For some time now, video games have been the media whipping boy. This has been going on for perhaps twenty years now... For a short while, perhaps ten years, prior to this, tabletop role playing games filled this role - and were linked (in an utterly spurious fashion) with all manner of unpleasant incidents. One has to imagine that if we dug into the matter, there might have been a period when the media demonised TV, and before that, movies. Perhaps there will always be a form of media which is a lightning rod for people's fears.
Because games are usually in the firing line, it's always nice to see a news article which has something positive to say, such as this coverage of a recent British Medical Journal edition:
Computer games can improve children's health despite research showing excessive playing causes aggression in the young, a new study claims.
Nottingham Trent University professor Mark Griffiths said they can be a powerful distraction for youngsters undergoing painful cancer treatment. He also argues games can help develop social skills for children with attention disorders including autism. Mr Griffith's claims are made in the British Medical Journal out on Friday. The professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University said more research must be done into both the positive and negative effects of gaming.
He said: "Video gaming is safe for most players and can be useful in healthcare. "Although playing video games is one of the most popular leisure activities in the world, research into its effects on players, both positive and negative, is often trivialised.
This isn't the first time positive aspects of video gaming have been cited... CESA, the Japanese Computer Entertainment Suppliers Association, has claimed that games provide a helathy outlet for aggressive tendencies (I can't find an online link to their report that works to cite, alas). Not that long ago, it was reported that playing games sharpened mental faculties. Not to mention the news that playing video games improves hand eye co-ordination necessary for keyhole surgery.
Of course, there is another side to this coin, such as the studies that link playing violent video games with aggression in children. And this underlines half of the problem - not all video games are violent, but the media perspective of games focuses on this element. Until recently, the top ten best selling games of all time contained only one violent game, GTA: Vice City at number eight. Now it probably contains two. (Admitedly this data is skewed slightly by Nintendo's captive market in the early days of the NES which inflates some of their sale figures to points above what the current market will bear).
It strikes me that there are two elements driving the disparity of representation for video games... Firstly, that so much development money is invested in violent video games that the current market for violent games is saturated. This creates the impression that 'all games are violent'. Secondly, because the marketing departments of games know how to plug such testosterone fodder, and do not seem to know how to promote anything else, the media presence of games - on TV and cinema trailers, for instance - seems to intensify this impression of games.
Although I do not advocate enforcing such a rule, it would perhaps be healthy if publishers commited to funding and promoting a certain proportion of non-violent games each year. This would diversify their portfolio of product, with sound commercial benefits, as well as potentially balancing out the public face of the industry.
That said, politicians always need scapegoats, and journalists need scandal. Games will remain in the firing line until we diversify the audience for games to the extent that they are as universal as film or TV. Or until some new form of media comes along and displaces games as the new lightning rod of outrage.