"Ban these evil games", "Videogame violence corrupting our nation's youth", "video games stole my husband". It seems everyday that the media are making more and more claims about the evils of videogames. But are these claims based on fact, or is it merely that there is a juicy new scapegoat out there that the woes of the world can be pinned on?
Many people will be aware of the Daily Mail's 'Manhunt' story by now. The paper ran with the first page headline of 'Ban these evil games', claiming that 17 year old Warren LeBlanc's obsession with the ultra-violent Rockstar game 'Manhunt' drove him to beat his 14 year old friend, Stefan Pakeerah, over 50 times with both a claw hammer and knife. The tabloid then proceeded to assert "the hammer-and-knife killing mirrored scenes in the ultra-violent game". The paper also ran a quote from the mother of the victim, saying that, despite the fact the game had an 18 certificate, "it's no good saying this game is marketed at adults. Everyone knows that young children get their hands on them."
But what was the real motive behind the murder, and the follow up story? It's easy to see where the motive for the Daily Mail's story came from. In the words of the panel of the IGDA (International Games Developers Association) "it was a slow news day". And what better to liven it up than blood, violence and a convenient scapegoat?
There are two other important facts to remember about this awful murder. Firstly, what do the police say? After the headline in the Daily Mail you may think that they came to the conclusion that it was the game that set Warren off on his murderous way. However the conclusion that the police arrived at is that the motive was robbery. It turns out that Warren Leblanc had, in actual fact, a ?75 drugs fuelled debt to a local gang when he lured his erstwhile friend into the park that night, and originally intended merely to rob him. The police report makes no mention of 'Manhunt' whatsoever. This may be because the game was discovered in Stefan's room, rather than that of the killer. Both of these pertinent facts were absent from the Mail's front page the day this story ran.
And one must ask, how was it that Mrs. Pakeerah missed the fact her own 14 year old son owned this ultra-violent game, which he could only have acquired if an adult had purchased it for him.
"But is the game any good?" I hear you cry. Quite simply, no. 'Manhunt' is one of those games that are the key stumbling blocks in the path of truly adult games. Computer games are now reaching the point where mature themes, meaning detailed, involving stories that can deal with events in the real world, and portray realistic reactions to them, are becoming possible. Yet some developers insist on pouring out games that are aimed only at fuelling the testosterone driven adolescent fantasies of teenage sadists. When you consider tack like 'Manhunt' in the light of games like 'Half-Life 2', with its compelling narrative interwoven through beautiful, breathtaking scenery, you realise just how tawdry 'Manhunt' really is.
The consensus at the IGDA meeting this year was that the game was merely "a rubbish game with a layer of crunchy ultra-violence slapped on top". No doubt the loss of such a young child as Stefan Pakeerah was a tragedy in its own right, but the true tragedy here is twofold. Almost overnight the game, whose sales had been a mere trickle before, started flying off the shelves of those few shops who hadn't banned it, the concept of censorship lending the game a certain cachet. Even worse, in the words of Rob Fahey of the IGDA, is the way in which "the games industry 'close ranks' to defend it [Manhunt] when its an aberration compared to most games - do you see Stephen Spielberg defending hardcore porn films?"
There are many well-documented stories of the media blaming video games for the world's woes. They blame the twin-towers terrorist attack on Microsoft, who trained the pilots with their flight simulator software. They blame Doom for the shootings at Columbine High School, because the game where you openly flaunt weapons helped the boys secretively plan their murderous rampage. There is often claimed to be a direct link between the American sniper incident and videogames, because the target shooting skills of the sniper were developed from videogames, and nothing to do with the comprehensive rifle training he received from the US army. The simple truth is that it takes more than just games to transform ordinary people into murderers.
According to the tabloids we should currently be inundated by hordes of slavering, violence obsessed gamers. However as this plague has yet to develop maybe we should take what they are saying with a pinch of salt. When a game player unglues him (or her) self from the computer monitor and doesn't find a machine gun lying at their feet, the suspension of disbelief is broken. It takes planning and training to carry out acts like these. Saying that violent games turn people into killers is the same as saying that people exposed to Islam will become terrorists. There is no more violence in most games than there is in movies, or horror books. In fact even the U.S court of appeal wrote, "(the idea that) there is a strong likelihood that minors who play violent videogames will suffer a deleterious effect on their psychological health is simply not supported in record." In other words, videogames are not the cause of violence.
What this really comes down to is the parents, and the worldview that they impart onto their children. If the parents don't take the time to talk to their children explain to them right and wrong, then how will the child know what he or she should do? How many parents explain to their child that the game is not real; that in real life you can't do everything you can in the game? While violence sells it does not educate, and unfortunately in this day and age 'upbringing by Playstation' is becoming a more and more common phenomenon as parents' time constraints get the better of them.
All games have a strict rating system in place, called ESBN. This system is designed to prevent games from falling into the hands of minors, and yet often when a child is refused a game by the management the parent, even after the rating system has been explained to them, buys the game anyway. Parents need to be educated more about what they are buying, instead of buying whatever game the kids ask for; maybe they need to consider what they want their children to be seeing. Would you let a child of 12-14, or even younger, watch hardcore porn or an 18 rated movie? Then maybe you shouldn't let them play an 18 rated game. The stereotype that games are just for kids is badly out of date, and maybe it's time parents started to take more responsibility for what their children play on.
In every group there are a few who don't fit in with the social norm. Is it true that these people can be influenced by violent videogames? No doubt. But is this the root cause of their affliction? No. Books, movies, rough and tumble play; all of these blend reality and fiction. What people need to accept is that they must take responsibility for their own actions, and that maybe societies ills are rooted in larger problems than a small animated character shooting another small animated character.
Daniel Robson runs http://www.shock-therapy.org where he offers his own freeware, as well hosting freeware for Symbian UIQ 7.0 phones, especially the Sony Ericsson PX00 series.