Push Start to Create Hysteria

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Halo: Reach, a first-person-shooter video game published by Microsoft Games Studios, launched on 14 September 2010 and grossed $200 million in a day. Such numbers make video games mainstream news. However, in the television coverage of the Halo: Reach launch on BBC News, the anchors called the game “Nintendo’s new shoot ’em up” (incorrect publisher and incorrect genre) and remarked jokingly, but with apparently genuine surprise, that the on-location interviews with fans queuing to buy the game had revealed these gamers to be articulate and to have friends. While the coverage was being shown, I posted my observations in the online forum for Edge – a quality video-game magazine. The first response was “Welcome to Earth”.

When it’s not about the money, mainstream coverage of video-games has often dwelt on the issue of violence. The Columbine High School massacre was blamed on video games in 1999, as were the actions of mass-murderer Anders Breivik in Norway this summer. Video games are the new “video nasties”. More recently, the media has also helped push the idea that video games are damagingly addictive, ruining the lives of players who neglect school, job, friends and spouse in pursuit of a gaming fix. Video games are the new Class A drug. These claims enter the popular imagination through the mainstream media, becoming common currency in discussions among gamers and non-gamers alike.

Many of the “scare stories” originate in science stories reporting findings about the social effects of video games. However, there’s a widely-held assumption that tabloid media outlets lend greater credence or give greater coverage to findings that fit well with a sensationalist or scare-mongering agenda. As an editorial in The Independent put it: “Is playing computer games as addictive as cocaine, crack, or heroin? That largely depends on which newspaper you buy. To The Sun, the addiction is like crack, to the Daily Mail it’s more like smack”. Indeed, it was the Daily Mail that reported Susan Greenfield’s claims a few weeks ago that video games could cause “dementia” and The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre who challenged her to back them up by submitting a scientific paper for peer review.

But is this fair? Are the tabloids more keen to vilify video games or is this just media snobbery? To get a rough idea, I used the Factiva database to survey the content of nine UK newspapers over the last year – from 23 October 2010 to 22 October 2011 – looking for articles that included a reference to both video games and science. Out of a total of 81 articles, exactly three times as many reports were of negative results rather than positive (54 negative, 18 positive, 9 balanced). However, I then chose to discount stories that grouped video games with TV watching and internet use, typically as part of a general characterization of a sedentary, non-active lifestyle. Considering only those reports specific to video games, there were 17 positive reports, 29 negative reports and 8 balanced reports – a less dramatic ratio than one might have expected. Broken down by newspaper, the results for reports specifically about video games are given in the following chart.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to discern a clear distinction between the tabloid, middle-market, and quality papers. It’s certainly not obvious that the tabloids or the Daily Mail should be singled out for excessively negative coverage . The Daily Telegraph ran nearly as many negative articles as The Sun and more than the Daily Mail, and The Mirror ran three positive articles and no negative ones at all. Overall, the Daily Star and Daily Express were also reasonably balanced.

We might expect the tabloids to perpetuate certain stereotypes when chasing an angle to a story, as when video games are here implicated in a murder: “A sailor who shot dead a nuclear submarine officer was obsessed with gangsta rap and violent video games”. But when a politics column in a quality paper describes conference delegates as “consumed and cut off from reality like those who are addicted to computer games” , it reinforces an equally pernicious stereotype.

It’s also worth noting that though Greenfield’s claims were reported in the Daily Mail under the headline “Computer games leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist”, the article itself was careful to point out that Greenfield “did not reveal any research that had made a connection between screen technologies and brain degeneration” and included a comment from Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and Director of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit: “If anything, the fact computer games are arousing can aid education by keeping children engaged”.

This limited survey suggests there’s no clear difference in the pushing of stereotypes between the quality newspapers, the middle-market press, and the tabloids when it comes to first-hand science reporting of video games. From these results, the Daily Telegraph, in particular, might be singled out as having more of a moral stance against video games than the Daily Mail. Perhaps the most genuine and entertaining coverage of all was in The Sun, which actually sent a journalist to participate in an experiment that found sports games to induce aggression as much as violent ones – investigative reporting at it’s finest.

Douglas Heaven is an Imperial College student studying for an MSc in Science Communication. You can find more on this study at his blog.

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