April 10, 2008 // 3:47 pm
- On Tuesday the Advertising Standards Agency banned adverts for a new computer game, Kane & Lynch, because it deemed them too violent. It is interesting that adverts for last year's "torture porn" film Captivity were not banned, even though they were heavily criticised in the US. And no one even raises the possibility of banning such films outright. But then, computer games are our society's straw man for panic about moral decay, thought to have some special power to harm and corrupt.
Dr Tanya Byron's eminently sensible report last month on children and new technology emphasised the many opportunities for fun and learning that games provide. But the media coverage focused on the usual fears and worries. Byron said that we need to move away from talking about computer games "causing harm"; in response, TV and newspapers showed stills from games with titles like Manhunt and God of War. Byron said children need to be "empowered to keep themselves safe"; newspapers said computers and televisions should be kept in communal spaces in the home.
As a gamer, I can't think of anything more annoying for everyone concerned than playing games in a shared living room. Games make noise: they're surely going to irritate other family members who aren't playing or watching. Not to mention the supreme aggravation, as the player, of having someone interrupt you while you're at a crucial stage, just before a save-point, when you want to devote all your attention to the story. Of course, wanting to devote this amount of attention to a computer game probably demonstrates that I'm "addicted". Unlike, say, if I were reading a novel: then my irritation at being interrupted would just show that I was "engrossed".
I'm probably biased. As a child in the 1980s I had both a television and a computer in my bedroom. The computer was a ZX Spectrum 48K, and the best thing it could do was spend 45 minutes trying to load The Hobbit text adventure before crashing, but there it was. I watched a lot of television, mostly while doing my homework, and sometimes stayed up late playing on the computer. The only lasting effect seems to have been to provide me with the ability to work with any amount of background noise, including, on one occasion, not noticing that the building opposite was surrounded by screaming fire engines when I was trying to finish a piece of work against a tight deadline.
These days, as well as writing prose fiction, I write online computer games, so I expect I'm biased there, too. But there are so many beautiful, moving, inspiring games - many free online - that I really cannot understand the insistence on portraying all games as psychotic killing sprees.
It is true that in Grand Theft Auto 3, to take an example that is the subject of repeated concern, the main character, Carl Johnson, shoots other characters, steals cars, and sets up a series of racketeering operations staffed by hoodlums. GTA3 also contains ambulance missions in which the characters ferry people to hospital; these tend not to get so much attention. The world of Grand Theft Auto does contain violence and misogyny; but then, so does The Godfather, or Goodfellas. So, for that matter, does The Iliad. GTA3 is set in a tough, dangerous world. Johnson is trying to clean up his neighbourhood. But as a dispossessed, orphaned young black man, he has no option but to re-form his neighbourhood gang to do so. The makers of this game, like the makers of any movie about gangland, can stand squarely behind the art they have created and say: this represents reality. If it offends you, don't criticise the art, but take action to improve the world around you.
Clearly, these themes are not suitable for young children. But just as a responsible parent wouldn't hand their child a copy of American Psycho or sit them down in front of Marathon Man without any further discussion or comment, games can and should be part of the ongoing conversation between parents and children about the world. Byron's report suggested "health-warning labels" on computer games, but these would just encourage parents to remain entirely disengaged from the games world, still unaware of what messages their children are picking up. I'm afraid there's only one solution: if your children are playing computer games, you should be playing them too.
Don't worry. The gaming world isn't filled only with violence and depravity. In fact, it's mostly enchanting. If you haven't already spent a little time online playing with the sweetly soothing Samorost game, or Eyemaze's whimsical Grow series, or Foon's delightful Hapland, I urge you to do so now. And then share them with your children. Introduce teenagers to the satirical online role-playing game Kingdom of Loathing. The game I'm writing at the moment, available at wetellstories.co.uk, is a collaboration between the publishers Penguin and games company Six to Start, and involves popular and literary novelists exploring new ways to tell stories online.
Computer games can be works of art and literature - they're still developing. The stories they can tell, and the experiences they provide, are increasingly sophisticated and glorious. And that, of course, is the point. The world that today's 10-year-olds grow into will offer so many rich experiences via video games: the real neglect would be to deny our children the opportunity to understand and enjoy them.
· This week Naomi watched the play Shoulder to Shoulder: Annie Kenney, on BBC4: "So good, I wish the BBC would repeat the whole series." She played Professor Layton and the Curious Village on Nintendo DS: "Good puzzle-solving fun, although I wish it wasn't written presuming the player is male - this is a far more insidious message than out-and-out violence."