In the wake of the terrible shootings in Washington on Monday, today's Mirror front page looks like this. Call Of Duty blamed. And the paper is certainly not alone. Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago we were hearing how gaming improves multitasking skills, keeping our "brains younger". Except last week we were told that multitasking is bad for us, and "computers weaken our brain". However it's approached, the mainstream media really doesn't seem to know what to do with gaming.
Of course, the representation of gaming as a social phenomenon usually stays in a darker place. Yesterday and today the press was filled with frighteningly ill-informed and scaremongering pieces about how the tragic shooting at the US naval base was caused by videogames. Never mind that the same man also allegedly believed he was receiving messages sent to him via a microwave, and heard voices speaking to him through walls and ceilings - it wasn't the severe mental illness, it was the videogames. The newspapers say so.
While occasionally peculiarly heralded as changing us into superhumans, games are simultaneously reported as being responsible for the worst acts of humans, dangerous to us all. It's a mess. So here's a sort of guide to dealing with gaming stories in the mainstream media:
1) Why is there a story at all?
Videogames are still, despite their ubiquity, treated as a novelty. This anachronistic approach to something that most people are engaging with on some level appears increasingly bemusing, but it's very much a part of the Old Guard that still runs newspapers. Newspaper editors are not young. Even the Grauniad's Alan Rusbridger is a year off 60. The Times is currently headed by temporary insert John Witherow who's 53. The Daily Mail's foul-mouthed Paul Dacre is 64 going on 90. And while the Telegraph's editor of the last four years, Tony Gallagher, is a year off 50, its average reader is around 194. (It's notable that the one paper that mostly avoids this nonsense (but not entirely) is the Independent, now edited by tiny baby Amol Rajan, born in 1983.) And of course NewsCorp that owns the Times, the Sun, and Fox News is under the dictatorship of a man aged 82. Of course age does not discriminate someone from playing games, and indeed the first generation of gaming enthusiasts are now in their 60s and 70s. But all too often it means that those controlling the media output grew up without games being part of their lives, and indeed a significant part of wider society.
From this perspective, videogames remain this peculiarity, like a strange floating orb that's descended from space, to be treated with fear and suspicion. Might this orb at any moment suddenly open up and release a gas that wipes out all of humanity?! We must remain ever vigilant, and report every possibly associated reaction.
The result of this becomes something akin to a woo therapy, where placebo is accepted as efficacy, and correlation is reported as causation. When tragedies occur, mainsteam media outlets are quick to look for the gaming history of the culprit, and of course when most young men are playing games, find one. They don't look for a history of eating fast food, or ten pin bowling, or going for wees, but instead for the VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES and then retrospectively apply their diagnosis.
So these stories seem to primarily exist because of an artificially assumed novelty, an out-of-touch belief that these games are a new invasion on a previously untarnished society, and thus the cause of all ills.
2) Who is this story for?
It's not us.
Let's imagine a different circumstance. There's been a new scientific breakthrough in nanobiology. Scientists have discovered a newer, more efficient way to guide particular proteins using implanted magnetic beads. Within this niche of scientific research, the recently published paper on this finding is of huge interest, opening up many possibilities for further research. It's speculated that this could lead to significant improvements in immunoprecipitation. And a PR for the research group has sent out press releases to the media, in the hope of getting a story out there, thus attention for the group and better chances of further funding. So what's the story we read? Well, you can bet it isn't going to include the word "immunoprecipitation", and is going to include the words "curing cancer". The story published would be one of unidentified great speculation, reporting the potential uses of this development as if they are direct results, and likely saying something about Alzheimer's near the end. And then one paper might deliberately misinterpret the entire thing and report, "TINY MAGNETS TO TAKE CONTROL OF OUR ORGANS!" or similar, and cause a worldwide panic about the process and hold back progress by a decade or so.
If you're not someone who works in science, you're going to read that story and not sit there fuming at your monitor. In fact, you might even be interested. You might be concerned about these dastardly magnets, and check your sun lotion ingredients because the story you read confused it with silver nanoparticals. It doesn't make you stupid, and it doesn't make you evil. It just means you've been poorly informed by a newspaper or website that's interested in being read. The story wasn't written for the scientific community, and it wasn't interested in winning the favour of them. These are precisely the circumstances of mainstream gaming stories - they're written for a "lay" audience who isn't interested in playing videogames, nor interested in their being accurately reported.
3) Does it matter?
Yes. It does. (It matters for the misrepresentation of science stories too, of course - the horrendous holding back of progress following the idiocy over GM still haunts scientists, and revolutionised how they communicate with the press and public.) Because the misrepresentation of the truth has serious consequences.
It's very easy to get up in arms when we see a story of a horrible tragedy getting twisted as an ignorant attack on videogames, and the people who play them. The approach is generally so stupid that it's hard to know how to argue with - claims that someone might have been turned into a mass murderer because of a game that somehow didn't affect the other ten million players are so illogical and irrational that beating your head on your desk feels more effective than trying to tackle it. And yes, it's certainly frustrating that they're spreading fear to the uninformed based on lies or nonsense - trying to scare parents into believing that their little one playing Rayman or Sonic is going to make them kill their classmates before giving them heart disease is spiteful and stupid, and should certainly be condemned.
But the reason it really matters is because the lies obfuscate vital truths. When we blame videogames for terrible atrocities, or for harmful behaviour, we prevent the genuine causes of these tragedies from being exposed. When it's claimed that teenagers who commit a serious crime do so because of the games they play, we entirely fail to recognise the abusive homes in which they grew up. When an FPS is identified as the motivating factor for a wave of shootings, the violence and cruelty in that killer's background is left unreported, and the cultures that turn blind eyes to this keep them turned. When depression and mental illness is reported as caused by excessive gaming, rather than excessive gaming being a response to depression and mental illness, we dismiss the reality of what leads to such conditions, and stunt our understanding and empathy. It excuses us, our families, our own cultures, and blames a nebulous and irrelevant activity. It allows abusive and dangerous environments to go ignored, and prevents us from asking serious and difficult questions about what really leads to such situations.
And it works both ways. When gaming is misattributed as the cause of improvements to a person, benefits exaggerated or invented, we again steer people away from activities that will genuinely benefit them. Not telling the truth stinks because it's a crappy thing to do. But the consequences of having the truth hidden are always far more serious.
Alongside this, there's also the rather significant issue that were gaming to genuinely have a negative effect on players, this would be hard to hear amongst the wailed bullshit. The megaphoned crying wolf of the mainstream press can only serve to ensure a genuine concern would not be taken seriously. As such, the dominant mendacious reporting could be genuinely dangerous for gamers.
So yes, it matters very much.
4) How do we respond to it?
The most important thing, as with all speculative or dubious stories, is to be better informed. When reading an article informing us that cucumbers cause Parkinson's, actually go look up the paper on which the story is based, and inevitably discover that it said nothing of the sort. And do the same for gaming stories. When you see these claims being made, educate yourself about the truth. It's worth it, not just for your own knowledge, but for the spreading of the truth to others.
The other day I was being told by some people how James Bulger had died because of videogames, and I was able to (calmly) respond explaining about the devastatingly horrendous homes in which the two children were being raised, and the complex reality of the awful situation. (Ignoring that that particular monstrously sad case was actually blamed on "video nasties" at the time, as videogames hadn't quite stepped in to replace them as the press's go-to evil.) Just being informed about the stories being misrepresented makes you an advocate for the truth.
Although it's vitally important that this doesn't become blind defense of videogames. While it's more common for the correlation-becomes-causation stories to be negative, occasionally the same lack of rigour is applied to positive stories too. Because as RPS has said so very many times, if games are having a negative effect on us, we want to know and report that more than anyone else. It's always about the truth, whatever that may be.
It's also worthwhile developing a sort of instinct for parsing both news reports and scientific papers when it comes to matters of gaming. An instinct for asking important questions, or turning assumptions around to check they don't quickly fall apart. Take, for instance, this recent piece from the Independent which reports a study in which it's argued that depression in children is caused by an "overload of screen time", whether television or gaming. Flip it, and see whether you end up with a more likely scenario. Because would it make more sense to ask the question: Does depression cause children to spend more time in front of a screen? It might be either way around, but the fact that the latter question is ignored by the study and the reporting of the study seems pretty significant. What are the other circumstances of a young person who spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen? What commonality can be found among them? What are the circumstances in a home that allows a child to spend so much time in front of a screen unregulated? Are these factors that might lead to depression or anxiety? In fact, might it be that homes in which children are provided with activities and alternatives that preclude their being able to spend over four hours a day in front of a screen are more likely to prevent depression and anxiety, simply through more active engagement with their families, more active interest from their parents, and the greater societal skills that will be encouraged? These are all pretty simple questions to ask, in the face of what increasingly appears to be a poorly thought through initial proposition. Here it's implied - if not stated - that the screen itself is responsible for the depression. Rather than the lack of everything else that so much screen time implies.
Again, in this case, what happens is something that may be irrelevant gets blamed, and things that could affect genuine change in a child's upbringing go ignored. If the study were to look at whether children who are provided with more activities and a broader range of interests show fewer signs of depression and anxiety, it might usefully offer helpful information for parents, and suggest positive action. Instead it blindly blames something with which it makes no sensible attempt to demonstrate a causative link, and in doing so, fails to recognise that perhaps gaming might be a positive part of a varied range of activities. Or may not. We don't know, because the right questions aren't being asked. We need to respond by asking the right questions.
It will get better. Not least because something else will eventually come along that will be responsible for all that's wrong in the world, and we'll see ignorant fearmongers like Fox News's John Brandon unironically writing pieces defending gaming in light of this new evil.
But soon a generation of journalists will appear who grew up surrounded by and playing games, and they'll be writing for an audience who grew up surrounded by and playing games. Their current ubiquity rather quickly defies most claims of their destroying the minds of their players, what with that vast majority of undestroyed minds, and soon that will be rather more difficult to deny.
In the meantime, the sensible thing to do is to equip ourselves with facts. To ask questions, and to have answers.