The whipping boy

Using recent examples, Editor in Chief Daniel Lynch hopes to explore why gaming is the media scapegoat for societal problems, and where it perhaps began.

Computer games have long been the whipping boy of the media. When there is a shooting, it is often not long before it “emerges” that said person played videos games. Gaming developers appear easy targets for use as a scapegoat and so are often blamed when things go wrong.

Carole Lieberman, prominent American psychologist has recently blamed computer games for an increase in rape in America. Appearing on Fox News, she linked the acting out of “scenes”, presumably sexual, as “in large part” being responsible for the increase. Coming from a well known TV psychologist this may at first appear as a rather shocking accusation, and one would expect a plethora of case studies and social statistics to back it up. There were none.

Lieberman’s comments are in light of the release of a new game, Bulletstorm, a first person shooter that goes for over the top violence. The violence is in fact so over the top, it is actually comical, and the game is more a satire of gore than attempting to be disturbing. Within the game, certain actions have pun titles. For example, cutting an enemy in half is “topless”. The sexual puns are very tongue in cheek, and the game does not appear overtly sexist as Duke Nukem or other titles would.

Many in the gaming press were left baffled by the Fox News report. Lieberman makes a flurry of specious and unfounded claims about gaming. She posits that violent video games intrinsically lead to sexual violence without actually backing it up. One of the main problems with her entire argument was that she was basing everything on children playing the game. The game has an adult rating, so depending on the region it is released, should not be played by people under the age of 17 or 18.

They neglect completely the responsibility of parents to ensure their children do not use such products. Fox News, it must be said, is regarded as a joke in Europe, and most do not take it seriously. The UK press are however, just as culpable in their highly slanted gaming witch hunt.

While the Daily Mail takes the ignoble prize as top game sensationalist, it is not the only one. My favourite Daily Mail headline “Can Online Games Be as Addictive as Heroin” is second to them comparing gamers to 1950s lab rats. Alan Titchmarsh last year made some waves by too joining in on the debate.

Titchmarsh’s show featured three guests, actress Julie Peasgood, former Sun Editor Kelvin McKenzie, and Computer and Video Game editor Tim Ingham. Mr McKenzie admitted he was not a gamer but suggested he was informed, (citing the average gamers age at 33), and gave relatively fair comments. He had little chance to speak however, as Peasgood relentlessly resorted to the pandering demagogue the audience was looking for.

Mr Ingham had very little hope defending his medium in the heavily anti gaming circumstances. Like their American counterparts, Titchmarsh and Peasgood seemed sincerely misinformed. They cited statistics that were greatly taken out of context and not wholly germane to the conversation. They also appeared to have only the vaguest of ideas about what the games they were debating were about. Despite this, they felt perfectly inclined to make sweeping generalisations.

To understand the psyche behind this phenomenon, it is prudent to look at a much older example of media sensationalism. “Mazes and Monsters”, from 1982, stars a 26 year old Tom Hanks. The straight to TV film, focuses on the role playing board game, Dungeons and Dragons. Tom Hanks character, obsessed with the game, has a psychotic break. Subsequently, believing he is in fact a mythical character, he goes around New York killing people and nearly killing himself.

Future two time Academy Awards winner Tom Hanks is comic when we watch this fear mongering tripe piece now. However, at the time it was playing on a very genuine fear of the public. The story was based on a very poorly translated real life event. A boy tried to kill himself and media frenzy put it down to Dungeons and Dragons, which he did play. James Dallas Egbert III had serious depression and a drug addiction which led to his attempt.

Where I would suggest this story and modern tales are the same is in the assumptive nature of the cases and the perceived target audience. The media saw players of the board game as social outcasts who used it to escape reality to an unhealthy extent. In the film with Hanks, the sign of maturity is seen in the players abandoning the game.

Similarly, Titchmarsh asked Tim Ingham, a professional journalist, what he “got” out of violence in video games. The question came across as highly condescending. Firstly, there is a perception that video games are inherently juvenile and once we are adults we give them up. As already stated however, the average age of the gamer is 33. Secondly, there is a huge assumption that violence is somehow the primary function of gaming. Tim Ingham might as well have been speaking to the wall when mentioning his favourite games such as Little Big Planet and Super Mario Galaxy.

Mr Ingham was certainly talking way over everyone’s heads when actually addressing the issue of violence, that it is not simply a facile matter of people relishing violence. In one game, at the time nominated for a BAFTA award, the contentious ‘airport level’ was mentioned.

In this scene from Modern Warfare 2, you are an undercover agent with a bunch of terrorists who massacre a Moscow Airport. “Remember, No Russian” is a short level where you are in the guise of Americans, and want to evoke national rage to launch a war on America. You are given the option of skipping the level completely twice during the game. Also, you yourself have to kill nobody if you so wish.

Mr Ingham suggests the game shows the complexity of modern politics in dealing with “the greater good” scenarios. The level does not glamorise in any way senseless killing. Aside from this admittedly divisive issue Titchmarsh and co. completely disregard comparisons to films or even literature which often employs similar tactics within their narratives.

Gaming, like other mediums is not blameless. There are loads of cases of games piggybacking off of media headlines and their sales sky rocketing as a result. Music has and continues to do this, as do films. Games such as Mass Effect brought the conservative press to a roar when it announced there would be a sex scene in the game. As already mentioned, Modern Warfare 2, the best selling game ever in America, used similar tactics. The airport mission caused hysteria for months about how appropriate it would be.

An article on controversy could not go without mentioning Grand Theft Auto, and it is a fitting example to compound all my previous points. From the first two-dimensional iterations of GTA, it was never one to shy away from the shocking. GTA 3, a revolutionary game, established templates in 2001 that modern sand box games still follow. It also started a flow of articles responsible for the genocide of certain forests.

Built on the ethos of go where you like, do what you like, GTA 3 was about freedom and carnage. It was abhorred by many throughout its subsequent sequels, and always brought out parental rage of how it was detrimental to their children’s mental health. Seen as glamorising drug, gun and gangster culture, GTA was synonymous with what the old guard felt was wrong with gaming.

GTA 4 released in 2008 took everybody by surprise, reaping universal critical acclaim. In this game, you still have the freedom, if you so desire, to start shoot outs with the police and other destructive distractions. However, the fundamental point of the game is a chilling narrative. A Serbian exile, you are hunting the man that betrayed you, but in between the act of surviving this becomes secondary. The moral choices asked for the most part determine not how the game ends, but rather what kind of person the player is.

In 2008 also, gaming accounted for 53% of packaged media sales making it the biggest entertainment industry in the world. It constantly expands as other shrink. Gaming is not enjoyed “for” violence, nor is to be given up as a sign of maturity. Games evolve like no other media even has the ability to if it wanted.

Games can be totally silly if they wish, like Bulletstorm. Games can go from fun and light hearted to telling stories sincerely better than most of Hollywood’s like GTA has done. Games can chronicle war, as in Modern Warfare 2. While movie and literature are long established and have fought for their right to artistic freedom, gaming must too fight.

Respect is earned, and gaming is comparatively in its infancy to its established brethren. While shrill, uninformed debate is disheartening, gaming is too big to be ignored. Games must continue to evolve and impress, and soon, the Titchmarshes of this world will be the minority, as no longer gaming will accept to be the whipping boy of the press.

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