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Distorted Vision

Public perception of games still lags behind the reality.

Two diametrically opposed news stories came to the attention of the games business in the last couple of weeks, and both of them raised eyebrows for very different reasons. On their own, they're both interesting stories - taken together, they demonstrate a major gulf between the reality of the modern games industry and its target market, and the public perception of the industry, its products and its customers.

On the one hand, British MP Boris Johnson used his column in the Telegraph at the very end of last year to attack videogames, claiming that they are having a hugely negative effect on the "literacy and the prospects of young males". A couple of weeks later, Nintendo announced new financial projections which show that the company is clearly on track to hit turnover of a trillion Yen ($8.5 billion) in the coming years, an astonishing success achieved off the back of consoles whose top games reward tasks like problem-solving, mental arithmetic, physical activity and even reading aloud from classic literature.

The disparity is clear, and sadly, while it's tempting to dismiss Johnson's comments as isolated rambling - he does, after all, cultivate a public persona as a scatter-brained and somewhat out of touch character, who generally only opens his mouth to switch feet - the truth is that his comments probably struck a chord with a large swathe of people who share his outdated views of the products offered by the videogames industry. The acceptance of videogames as part of culture is certainly more widespread than it used to be, and here in Britain we are at least spared from the majority of the ignorant anti-games rhetoric which dominates discourse on the topic in the United States - but it would be foolish to assume that the battle is won, and Johnson's article sums up the state of mind of much of "middle England" on the topic of games consoles.

Of course Johnson is wrong - there's no doubt about that. His views on videogames are completely ignorant of the modern status of the medium as a form of entertainment which is enjoyed by a huge demographic, adults and young people alike, and which offers a range of experiences that spans the full range from the educational to the purely visceral. Diatribes against videogames as a medium are as foolish as writing a column calling for a crackdown on all music - from Beethoven to the Beatles - on the basis of a dislike for rap or metal.

Beyond even that rebuttal, of course, there is the simple fact that Johnson had no facts on which to base his dislike in the first place - no studies, no science, no evidence of social trends. He is the stereotypical middle aged man watching younger people taking part in an activity which he cannot understand (since he makes no attempt to understand it), and dismissing it out of hand as bleeps and flashing lights of no educational or mental value. The same dismissive view has been applied over the years to successive generations of television, many different genres of music, and even to new trends in book publishing - it's particularly eye-opening, in the context of the videogames debate, to look back a couple of centuries and witness a similar concern from the great and good of the time about the damage which reading fictions - novels - might do to the minds of women and of the peasant classes.

There's an obvious question to ask at this point - what can the videogames industry do, which it is not doing already, to help to narrow this gulf of misunderstanding? It is, after all, not merely a gulf between the industry and Boris Johnson, which might happily be ignored; it is a gulf between the industry and a whole swathe of the population who share his views in some manner, and who are widely perceived as being key to the aspirations of any political party or candidate.

The answer, however, is that there is little that can be done which is not already being done. Industry bodies and luminaries have extensive education and public relations schemes - although those efforts can always be redoubled and intensified, of course, and perhaps more importantly, leading publishers are increasingly interested in releasing games which appeal to a wider demographic and help to break gaming even further out of the Males, Ages 12 - 30 ghetto in which it is still, to some extent, trapped. Spearheaded by Nintendo - and obviously very financially rewarding - this effort is being taken up by other publishers and developers, and is perhaps the most positive step yet on the road to full social acceptance of the medium.

Ultimately, however, the subtext to Johnson's articles, and to the attitudes of his kind, is something that videogames companies can do little about - because anyone reading the article with a truly open mind would see that what Johnson described was not a problem with videogames, but a problem with parenting, something which he made some reference to himself (but quickly shied away from - after all, it wouldn't do to upset the Telegraph's core audience of middle-aged people with families). Nobody in the videogames industry would ever argue that a games console is a good babysitter, or a good substitute for interaction between parent and child, and industry figures have been saying for years that parents need to pay closer attention to what their child is playing - just as they would keep an eye on what DVDs they are watching.

If videogames are causing a problem for some children, then this problem is not the fault of the videogames industry, which is creating and marketing products to an adult audience; it is the fault of foolish and ignorant parents who allow their children to be entertained (and kept out of their hair) by distinctly adult entertainment products. The videogames industry produces products which are ideal for every age group - just like the movie and book industries do. The fact that some parents choose to allow their offspring to play the interactive equivalent of a Tarantino movie, rather than a Disney movie, is an act which games companies can take little responsibility for.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.