The Perennial Panic of the ‘Knockout Game’ Is Back in Headlines



  • Media outlets have described a recent attack in New York City as an instance of the “knockout game.”
  • The so-called trend has been used as a buzzword to stoke moral panic for the last decade.
  • An expert told Insider that the term gets continually recycled as fear of youth persist.

The concept of the “knockout game” popped up again this week in headlines to describe why a 21-year-old in New York City allegedly punched a 62-year-old man, knocking him onto the subway tracks. It was first suggested as an explanation by The New York Post, which cited unnamed police sources that speculated the suspect may have been acting because of the alleged challenge. Other media outlets soon followed suit.

“Knockout game? Man punched onto subway tracks in unprovoked attack,” a suggestive headline from a local Fox News affiliate in New York states.

If the so-called “knockout game” may sound familiar, it’s because tabloids and right-wing media over the years have repeatedly promoted the notion of young people engaged in a hyper-violent and widespread trend. The reality, as law enforcement officials and researchers have documented in the past, is that the “game” is largely an urban myth and buzzword that media have used as a catchall for random assaults.

Even after many have debunked the “trend” as mostly unrelated incidents with no connection to any online challenge or game, reports attributing the crimes to the “knockout game” have persisted. The phrase also has a racially-motivated history — often deployed to describe young Black people committing assaults on white people, and experts say it has been used to stoke moral panic and play into racist rhetoric.

There’s currently no documented evidence that the 21-year-old suspect in New York this week was participating in a game when he allegedly struck the man, who survived the attack. And although various incarnations of individual challenges to commit assaults have existed over the years, these have always been rare and fringe activities compared with the media attention that they receive.

Fear surrounding variations of the purported “knockout game” have existed in some form since at least the 1990s, Chris Ferguson, a Professor of Psychology at Stetson University, told Insider.

As with most moral panics, Ferguson said, the instances of these “knockout” assaults tend to be disconnected by data, “then people use anecdotes to make a case for a ‘trend’ even when, for instance, assaults by youth are overall declining.” 

“Knockout game” is a term often used to spark panic and play into racist rhetoric

Reports of “knockout game”-related crime date back at least a decade. While people have spoken out admitting to playing the so-called activity, according to NPR, there is no evidence that it has ever been a widespread or concentrated phenomenon. 

More often, the phrase (and its variations, like “knockout” and “polar bear hunting”) has reportedly been used as a kind of linguistic net to portray young Black people comitting assaults as part of a wider, panic-worthy epidemic. 

Back in 2013, when the purported trend was gaining national attention and references in major publications, the New York Times reported that police officials from multiple cities were not sure if the alleged instances of the challenge were evidence of a coherent and real trend, or if the whole thing was just blown out of proportion.

A police official from Jersey City told the New York Times that there hadn’t been any “knockout game” reports in the area and said “if there ever was an urban myth, this was it.”

Commentary about the purported challenge has also circulated online. In 2014, Snopes debunked a surge of rumors “bouncing around blogdom” about a 60-year-old woman fatally shooting two people who allegedly tried to perform the knockout challenge on her. But as the fact-checking website reported, there were no reputable details or verifiable pieces of information about the incident; it appeared to be totally fake.

Outlets and police agencies have continued attributing crimes to the alleged knockout game in recent years. Before this most recent NYC incident, The New York Daily News reported that a retired NYPD police officer used the phrase earlier in October after a group of people allegedly attacked him unprovoked.

Ferguson said use of “knockout game” as a buzzword to stoke fear will probably continue forever. He cited the concept of “juvenoia” to explain why adults “tend to overestimate the dangerousness of youth,” and especially ones from lower-income communities.

“Because we’re talking about kids, the ‘game’ concept is catnip for older adults who think all youth think about is games and can only perceive things through that lens,” Ferguson said. “Like most moral panics, some version of it is likely to continually surface.”



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