Earlier this year the Venezuelan court officially outlawed violent video games in the formally Spanish-owned South American Republic, adding to the ruling that anyone caught importing, selling or distributing said digital contraband could face up to 3-5 years imprisonment.
Now, I’m not here to attack the Venezuelan government or its legislation no matter how misguided, but as yet another overreaction to video games-be they of an adult nature or not-one has to ask: What is it about video games that garner such a strong reaction from what is, ostensibly, an entire generation?
Video games have always been kept at arms length, even sneered at, by those who simply don’t understand or are confused by them. In its infancy video gaming was predominantly the pastime of young men who-as it has often been thought- chose to lock themselves away in darkened rooms tapping furiously away at keyboards, gazing unblinkingly into TV monitors, communicating in lines of code that that to many were a complete mystery; the realm of the geek, the nerd and the loner. This was the widely accepted view, a stigma if you like, of the videogamer and those who created these quirky, yet extremely complex, slices of electronic entertainment. While it probably didn’t do one much good in the eyes of the opposite sex, it was an otherwise harmless depiction of video games and those who partook in them.
When the Sony Playstation exploded into the conscious mind of the mainstream in 1994 in Japan and 1995 in the US and Europe respectively, video games were given whole new lease of life. Using an aggressive marketing campaign largely aimed at the twenty-something male demographic with a disposable income, (who at this point had probably only had fleeting moments with video games during their childhood), Sony, quite literally, turned the entire industry up-side-down. Sony had brought the arcade into your living room with ground breaking titles like Ridge Racer, Tekken and Wipeout then later with Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo; some of the stigma that had become attached to video gaming began to wash away. As the brand grew in strength with the release of the Playstation 2, Sony upped its campaign for front room domination, steering their product in the direction of whole families with innovations such as the Eyetoy, Singstar and Guitar Hero.
In time having a Playstation, or indeed any games console, in your front room was as common place as the family DVD player. Video games hadn’t just become ‘acceptable’; they had, to some extent, become ‘cool’. But over the pursuing years, even as video games were becoming more widely accepted as a valued form of entertainment, there were those who began to take a very ugly view of the pastime. For some, video games were about to become the new video nasties.
On the 27th February 2004 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah was murdered by his friend Warren Leblanc, 17. The police cited the motive as a drug-related robbery but this didn’t stop the media bringing video games into the furor; in this case it was British based developer Rockstar North’s violent, adult themed survival horror Manhunt. It was claimed that Leblanc was ‘obsessed’ with the game and was suggested that it [Manhunt] played a major part in this heinous crime. During court proceedings it was discovered that it was in fact Stefan Pakeerah that owned the video game, not his killer. That didn’t stop the media of course. What followed was an unashamedly brutal attack directed at the games industry, most notably from The Daily Mail who, during the week surrounding the news of the murder, ran with the headline “Murder by Playstation” This was quickly followed up the following day with “Ban These Evil Games” Both issues featured a colourful collection of box art and screen grabs from various adult video games. Unsurprisingly these images, combined with some juicy sound bites, were completely taken out of context in an attempt to drive home whatever message the Daily Mail was trying to convey to its readership.
As you might expect everyone jumped on the band wagon. From the red-top tabloids, women’s lifestyle magazines, prime time news channels, in fact pretty much everyone with an opinion and who had an outlet to express that opinion were lining up to have stab at the games industry. Even some MPs began to voice their ‘concerns’, particularly Labour MP and prolific anti-violent video game campaigner, Keith Vaz, who still maintains to this day that Manhunt, contrary to the evidence, played a key role in Stefan Pakeerah’s tragic death. Sadly even key players in the retail side of the industry had their part to play as they hurried to pull the game from shelves for fear of a media backlash.
Then there’s Florida Attorney, Jack Thompson, whose own campaign against video games, or ‘murder simulators’ as he coined them, (particularly the multi-million selling franchise, Grand Theft Auto, -another Rockstar title), became synonymous with every anti-video game campaign that ever took up residence outside a developers front door. From gangland murders to school shootings, Mr. Thompson was leading the charge in trying to bring violent video games to the forefront of everybody’s mind as the catalyst in many of the gun related crimes taking place up and down America.
As the games industry has grown so has the number of people eager to stick the metaphorical boot into video games. Even the animal rights group, “The Academy of Notre Dame’s Animal Rights Club” has had a pop, stating that the killing of guard dogs in Activision’s Call of Duty: World at War was cruel and “should not be a form of entertainment”.
It doesn’t end with video games turning us all into monsters either. More recently there are those who would have us believe that the ever growing issue of obesity, (particularly amongst our children), sits squarely at the feet of interactive entertainment. Even in the light of motion controlled systems like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s forth coming NATAL and Sony’s Playstation Move-gaming systems that would have us all jumping around like numpties-for a small majority, video games are the root of us all piling the on the pounds. Far be it for me to suggest that playing video games for hours on end each day is a healthy lifestyle choice-like with anything moderation is the key-but in a society where there’s an ever growing concern that a whole generation is slowly becoming dangerously un-healthy through poor lifestyle choices it doesn’t take a leap of faith to see that laying the blame directly at the door of just one [probable] cause is counterproductive to finding a solution to what is a much wider issue.
“Kids need to get out more”. True, but they also need hobbies that are both stimulating and rewarding and arguably video games are one such pastime. Again, it’s all a case of moderation.
So why such hatred, nay fear, of what is predominantly a fun, exciting and often rewarding pastime? One that has in more recent times brought people from all over the world together-particularly since the launch of the Nintendo Wii in 2006-in the enjoyment of playing games? Yes there are violent video games, (all of which are rated accordingly I hasten to add), and yes for the most part it is a passive form of entertainment, but as adults, (and for some of us, as parents), surely we’re allowed to make our own decisions and not be told as to what is deemed suitable when it comes to what video games we play and how long we play them for? Isn’t the freedom to make our own decisions on any aspect of our daily lives part and parcel of a free thinking, democratic society?
To quote the late Bill Hicks: “Did I miss a meeting?”
More and more people are playing and enjoying video games than ever before, but why our beloved hobby is still continually sneered at, looked down upon and condemned by so many is anyone’s guess. The recent law brought about in Venezuela has only gone to further serve the fact that video games still have a long way to go before they find true acceptance as a valued art form. We are getting there, a bit at a time, but for some though, it would seem, that time will never come; a case of fearing what they don’t understand, and much like in the tale of Frankenstein’s Monster they gather en masse, pitchfork and flaming torch in hand, ready to smite down that which they have, through their lack of understanding, come to loath.