By David Hancock
*** 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 Elvis's 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? I'm 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. GoldenEye's 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 away.
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.
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