 1982 (Source: National Library of Medicine)

Criticism was significant enough that the following day, Koop released a statement asserting his observations “represented my purely  personal judgment and was not based on any accumulated scientific evidence, nor does it represent the official view of the Public Health Service.”

Koop’s comments especially did not sit well with Arnie Katz, editor of Electronic Games, who in the Feb. 1983 issue took the Surgeon General to task, denouncing Koop for making inflammatory comments against gaming without any scientific evidence to support his allegations of addiction.

According to Katz:

“Addiction” is an emotionally loaded and highly charged word in our society.  It conjures up lurid visions of helpless zombies groveling in the gutter until they summon enough strength to mug an old woman for her welfare check.  The use of this word to describe the enthusiasm which millions feel for these games, without offering one bit of scientific verification to back it up is irresponsible and inflammatory, to say the least. (Arnie Katz, “The Surgeon General Says…”, Electronic Games, Vol. 1, No. 12 [Feb. 1983], 6)

Katz called upon readers to write to Koop expressing their displeasure, and Electronic Games included a coupon readers could clip out and send to the Surgeon General’s Rockville, MD, office:

Source: Electronic Games, Vol. 1, No. 12 (Feb. 1983)

Source: Electronic Games, Vol. 1, No. 12 (Feb. 1983)

There is no way of knowing how many arcaders took up the call to arms to inundate Koop’s office with letters; nevertheless while there are numerous examples of attacks against video games the episode with the Surgeon General represents one of the earliest (if not the earliest) backlashes in favor of video games.

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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