With a column like Very British Gamer, which as the title suggests represents a very specific theme, it can sometimes take some extra effort to find material to ramble about each week. On the other hand there’s the UK government, an always reliable source of imprudence relating to video game issues, and this week’s subject practically fell into my inbox, neatly packaged with a prominent stamp displaying “with kind regards, your friends at the Dept. of Health”.
Underneath the pristine wrapping paper is quite a gift; the UK government have explicitly linked video games with early death. “Explicitly” may sound like a bold word to use, but that’s how British games industry website MCV described it, and they’ve been leading the charge against the new Government health campaign in question, Change4Life. The campaign promotes healthier eating and more exercise to promoter longer life, which seems harmless enough until you see that what specifically annoyed MCV was a recently released poster depicting a boy reclining with a game controller in his hands – one that looks suspiciously like a PlayStation 3 Dualshock – all underneath the headline of “RISK AN EARLY DEATH, JUST DO NOTHING”. On reflection after viewing the poster, “explicitly” may be inaccurate, but you can certainly understand MCV Associate Editor Tim Ingham’s magnificently impassioned response:
"Change4Life’s advertising campaign makes a mockery of everything the industry has achieved in the last decade. And it’s bang out of order… when Change4Life then attacks our supposed role in the DEATH OF KIDS by pedalling an image of a low-lit nightmare you’d usually associate with the NSPCC, surely it’s the time for us to stand up as an industry and say: “That’s not fair”? Let’s be very clear, because this gets sensitive: Sticking up for video games’ achievements in the face of shrieking propaganda does not show us up as a negligent supporter of obesity in kids. It shows we’ve remembered where our bollocks are – at a time when the Government’s foot is wedged firmly between them."
Stop holding back Tim and tell us what you really think. So, Ingham’s rallying cry has been successful in lining up some supporters, with big names like Sony, Sega, Atari, and Konami all putting their weight behind MCV’s cause – or at least, for now, voicing that they’re on MCV’s side. That hardly surprising in Sony’s case given that the PS3 is having a hard enough time shifting off shelves in the UK without being singled out so carelessly in this campaign. Seriously, why didn’t they just put a “Caution: Toxic” sticker on every box of LittleBigPlanet?
What’s intriguing is how Ingham calls out the games industry at whole for not backing MCV’s concerns after the first Change4Life TV advertisement was broadcast in January. As you can see, the advert made a more understated link between video games and an early death, offering more emphasis on kids doing inactive things in the place of physical activity, with playing games being the example featured as part of a sedentary lifestyle. It displayed tact that the following poster did not, and therefore it’s understandable that it didn’t elicit such a fiery response from commentators and publishers.
On a side note, and I’m unsure as to how much to read from it, a leading medical journal called The Lancet made an interesting statement in response to the original TV ad. They felt that allowing producers of fatty and sugary foods like PepsiCo to participate in the campaign “beggared belief”, stating that “ill-judged partnerships with companies that fuel obesity should have been avoided”. They also accused the campaign of being “simplistic” at the time. As such, it’s interesting to see the emphasis switch from fatty food in the advert to video games in the poster, but read into that what you will.
Largely unqualified speculation aside, I find there’s little to complain about in that first advert. Sure, they could have highlighted other “lazy” activities kids engage in, like watching television, reading a book or playing a board game. Of course, video games aren’t seen as being as stimulating or social as any of those activities, and in truth most kids do play video games for a lot of their free time, and rising obesity rates suggest they could do with getting out a bit more, remembering what it’s like to kick a ball, climb up stuff, or even just how sunlight tingles against the back of their necks. OK, maybe I’m talking about myself now, and maybe that’s why when this article’s finished I’m going to pop down to the gym for the first time this year (and then subsequently regret it for the rest of the year).
If we can appreciate the link between inactivity and health, why do we as a community and as an industry have such a problem with this poster? Surely we can accept that kids playing games all day is linked with a lack of exercise, and that in turn is linked with poor health? The issue is misinterpretation, namely the vilification of video games. That’s why Ingham calls it a “mockery of everything the industry has achieved in the last decade”, because on a basic impressionistic level, it demeans video games and singles them out as the root cause of everything that’s wrong with today’s youth. It does that because of the hostile climate within this country, a climate created by the ongoing vilification of video games by our government, by politicians like Keith Vaz and Boris Johnson. With Keith Vaz, the British Jack Thompson, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that he would like nothing more than for video games to simply not exist.
When you look at it that way, maybe it is time to fight back. We all want our kids to live better lives, but it’s time for the government to accept that video games can be a part of them.