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Column: Ban video games? Ban crap pre-teen books instead

TheJournal.ie’s regular columnist Lisa McInerney takes apart TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s outburst over “violent video games”.

Lisa McInerney

FOR AS FAR back as I can remember, the arrival of each Christmas season has triggered stern directions from those morally and intellectually superior to buy books as presents. A book being, of course, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, imagination and whimsy trapped on paper like a feisty spirit hoovered up by Peter Venkman.

For a child, especially, the book is seen as a sort of “Get Out Of Stupid Free” card, as if by giving a child a book for Christmas, one could save them from a future shovelling chips at Burger King. As if a child could not possibly have her imagination similarly stoked by a toy, or a movie… or a video game.

And so I came to Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s recent statement on sales trends for violent video games with a heavy sigh and eye-rolling so pronounced, my head near came clean off. Mitchell O’Connor established her concern that so many people bought a copy of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it broke the sales records of films such as the Harry Potter series and Avatar. Apparently, this will contribute to the downfall of society and render children incapable of reading (I’m exaggerating, but only barely; hyperbole is a big concept for a gamer).

“These video games provide no educational or social benefits. For me, the gift of a book will always provide real and lasting benefit… It is also hugely important that literacy levels in this country dramatically improve,” says Mitchell O’Connor, in the kind of magnificent jump of logic last attempted by Shergar.

Never mind that one has to be able to read in order to play video games; a person lacking literacy skills wouldn’t be long having his arse handed to him in an online session, assuming he could navigate applicable technological requirements to bring his console online in the first place (and outside of First Person Shooters, imagine trying to play Skyrim or any of the Final Fantasy series without a grá for the written word!).

The main flaw in this argument – this tenuous, prejudiced link between video games and the oft-bemoaned decline in reading – is that reading and gaming are not, and never will be, mutually exclusive. To suggest otherwise is nonsensical.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no stranger to the lofty satisfaction of giving a book to a child who’s not that interested in reading. Last Christmas I bought a beautiful kids’ version of Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History Of Nearly Everything’ for my eleven-year-old nephew, who has little or no interest in science, but, I felt, should have the book anyway because it was a great concept and I had to buy it for someone. I love buying books. I love receiving books. I love walking into a house with shelves and shelves of books to peruse and ignite a lively debate with.

But to suggest that a person with an interest in playing Call Of Duty is irreparably damaging any future chance of bookish interaction? Christ, no. From where could you pluck such a stupid argument?

For all we know Mary Mitchell O’Connor could be Mario Kart champion of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown

But perhaps Mary Mitchell O’Connor isn’t entirely against video games. After all, she does specify violent video games in her statement; for all we know, she could be Mario Kart champion of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. Let us assume that she’s advocating books over these specific games, pointing out to parents that it’s better to buy your ten-year-old a book than a copy of Modern Warfare 3.

Well, only if said book is of literary worth. For example, I wouldn’t rather buy my ten-year-old a copy of glamour model Jordan’s fourth – fourth! – autobiography. Nor would I rather purchase for her Seán Smith’s ‘Kate’, a biography of Kate Middleton, which going by the blurb alone sounds like the most depressing book ever printed (“examine Kate’s time spent as a royal apprentice and her evolving role as an ambassador for British fashion…”). Equally, I couldn’t bring myself to buy my ten-year-old a copy of Dave Pelzer’s ‘A Child Called It’, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, or de Sade’s ‘Les 120 journées de Sodome’. Can you suppose why? Because none of them were written for children.

And so here we arrive at the most obvious truth about the Call Of Duty games; whether or not they’re suitable book substitutes for kiddies is a redundant argument, because they’re not for children. They’re not designed for children. They’re not marketed at children. They’re given Over-18 certificates, which are legally binding. The most perplexing thing about Mitchell O’Connor’s statement is that she actually acknowledges this. She complains about violent video games not being as wholesome as books right after conceding that there are rules governing the sale of adult games. Bemoaning the incredible sales of Modern Warfare 3 in the context of falling literacy levels is like demanding parents stop buying wine because their kids don’t drink enough water.

Mitchell O’Connor also parades the old chestnut that society is becoming desensitised to acts of violence, and “violent video games certainly play a part”. This is codswallop of the most flabbergasting kind. No one with any sort of grasp on history, recent or ancient, could argue that we’re more violent now than we ever used to be. I can’t elaborate on this, for fear I’d end up concocting ever-more-ridiculous imaginary scenarios, where Pol Pot was driven to genocide by a frustrating Pong prototype or King Herod was the first despot ever to claim an Xbox gamertag. Prolonged exposure to violence in games like Call of Duty, argues Mitchell O’Connor, can “distort reality”. Given that the Call of Duty games are largely based on real-life conflicts, I’d submit that prolonged exposure to the Six One News could have the same effect.

So, games = bad, books = good. There’s nothing new to see in Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s thinking. But maybe she should draw inspiration from her party colleague Paschal Donohoe, who developed a policy paper for the games industry in Ireland, and launched it at the HQ of PopCap Games in Dublin? Forfás have estimated that with State investment, there could be an additional 2,500 jobs in Ireland’s burgeoning gaming industry by 2014, given that we already play host to such international gaming giants as Havok and ActivisionBlizzard. I suppose we must be relieved that vague, fluttery scaremongering like Mitchell O’Connor’s is unlikely to be taken seriously; certainly she doesn’t appear to have much interest
in the industry’s job creation possibilities. Still, I suppose if the end result is killing off brain cells left, right and centre, maybe we’re as well off.

But of course, that’s not the end result. There are many fantastic video games which absolutely have the “educational or social benefits” Mitchell O’Connor deems lacking in FPSs. Tied for Game Of The Year in many aficionados’ lists are Portal 2 and Skyrim, one of which is a classic puzzler made epic with fantastic writing and wit, the other, a massive role-playing-game with a complex in-game moral code and plotlines your typical fantasy writer would smother an elf for. Then there’s Minecraft, the runaway indie success, which is to a child’s imagination what the morgue at the Santa Maria Nuova was to Leonardo da Vinci (not to mention that its epilogue was written by our own Julian Gough).

If your kid is a petulant fat brat, perhaps the mirror is a better place to pitch your blame

The majority of the Nintendo Wii’s catalogue was developed for family gaming; from dancing games (“Gaming kids just sit in front of the telly!”), to karaoke games (“Gaming kids don’t develop social skills!”) to intricate, micro-management, piñata-farming games, (“Gaming kids just stare vacantly at the television!”). There are hundreds of games readily available that are not only suitable for children and young adults, but actively beneficial. The idea that children who game just sit at home getting flabby and petulant is blatant baloney. If your kid is a petulant fat brat, perhaps the mirror is a better place to pitch your blame.

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a single sentence in Mitchell O’Connor’s bugbear-of-the-week that I’d agree with. Perhaps that, “it is really important that rules governing the sale of [Over-18s] games are enforced”. Well, of course it is. It’s high time non-gaming parents understood that if they wouldn’t allow their kid to watch Scarface, then they shouldn’t allow him to play Grand Theft Auto. That parents allow their kids games that simulate violence inspired by real global conflict is hardly the fault of developers, or retailers, or adult gamers.

The term “game” shouldn’t mislead; video games have been around long enough for everyone to realise that their plotlines can be violent, frightening, erotic or immoral. What Mitchell O’Connor needs to realise is that there are products in every kind of media that will be unsuitable for impressionable minds, whether it’s because they include signposted adult content, or because they have the artistic merits of a bag of air.

I don’t want my ten-year-old playing Modern Warfare 3, but I don’t think she’d be irreparably damaged if she did. A gamer since Dora The Explorer: Journey To The Purple Planet, she’s able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, while also having an elevated reading age and a pleasing lack of patience for sparkly-princess-popstar-wish-fulfilment , which I guess plonks her happily outside the target audience for the kind of crap you find in so many pre-teen novels these days.

So maybe we should ban those.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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