This is a longer version of “Push Start to Create Hysteria”, an article written for Imperial College London’s Science Communication Group blog Refractive Index. It’s a brief survey of UK newspapers’ treatment of video-game related science news in the past year.
Big bucks are big news.
Halo: Reach, a first-person-shooter video game published by Microsoft Games Studios, launched in North America, Europe, and Australia on 14 September 2010 and grossed $200 million (US) in a day. (The film Avatar (2009) grossed $241 million worldwide in its opening five days.) The Halo series as a whole has sold over 40 million copies worldwide and grossed over $2 billion to date. (Including re-releases, Avatar has grossed $2.8 billion worldwide). Halo: Reach is not unique, ending up being only the third highest-grossing game of 2010. Such numbers make video games mainstream news.
However, in the television coverage of the Halo: Reach launch on BBC News, the anchors called the game “Nintendo’s new shoot ‘em up” (incorrect publisher and incorrect genre) and remarked jokingly, but with apparently genuine surprise, that the on-location interviews with fans queuing to buy the game had revealed these gamers to be articulate and to have friends [BBC News, 14 Sep. 2010]. While the coverage was being shown, I posted my observations in the online forum for Edge, a quality games magazine. The first response was “Welcome to Earth”.
Later replies revealed that other outlets, including Radio 1, had repeatedly got the name of the game itself wrong: “Well the Beeb faired no better on the Radio, with Dom Radio 1′s breakfast news presenter referring to it as Halo 3, the bald twat”. Such errors are not especially significant in the wider scheme of news reporting – though, arguably, as yet another reply pointed out, it “[d]oes make you wonder about the general accuracy of the news. I mean, all this stuff jumps out at us coz we happen to be ‘in the know’ on this one” – but they suggest that video games are not covered with the same seriousness as film, in spite of the comparable sizes of their respective industries.
Scare stories are big news too.
When it’s not about the money, mainstream coverage of video-games has often dwelt on the issue of violence. The Columbine High School massacre was blamed on video games in 1999, as were the actions of mass-murderer Anders Breivik in Norway this summer. Video games are the new “video nasties”. More recently, the media has also helped push the idea that video games are damagingly addictive, ruining the lives of players who neglect school, job, friends and spouse in pursuit of a gaming fix. Video games are the new Class A drug. These claims enter the popular imagination through the mainstream media, becoming common currency in discussions among gamers and non-gamers alike.
Many of the scare stories originate in science stories reporting findings about the social effects of video games. However, there’s a widely-held assumption that tabloid media outlets lend greater credence or give greater coverage to findings that fit well with a sensationalist or scare-mongering agenda. As an editorial in a quality newspaper put it: “Is playing computer games as addictive as cocaine, crack, or heroin? That largely depends on which newspaper you buy. To The Sun, the addiction is like crack, to the Daily Mail it’s more like smack” ["Mad, bad, and dangerous to play", The Independent, 21 Jan. 2011]. Indeed, it was the Daily Mail that reported Susan Greenfield’s claims a few weeks ago that video games could cause “dementia” and The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre who challenged her to back them up by submitting a scientific paper for peer review. *
But is this fair? Are the tabloids more keen to vilify video games or is this just media snobbery? More narrowly, how are science stories about video games reported in the UK? To get a rough idea, I used the Factiva database to survey the content of nine UK newspapers over the last year – from 23 October 2010 to 22 October 2011 – looking for articles that included a reference to both video games and science. Specifically, I searched for articles in The Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Star, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times, and The Guardian in this time period that mention both video game(s) (or videogame or computer game) – and any of science, scientist(s), research, researcher(s), university and study.
And the survey said …
Using these criteria, I identified 81 articles published in the last year that report on some aspect of video games from a scientific point of view. I weeded out by hand quite a few false positives that referred to “market research” or economic studies; there were also a few that mentioned video games and “university libraries” or similar. See this pdf for a full listing of the 81 articles. For each, I noted whether the article was reporting a positive or negative finding, or whether the article was balanced. By positive finding, I mean a result such as that “schoolkids learn better when they are allowed to play video games in class” [“Nintendo game helps our kids to learn better”, Daily Star, 26 April 2011]. By negative finding, I mean a result such as that “violent computer games make people more likely to commit vicious crimes” [“Violence 'a game'”, Daily Star, 27 May 2011]. A balanced finding was one for which no obvious value judgement was made, such as the result that “sporting prowess, playing a musical instrument or computer games make no difference to a young person’s prospects” [“Bookworm teenagers are most likely to get jobs”, Daily Express, 8 April 2011], or one where negative findings were balanced with positive, or where the report was clear about the inconclusiveness of the reported results.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given all newspapers’ interest in reporting a story with a strong angle, I categorised only nine of the 81 articles as balanced. Of the remainder, exactly three times as many reports were of negative results rather than positive (54 negative, 18 positive). This is the kind of result that might confirm a gamers’ stereotype of the media. However, I also coded for whether the article singled out video games in particular or whether video games were being grouped with TV watching and internet use, typically as part of a general characterization of a sedentary, non-active lifestyle. All of the nine newspapers included articles making the value judgement that staying in and watching TV or playing videogames – especially for long periods – was a negative thing, and some articles explicitly set the modern trend for inactivity against a more positive – and nostalgic – notion of a past in which people engaged more in outdoor, “natural” pursuits: e.g. “Researchers said children were becoming ignorant of nature as parents allowed them to sit in front of the television, video games and the internet” [“Children 'ignorant' of nature as a quarter never play outdoors”, Daily Telegraph, 20 Jan. 2010].
Discounting stories in which video games figure mainly in a common trope for modern entertainment habits, I noted that only 29 out of the 54 articles reporting negative findings – and all but one of the articles reporting positive findings – apply specifically to video games. Taking this coding into account and considering only those reports specific to video games, there were 17 positive reports and 29 negative reports in the past year across these nine newspapers – a less dramatic ratio than one might have expected.
Broken down by newspaper, the results for reports specifically about video games are shown in the following chart.
On the face of it, then, it’s difficult to discern a clear distinction between the tabloid, middle-market, and quality papers. It’s certainly not obvious that the tabloids or the Daily Mail should be singled out for excessively negative coverage as that mocking editorial from The Independent suggested. The Daily Telegraph ran nearly as many negative articles as The Sun and more than the Daily Mail, and The Mirror ran three positive articles and no negative ones at all. Overall, the Daily Star and Daily Express were reasonably balanced.
We might expect the tabloids to perpetuate certain stereotypes when chasing an angle to a story, as when video games are here implicated in a murder: “A sailor who shot dead a nuclear submarine officer was obsessed with gangsta rap and violent video games” [“Massacre bid sailor gets life”, Daily Star, 20 Sep. 2011]. But when a politics column in a quality paper describes conference delegates as “consumed and cut off from reality like those who are addicted to computer games” [“Heaven knows why we're all so miserable now”, The Independent, 3 Oct. 2011], it reinforces an equally pernicious stereotype. Similarly, when we read that “[s]wearing on television can make teenagers more aggressive in the same way that violent video games do” [“Aggresssion linked to swearing on TV”, Daily Telegraph, 18 Oct. 11], even though the study in question didn’t look at video games, this is just as prejudiced. Take another example from a quality paper: “It used to be enough to worry about children smoking, drinking or taking drugs. Now there’s another evil: computer games. According to new research, they can nudge your children into obesity and make them so weak that they can’t hang from monkey bars” [“Dr Luisa's guide to the health risks of computer games”, The Guardian, 31 May 2011]. What’s noteworthy here is the choice of language – “they can nudge your children into obesity” and “they can … make them so weak” – which imbues “evil” video games with an autonomous agency: they might stop short of murder, but video games can ruin your children.
It’s also interesting to consider which newspapers pick up certain stories, and how these stories are covered. The Daily Telegraph, for example, ran a story about a school that had concerns about its pupils’ gaming habits: “A secondary school has written to parents warning that children are putting their studies at risk by playing a violent computer game late into the night” [Daily Telegraph, 20 Dec. 2010] (note the arguably superfluous “violent”). None of the other papers I surveyed picked up this story and its source appears entirely anecdotal. The concerned teacher was Mike Elward of St Crispin’s School in Wokingham, who also figures in an article in The Times Education Supplement on 20 May 2011 complaining of “a skills gap that troubles teachers of ICT”.
Several of the stories covered by most of the newspapers – sports games make you more aggressive than violent games, video games blamed for ignorance of the natural world, video games blamed for relationship breakups, video games blamed for weakling children – were picked up from the Associated Press newswire. On the whole, there wasn’t much notable variation in the reporting of these other than the expected differences in style. However, one story was picked up only by The Guardian, which ran it with little editing and credited it to the Associated Press reporter Tamara Lush. The piece was a 3000-word-long feature – the longest by far of the articles surveyed – telling the story of Ryan van Cleave, a self-styled expert on video-game addiction and author of a new book. Though it cites studies that have found no evidence of addiction, the emphasis of the piece is definitely on the emotional story of van Cleave, who lost everything to his gaming habit. The article gives comments from scientists and van Cleave’s personal opinion equal credence. Lush herself is certainly no expert, posting a comment on her website about writing the article that said “I’ve never really played video games – I did for a few hours for this story – but I sometimes wonder whether I spend too much time on the internet” ["Video games and addiction"].
Another notable AP-related observation is that on 30 Jan. 2011 the Associated Press newswire ran a story about a study that debunked the idea of video-game addiction: “There is no formal diagnosis of video game addicition, said Dr. Thomas Finn, a Southington psychologist. In some ways, it’s similar to the addiction to television parents were worried about decades ago”. Not one of the newspapers used this story. Perhaps none of them deemed the result newsworthy – but it’s also probably worth remarking that 30 Jan. 2011 was a Sunday.
What this limited survey suggests is that there’s no clear difference in the pushing of stereotypes between the quality newspapers, the middle-market press, and the tabloids when it comes to first-hand science reporting of video games. From the results discussed here the Daily Telegraph, in particular, might be singled out as having more of a moral stance against video games than the Daily Mail. Both papers appear to have a common eagerness to report on the malaise of modern technological life, in general – that hydra-headed monster of video games, internet, and television. Perhaps the most genuine and entertaining coverage of all was in The Sun, which sent a journalist to participate in the actual experiment that found sports games to induce aggression as much as violent ones: “They placed a hi-tech sensor net on Lee’s head to pick up his brain signals. Lee’s resting heart rate was 82bpm and he was averaging 15 breaths per minute. Then he started to play some computer games…” [“He's got a sport fuse”, The Sun, 21 May 2011].
* Of course, since writing this, Susan Greenfield’s been at it again. This time in The Times, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun reports.