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Shoot From the Lip: In Defense of Games

Mass Effect

Maybe you’ve heard about it. Maybe you haven’t. In any event, I’m going to talk about it.

What is this “it?” “It” is perhaps one of the largest mobilizations of video game journalists and video game manufacturers against the unwarranted and misinformed attacks on our hobby by the news media.

Just recently, as you’ve no doubt probably seen across the Internet if you’re any gamer at all, The Fox News Corporation (FNC) recently ran a segment on their show full of blatant lies about Mass Effect, the popular Bioware-designed RPG for the Xbox 360. Their report attacked the game for being full of “full-frontal digital nudity” and “graphic depictions of sex.” Neither accusation is true. To make their report seem more credible, FNC invited psychologist Cooper Lawrence (who seems to have made her career thus far giving other women dating tips rather than analyzing the mental and emotional effects of video games on youth) onto the program to defend FNC’s accusations against the game. Ms. Lawrence openly admitted during her segment that she had never played the game and made it clear that she never would, yet during the segment she felt that (perhaps because she is a distinguished psychologist on national TV) she was in the right to judge the game despite never spending any time actually playing it.

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In an attempt to add some credibility to the interview, FNC brought on Geoff Keighley of Spike TV to defend the game. Unfortunately, his pleas fell on deaf ears. While it was noble that Mr. Keighley took on FNC and defended a fantastic game, neither the reporter nor Ms. Lawrence were at all interested in actually listening to what he had to say and they certainly weren’t going to be swayed by his arguments. At the end of the interview, Mr. Keighley admits the obvious to everyone who saw the interview and actually knew something about the game: “[FNC and Lawrence are] completely misrepresenting the game….”

Here’s an excerpt from the interview and Ms. Lawrence’s admission that she had never played the game (check out the complete excerpt here):
Keighly: Cooper, have you ever played Mass Effect?
Lawrence: (giggling) No…

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Typically, it’s us gamers and video game journalists who get in an uproar about these kinds of things. But not today – in an unprecedented response, Electronic Arts sent a letter to FNC nearly demanding that the misrepresentations of Mass Effect be corrected. Electronic Arts interests are not for us, clearly. Let’s face it; EA wants to make sure that the next games in this series sell. However, despite whatever EA’s intentions were, EA still came out in defense of the game and against the media which has frequently and unnecessarily misrepresented video games. What FNC doesn’t go out and address is how an episode of 24 has more graphic violence than anything in Mass Effect. FNC also fails to take notice that Family Guy has more adult sexual humor in one frame than Mass Effect has in the entire 30 hour experience. Instead, they criticize the game because you can see half of an alien woman’s breast and there is a “PG-13″ sex scene. You don’t see insertions. You don’t see genitals. You see a side shot of an ass and two people riding on top of each other. Hollywood says that 13 year olds can see that in movies. A “PG-13″ film in Hollywood can feature small amounts of drug use, some nudity, and “harsh sexually-derived words” (full descriptions here). You don’t see FNC up in arms about that, but maybe that has something to do with Fox being one of the largest film companies in the world.

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Top 10 Game Sales for 2007:

Only three of the top ten best-selling games of 2007 were rated “Mature”: Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Assassin’s Creed. All were released for the Xbox 360. Source: Slippery Brick

Now, if this were a game rated “E” for Everyone, I could understand why FNC would be in an uproar. I would be upset, too. But Mass Effect is an “M for Mature” rated game by the ESRB, as you can very clearly see in the pack shot above. That means, to play the game, the ESRB says that you should be over the age of 17 – which, in the United States, is old enough in most states to consent to have real-life sex. So, no one in the 17 and up age group that the game is intended for is being scarred because they’re probably already trying to have sex anyway. Using the film industry as a comparison again, Mass Effect would be barely a “PG-13″ film, since by the MPAA standards, a film only earns an “R” rating when the “picture includes adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements.”

Is the game falling into the hands and warping the minds of innocent youngsters? It could be. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on the psychological damages of video games. I’ve read a number of reports and whether or not Ms. Lawrence wants to admit it, the results are inconclusive. Some experts say video games are bad. Others say they’re good. Some in the news media said nearly 100 years ago that movies were evil. Then it was TV. Then it was rock-and-roll. Then rap. Every generation has their “evils” and the news media has consistently been there to point them out. And yet, movies, TV, rock music and rap never destroyed society. They simply proliferated into the mainstream and no one really cares anymore. Every now and then you’ll hear a report, but it quickly fades into the background as people realize they like 24 or the new Kanye West album too much to give it up.

I have only my personal experiences to back me up and I say that video games are good. I played Doom when I was a youngster. I’ve played an absolute ton of video games. Too many video games probably. But, now in my life, I’m a 22 year old college student. I’ve never been arrested, I’ve traveled the world, I have a long-term girlfriend, my parents love me, and I haven’t shot up a high school/post office/mall. I’m completely normal and so are all of my gaming buddies that I’ve met over the years. And, though Ms. Lawrence might have gone to school and studied brain patterns and talked to little boys about how they felt, I think my life experience qualifies me just as much as her to make judgments about video games.

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But Ms. Lawrence isn’t entirely to blame. FNC gave her a forum to express her views. If they gave me the opportunity, I’d go on there too, especially if I were an author trying to sell a book (a book that is now being trashed on Amazon by the video gamers that quietly run the Internet). The news media is the worst part about the “controversy” of video games. No one in the news media ever comes out to defend video games, despite loads of evidence promoting video games. Video game journalists frequently defend our wonderful hobby, but the average person too easily dismisses our opinions because they probably feel that we’re trying to protect our livelihoods. The news media has nothing to gain if they say video games are good because bad news is more interesting to people than good news. And they have nothing to lose if they speak out against them, either. The predominant demographics that play video games don’t get their news from the network news companies (and, despite what FNC said, the predominant demographic is 18-25 year old males, since they have the largest disposable income and tend to buy more games). When the news media goes on campaigns against Halo or Mass Effect or GTA, they aren’t risking any alienation of their audience. Their audience is generally people over 40 who don’t play games.

Perhaps what should also be commented on is the “panel of experts” at the end of the segment discussing the video games industry and the policing efforts of the industry. Despite the segment opening with Microsoft releasing a statement that says quite clearly that the Xbox 360 (the only console Mass Effect is currently released for) has parental controls built into the console that allow parents to disable access to “M” rated games, the experts still feel that Microsoft and Bioware need to be more responsible. Yet the “panel of experts” (who spend the better part of their time admitting that they know nothing about video games) say that the parents shouldn’t be held accountable for this and that the industry should do more. The logic of the FNC says that “dads who bring the game into the home” aren’t responsible for making sure that their kids don’t play the game, it’s the responsibility of industry who legally sold the game to someone old enough to purchase the game to police our homes. Another commentator doesn’t understand why the industry didn’t give this an “adults only” rating. As far as I knew, most people above the age of 17 are considered adults. In the United States, at 17 you can legally drive a car and enlist in the military and I promise that both of those choices have the potential of being more traumatic and life-threatening than any video game.

And, what FNC didn’t point out either is this: where are these impressionable youths getting their money from to go out and supposedly buy all these violent, sexual games? When I was 10-14, I got about 3 games a year. It wasn’t until I got a job when I was 15 that I was able to buy games myself. When I wanted a new game, I had to beg my parents for it. I generally got a game at Christmas, a game on my birthday, and maybe a random game at some point in the year if I was behaving. And my parents then took me to the store and bought the game with me. They knew what I was getting, saw the game, and sometimes even asked the clerk about it.

Is the rating system working?Is the rating system working to inform parents about the games their kids are playing? The experts at the Federal Trade Commission think so.What I’ve never understood, and this is coming from someone who sold video games at a major US retailer for five years, is why parents complain so much about what their young kids are playing when the news brings something like this up, but not when they’re buying their kids these games. I don’t know how many times I told parents that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was full of racial slurs and misogyny, they still bought it for their kids. Their response: they see worse on television. I can personally say that on nearly every “M” rated game I sold, I carded anyone that looked too young to play it. I frequently denied kids trying to buy games with adult ratings. I even sometimes denied even younger kids trying to buy games with teen ratings.

The problem ultimately lies with parents. Parents don’t pay enough attention to what their kids are playing. They rely on the news to point out what games are the Devil, instead of sitting down with their kids when they get a new game and seeing what the game is like. That’s what my dad did. He played Doom before I did. And they kept the computer in the kitchen so they could see what I was up to if they wanted to. But parents are all too keen these days to let their kids sit in front of the TV and go off and do their own things.

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In the end, it’s up to the parents. They need to pay attention to what their kids are up to. If their 10 year old came home with a porno, they wouldn’t wait until Fox News Corporation came out with a piece criticizing it before they took it away. They’d take it from them and probably punish them for having it, too. If their 10 year old comes home with GTA, they should do the same, but they don’t. To parents: be responsible and stop passing the buck on to someone else because you’re negligent. To the news media: you wouldn’t publish bogus stories on the Iraq War just to get ratings, so stop doing it about video games.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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