Momo is Still Not Real (But Memes Are)

D&D is no stranger to moral panics, and there's a new boogeyman taking the place of demons in the 80s: Momo, a fake picture of a fake sculpture about a fake trend.

D&D is no stranger to moral panics, and there's a new boogeyman taking the place of demons in the 80s: Momo, a fake picture of a fake sculpture about a fake trend.


Moral panics can arise from a popular trend that is unique to children and is foreign to some adults. Sociologist Stanley Cohen outlined the social theory of moral panic in his 1972 book titled Folk Devils and Moral Panics. It proceeds through five stages, beginning with a perceived threat to social norms; news media coverage; widespread public concern; authorities responding; and actions that result. This is precisely what happened with Dungeons & Dragons.
[h=3]Dungeons and...D'oh![/h]Joseph P. Laycock lays out what happened in the 80s with D&D in Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds:

Anyone who was aware of fantasy role-playing games in the 1980s and 1990s was equally aware of claims that these games were socially, medically, and spiritually dangerous. A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included evangelical ministers, psychologists, and law enforcement agents claimed that players ran a serious risk of mental illness as they gradually lost their ability to discern fantasy from reality. It was also claimed that role-playing games led players to commit violent crimes, including suicide and homicide, and to the practice of witchcraft and Satanism. In North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, activists mobilized against these games. Several school districts and colleges banned gaming clubs and removed gaming books from their libraries. In the United States, activists petitioned federal agencies to require caution labels on gaming materials, warning that playing them could lead to insanity and death. Police held seminars on “occult crime” in which self-appointed experts discussed the connection between role-playing games and an alleged network of criminal Satanists. Dozens of accused criminals attempted the “D& D defense,” claiming that they were not responsible for their actions but were actually the victims of a mind-warping game.

There were several factors that led to D&D's moral panic, ranging from the disappearance of Dallas Egbert III while supposedly playing a LARP in the steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University )and the subsequent dramatic retelling in Mazes & Monsters) to a game called to task for straddling the line between adults and children. We discussed previously how D&D's target audience was slowly defined not by its creators (who were more interested in tabletop wargamers) but by market forces, with the Eric J. Holmes Basic set creating a curious dichotomy of younger players who eventually would graduate from Basic to Advanced...and their parents weren't happy with what they saw. Art & Arcana explains:

In no time flat, new allegations emerged, often driven by a casual perusal of the imagery: D&D was a clandestine recruitment vehicle for Satan worship and witch covens. TSR did little to calm these concerns when it unveiled another AD&D hardcover core book, the 1980 Deities & Demigods cyclopedia—a revision of the 1976 release Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, but this time with all new artwork instead of the mostly public domain medieval header pieces and ornamental designs that had been used in the work previously. It contained a mix of sections nominally based on historical beliefs as well as pantheons of gods and godlings drawn from fantasy fiction.

Art & Arcana succinctly demonstrates what a "casual perusal" might look to a parent flipping through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (above). All this added up to a moral panic in which the media breathlessly reported the threat of children being corrupted by the game, police offered warnings, and worried parents blocked access. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's happening again with a modern twist.
[h=3]You Again?[/h]We've already discussed Momo, a photo of a disturbing-looking sculpture that encourages children to commit suicide. She's back again, this time attracting hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook, dominating the news, and even showing up in supposed Peppa Pig videos on YouTube aimed at children. It wasn't real then, and the Guardian explains it's not real now:

Child safety campaigners say the story has spread due to legitimate concerns about online child safety, the sharing of unverified material on local Facebook groups, and official comments from British police forces and schools which are based on little hard evidence. While some concerned members of the public have rushed to share posts warning of the suicide risk, there are fears that they have exacerbated the situation by scaring children and spreading the images and the association with self-harm.

What changed to make Momo popular again?

Although the Momo challenge has been circulating on social media and among schoolchildren in various forms since last year, the recent coverage appears to have started with a single warning posted by a mother on a Facebook group for residents of Westhoughton, a small Lancashire town on the edge of Bolton. This post, based on an anecdote she had heard from her son at school, went viral before being picked up by her local newspaper and then covered by outlets from around the world.

This in turn propagated in the tabloids, led to celebrities chiming in (which created more headlines), and police and schools issuing formal warnings (which led to yet more headlines). YouTube says the claims are false:

After much review, we’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are clearly against our policies, the Momo challenge included. Despite press reports of this challenge surfacing, we haven’t had any recent links flagged or shared with us from YouTube that violate our Community Guidelines.​

Snopes agrees. And yet Momo persists despite evidence to the contrary. It's entirely possible children are now being exposed to Momo not due to a pernicious Internet monster, but because the media has plastered her face everywhere. Like parents flipping through the Monster Manual or Deities & Demigods, all it takes is one picture of Momo next to a kid's video to propagate parental fears:

It’s important to note that we do allow creators to discuss, report, or educate people on the Momo challenge/character on YouTube. We’ve seen screenshots of videos and/or thumbnails with this character in them. To clarify, it is not against our policies to include the image of the Momo character on YouTube; that being said, this image is not allowed on the YouTube Kids app and we’re putting safeguards in place to exclude it from content on YouTube Kids.​

The rise of streaming video has its benefits, as D&D can attest. That's not to say that the threat of self-harm or of children being upset by pernicious Internet videos isn't a concern. But like anything else, parents should exercise judicious restraint over what their kids do by educating themselves before blocking YouTube...or throwing out their D&D books.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


All I can think of when I hear about this Momo Challenge thing is the sweet and charming animated film, A Letter to Momo.

[video=youtube_share;k4KLGfBb_3M]https://youtu.be/k4KLGfBb_3M[/video]

I think kids have always been into weird stuff. When the world is new, there's a lot to explore, and not all of it is sunshine and flowers. I think there'll always be a touch of fear and hysteria about things kids are into, by people that have forgotten what it was like to be a kid.

Though, I am eternally grateful that my parents were mostly unfazed by all the D&D and then later Goth stuff my brother and I got into.
 

Celebrim

Legend
A casual perusal of the images at the top of the story generates a game of "One of these is not like the other".

The occult panic of the 1980's almost certainly wouldn't have occurred or reached the scope that it did had the game not deliberately included imagery and content meant to connect the game to the occult beliefs pertaining to a real world religious group (or groups). A parent perusing the content of the 1e AD&D game, casually or intently, would have immediately recognized the connection between some of the content and traditional depictions of Satan, devils, and demons. The names given to many of the characters - Baal, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and so forth - would be recognizable as references to demonic forces in either their sacred text of the Religion or in the occult practices of splinter groups. The depiction of horned bat winged figures would immediately be recognizable as depictions of demonic forces. The 1e PH included spells for binding demons that have been notably lacking in later versions of the game, which tend to strip occult associations out of the base line Wizard or at least make them much less direct, much less core to the game, and leave the imagery up to the individual table.

For many parents and guardians these depictions absolutely would have been offensive in context even if they made no assumptions about the purposes for which the content was included in the game. One doesn't have to believe that the games creators were actually Satan worshipers to object to the content. In the context of depictions of the occult, depictions of paganism and magic which might have otherwise been perceived as relatively innocent would take on an entirely different character to many pious believers. A parent that would have had no objection to reading a fairy tale as a bed time story, could still object to depicting Satan or Beelzebub in a story otherwise divorced from an appropriate religious context.

Nor from one perspective were the parents entirely wrong in there concerns, to the extent that I can personally attest to several people I know developing (usually passing) interests in the occult or paganism following experience with D&D. I've even heard (but not confirmed) that in the 90's one neo-Pagan druidic group added to its membership form, in answer to the question, "How did you first become interested in Druidism?" a multiple choice answer, "By playing D&D or other RPGs"? While I haven't confirmed that story, based on my personal anecdotes it's a very believable story. So regardless of the intent, from the perspective of the religious, even the innocent association with the religious ideas that they found objectionable were in fact religiously objectionable.

Parallel objections can be found in some religious and irreligious communities to the pro-Christian content of CS Lewis's Narnia books, even down to the objection that it is inappropriately and covertly trying to influence the religious beliefs of children.

Similarly, the 'Momo Challenge' hoax likely would have gotten no legs at all, had it not followed on the heels of a number of equally unbelievable and yet apparently true assertions involving Tide pod challenges and boiling water challenges, and even innocent challenges like ice water challengers. In the context, a person could reasonably object the hoax even knowing that it was a hoax. It's simply not something which it is appropriate to joke about, nor is trolling parents about child safety a particularly funny thing to do. Starting a hoax about suicide can be objectionable even if it is a hoax, and while people might be relieved to discover it is a hoax, less shame falls on them for having fell for someone's hoax than on the hoax maker.

There is a certain disingenuousness involved in wanting to name drop imagery associated with a religion in order to piggy back on the story telling power of that religion and the associations that provokes, and then pretend to be shocked when the people for whom those stories are more than stories are offended by the usurpation of those stories for commercial purposes. For those wondering, depiction of a horrible skeletal monster for most religious people is very different than appropriating the traditional depictions of Satan and his minions. The Lich picture might have been deemed inappropriate for young viewers, but it wouldn't have been deemed inherently inappropriate by most the way the sexualized Succubi or Satanic Asmodeus were, however innocently it was done. Writers like Tracy Hickman who is himself devoutly religious had no objection to depicting vampires and mummies and other monsters of movie horror in his works, nor are would his works like I3: Pyramid or I6: Ravenloft likely have drawn negative attention or skepticism from the broader religious community had they not been called into question by association.
 

HawaiiSteveO

Blistering Barnacles!
A casual perusal of the images at the top of the story generates a game of "One of these is not like the other".

The occult panic of the 1980's almost certainly wouldn't have occurred or reached the scope that it did had the game not deliberately included imagery and content meant to connect the game to the occult beliefs pertaining to a real world religious group (or groups). A parent perusing the content of the 1e AD&D game, casually or intently, would have immediately recognized the connection between some of the content and traditional depictions of Satan, devils, and demons. The names given to many of the characters - Baal, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and so forth - would be recognizable as references to demonic forces in either their sacred text of the Religion or in the occult practices of splinter groups. The depiction of horned bat winged figures would immediately be recognizable as depictions of demonic forces. The 1e PH included spells for binding demons that have been notably lacking in later versions of the game, which tend to strip occult associations out of the base line Wizard or at least make them much less direct, much less core to the game, and leave the imagery up to the individual table.

For many parents and guardians these depictions absolutely would have been offensive in context even if they made no assumptions about the purposes for which the content was included in the game. One doesn't have to believe that the games creators were actually Satan worshipers to object to the content. In the context of depictions of the occult, depictions of paganism and magic which might have otherwise been perceived as relatively innocent would take on an entirely different character to many pious believers. A parent that would have had no objection to reading a fairy tale as a bed time story, could still object to depicting Satan or Beelzebub in a story otherwise divorced from an appropriate religious context.

Nor from one perspective were the parents entirely wrong in there concerns, to the extent that I can personally attest to several people I know developing (usually passing) interests in the occult or paganism following experience with D&D. I've even heard (but not confirmed) that in the 90's one neo-Pagan druidic group added to its membership form, in answer to the question, "How did you first become interested in Druidism?" a multiple choice answer, "By playing D&D or other RPGs"? While I haven't confirmed that story, based on my personal anecdotes it's a very believable story. So regardless of the intent, from the perspective of the religious, even the innocent association with the religious ideas that they found objectionable were in fact religiously objectionable.

Parallel objections can be found in some religious and irreligious communities to the pro-Christian content of CS Lewis's Narnia books, even down to the objection that it is inappropriately and covertly trying to influence the religious beliefs of children.

Similarly, the 'Momo Challenge' hoax likely would have gotten no legs at all, had it not followed on the heels of a number of equally unbelievable and yet apparently true assertions involving Tide pod challenges and boiling water challenges, and even innocent challenges like ice water challengers. In the context, a person could reasonably object the hoax even knowing that it was a hoax. It's simply not something which it is appropriate to joke about, nor is trolling parents about child safety a particularly funny thing to do. Starting a hoax about suicide can be objectionable even if it is a hoax, and while people might be relieved to discover it is a hoax, less shame falls on them for having fell for someone's hoax than on the hoax maker.

There is a certain disingenuousness involved in wanting to name drop imagery associated with a religion in order to piggy back on the story telling power of that religion and the associations that provokes, and then pretend to be shocked when the people for whom those stories are more than stories are offended by the usurpation of those stories for commercial purposes. For those wondering, depiction of a horrible skeletal monster for most religious people is very different than appropriating the traditional depictions of Satan and his minions. The Lich picture might have been deemed inappropriate for young viewers, but it wouldn't have been deemed inherently inappropriate by most the way the sexualized Succubi or Satanic Asmodeus were, however innocently it was done. Writers like Tracy Hickman who is himself devoutly religious had no objection to depicting vampires and mummies and other monsters of movie horror in his works, nor are would his works like I3: Pyramid or I6: Ravenloft likely have drawn negative attention or skepticism from the broader religious community had they not been called into question by association.

View attachment 105191
 



Celebrim

Legend
/facepalm

My older brother's best friend told me that those scorch marks outside of town were left from people sacrificing babies to Satan.

Are you claiming that in fact I don't know people who developed interests in the occult or paganism following and often because of experiences with D&D?

On second thought, let me take that up a notch. Are you claiming that I don't personally know someone whose suicide was connected by his family to his playing D&D and that as such, I have no personal experiences or particular take on that claim which are relevant to the discussion? Not hearsay. Not my brother's best friends cousin told him. Personal experience.
 
Last edited by a moderator:


talien

Community Supporter
As someone who was targeted by religious groups in school, for a long time I reflexively felt that there was nothing wrong with how D&D presented itself. But after re-reading Art & Arcana and looking at the art through the eyes of a parent...yep, I would have had a problem with it.

I think D&D's split focus was largely to blame for this. D&D co-opted a variety of religions in Deities & Demigods and the Monster Manual -- and none of that was an issue. I think that came from wargaming, where there was a certain deatchment from the whole thing -- replaying historical events didn't mean you agreed with the nation's policies that you played -- and so D&D treated religions like more data, independent of cultural concerns. And that's all fine and good in the scholarly world of wargaming played by adults.

It falls apart when you have Basic D&D, which was marketed to kids, that was meant to be a stepping stone to Advanced gaming. The disconnect was sharp -- Basic D&D was almost independent of Gary's AD&D, and as a result the two different depictions of religious symbols varied greatly.

It was only a matter of time before D&D got tarred with the same broad brush and parents got upset.

Similarly, video streaming has never been more popular with kids and at the same time, YouTube and other companies have never been less trusted. It's a fertile mix for where we're at now, where nobody really knows what's real anymore.
 

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