Dear Dave

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Virtual wedgies

Dear Dave,

Congratulations on managing to locate and purchase a Wii. I'm sure Sam will thank you in a year or two when he finally gets to grips with the controller and stops battering the cat with it. In the meantime, you can break the console in with a bit of Zelda and some Mario Galaxy. It will also be invaluable for keeping yourself entertained on long nights sitting up with a grumpy baby - being able to surf the internet effectively from the comfort of the sofa using only small movements of one hand is genius. You no longer need to suffer hours of phone-in quizzes presented by people who smile too much. Hurrah! (Remember to keep a spare wiimote with fresh batteries handy, though, just in case.)

Sorry to hear, however, that Liz's parents are worried it's going to corrupt the children and turn them into over-weight, psychopathic, criminal, illiterate loners. Good luck convincing them otherwise.

I can kind of see where they're coming from. If they think computer games are for kids but all they know about them is what the newspapers and TV tell them, then it's not surprising that they're nervous. The press for computer games hasn't improved much since the last time I wrote about it. If anything, it's got more hysterical. The science fiction role-playing game Mass Effect was recently described on prime time American TV as Luke Skywalker meets Debbie does Dallas. After extensive playing of Mass Effect, however, I can report that there's a single, non-interactive sex scene. It's half a minute long and the only nudity is a split second of out-of-focus alien butt. I can't really see this warping the mind of the average thirteen-year-old, to be honest.

Admittedly, the claim was retracted a couple of days later, when it was pointed out as abject nonsense, but it was a bit late by then. An 'expert' had already slated the game. The scary thing is that she'd done so on the basis of a single comment made to her before the show. She'd asked what it was like and been told it was pornography and gone from there. That she believed this statement, shows the level of misunderstanding that videogames are facing.

There are hardly any games released in the western world that feature sex, let alone anything explicit. Maybe one or two a year surface that deserve an 18 rating in the UK due to sexual content.

If I were told that a major release featured actual pornography I'd be sceptical. It would be a bit like being told Gordon Brown wears ladies' underwear - not entirely impossible but I'd want some evidence before repeating it. I certainly wouldn't go blabbing about it on TV.

Still, computer games are an easy target and getting rid of them seems like a quick fix for everything. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if all society's woes were down to those Nintendo PlayStation Box thingies? We could just dump the whole lot in the sea, safe in the knowledge we were releasing the nation's youth to return to the good old days of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll...

Unfortunately, the madness isn't limited to America. Over here, Bully's in the news again. It's been re-released on the 360 and Wii and teachers' unions are calling for shops to stop selling it because it 'rewards bullies and those who engage in brutal and savage attacks'.

Who told them this? Was it newspaper reporters looking for a quote? Bully is, in an odd way, one of the most charming games I've played in the last couple of years. (Bear in mind here that I haven't just been playing lots of games involving bald space marines shooting things - the kids have ensured a steady supply to our house of games involving plumbers, princesses and super-fast hedgehogs.)

In Bully, you're a new pupil dumped at a rough American boarding school and it's up to you to make the most of it. Yep, you get into fights but these are the kind of fights that involve catapults and stink bombs. You seldom have any reason to start them. Anyone the game sends you after usually has it coming to them for picking on other people and, after some fisticuffs, you get to embarrass them in front of their friends by giving them a wedgie. You're just trying to bring some order to a school that's gone off the rails and where the teachers are patently useless. You tend to do this by helping people out and making allies.

You can attack other pupils, teachers and police officers indiscriminately but there's no advantage to this. In fact, the normal outcomes in these situations are getting beaten to a pulp, put in detention or arrested. Most of the time, backing off or running away are far better options than violence. Avoiding having to outrun a squad car while on a BMX is always advisable.

The whole thing actually feels like a gritty Harry Potter or a contemporary, American version of Jennings. It's a dog-eat-dog setting but school can be like that. The bullies are portrayed as idiots, however, and there's no reason to play in a malicious way.

The game is also rated 15, so most school children shouldn't even be playing it. (Which is a bit harsh, honestly. This puts Bully in the same category as the film Brick which has a similar setting but the added bonus of murder, guns, knives and drug dealing.)

There are only two primary reasons the game is getting this kind of press:
  • The title.
  • It's by Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto.
That it's set in a school doesn't help but it's a school so divorced from real life that that wouldn't be an issue if the game was called something else. Compared to the 'trash' I was forced to read in English Literature class when I was fourteen, it's pretty innocuous. Let's take a look at that reading list, shall we:

Macbeth - witchcraft, murder, treason, suicide and crude sexual jokes.
Brighton Rock - murder, spite, a gang of criminal youths and a couple of hundred pages of psychosis inducing tedium followed by some face-melting acid.
Up the Line to Death - World War I, death, rats, death, despair, more death, violence, death, more despair and, let me think... ah, yes, some death.
Modern short stories in English - under-age sex and doughnuts.
I might well have learnt more from Bully. It's one of the few games around that would stand up to serious literary analysis. It would actually make a great game for Standard Grade students to write essays about. 'To what extent is violence acceptable when it involves sticking up for others and yourself?' might be a good place to start.

It would be nice to answer that there are always non-violent ways out. It may even be true... but I doubt it's necessarily the commonly held view even among teachers. I was bullied at school. The only adult I can remember telling, told me to fight back. She was the school nurse. In fact, I got the impression that adults in general reckoned that a swift kick to the privates was by far the simplest way to get bullies to leave me alone. (As long as no one saw me, of course. That would have involved paperwork.) It never really worked but I certainly never felt that reporting things would help either.

Maybe attitudes have changed. Schools take bullying more seriously these days and I'm encouraging my kids to talk about any problems they have. Ultimately, though, it can still be dog-eat-dog in the playground (or anywhere else) and much of how they get on will be up to them. Look past the catapults and egg-related petty vandalism, and Bully actually has some useful lessons. Fighting back is all very well but the best thing to do is make friends with everyone else by helping them out. More than that, the main character's greatest strength is that he simply doesn't care what everyone thinks of him:

Bullies are idiots. There was one guy at school who made me miserable when I was thirteen. He called me names, said nasty stuff and occasionally kicked and punched me. It was horrible. When I was seventeen, though, the same behaviour just seemed laughably pathetic.

I wish I'd been able to see things that way sooner. A game like Bully might have helped.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS One thing to come out of all this, is just how well Nintendo's advertising is working. Another spokesperson was quoted as saying that, 'young people will physically act out the violence they want to inflict on a classmate and that is frightening'. That's right: Nintendo Wii - makes videogames just like real life! If only. Unless they've brought in a new mini-game where you batter someone about by frantically waggling a couple of remote controls at them, I don't think there's much to be frightened about. (And even then...) If anyone wants evidence of the flimsy connection between wiimote mastery and actual proficiency in reality, they should come watch my boys bowl. Typical Wii score - 191. Typical real life score (on a good day and with the bumpers up) - 53.

The defence rests.

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