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Column: 'A Journalistic Bent: Easy Vilification'

In his latest 'A Journalistic Bent' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol takes a close look at the portrayal of video games in the media, and wonders when the easy caricatures and bad reporting will be replaced with something representative of modern g
'A Journalistic Bent' is a regular column in which our roving reporter takes a hard look at all the issues of gaming, games development, and the games themselves. This week's column looks at the representation of video games in the media. Villain Of The Piece The British media are using videogames as shorthand for ‘youth in crisis’. The very idea of videogames has, over the last decade, been transmuted from that of a closeted, nerd-driven hobby to something that must be vilified for the sake of the children. Games, far more than television, are seen as a key danger to health, both physical and mental. News reports on violence, obesity, or education are readily and unquestioningly illustrated with reference to videogames. In fact, it seems that games are now being implicitly associated with any image of problematic youth, no matter how tangential. As Keith notes over on the Guardian Gamesblog: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has been speaking out about the crisis facing children in modern society. His key targets are the relentless levels of testing in modern schools ("the whole educational system (is) anxiety driven") and advertising to children ("The whole thing about pester power for children, which of course advertising colludes with so often, needs challenging.") Interesting then, that this morning's BBC Breakfast programme chose to illustrate a short preview of a report on these comments with a shot of... yes, children playing videogames.” This kind of association is a difficult problem to tackle. The implicit idea being conveyed – that games are to be understood by an older generation as part of a set of inherently bad things for their children – isn’t something that can be easily dispelled now that it has set in. The vilification of games will cloud proper discussion of their nature and potential, as well as tainting future attempts to use interactive technologies in a positive manner. The swathe of anxieties that the mainstream media is preying on will only grow when games are continually connected with the problems of childhood. Openly challenging these conceptions of gaming is vital for the videogame industry to be seen as the mature caretaker of its own affairs. Tonight (I was playing videogames) The British news report programme ‘Tonight With Trevor MacDonald’ delivered an ill-considered attack on gaming habits yesterday, with a program designed to highlight the ‘epidemic’ of game addiction. A report on “the children who have become slaves to gaming.” (Cut to acted scene of a young man in some kind of wide-eyed game-frenzy at his Xbox pad…) Wheeling out various acne-riddled, overweight children and teenagers to illustrate the problems of obsessive gaming, the program attempted to illuminate the issue with a series of unsavoury and unrepresentative anecdotes, such as one Dutch gentleman who urinated in a bottle so that he didn’t have to leave his PC, and a child who screamed and bawled if he had his games taken away from him. (His gamepad was actually snatched out of his hands in the clip shown, presumably to deliberately provoke the worst reaction possible for the camera.) The program claimed that 31% of children believe they are addicted. (Can anyone else see any problems with such a statistic?) It also stated that 64% of children play games for four hours a day. Such claims aside, the program was riddled with shabbily exploitative reporting, such as associating the tragic suicide of obsessive Everquest player Shawn Woolley with gaming in general. The program was, as such loaded reports tend to be, an attempt to portray a minority of gamers as somehow representative of (or even tenuously connected with) the vast, toilet-trained, non-suicidal majority of people who enjoy games. The pleas of ‘helpless’ parents were, I’m afraid, a little pathetic. Unplug the consoles, enforce some household rules. Third party interventions are far from a necessity here... However, the crucial problem with this programme wasn’t that it warned against playing games for too many hours in a day (I suspect, as tech-savvy people, we’re all well aware of the side-effects of being sat in front of a screen for more than eight hours a day, for pleasure or otherwise), it was that the commentary contained in the programme assumed that games were bad. This is the kind of reporting that has become typical of the British media. Rather than enable discussion it aims at spectacle and hysteria, playing on fear and a lack of knowledge to appal and frighten its audience. Topics become single issues; problems come to represent wider phenomena. It’s depressing, lazy, one-dimensional journalism. Thought For Food Perhaps all that is needed are for a few more questions to be asked. I would like to think that when experts are wheeled out to talk about how gamers become ‘addicted’ and how they use games to ‘escape from reality’, that the audience, or even the journalists themselves, might think about why those gamers choose to do what they do. I would also hope that they might think about the other ways they could have chosen to escape reality, and look at whether gaming is really the issue we need to be facing up to. Finally, it wouldn’t it be interesting to make non-gamers actually become acquainted with what gaming entails? Okay, so I’m swimming into speculative waters here, but I’d love to see how those reports on the dangers of gaming would seem if everyone were familiar with Guitar Hero, Buzz, Animal Crossing, Psychonauts, Lego Star Wars, Ico and Civilisation IV. Would we then see certain videogames targeted, rather than the phenomena as a whole? If videogames were as familiar to all generations as chess or baseball, would they really have to bear such stigma? And perhaps, rather than banning their kids from playing games, worried parents might actually be able to identify what might be edifying and interesting for their kids to play? I, for one, will not soon forget my mother leaning over my shoulder and saying of World Of Warcraft “it’s very pretty, dear, but I thought you’d had enough of generic fantasy...” [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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