The trouble with games reporting…

It’s rare that I feel the need to write any sort of opinion piece on this blog, but over the past few weeks, there’s been a sudden upsurge in the number of poorly researched and negative games pieces in the mainstream media, and I wanted to draw attention to them all in the one place and maybe start a discussion about what we can do to address some of those issues.

Every new medium, no matter how similar to what has come before, has had to deal with the cries of the earth falling or our youth corrupting or the very threads that hold our decent society together fraying and unravelling, and games are no exception, but recently the number of mainstream articles with exactly that form have appeared online in the mainstream news.

First up, in December of 2009, Charlie Brooker wrote an eloquent article in the Guardian titled ‘Why I love Video Games’.  In it, he tried to encourage non-gamers to at least try the medium that he described as ‘the most rapidly evolving creative medium in human history’ and presented a wide range of starter games, from the brilliant simplicity of Canabalt to the desolate future world of Fallout 3.  Later that same month, the article was republished in The Age, this time with the headline ‘Big bang theory: the problem with video games’.  A subtle shift, certainly, but one that primes the reader for a negative appraisal of the medium rather than the original’s far more optimistic view.

Things were quiet for a few months, with much of the reporting focusing on South Australia’s Attorney General, Michael Atkinson, and his resistence to the R18+ rating, until a few hit in quick succession.

On March 14, The Age published a special investigation into buying games headlined ‘Declare ‘game over’ on video violence degrading our kids’.  In it, a 14 year old (who according to the article looked much younger) bought a copy of a video game containing, again according to the article, ‘murder, mass shootings, stabbings, drug dealing, sexual violence and child abductions.’  It also contained a quote from the 14 year old:

“Games like these are becoming more and more lifelike,” he says. ”If you play this sort of stuff regularly, the violence, the killing, the drugs and everything, I guess it just becomes normal.”

The article then goes on to cite an unnamed study claiming that:

Research suggests exposure to violent games makes people more aggressive, less caring children – regardless of their age, sex or culture. A review of 130 studies on the subject – covering more than 130,000 young gamers worldwide – found exposure to violent video games was a causal risk factor for increased aggressive thoughts and behaviour and decreased empathy.

before contradicting itself with

Lead researcher Craig Anderson, from the Centre for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, says such effects are neither huge nor trivial.

”If you have a child with no other risk factors for aggression and violence, and if you allow them to suddenly start playing video games five hours to 10 hours a week, they’re not going to become a school shooter,” he says.

”[But] it’s a risk factor that’s easy for an individual parent to deal with – at least, easier than changing most other known risk factors for aggression and violence, such as poverty or one’s genetic structure.”

Classification is an incredibly important topic, but muddying the waters like this, and indulging in unscientific ‘sting’ operations with such a tiny sample group is unhelpful.  As is misrepresenting the content of the bought game.  While not explicitly named in the article body, the picture does show a picture of Bioshock 2 which, according to the OFLC database, is rated MA15+ and contains “Strong horror themes, violence and coarse language”.  No mention of drug dealing, sexual violence, or child abductions.  And, in fact, if it had contained sexual violence or child abduction, it’s likely the game would have been rated higher and subsequently banned for sale here in Australia.

On March 18, The Age reported on a study by Denison University into the effects of games and student grades titled ‘Video games can disrupt schoolwork: study’.  This study found that:

Young boys who receive their first video game system don’t progress as quickly in school as boys who don’t own such devices, a new study found.

The average reading and writing scores of the young gamers don’t go down, but they don’t improve either, said Robert Weis of Denison University in Ohio, co-author of the study.

“For children without games, scores go up over time,” Weis said. “For boys with games, scores remain relatively stable. You don’t see the typical development in reading and writing.”

They concluded that their experimental evidence showed that video games “may displace after-school activities that have educational value and may interfere with the development of reading and writing skills in some children.”

This study was followed up on March 22nd with a blog post on the Age’s Gadgets on the Go blog titled ‘Young gamers get bad grades’, with the misleading reading of the original study:

To evaluate the impact of computer games on scholastic performance, researchers from Ohio’s Denison University offered 64 boys aged between six and nine a PlayStation II in return for participating in a four month study. The catch was that half the boys received the console up front, while half were forced to wait until the end of the four months.

The result – an immediate drop in the reading and writing test scores for the boys given the consoles up front. [emphasis mine] Interestingly, the PlayStation seemingly had no effect on the boys’ math and problem solving skills, according to the study to be published in Psychological Science.

Nowhere in the original article, or the article linked from the blog, did it say that the effects were immediate or that the scores dropped.

And finally, on March 22nd, news.com.au, published an article titled ‘Wii could be worse than Xbox, says politician’, in which the Home Affairs Minister Professor Craig Anderson of the Iowa State University Centre for the Study of Violence asked the question:

“To the extent that practising the actual motions of killing in different ways actually improves someone’s skill, you sort of have to ask yourself: ‘Do we want a generation of people who know how to kill people with knives and swords and guns?'”

“You want your military to be able to do certain things, certain very unpleasant things. That’s why we have a military.

“But do you want ten-year-olds to be able to do that?”

The article is linked from their main page with the far more strident headline ‘Wii’s worse for high impact, says politician.’

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this.  Every new medium is reported on as being dangerous and adversely affecting children and society.  Plato decried the introduction of the written tradition as destroying the purity of the oral tradition.  It happened with poetry, with novels, with the printing press, with the steam engine, with rock and roll, with ballroom dancing, with pinball machines, with comics, with photographs, with movies.  Yet, somehow, inexplicably, we are still here.

What is harder to understand though, is that while other media certainly have their critics, they also have mainstream voices to defend both the form and the industry, which begs the question – where are our defenders who can reach out beyond the echo chamber of the specialist press and online commentary and present games in, if not a glowing light, at least a more balanced one?

It appears that, in Australia at least, they are sadly nowhere to be found.

Imagine a world where Kevin Rudd praises the games industry as Gordon brown recently did in the UK.   Imagine a world where Tim Winton has a conversation about the artistic possibility of games, as Salman Rushdie did.  Imagine our Federal arts minister talking about his gaming experiences or the opposition leader playing a Wii or Margaret Pomeranz talking about her first experience playing Uncharted 2.

And imagine a world where even the positive reports, with culturally engaged and articulate writers, weren’t spun towards the negative.

Endlessly, we hear the same numbers trotted out about games and the games industry: the average age is 30 years old, 40% are women, makes more money than hollywood, 88 per cent of homes have a PC or a console. But if this is true, where are our voices in the media? Where are our cultural defenders? Where are those who understand that games as a medium aren’t the downfall of all that is good and right?

I don’t know.

But I hope they’re out there.

3 thoughts on “The trouble with games reporting…”

  1. Why do they single out games? The violence in an average video game is more tame than the Grimm brother’s tales. How about a witch abducting children and baking them in her oven?

    Campaigns to stop books being published have disappeared from our society – or at least they don’t get the kind of press coverage that games get.

    As a fun exercise, try changing every instance of “gaming” to “reading” in an article. Shows how silly they are.

  2. Great article. There is also a problem that when games journalists are given a platform to defend them, they often come across as the exact “quiet shut-in” stereotype. We need confident, charasmatic, and well informed people out there being a talking head/opinion for hire.

    I wrote something today about a TV piece that aired recently in the UK here, I would be inetersted to hear your thoughts: http://www.mainlyaboutgames.co.uk/2010/03/how-to-better-stand-up-for-the-video-game-industry

  3. @FreakyZoid
    Thanks.

    I actually think the way to deal with the problem isn’t to bring games industry people in at all, but to find our mainstream voices. Both of the other panellists on that program were well known in other circles, whereas Tim is a gamer and identifies as one – and has no media presence beyond that. As a result, he’s easily dismissed – and the same thing would happen to someone like Stuart Campbell, especially if they resorted to the same tactics as the other speakers on that show.

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