Friday, 12 November 2010

Nablopomo and other aliens: Day 12

If you haven't read Wednesday's post about the BBC breakfast response to Call of Duty: Black Ops, you might want to.

Come to think of it, if you haven't had anything to eat yet today, you might want to do that, and if you haven't visited mainland Europe, you might also want to do that at some point. There's a whole wealth of things you might want to do in your life, but in relation to today's blog post, reading Wednesday's post is about the only requirement.

I haven't played the game yet, although I'll be interested to do so because (at the risk of sounding like the kind of person you'd feign illness to avoid at a party) I wrote my dissertation on fictional representations of the Vietnam war. You'll be happy to know I won't be discussing that today.

I've been thinking instead about some comments made by Mimsy McFretful (I will honestly write a blog post about any topic requested by the person who can tell me her real name) with regards to the traumatising effect on video game violence on children. Unlike the Cooper Lawrences of this world, McFretful didn't say anything preposterously ill-informed, although her approach was perhaps a little more sensationalist than the usual BBC Breakfast fare.*

What interested me in a wider sense were her ideas about whether or not children and young people should be exposed to disturbing content at all.

My official stance on this issue regarding video games is that they are provided with age-ratings for a reason. It is the responsibility of parents and retailers to ensure that a game clearly rated "18" should not be played by someone younger than that.

My personal stance is somewhat different. Not that I don't think we should take personal responsibility rather than blaming games companies, just that I'm not sure video game violence is as damaging to young minds as it seems sensible (at the moment) to assume it is.

That's a fairly complex statement, allow me to unpick. Before I do, you might like to read this interview with Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer for big dumb gore-fest Gears of War. Bleszinski compares the silly violence of Gears of War (in which players can bisect the heads of aliens with a chainsaw) to the cartoon violence of Bugs Bunny cartoons. I think he has a very valid point, although it's one which Mimsy McFretful might find it a hard one to swallow.

Not that I blame her (and I'm beginning to feel bad about giving her that nickname). Out of context, the bloody violence of a Call of Duty Game or Gears of War is pretty unpleasant.

I just remember that the freedom I had to choose my own video games as a young teenager was as valuable to me as the games themselves. Like a lot of 13 year old girls, I looked a few years older than I was, and video game vendors and charity shops are generally less concerned with age restrictions than (say) alcohol vendors. In general, no-one turned a hair when I rocked up to the counter brandishing a ten-pound note and a second-hand copy of Dino Crisis or Silent Hill.

Dark, unpleasant and violent though these games were, I remember being involved with them on their own terms. Not because they were taboo, not because they were violent, not because they stirred something base and animal within me, but because they were immersive, engaging and mine. They were a completely solitary experience that absorbed me absolutely.

Not that I wasn't also absorbed by less violent games, but the storytelling in the aforementioned survival horror games was infinitely more sophisticated than the episodic simplicity of the games that were designed for someone my age. (Sorry, Crash Bandicoot).

Again, that's not an absolute distinction, there are plenty of rubbish adult games and plenty of brilliant children's games, but my gaming experience would have been poorer without exposure to more sophisticated material that my ability to saunter into "The Th3rd Pl@ce" second-hand gaming exchange on Gosport High Street wearing a trench coat and eyeliner afforded me.

How sordid am I making my teenage years sound? Don't worry, I also baked a lot of cupcakes.

National Blog Posting Month doesn't really bring out the careful editor in me. This post is poorly presented. I might re-visit it at some other point.

*That is, less sensationalist than The Daily Mail (Fox News if you're in the U.S.) and more so than Radio 4's Today Programme. It is  fairly disgraceful that I am not well-educated enough to namecheck the most reputable nationwide source of news in the U.S.. Can anyone from the U.S. help me out here? I realise it's all subjective.


  1. Black Ops (and all the recent games in the CoD franchise) definitely deserve an 18 rating. As well as the usual act of shooting opponents all the recent games have also depicted forms of torture and some fairly gratuitious violence. They're not as over the top as Gears of War but definitely a lot more violent than anything in the Halo franchise.

    However given that the games do have an 18 rating, I can't really see what problem the Daily Mail and the likes of Mimsy McFretful have to complain about. If parents choose to buy the game for their kids, they do so in the full knowledge that has a rating which suggests that their children are not old enough.

    Whether or not exposure to excessive violence is harmful to kids or not is more a matter for psychologists than the Daily Mail and it more than likely varies from child to child in any case. I have no problem whatsoever with running around shooting people in FPS games and thus far have managed to avoid the urge to do so in real life, although to be fair if I was in the presence of Bob Crow and in possession of some sort of weapon then his safety would probably not be assured.

    Nevertheless, like the vast majority of people I am fully aware that games and real life are not the same thing. And whilst kids might be slightly more subceptible to acting out what happens in games I think it's fair to say that if they do so then they probably have a lot of other problems that a shrink or child care worker need to be talking to them about anyway.

    Games do need to be rated but any of this talk about it causing kids to "Go Postal" is just arrant nonsense from people who have far too much time on their hands and have led a very sheltered and politically correct life.

    *The New York Times or the Washington Post are probably your best bets for a reputable and reasonably unbiased news source in the States. Failing that, I believe USA Today is reasonably apolitical.

  2. Thanks for the detailed comment Sean.

    I suffered blogger's remorse shortly after posting this because I don't know how wise it is to say that perhaps it isn't always harmful for children to play mature games.

    In practical terms, I do think everyone should just play attention to the age ratings, if only because it means that it creates a safe arena for developers to create mature content.

    But I'd be more likely to place mature video games in the same bracket as mature film: i.e. more distubing/unsettling to children than liekly to turn them into dangerous people. Again, I don't think children should have free range over the dvd cabinet, but it's good to remember that age ratings are guidelines and each child is different just as each person is different.

    I wouldn't have thought that watching excessively violent/sexual content all the time is going to do anyone's psyche much good, you don't suddenly becom impervious to external influences when you hit 18.

    This is a really interesting article on the Guardian's tech blog about the flaws in testing for the psychological impact of violent games on children. It suggests that tests can "confus[e] short-term physiological and cognitive effects with long-term psychological impact".

    And I could talk about the "very sheltered and politically correct life" as well but I'm running out of time. Next comment maybe.

    Oh, and I've managed to avoid Mr Crow by walking to work for last year or so, but I did "lol" at your comment, which I hardly ever do.

  3. So to quote Captain Barbossa, "the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules" then?

    Glad I could bring a bit of amusement there for you. Walking part of the way to work and catching the DLR means I don't have to worry about Bob too much apart from the spillover when he calls his strikes, but nonetheless I'd be happy if the government bought in some legislation preventing strikes on essential infrastructure (even the French have done it!) and we were no longer held to ransom by him and his union cronies every few months or so.