The UK government is running a campaign called Change4Life. It's sponsored by the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research and Diabetes UK, and its aim is to promote exercise and healthy eating in an increasingly chubby and unhealthy population.
The government recently ran an ad in which it showed a young boy slouching and inert beneath the words: “Risk an early death, just do nothing.”
A laudable warning, you might think. Except there’s a problem with it: the boy is holding a DualShock controller.
To the video game community this can only mean one thing. In the words of MCV, the campaign “attacks ‘deadly’ games.” In the words of Destructoid, the “Change4Life campaign strongly implies that gaming leads to death.”
In the words of Negative Gamer, the “UK Government Explicitly Say Video Games Shorten Your Life”. In the words of Joystiq, “Publishers don’t like being called child killers.”
That's right. 'Child killers.'
MCV, leading the charge, has filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Agency, and its campaign has gained notable followers.
Sega has condemned the ads, along with publisher Future and Atari; and ELSPA - having held ‘emergency talks’ with the Department of Health - is now pursuing the charitable NGOs responsible for the ad.
Sony is considering legal action.
Industry body Tiga has joined MCV in lodging a complaint with the ASA. CEO Richard Wilson told MCV, "To imply that playing a video game leads to a premature rendezvous with the Grim Reaper is a non-sequitur of colossal proportions.”
Wilson constructs what looks almost like an argument to rationalise his objections. “Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, obesity and involvement in violent crime are forms of behaviour that risk an early death."
Indeed they are. But that's not a very forceful point.
Alcohol and drug abuse are simply outside the remit of Change4Life; obesity is in part a consequence of the inactivity that the campaign is designed to discourage; and violent crime is entirely irrelevant to this issue.
Atari mounts its own argument. “Television, radio, cinema, listening to music, computing, video gaming and of course reading all require a high element of passive participation, but of all these media types it is video gaming that provides the most potential interaction and activity.”
Again, the argument isn’t powerful. ‘Why not pick on someone else?’ is never a very convincing objection (the obvious and fair response being: ‘why not pick on you?’), and it’s undone by empirical fact.
Radio and music don’t necessarily require passive interaction (I listen while running), children simply don’t read as much as they play games, and the cinema is passive but occupies a fraction of the time video games do.
Television is the only comparable medium in terms of its ability to beguile children into staying indoors and slouching, but notorious (and authentic) cases of gamers dying at terminals and marriages falling apart are bound to lodge gaming more firmly into the minds of the advertisers.
Fair play to them, I say.
And would anybody bat an eyelid if the kid in the advert was watching television? And if anybody would, what’s the little tyke supposed to be doing: staring at a wall to avoid offending any of the various manufacturers of entertainment products?
Because kids tend not to do that.
I should say at this point that I hugely respect all of the sites I’ve mentioned, and all of the others that have given this story coverage.
The writers that fill the video game blogosphere are our brothers and sisters. But, like brothers and sisters, they have a tendency to be embarrassing in certain situations.
To begin with, the ad does not call video game publishers ‘child killers’, or anything like it, and the suggestion that it does is bordering on neurotic.
The ad discourages inactivity, and the inactive thing the kid in the picture happens to be doing is playing a video game. The two are very different.
The ad implies, in the most tangential way, that playing a lot of video games instead of running around in fields can reduce life expectancy, but that’s true: playing a lot of video games instead of running around in fields can reduce life expectancy.
Of course, video games are no more responsible for obesity than they are for violent episodes. That responsibility falls firmly in the lap of the individual and his guardians.
The video game industry doesn’t have to feel guilty in the slightest about the fact that kids are playing games instead of burning calories and building muscle.
But kids are unwisely choosing to do that, and parents are letting them. It’s irresponsible to condemn a campaign that happens - without judgement or censure - to allude to the problem in an attempt to rectify it.
The blogosphere ignites in a similar way every time video games are blamed for violence, and often with justification.
Canadian television programme The Fifth Estate recently aired a documentary called 'Top Gun' in which it managed to blame video games for the death of a boy called Brandon Crisp, who died after falling out of a tree. The allegation is plainly irrational.
In January 2008, a preposterous furore surrounded Mass Effect because of its very brief and unexplicit love-making scene.
Rabid anchors tore at the game without having any real idea about it, making themselves look ridiculous to anybody with a brain and responsibly concerned to anybody who lacks one. Sadly, society is nine tenths the latter.
No wonder the video game community feels embattled and defensive. But that’s no excuse for fuzzy logic or myopia. Just because the public is neurotic, there's no reason why we should be.
It’s not a contradiction to love video games and to believe they can be played to the detriment of the player. To discourage a group of impartial charitable institutions from making this point does no favours to the industry’s hard won credibility.
I’m sure many of you disagree. What are your views?