Below is a letter I have sent this evening to BBC Complaints department. This latest letter of complaint (there were similar letters following the Watchdog YLoD report and to ITV following the Titchmarsh debacle) is in response to the Panorama program based on the dangers of video game addiction.
To Whom it May Concern,
It is with great concern that I write to you concerning your Panorama program first screened on 6th December 2010 on BBC1. The show was, ostensibly, a look at video game addiction and the problems it can cause. I’m the managing editor of a large UK-based video games website so the subject was of particular interest to me.
I wouldn’t like to claim that video game addiction is not a danger, or a worry. In fact, I wrote an article on the subject last year which was praised by the leading online support group for gaming addiction (http://www.thesixthaxis.com/2009/04/15/gaming-addiction/). As a responsible, intelligent and mature fan of video games, I think that addiction is an issue that should be researched independently so that it may be better understood and so that its sufferers may be better assisted. I am concerned, however, that your treatment of what I consider to be a very real danger is played for shock value rather than to inform or educate.
“Christmas pester-power at its peak” states Jeremy Vine in his opening piece to camera. This implies that video games are the sole domain of younger children when the fact is that almost all biggest selling video games of the past few years have been classified by the BBFC and/or PEGI as being only suitable for those over 15. So it seems to me that video games are only the preserve of young children when it suits the agenda to imply so, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. This is already weighting the coverage in favour of the unfounded claims about the evils of gaming and it sets a worrying tone for the rest of the program.
“I just can’t believe how many people are here, just to buy a game” says Raphael Rowe as his report starts. Surely a statement like this only serves to underlie the ignorance of the reporter who begins his report by forcing faux-shock that the world’s largest grossing entertainment medium is popular. In fact, in the very next voice-over Raphael goes on to point out that: “we spend more than £3 billion a year on gaming, more than we spend on film or music”. Surely this statement, in such proximity to his previous assertion that it was surprising (at least) to see so many people turn out for a premier, demonstrates his inability to comprehend the subject matter? Perhaps it only demonstrates his inability to write a documentary script so we should continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The first sufferer of addiction, Joe Staley, tells a sad story of becoming progressively more attached to his console and letting the other aspects of his life suffer. He tells of how his self-diagnosed addiction led to him skipping lectures and removing himself from the social aspects of his life. This is certainly a cautionary tale that it is important for anyone with an existing propensity towards addiction to hear.
Raphael is on hand to voice over that Joe has been excluded from university and “left thousands of pounds in debt, partly from buying games.” This statement, while possibly true, is disingenuous. I could just as easily assert that Joe was left thousands of pounds in debt, partly from buying shampoo. Does that make shampoo manufacturers responsible? Without knowing more intimate details of his spending habits it is deceitful to pin the blame on video games rather than the many other financial constraints met by modern university students.
In fact, those financial issues faced by current and future university students might make an excellent subject for a piece of investigative journalism for a flagship current affairs program put out by a broadcaster which is funded by the people who are still saddled with thousands of pounds of debt, partly from buying television licenses.
The next sufferer we’re shown is given the alias of “Leo” and presents a very different proposition for me. There were a number of hyperbolic claims made about the length of time he has spent playing World of Warcraft. I’m aware that World of Warcraft has been closely linked to gaming addiction in the past and I have no doubt that there have been cases where people play for the lengths of time quoted but I have trouble believing that Leo is one of them.
Twelve hours a day for two years seems like it would interfere with his entry and progression through university as well as his ability to keep a tidy living space and obtain funds to pay for his subscription and buy the expensive gaming PC he uses. Surely allowing these bold claims, seemingly without background research and fact checking is either a means to progress a needlessly shocking agenda or a basic error in journalistic practice? The later return to Leo’s failures to go “cold turkey” are no more believable although I am willing to believe that this is simply due to poor interview technique and Leo’s own ability to present himself well.
The use of the contorted facial expressions of people in deep concentration is another example of presenting the truth in a way that doesn’t seem fair to the overall issue. Those faces could just as easily have been filmed during any precise, involving task requiring high concentration. The art that they’ve been used to create pivots on the very fact that they are taken out of context but perhaps using those out-of-context images as a symbol of a different context is a dangerous misdirection for the audience.
I was interested to see Ian Livingstone involved. He is an industry legend and well respected for his reasonable, intelligent approach to all things. At this point I allowed my hopes to be raised that we were about to see a counter-balance to the stark negativity shown so far, even when Raphael again showed his unfamiliarity with his subject matter by mispronouncing (or just getting incorrect) the name of one of the biggest icons of video gaming from the last twenty years. For reference, the character is called Lara Croft, not Laura. Basic mistakes like this undermine the informed viewer’s trust in the report and only serve to further misinform viewers who aren’t well-read on the subject.
Unfortunately, the reasoned and factually accurate assertion by Mr. Livingstone that there is no published scientific evidence for gaming addiction was proclaimed by Raphael Rowe as being “right, to a point”. My worry with this statement is that viewers might think that the “point” Raphael is referring to is a defined position within a wealth of evidence. In fact, that point is infinite. Ian Livingstone’s asserted fact was not “right, to a point”, it was simply right. As admitted in Raphael’s next sentence when he says that many scientists are trying to get gaming addiction recognised. So it isn’t recognised already. But the seed of doubt has been planted in the viewers mind and Ian Livingstone’s claim has been undermined, in spite of its truth.
The next section, before moving on to a swiftly expedited segment quoting UKIE’s studies that show the many positive aspects of gaming, quotes a statement made by the World Health Organisation. Surely a body to be trusted and revered, except that the quotes were taken from a report which was also not based on any published scientific study. Simply repeating a well-regarded body’s unfounded accusations does not give them any more truth.
The next sufferer, a Chris Dando is painted as an addict who skips school to play World of Warcraft and becomes violent when his ability to play is removed. The implication is that the violence is a result of the exposure to video games. My concern here is with the responsibility shown by Chris’ parents. Not only does his mother openly admit to not being aware of her son playing a video game for up to twenty hours a day, he is pictured in his bedroom in front of a large stack of games and DVDs, many of which carry an age certification presumably above Chris’ own age (although no age is quoted, the assertion that he misses school to play implies that he is of school age so most likely younger than eighteen).
My worry is that the easy target of video games is being used for the sake of progressing the show’s agenda rather than the real and more controversial problem of inattentive parents and a general lack of understanding of a young media by an older generation. I believe that this skirts a very real issue in modern society and gives it free passage while focussing on less-pressing dangers simply because they are easier to embellish.
The next section was undoubtedly the most balanced in the whole program. Professor Mark Griffiths points out that, in his professional experience, there is a small but significant problem with those who have addictive personalities filling that void with video games in much the same way as gamblers or alcoholics might. For me, the most pertinent aspect of this section is that although Professor Griffiths points out that video games are a positive influence for the vast majority of people who play them, there is a problem to be addressed. This segment acts as an all-too-brief call for more attention and research. I would fully support those calls.
The later return to Professor Griffiths as part of the “Skinner Box” segment referencing the operant conditioning of rats is another example of reasoned and intelligent balance but it is given much less time or explanation than I feel it warranted. Surely this expert, with years of experience around many forms of addiction would have been more deserving of screen time than the numerous grainy stock images of lab rats being conditioned?
The segment on South Korea was, frankly, bizarre. The message from Raphael seems to be that it’s unfortunate that the massive cultural movement in South Korea towards “PC Bangs” (literally PC Rooms) is a bad thing and that the young people would be better off spending their Saturday nights drinking alcohol in nightclubs. I worked in a nightclub for six years as a first aid consultant and as security staff and I can assure you that being in a room full of PCs is far less likely to result in violence, substance abuse and injury.
While it is worrying that twelve people have died in relation to South Korean PC Bangs, that figure is probably vastly inferior to the number of deaths related to, for example, cycling accidents. Should we ban cycling? Quoting specifics out of context is disingenuous and misleading.
Again, using the tragic death of a South Korean baby due to the negligence of mentally unstable parents as a springboard for criticising the incidentally-involved game they played is misleading. The parents (as stated by the psychiatrist who treated the mother) were already mentally unstable. The game may have acted as an escape for her from her own depression but it was not a cause for the neglect, it was merely a symptom of it. Is it more difficult to convey that fact than to put so much misdirection into the implication that the death of a baby was caused by a video game?
Raphael even voices over at one point that in South Korea “experts have found that problem gamers often have underlying emotional issues”. Would the time, effort and public funding that went into making this documentary have been better spent investigating those underlying issues rather than shamelessly exploiting the shock value of one of the manifestations of those issues? In fact, the limited time given to the rehabilitation of the adolescent Korean and his family seems to again suggest that the underlying issues were a possible result of the bad parenting he was subjected to by a mother who never talked to her son and “used to hit him a lot”.
To be frank, the whole documentary seemed like a lazy excuse to parade a popular hate-figure. There were a few cursory glances towards the truth and the necessary inclusion of learned experts undermined what was a clear attempt to perpetuate an outdated myth in which “normal” teenagers are encouraged away from the antisocial games consoles and into the warm embrace of alcohol dependency.
The final point driven home by the documentary seemed to suggest that the games industry should be funding research into addiction. While research into addiction is something I would fully support, I would rather it was done independently.
I’m sure that the UK games industry, at least what is left of it after repeated decades of neglect from central government, would be happy to cooperate with any independent research program but until we move away from the lazy stereotyping and the outdated stigma that programs like this Panorama documentary help to perpetuate, I fear that we will never be able to have an open, honest and informed debate about the subject in this country. Surely that is the real tragedy. Surely that would have been a much more worthy target for the attention that the uniquely funded BBC’s flagship investigative platform can bring.
I look forward to a more balanced future of reporting on the subject.