*** The following editorial was inspired by "Violence
makes games 'unsuitable for children'", published December 16, 2001 in The
Guardian Unlimited Observer. ***
Mind-numbing, anti-social, violence-inducing, sexually explicit: the
list of evils attributed to video games gets ever longer. Apparently, the fact that games
are achieving more "realness," according to Lois Salisbury, president of
Children Now, based in Oakland, California, makes them more potent than ever in their
ability to warp the minds of young uns.
What a load of Bandicoot. The cavalcade of accusations against the
video game industry read a lot like those levelled against Little Richard and Elvis
Presley in the early days of rock and roll. Statistics and academics are rolled out to
"prove" the veracity of these allegations, just as they were when it was alleged
that Elviss hip gyrations could cause the breakdown of the social fabric of America.
Dr Sandy Wolfson of the University of Northumbria in England was quoted in the London Observer
as saying "There is available evidence that the newer breeds of increasingly
sophisticated games encourage solitary behaviour among children and even tendencies
towards rebellion." Tendencies towards rebellion? Lock up your daughters!
Interestingly, this quote was reproduced straight after an admission by
Dr Wolfson that research on behavioural patterns of children was inconclusive. This
suggests that the words "available evidence" might better be replaced with
"wild conjecture." But what about the effects of these games on older players?
Are we too at risk of incubating rebellious tendencies?
It seems to me that the contrary is true. Modern urban life tends to
dictate a substantial degree of social dislocation. University leavers often move to a
large conurbation and are usually forced by economics to live on the periphery of its
centre, if not its suburbs. This is often the first time that the individual functions as
a lone unit: beyond roommates, the old staples of large groups of friends readily
available at school and university have largely disappeared. This is all the more so in
London, towards which so many university leavers gravitate, and where a casual visit to
someone on the other side of town entails a journey of up to three hours. Each way.
A sense of community is a key and often overlooked factor in stress
reduction, depression prevention, and even longevity. For the unattached professional in
his or her twenties and thirties, the only way of preserving anything similar is in pubs
and bars after work and at the weekend. These are far from ideal venues around which to
structure a community: they are expensive, unstable, usually owned by an unknown or
corporate proprietor, and more often than not lead to the hapless punter getting drunk.
Nothing necessarily wrong with that, you might say, but when there are no other options
for social interaction it can become destructive. Aspirational advertisements and TV
shows, from Friends and Sex in the City to paler British imitations like Coupling,
derive some of their popularity from their portrayal of a close-knit urban group of
friends who achieve a micro-community which is economically (in terms of cash and time)
out of reach for most professional city-dwellers.
Enter PlayStation & co. I will not travel from Tooting to Tottenham
after work to drop in on someone for a cup of tea. Nor will I be inclined to do so to
watch a video, which is generally not conducive to conversation, or at least it ought not
to be. But to play International Superstar Soccer? Im there, with bells on. And,
often, so is everyone else. Most of the console users I know claim to be bored very
quickly by single-player games, and bought their consoles with having their friends round
in mind. It is difficult to lure someone across a city without some bait. Tea, coffee,
even cannabis or alcohol, will no longer do on their own. We expect entertainment, but
entertainment that still allows us the social cohesion we crave.
Game developers are recognising this trend and publishing more and more
multiplayer titles. GoldenEyes success was largely due to its being the first
game to implement a four-player option successfully, making it, for many, the sole reason
for buying an N64. More and more consoles are including four controller ports as standard
over the traditional two, and since the Dreamcast every manufacturer has laboured to make
their products internet-ready. The failure of this last strategy to take hold in the
mainstream, beyond the fragging fringe, is testament again to the fact that people are
interested in consoles as communal entertainment. Claims are made that, once
telecommunications infrastructures are up to the job, the online gaming revolution will be
well underway. To be honest, I doubt it. Consumers are not blind to the costs involved,
and the benefits to telcos, ISPs, and software and hardware manufacturers, and are well
aware that they have a lot more fun for a lot less money competing against or co-operating
with real people sitting next to them than with an unknown ten-year-old half a planet
At a time when many people feel a greater intimacy with the cast of a
sitcom or soap than they do with their neighbours whom they might not even
recognise on the street we should perhaps give video games an easier ride. Instead
of bleating about them causing children to be violent or anti-social we should address the
real reasons for this behaviour. An emotionally or economically deprived child is more
likely to become anti-social than an emotionally and economically privileged child.
Immersion in video games and fantasy, detachment from the real world, may be a symptom of
this, but it is not a cause. Games, like film and TV, are all too often a convenient
scapegoat for much deeper social ills. It is no coincidence that these are more difficult,
and more expensive, to address.