Gaming and mainstream perceptions

Gaming - both the pastime and the industry - has always enjoyed something of a fraught relationship with mainstream perception, particularly when it comes to the suggestive powers of the mainstream press. This was highlighted again recently, when Fox News ran a report stateside which gave a provocative and false account of the content in BioWare RPG Mass Effect.

In a report brimming with misplaced moral outrage, the Xbox 360 exclusive title was described in no uncertain terms as vaguely pornographic filth, appearing under the title "SeXbox," so-called experts attacking the game as damaging to children - despite the so-called 'sex scenes' being far less suggestive or indeed erotic than anything featured in any number of prime-time TV shows.

In The New York Times', Cooper Lawrence, one of the game's most vocal critics on Fox News, admitted her embarrassment upon discovering the true extent of the game's debauchery, hinting that Fox may even have mislead her before filming. "I recognize that I misspoke. I really regret saying that, and now that I have seen the game and seen the sex scenes, its kind of a joke. Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had had heard, and they had said its like pornography. But its not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit," the critic conceded.

BioWare owner EA were of course livid with this flagrant misrepresentation, Jeff Brown demanding an apology from Fox, something the channel has so far failed to do - arguing instead, it seems, that EA should come on their Live Desk show to defend the game (against the clearly misplaced charges).

Of course this skewering, as Brown's letter suggests, may be born out of fear: "As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness." The problem is that gaming is still a relatively niche hobby, at least compared to television and cinema, and it is enjoyed by a disproportionate number of youngsters. So, when older viewers watch reports like Fox's, this is probably the most they'll hear about gaming for weeks if not months; and it doesn't sound good. Little wonder, then, that the greying moral majority think that gaming is in part to blame for US society's ills.

Not that damaging misconception is constrained to the United States, of course, in fact a more serious example happened here in the UK a few years ago - during the Stefan Pakeerah murder case. During this case, controversy-courting Manhunt was linked to the vicious killing, and both TV and newspapers reported that the 17 year-old murderer Warren LeBlanc was obsessed by the game. It emerged, in fact, that it was victim Pakeerah who had played the game, not the other way round.

"The video game was not found in Warren LeBlanc's room, it was found in Stefan Pakeerah's room," a police spokeperson explained at the time. "Leicestershire Constabulary stands by its response that police investigations did not uncover any connections to the video game, the motive for the incident was robbery." Despite this fact, newspapers like the ultra-Conservative Daily Mail did little to assuage the general impression than Manhunt was related to this horrendous event, reports focussing on the game, despite the plain truth that it was seemingly unrelated in any way whatsoever.

In fact, it is believed LeBlank killed Pakeerah in order to pay back a debt related to drugs, The Daily Mail presumably more offended by the game involved than the awful but predictable truth.

Games certainly seem to get an unfair reputation sometimes, it would seem - but mainstream perception can't purely be about old school media's fear of the new boy in town, in fact, I think some of the most outspoken critics simply don't know the first thing about games. Witness the fear most over-40's had for a game controller pre-Wii and you realise how important Nintendo's disruptive system is to the overall perception of our hobby. Gaming isn't just about anti-social teens indulging in ultra-violent virtual sin, rotting their minds; it can also be about exercise, community, family fun and can - whisper it - even occupy the same space as traditional board games, a healthy and more positive counterpoint to the television itself.

Whether The Daily Mail, Fox News and their cohorts will accept gaming as a reasonable pastime, alongside film, theatre, reading, et al, very much depends upon the aspects of our broad industry they choose to focus on. As hinted, the negative bent of most mainstream media over-looks the positive aspects of a hobby which can be far more sociable and mentally stimulating than the stereotype would suggest. Of course, for every "video nasty" there's a Pride and Prejudice, just as in gaming for every Manhunt there's a Wii Sports. Except the mainstream press might struggle to find column inches for the positive impact of the latter.

As I struggle to steer this editorial towards some kind of conclusion, then, I'm reminded of BBC documentary "Wonderland", which last week took a candid look at the bizarre world of Second Life, presenting us with a range of gamers who were seemingly in the process of ruining their lives, or furthering their immersion into the unreal, through various levels of addiction to this most extreme of MMOs. Some of the gamers in question had fallen in love in the game, indulged in virtual weddings, even while losing touch with their own families and partners. The documentary series is of course a new twist on the "funny old world" Louis Theroux formula (having previously looked at a man that eats badgers) but it this mainstream perception of gaming as in some way "extreme" or subversive that needs to be addressed.

Members of the mainstream press: games really aren't going to be the death of civil society or many of the cultural traits and standards we hold dear, and just as cinema, poetry, music and theatre were all once regarded as dangerous, in the end, we'll all come to accept that games are just another form of release, escapism or pure amusement. Nothing more, nothing less.

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