How videogames are presented in the UK press has long been a point of frustration for me. Although things are improving (with many papers now having dedicated games sections delivering interesting content, The Guardian’s Gamesblog for example) when games do manage to grab a headline it is more often than not due to a story with negative connotations. Only this week we have seen the Daily Mirror run the headline 'I'll Do A Grand Theft Auto Massacre' in relation to Ryan Donovan, who shot dead an officer on the submarine HMS Astute.
Seeing games being publicly pilloried in a such a fashion is nothing new, and that (in this case) it was Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto being dragged over the coals yet again is not surprising in the least (it is, after all, the video-nasty-of the-day). News stories such as this are obviously massive oversimplifications - who knows what issues Ryan Donovan was dealing with that caused him to carry out such a horrific act? I’m no psychologist, but I’m reasonably certain that time spent with a videogame was not the root cause.
Though this piece caused my eyes to start rolling in the way that they normally do when the tabloids go for the gaming-jugular, it was a story in the Metro that really caught my attention. Printed on page 7 of the free UK newspaper’s September 21st 2011 edition, the headline (above) boldly declared:
'Oh, really?' I thought to myself as I sat back in my train-seat, locked eyes with the printed-page and braced my fragile gaming mind for the pearls of wisdom I was about to receive.
As the inverted commas suggest, this wasn’t the Metro making a statement of its own, rather the paper was merely passing on details of research conducted by Nottingham Trent University. The study, apparently, revealed that ‘most’ of the gamers that took part experienced ‘games transfer phenomena’ ‘doing or thinking things in real life as if they were still in a fantasy environment’. The examples given included a 15 year old attempting to open a fridge with a gravity gun from Half Life 2 and another trying to pick up a sandwich with an imaginary joypad. (see below):
Now, as someone who spends a great deal of time in a ‘fantasy environment’, I’m well aware that videogame experiences can enter one’s mind during day to day life. After playing a lot of coloured-block puzzler Meteos on the Nintendo DS, for example, I recall idly looking at buildings and attempting to work out how to slide the colours on their surface around to score the most points. I’ve also heard numerous people state that long sessions of Metal Gear Solid made them occasionally assess the world as though looking through the eyes of Solid Snake, identifying the best places to hide or sneak past…erm…traffic wardens. So, I can relate to the study’s findings.
When sharing this story on Facebook, a friend of mine made the following comment:
'I must admit a few months ago I was reading a book and I tried to copy and paste a piece of text with my eyes'
Aside from being very funny, this raises a very interesting point, being as it is another example of how interactions with digital mediums can colour our view of the real world. The friend in question is an illustrator, so obviously spends a lot of time using Photoshop and the like (correct me if I’m wrong, Jamie!); therefore, is it really unsurprising that his brain references his experiences with this software in real world situations?
The reason for phenomena such as this strikes at the centre of what it means to be human. From the first moment we burst from our mothers’ wombs our brains are designed to receive information, process it and use this information increase our understanding of the world around us. This is as true with fantasy and the fantastic as it is with how we engage with and understand the physical world. Though videogame experiences may be virtual, they could still be considered ‘real’, in as much that we have witnessed events that happened (albeit on screen), and should not - therefore - be surprised if our brains (consciously or unconsciously) spew these ‘experiences’ into our day to day lives. Is this really any different from how time spent learning to read informs our understanding of the written word? Or, how reading works of fiction can help us understand very real human situations?
'Fantasy', then, is integral to our understanding of the world - without the ability to imagine possibilities we would be little more than worker-ants, pre-programmed to shuffle around the world reacting to exterior triggers. Being able to fantasise allows us to think beyond the purely physical, to make projections and plans as to where we are heading, to dream of the possibilities and act in a way that - hopefully - can make those dreams become reality. Which makes the motivation for the Metro's myopic-angle on the study quite hard to fathom; its almost as if its suggesting that our relationship with the fantastic is something to be ashamed of.
How the Metro has chosen to represent Nottingham Trent University work does the study and gamers a great disservice. 'Gamers 'can't tell real world from fantasy” is an incredibly bold statement, and one that skirts around the actual content of the study, oversimplifying its findings. Additionally, it places an incredible amount of weight on a study that only actually tested 42 gamers (aged 15 - 21) - an incredibly small number upon which to base the assertion that gamers (that’s ‘gamers’…as in all of us!) are living in cloud cuckoo land.
It’s saddening that even when an educational establishment attempts to conduct serious research into the effects of videogames on young minds (albeit with a chronically small number of test subjects*), papers are unable to accurately represent the resulting findings. In fairness to the Metro, the piece did include a line at the end in which ’video game specialist’ Tristan Donovan states that ‘the studies were ‘still inconclusive’, but it would be hard to argue that the pieces isn’t heavily weighted towards depicting gamers as rats dancing to the Pied Piper’s tune of videogames.
The sad truth of the matter is that there is only so much context one can fit into a seven-word headline - and 'Gamers' can't tell real world from fantasy' is far more attention grabbing than '42 gamers occasionally think about games while they go about their day to day lives' isn’t it?
Since posting this piece, Dr Mark Griffith, has responded to the Metro’s story in an interview on the Guardian’s Gamesblog. This is what he had to say on the size of the test sample (of which I was critical):
"There’s been a lot of criticism this morning that we’ve based these findings on just 42 players - how can this be representative? The paper quite clearly states it’s a small interview study. But now we’ve collected over 2,000 different experiences, and now my co-author Angelica Ortiz de Gortari is categorising them, seeing whether the taxonomy we developed in this initial paper is more widespread; and it certainly seems to be the case."
I look forward to seeing the outcome of the full study!