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Thursday, July 29, 2004

On a Manhunt (for common sense)

Here’s the story: the murder of a teenager by a slightly older boy in my home town has been blamed on a violent video game. Giselle Pakeerah, mother of the murdered Stephan, points to the killer’s ‘obsession’ with the game Manhunt as the basis for her son’s death. Radio 5 Live brought in Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, a psychology expert, to propose more research into how violent video games can influence the behaviour of adolescents. “He felt a link had already been proved between violence and video games in children aged eight years or below but more study was needed into the long-term impact of blood-thirsty games on the behaviour of older children. He said: "Research has shown those aged eight years or below do in the short-term re-enact or copy what they see on the screen."

We’ve been here before, particularly with video nasties. Yet for many of today’s pundits seem to have a short memory; not long ago Grand Theft Auto was in the same situation. As I am bored of reminding people, there is a difference between cognitive and behavioural influences. Plenty of media had a cognitive influence, otherwise why would we bother with them? Most of us hope to go on holiday at some point and so the holiday advertising around us might influence this decision. But few of us are agonising over the choice of murder weapon to use, just waiting for a video game to help us make our minds up. Even the kids re-enacting video games cited by Professor Griffiths tells us little: none of them get to run at the speed of sound (Sonic the Hedgehog) or fire plasma rifles (Halo) when they switch off the console and play outside. So what will show up in research is gameplay that is directly imitable (martial arts, stalk and stealth) and not the huge proportion of games relying entirely on fantasy or on operating pretend vehicles. Even when imitation in play can be shown to occur, it's daft to treat real and imaginary violence as the same thing.

Parents can grieve as they see fit, but it doesn’t give them the right to veto the entertainment industry products they take a dislike to. Likewise, someone still has to convince me of the need ‘protect children’ – Manhunt has an 18 certificate – by going around acting as if all households contained children. And someone has to do convincing research to explain the Manhunt players not adversely affected by it. In other words, someone show how come I’ve enjoyed killing literally every 'Covenant' (alien) on Halo’s ‘assault on the control room' level but have yet to kill someone in real life. They are not the same.

How often do we skeptics have to repeat these basic points? In 1993 I noted of Sega that "No amount of hysteria will stop them coining it in. If anything, the latest video nightmare scenarios were made in marketing heaven. After all, who needs to pretend to be a pirate station when every columnist and news broadcaster is already telling your target audience that you're the devil incarnate?" (See "Sonic the scapegoat" in Living Marxism 57, July 1993.)

According to Sega historian Sam Pettus, ‘While you may not agree with Barnfield's politics, he did score a telling point and one that was borne out by Sega's own market research. This attitude is best put by American actor Corey Haim (remember him? - GB), one of the stars of the Sega CD game Double Switch who at one time courted the possibility of becoming Sega of America's celebrity spokesman. "Sega is definitely where it's happening," he told a Wired reporter in an interview. "Like, have you seen their ads? Far fuckin' out. I want to be in them. I want to be, like, the Sega boy." The X-Box and Playstation have superseded the Sega Genesis, but 11 years later we’re still having the same arguments. Let’s move to the next level.

(A later version of this blog now appears at Spiked-online; since I wrote it the Mail has dutifully trotted out a 'ban these evil games' headline.)


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