Opinion: Doing It For The Kids - On UK TV's Latest Games Panic
"Hearing the floor manager tell the octagenarian crowd to 'really let your feelings be known if he says something you don't agree with' seconds before filming was pretty disconcerting. I hope you noted the targeted 'he' in that sentence. I certainly did."
Tim Ingham admits he didn't expect anything less, though. As you might be aware, the CVG game website editor recently appeared on UK television's The Alan Titchmarsh Show, as part of a feature on the dangers of violent gaming to children. Hmm. Where have we heard this before?
Even if you didn't see the clip, you can guess where this is going. Titchmarsh, who made a name for himself in the clearly game-related profession of celebrity gardening, chaired a debate which asked the age-old question: are violent games corrupting the minds of our young? Thoughtfully, he turned to the expert first.
"I was fully aware that I wasn't going to be the most adulated guest of our green-fingered host," Tim tells me. "It would have been foolhardy to think that the core audience were anything but retired Daily Express [a British tabloid, with a certain reputation for conservative hyperbole] devotees, and that's the mindset I arrived and departed with."
It's a shame, though. In a section on gaming, one might expect the editor of a leading games website to be allowed to speak for more than a few seconds at a time, before being interrupted and shouted over by a hyped-up audience and the frankly reprehensible squeals of the lady sitting to his left.
That lady was Julie Peasgood. She's a sexual relationships expert. She hates video games with a passion. Shaking her head at Tim's very reasonable remarks that violent video games should not be played by children, and as such carry age ratings (a fact which appeared to thoroughly confuse Alan Titchmarsh), Peasgood launched into a furious diatribe. "Video games are addictive; they promote hatred, racism, sexism; and they reward violence," she enunciated, to rapturous applause and cheers from the studio audience.
Peasgood's rant wasn't over yet, though. "There is a proven link between behavioural violence and video game violence," she claimed. "In a recent American study, over 130,000 kids worldwide were monitored, okay? And regardless of age, sex or culture, the kids who had a regular diet of violent video games were found to be more aggressive, they were found to be less caring, they had low self esteem issues, and they suffered from depression."
Peasgood failed to cite which particular study that was. I've yet to track it down, nor have I even heard such evidence discussed in general before. Tim's rebuttal - that the Government commissioned Byron Review, published last year, found no link between violent video games and behavioural violence in children - was met with laughs from Peasgood and pantomime jeers from the audience.
Heard It All Before
This isn't the first time that ITV, the channel on which The Alan Titchmarsh Show occupies a regular late-afternoon slot, has demonstrated a notable bias against the medium. Last year, the station broadcast a documentary about video game addiction. In the half hour programme, a single games industry representative was allowed just a few seconds of air time in which to counter various extreme claims: that games have been proven to be addictive; that this addiction leads to depression and, in one case, suicide; that this can somehow be linked with the terrible murder of a Counter-Strike player in 2002.
It's difficult to know how best to oppose their bizarre anti-games agenda, though. Unlike the BBC, ITV is funded by advertising rather than by the public, and without an enforced remit for balance and objectivity the station is basically free to broadcast what it wants, within its internally defined set of regulations and within common decency. Julie Peasgood's questionable reporting of an unnamed study, and her claims that games promote sexism and racism, may have been construed as libellous had she not been so markedly vague about the whole matter.
Many have called for mass complaints, but it seems unlikely that these would do much good. There is, effectively, nothing to validly complain about. And there's always a risk that a cocophany of outsiders, fresh from their marathon sessions playing bloodthirsty shooters, all shouting at ITV at once could paint the medium an even worse colour than it's already adorned with.
I contacted ITV for comment, and was put in touch with Channel Television, the broadcast licensee responsible for The Alan Titchmarsh Show. As yet, they have not responded to my messages.
Despite the ferociously unpleasant seven minutes that comprised the debate's slot, Tim Ingham isn't too disheartened - other than to be dumbfounded by Julie Peasgood's claims that games were in some way responsible for promoting racial hatred. "It was beyond any anti-game rhetoric I'd witnessed before," Tim recalls. "My face said it all, I suppose." Does he feel he missed an opportunity to confront Peasgood on this matter? "Off-camera, certainly."
Still, perhaps it's for the best that he didn't. "I was all too aware of the exigencies of - let's be honest - right-leaning daytime TV," he says. "I knew my argument would have been weakened by any hint of skirmish. I needed to remain patient and relaxed throughout - affable, even - to avoid falling from 'put upon' into 'pariah'.
"My objectives for the day were not rocked. I wanted to show a human face to an industry all too often painted as malevolent and Machiavellian by a frightened middle-market press. Despite the catcalling and boos of a mindless few, I believe I did just that. And if I snapped a couple of mothers into removing Modern Warfare 2 from their 13-year-olds' bedroom while I was at it, it was completely worth the rough ride."
Ultimately, Peasgood and co., evidently burdened by some sort of deep-set problem with the games industry, will always find a way of voicing their misinformed and misinforming views. They have the air time, and a willingly riled-up audience, and popular opinion on their side. From gaming's perspective, well, we have our champions too. There's The Guardian newspaper and its accompanying Observer Magazine, who are increasingly placing video game coverage among that of the more established cultural media. And there's people like Tim Ingham, who are prepared to cross the border into enemy territory, and fight our corner - with words, not guns.
Surprisingly, there's even somebody like Kelvin MacKenzie, the final member of the debate. His stance remained generally against video game violence - somewhat rich, considering he is infamous for some disastrously poor-taste war-reporting during his time as editor of The Sun newspaper. But, next to the horror of Peasgood's remarks, he in fact provided a breath of fresh air. "I'm not a gamer," he admitted, before noting that the average age of video game players is substantially higher than the debate's topic suggested. "Kelvin MacKenzie was vocally appreciative of some of the points I made during filming," Tim tells me, "not something apparently obvious from the released footage."
So there's hope. There's hope that, one day, gaming's acceptance in mainstream society will fall neatly alongside the other forms of art and entertainment which already enjoy general approval. Until then, it's a good idea to stand up for our rapidly sophisticating hobby and its ever-growing industry - but, equally, it's a good idea to stay calm and reasonable in the process.
Besides, it seems one side of this debate can safely claim the moral high ground. "I am categorically against violence for entertainment," said Julie Peasgood during the debate. "It is just wrong."
CVG have since revealed that, back in 2000, one Julie Peasgood starred in a violent video game.
[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. If you tell him video games make you violent, he'll kill you to death in the face.]