Dear Dave

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Pac-Man ate my hamster!

Dear Dave,

There have been times in this whole housedad thing when it's been a struggle.

It's not so very long ago that the boys were getting up at half-past seven in the morning, the girl was going to bed at eleven o'clock at night and they were never all asleep at any point in the middle. I had to choose between sleep and time to myself, and that's always quite a tricky balancing act. Not enough sleep can drive a man crazy; never getting enough waking moments of peace can also drive a man crazy; not getting enough of either is a recipe for running down the street yelling, "Tweenie Clock! Where will it stop?" while wearing nothing but a teapot and three chocolate digestives.

Suffice to say, time became very precious to me. For a while I didn't read books, I didn't do any writing, I didn't paint any little plastic goblins and I didn't watch much TV. Sadly, I remain two Harry Potter books behind and the goblins still lie gathering dust but I'm slowly getting a bit more opportunity to do a few of the things I want to do. (You wouldn't be reading this otherwise). The one hobby I've made sure to make time for throughout it all, however, is playing computer games. I find playing computer games allows me to switch off and relax and recharge. It's something I can do when I'm too tired to read and don't have long enough to watch a film with explosions. It's something I look forward to. It's something I enjoy. I can honestly say that, in some of the more difficult times, the calming effect of computer games helped prevent me going entirely round the twist and probably saved my neighbours seeing rather more of my digestives than they'd bargained for.

So coverage of games in the mainstream media nearly always annoys me:

'They stop children going outside. They make teenagers anti-social. They suck adults in so they lose track of time and ignore their families. Most are trash. Many are worthless. Some are evil.'

Imagine if they said that about books...

True, games seldom rise above the intellectual maturity of Die Hard but they are a young medium hindered by technical obstacles. They will grow up. Some already present the opportunity to ponder moral dilemmas, to learn, to think, to empathise, to share and to wonder. It's not all shooting aliens and violent murder.

But you wouldn't guess that from reading the papers.

For instance, the outrage over the discovery that a game based on Law & Order contains a single still of CCTV footage from the James Bulger case seems excessive. The photo is so inconsequential to the game that it's taken four years for anyone to notice. Insensitive, ignorant, incompetent and requiring an apology - yes. Something for the news media which has shown that footage countless times to get into a frenzy over - not really.

Then there was the furore a couple of weeks ago about Resistance: Fall of Man featuring a fight inside Manchester cathedral. Boy, did the ITV news ever jump on that with glee! Resistance, however, is a science fiction game set in an alternate reality where humanity is fighting a desperate war against alien invaders. It's not inciting gang violence. Using the cathedral as a backdrop is in context. This really wasn't the game to prove the evil of interactive entertainment.

Fictional murders, shoot-outs, conspiracies and dubious goings-on are portrayed in places of worship for entertainment in films, books and on TV all the time and no one bats an eyelid. Resistance was only big news because it was a game. Whether Sony owe the Church of England some royalties is a different matter. Demanding the game be taken off shelves, however, was counter-productive. What the cathedral authorities should have done was tap Sony for a couple of demo pods and the running costs of a drop-in centre. Gaming gets some good publicity; the church gets to interact rather than alienate; everybody wins. (I wish).

The outcry was a bit of nonsense really. It certainly wasn't the start of a balanced debate on the merits of censorship. Unfortunately, the response of the gaming community often isn't much more reasoned. Witness the reaction to the British Board of Film Classification's banning of Manhunt 2 - an unremittingly bleak game featuring little but gory murder. The cry instantly went up that freedom of speech is sacrosanct and adults should be allowed to decide what's good for them themselves.

Except freedom of speech isn't sacrosanct. Films and games are routinely censored. TV has strict guidelines. There are laws against libel, slander and false advertising. We all have protection against written and verbal attack.

I censor things every day. I censor what my kids can say, what they can watch, what they can play and what they can hit with a big stick (not much usually). Not only do I restrict what they're allowed to say, I also put words into their mouths - usually 'please' and 'thankyou', admittedly, but it's not like they have unfettered control over their own words.

Some might argue that children don't know any better and adults should be allowed to decide for themselves. But is that really wise in all cases? Adults are affected by what they watch, read and hear. If they weren't, why bother arguing with anyone? And adults certainly aren't much better at deciding what's good for them themselves than children are. Sure, we'll usually avoid live electrical cables, long drops and suspicious gingerbread houses but the temptation to stand on a handy swivel chair to change a light bulb rather than fetching a step-ladder is often all too strong.

It's probably best that entertainment that has potential for corruption but no redeeming qualities is kept away from us. The problem is, who decides what's suitable for us to watch or read? From Lady Chatterley to Spycatcher, decisions to completely ban works often look pretty silly pretty quickly. Bear in mind that the last game to get a ban in the UK was Carmaggedon ten years ago - a game where the main aim was to drive around running over pedestrians. The game got a release anyway thanks to a quick patch to turn the blood green and by changing the word 'pedestrian' to 'zombie'. (I mean, what's that about?)

From a gamer's perspective it seems that Manhunt 2 has been unfairly singled out thanks to the political controversy surrounding the original. Why does this game get banned when there are so many disturbing books and films out there?


Manhunt 2 is a game that's obviously out to shock and offend. Defending it really doesn't do the image of gaming any favours. We gamers need to move on and go and play something else.

Maybe we should get some journalists to join us and prove to them we're not all homicidal maniacs. Let's promote the value of interactive entertainment. Let's educate. Let's counteract fear with friendship. Let's foster some understanding and respect.

What to play, though? Probably best not to start with a game involving chainsaws...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Now that guy's in The Herald. He's like my more competent but less photogenic alter-ego.

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