Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Video games are evil!

Nothing cheers the soul more than baldy geezers fulminating about the threat posed to society by video games. When such scares come along one can’t help but think back to the horror-comic panic of the 1950s or the great Hula …

Sun, Nov 27, 2011, 22:43


Nothing cheers the soul more than baldy geezers fulminating about the threat posed to society by video games. When such scares come along one can’t help but think back to the horror-comic panic of the 1950s or the great Hula Hoop riots of the 1930s. (I think I made the last one up.) Every decade or so some nut suggests that the latest craze is going to turn all young people into illiterate vampires. Time moves on. The undead refuse to rise. And the time comes along for another fresh scare.

There was some kerfuffle about games in the late 1970s. But the cabinet-enclosed varieties featured fairly tame violence and, being based in arcades, they weren’t likely you keep you up too late. The real media hysteria started when the home console arrived beneath the Phillips Portoview 3000. Now, young people could murder Nazis and detonate planets without leaving the privacy of their rooms. Another generation grew up. Folk who’d spent their adolescence hunting for magic keys in giant toadstools still managed to become lawyers, doctors, plumbers, estate agents and actuaries. Sure, a few also became mass murderers. But the criminally insane were still in a fairly small minority.

I now want to throw some bloke off a bridge.

I thought about this last year when listening to Saturday Review on BBC Radio 4. Every now and then they include a video game on such shows and the results are always ghastly. Supposed intellectuals will huff and puff about the silliness of it all. Poets in print dresses will boast about never having heard of Space Invaders. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! There’s nothing clever about not knowing stuff! Well unless it’s bloody rugby obviously!” I don’t really say. Anyway, one of the contributors on this occasion was historian Dominic Sandbrook (whose books on the 1960s and 1970s I  heartily and unexpectedly recommend). I screwed myself up as he began discussing the latest episode in the ace Call of Duty franchise.  Ah, how time marches on. Of course, being born in 1974, Dr Sandbrook was easily young enough to have had a console in his rooms when an undergraduate at Baliol. If a contemporary Sebastian Flyte had vomitted through his window, he might have ruined a perfectly good game of FIFA ’93 (as I don’t think it was then called). Dom knew his first-person from his third-person shooter. He was perfectly able to worry about the occasionally jarring jumps between difficulty levels.

What brought all this on? Oh, yeah. The perennially irritating Keith Vaz, Westminster MP for some unfortunate part of Leicester, has been droning on about how, yes, video games are corrupting the poor wee citizens of Great Britain. Once again, Call of Duty is at the centre of the story. He has actually tabled a motion in the House of Commons stating: “This House is deeply concerned about the recently released video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, in which players engage in gratuitous acts of violence against members of the public.” The statement goes on to repeat the usual unsustainable guff about “increasing evidence of a link between perpetrators of violent crime and violent video games users”.

To be fair, the debate was kicked up by a potentially insensitive scene in the game. About halfway through, your hero gets to discharge firearms in Westminster Tube Station following a terrorist attack. It is certainly fair to say that anybody who lost friends or family in the 7/7 incidents should stay well away. It is also understandable that such people may not want the game sold. But no sane person playing the game — and we can’t legislate for maniacs — is going to be rendered any less sympathetic towards the victims.

When debating freedom of expression, an annoying artistic hierarchy sets in. MPs might get a bit grumpy if a film was released involving such an attack, but they probably wouldn’t — to quote further from Vaz’s motion — “[call] on the British Board of Film Classification to take further precautions when allowing” the film to be shown. If a book was published featuring this material then nobody would bat an eyelid.

Arguments about “identification” and “empathy” are so much hogwash. People who have never played video games too often regard those who have as being gap-toothed morons with talons for hands. The whole story reeks of intellectual snobbery.

Hooray for Tom Watson. Now over 60, he is still playing great golf and he nearly won the Open Championship a few years back.

Oh hang on, that’s not right. Hooray for Tom Watson MP. Chief instigator of the campaign against phone hacking, Mr Watson, a casual gamer, took the relatively unusual step of tabling a motion that sought to lesson its stridency. He said: “I just amended it to make the point that the game has an 18 classification and that the BBFC said in a statement that it bore no resemblance to the July 7 bombings in London – which is what he refers to in his motion.” Quite right too. Apparently, Mr Watson is currently enjoying the puzzling fun that is Portal 2. A bit late, old man, but never mind.

For the record I am greatly enjoying Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. There is a reassuring sameness to the mayhem. I like the way that you can totally ignore the stupid story — something about Roman Abramovich taking over the world — and, even when drunk, blaze away in happy, narrative-free bliss. That said, I do prefer those Call of Duty episodes that are set in the past. Yes, as far as I am concerned, all art aspires to the condition of Where Eagles Dare. Watch out, RPG! Boom, boom, boom. And so on.