"Video games 'more damaging to GCSE grades' than Facebook and Twitter" screamed an article from The Independent website on Monday. This story was reported by other news outlets, including Sky News and The Daily Telegraph, and is summed up succinctly by the headline. A study has found that there may be a correlation ('link' is very much the wrong word) between children 'frequently' playing video games and poorer exam performance - or certainly 'poorer' as compared with frequent social media use.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the research done in this study but I do raise a cynical eyebrow - more for journalistic reasons than those of science. It's nothing to do with the standard of British journalism - which can be argumentative, bullish and occasionally guttural but is always cutting, incisive and forthright - it's just that there is an unfortunate relationship between media and science. I point the reader towards Dr. Ben Goldacre's excellent polemic Bad Science for, in my view, the definitive view on this topic.
The story as featured in The Independent is really just the current version of THE video game story. The one where we all wring our hands and ponder whether or not video games are 'good' for us or for 'the children' (insert your favourite version of the Maude Flanders meme here). Whether we're worrying about the impact of video games on attention spans, social skills, intelligence, exam performance or - the undisputed favourite - our inclination towards acts of violence and aggression there is a common thread. The minutia of the story changes but the basics remain - the news media just doesn't trust video games. It acts like games, as a whole, must be up to something. There's a new Call Of Duty game on its way out soon - check back with me when it releases for surely more proof of this attitude.
For the mainstream media, television in particular, this is nothing new but it IS specific to video games. The other forms of media like movies and books definitely do not face this same frosty atmosphere. There will be the occasional denouncing of particularly confrontational publications or releases but very rarely will the entire art form be condemned as inherently dangerous or untrustworthy.
For instance, The SAW movies, Punisher comic books or the latest Bret Easton Ellis novel might spark outrage in themselves but cinema, graphic novels and books in general are highly unlikely to be scrutinised for their potential to cause harm. Keep this mind when Rockstar publish their next game, especially if it begins with the three-word dog whistle title, Grand Theft Auto. The conversation will very quickly turn from a specific video game to video games as a form of entertainment - and it won't be positive.
I ask you, why do only video games receive this treatment?
Part of it must be because video games are incredibly new by comparison. It is worth remembering that Pong, arguably the first video game, came out in 1972 - the same year as The Godfather - and so the whole form has only been with us for just over forty years. This newness would normally be enough to earn mistrust and cynicism by itself but it is compounded by another factor.
Video games are also evolving at a terrifying rate, which far outstrips any other media form. Books, while the ideas contained within them do innovate, are still very much ink on paper or a close digital impression thereof - the same goes for newspapers and comic books. Cinema of course has its evolutions, HD, editing techniques, 4K and all the rest of it but it still functions within the overall brief of putting moving pictures up on a screen for gawping audiences to stare at while they attempt to negotiate the dating bases between overpriced mouthfuls of popcorn and nachos.
Compare that with video games, which have gone from three lines and a dot on a black background, of which only two lines and the dot did anything, to the sprawling gorgeousness of, say, Far Cry 4 (which is prettier than anything has any right to be, it's pretty to the point of obnoxious) which presents the player with prestigious mountain ranges, a vast array of wildlife and an interactive environment that instantly transports the player to the fiction land of Kyrat and immerses him there. Video game aesthetic beauty has become so accepted that even the slightest divergence from top rate, high-end, fully optimised graphics will earn the fury of the video game playing public. That excellence is now the standard.
It's not just how games look that has evolved at a scary rate. Gameplay, plot and character development are also getting better and doing so faster than ever. In fact there is, arguably, not a single facet of the video game experience that is getting worse. With the possible exception of the cartloads of idiots who make up the average online experience; but that surely is more of a problem with people than it is with video games themselves - you'll always get some utter tools in the bookshop, cinema or anywhere else.
Will video games ever lose this cynical treatment from the mainstream? Yes, probably - in time, as the generations who haven't experienced or enjoyed them shuffle off and gaming becomes older and therefore more accepted as a hobby. Who knows, perhaps it is the feeling of being the outsider, the bad boy of the media landscape, that keeps video games fresh and innovating far faster than their older media sibling? Regardless, I think video games are well worth defending as an art form and are at least worthy of equal treatment alongside more traditional faire. They entertain millions of people and create beautiful worlds, characters and relationships that are at least as, if not more, immersive than anything TV or theatre can create. Surely it's time to let games sit at the big boys table? Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find my plasma rifle.