“The Agenda Of Fear”

By Alec Meer on September 1st, 2010 at 10:00 pm.

The human being is a creature of habit. We like our rituals, our comforts, we respond to stimuli in routine ways… And that includes, it appears, what spurs the mainstream media to decry videogames as harmful. Statistician-come-journalist David McCandless did the maths for a TED talk, and ascertained that, on average, uproar about violent games occurs in two particular months.

First thing to note is that this doesn’t really prove any sinister pattern. As one of the months in question is November, that simply is a matter of a whole lot of games – and associated public awareness and marketing – coming out around then. The odds of a game breaking into the consciousness of someone who does not play (or understand) games is simply that much higher.

It’s the other month, April, that’s more distressing. McCandless conjectures that it’s because it’s the anniversary of the Columbine Massacre, for which games were of course made the whipping boy. If true (and of course it’s not definitely true – lies, damned lies and statistics, etc) – well, it might suggest a certain exploitation of tragedy on the media’s part.

They know, unconsciously or otherwise, that April means Columbine, and that perhaps encourages finding related stories. It was an awful event and it should not be forgotten – but it should also not be used for “Pushing that fear into the agenda,” as McCandless puts it. There’s a danger that finding anti-videogame stories in that month is fear-mongering in the guise of sympathetic philanthropy, refusing the opportunity for more information and understanding in favour of repeating the same cycle of accusation.

Or perhaps there’s another reason for the April trending – perhaps Easter, and a certain sense in certain parties that Jesus and videogames are irreconcilable? Or because it’s a rain-blighted time, so more people are in playing games and/or feeling a bit moaney? Who knows. I just like looking at graphs.

Here’s the talk, anyway – the games stuff kicks in around minute four, but it’s worth watching the lot. It roams far beyond videogames, and perhaps it proves the adage that you can prove anything with statistics – highly entertainingly presented stuff, however.

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53 Comments »

  1. Mike says:

    His talk was pretty cool. The best bit is when he asks the audience what they think a certain graph looks like. A very odd graph, with a dip in christmas, and a building and surge in february. What could it possibly mean:D

    (SPOILER: Its the rate of people updating their facebook status to single after being or doing the dumping of bfs/gfs)

  2. Vincent Avatar says:

    It is worth mentioning that November is also an election month in the United States, which has, with certainty, a whole lot to do with the upswing in discussion on violent videogames during that time.

    • TeeJay says:

      In the UK most elections are in April / May / June although videogames etc. are not a common or high-priority topic.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      I’m not so sure about that, though; U.S. elections are generally on the first Tuesday of November, so the first week of political news is usually focused on the last-minute mudslinging between individual candidates, and then the next couple weeks is entirely devoted to gloating, shame, and entirely arbitrary pontifications on Why They Won, What It All Means, and What Kind Of Statement The American People Were Sending, which usually conveniently fits the bullshit narrative most appropriate to their ideology.

      If I had to, I might conjecture that game violence might be more likely to pop up as an issue for the opposite reason, that the conclusion of election season leads to a natural political news lull (aside from the abovementioned inanity), and therefore makes the media hungrier for something, anything to spend news cycles on.

  3. mlaskus says:

    Oh, TED talks, they are great! I encourage anyone to just browse their website and watch some videos.

    • Freud says:

      I really like Hans Roslings talks on TED.

    • mlaskus says:

      Oh, thanks for the recommendation, I haven’t seen any of his talks yet. The titles look interesting. :)

    • Mathematician says:

      Hans Roling and his cutting-edge technology: IKEA Boxes. Best presentation ever.

    • tomwaitsfornoman says:

      Ze Frank did one back in the day. Not the best Talk, but his enthusiasm is infectious.

  4. stahlwerk says:

    I wonder what Fred thinks about TED.

  5. leeder_krenon says:

    david mccandless, ex-YS? cripes.

  6. Matt says:

    I work for him (I’m a graphic designer). He started his career writing for PC Zone, though he’s a mac/PS3 person now (boo, hiss).

  7. Dinger says:

    You know, folks, American elections are the second week in November, and UK elections are the first Thursday in May. Like all the new media before them (Cinema, Comic Books, Television), video games are a perfect target for indignation: their aficionados are already stereotyped and marginalized; it will only take their entering the mainstream* for such attacks to become useless.

    *A medium enters the mainstream when its supporters stop asking the Citizen Kane question.

    • TeeJay says:

      The first Thursday in May is the ‘normal’ day, however:

      General elections:
      1983, 1987 & 2001 = June
      1992 = April
      1997, 2005 & 2010 = May

      NI, Wales, Scotland & London = May (every four years)
      European = June (every five years) – as these are held europe-wide this is the most “fixed” of the dates.
      Local = usually May, but can be moved to be held on same day as general election (whenever called) or european election (June).

      For example:
      2004 = Local, European & London mayor / assembly – all held 10 June
      2009 = Local & European – held on 4 June

  8. Osbo says:

    Well, every couple of years it is, not every single year. But that does point to a different exploitation altogether.

    And we should also see similar trends in fearmongering other things in that graph.

  9. Gosh says:

    yet another american talking about american business.

  10. Matt says:

    He’s English…

  11. Daz says:

    I think he used to write for PC Zone? Maaaany years ago. Interesting talk!

  12. mandrill says:

    April is second only to the run up to Christmas for game sales as the beloved chocolate egg is replaced by the shiny game bearing disc (or tokens). So the upswing in that month is probably due to the same reason as the one in November, namely increased awareness of games and gaming in the consciousness of the uninitiated.

    Looking at the Columbine connection, could it not be said that the link was made in the first place because of the increased marketing and sales of games during this month? Or is that a stretch?

    • Fede says:

      Easter is between the end of march and the end of april. So shouldn’t it be higher in march? After all the other peak is november, not december, so I would expect late february or early to mid march, not april.

  13. Matzerath says:

    April is the cruelest month.

  14. Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox says:

    TED is awesome.

  15. NeonBlackJack says:

    I think that TED talks are great.

    Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox

  16. dorianGREY says:

    haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave you med ted?

  17. I'm not at work anymore says:

    I haven’t watched the talk yet, but April was also the month of the Virginia Tech massacre. It really had nothing to do with video games at all, yet in some small way it’s still reenforcement of the April connection since school shootings seem to be inexorably linked to video games in our social psyche. During the first 24 hours after the shooting, a lot of media experts were already pointing the finger at video games, although it would later come out that Cho hadn’t been seen playing any games since high school.

    • Xercies says:

      Actuall it was blaming film that time to be honest which i was surprised at, they were always talking about Oldboy when they were discussing that like Oldboy made him do it. Though Oldboy isn’t really that violent…just very very disturbing

    • Thants says:

      Were people really blaming Oldboy? I don’t remember that. Well, maybe it got more people to watch it anyway. Oldboy is great.

    • Thants says:

      Oldboy!

  18. Mike says:

    On the other hand, April is six months from November, and newspapers tend to cycle stories when they haven’t been in the eyes for some time.

  19. Matt says:

    I can also exclusively reveal from personal experience that he is a massive Resident Evil 5 fan.

    By the way, if anyone likes this information design (aka graphs) malarkey or would like to get involved with it, drop by my slightly creaky, quite out of date website (link on my name). I learned – and continue to learn – from the master…

    Apologies for the plug!

  20. Xercies says:

    Man i should watch more TED talks they always have itneresting things to say. I loved the one about how we have a cheating threshold.

  21. Stuart Walton says:

    This reminded me of an article on the Wolfire blog, Design Principles from Tufte.

    I think game UI design could incorporate a few lessons in infographics, Sim City’s RCI indicator and the map overlays do a good job but it can be tough comparing relevant sets meaningfully when your only method of comparison is to flick between two data sets quickly. It’s not just management sims that could benefit, how about figuring out whether to wear or vend a loot item in WoW without busting out a calculator, or again switching between items.

  22. Longrat says:

    I remember seeing this site a while back:
    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/
    It’s cool that I now get to see the guy that made it. Very nice presentation, the TED guys are usually remarkably clever.

  23. Stu says:

    In case anyone’s interested, that image he’s standing in front of in the video thumbnail is this…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/25541021@N00/4631991238/

    …and not, as I initially thought, a 2010 reimagining of Peter Saville’s New Order colour wheel.

    • Stu says:

      Oh, and it turns out it’s also the cover of his book. DUH. That’s what I get for posting at twenty five-past stupid in the morning :(

  24. pipman3000 says:

    that was one wicked party.

  25. PiP says:

    At that point I was wondering if the audience were secondary school students or daft housewives – who could possibly be so easily impressed with a facebook and/or relationship status reference? But I guess my perspective is distorted.

  26. ErikM says:

    Some comedy with pie-charts, in case anyone has missed this hilarious page.

    http://www.27bslash6.com/p2p2.html

  27. SpeakingOf says:

    As it stands, there is substantiated research into what truly links with and magnifies likelyhood of people following in the footsteps of “columbine people” or suicide, and ironically enough it’s media exposure and portrayal.

    http://www.johannhari.com/2010/07/08/did-the-media-help-pull-the-trigger-on-this-shooting-spree
    http://www.mindframe-media.info/site/index.cfm?display=84352

    Profilers/Psychoanalysts, too, have spoken out after these suicide shootings, quoting the one thing to avoid as much as possible is the media circus around it. Usually while being interviewed on television during the hype itself, natch.

  28. James G says:

    I love Information is Beautiful. Of course, you always need to be careful when data-mining, as you end up flipping the usual statistical process on its head. If you have a statistical significance of p=0.95, you can expect one in twenty tests to report positive by pure chance. If you are doing hundreds of such tests you are bound to get some false positives. Also, coming up with an explanation for a trend, isn’t the same as testing a prediction, and although it can be informative, any hypothesis it yields must still be tested. (For example, by extending the dataset and observing whether the trend persists pre-Colombine)

  29. Nikos says:

    @James G

    Indeed. And to add to this: yes, relativizing information and mining data is cool, but one must resist the current web 2.0 hype and realise that information is always biased – it just depends on what your accepted bias is (or values). For example, in the talk, the debunking of the idea that US is a warmongering country is cool, but why is relativising to the GDP “fair”? Do we believe that the richer countries should also have the costliest armies? How about the number of wars per year per capita? To accept any such presentation as a valid one must scrutinise the comparisons entailed: so it’s OK to have the same defense budget/GDP with another country even if you have the biggest gun in the world??

    Anyhow, rant over.

  30. Sonic Goo says:

    April was a ‘thing’ way before Columbine. There have always been more suicides and shootings (and suicides though shootings) in that period.

  31. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    “well, it might suggest a certain exploitation of tragedy on the media‚Äôs part. ”

    Perish the thought!

    - Fred Wester