WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.
I hate tabloids.
And now to qualify that statement.
I work an evening shift at a convenience store. One of my duties is to catalogue all the unsold newspapers for return before closing time. As a result of this, I’ve been more exposed to tabloid journalism than I ever have been. Granted, all I ever see are the front pages but when you see them change day after day, you start to see disturbing patterns. The Daily Star thinks Big Brother is bigger than actual news; the Sun will turn a single quote into a full-blown story; the Mirror…
In fact, let’s talk about the Mirror, shall we? For this was the headline that caught my eye on January 8th 2013:
Putting the words ‘kids’ and ‘cancer’ into the same sentence is a sure-fire way to grab attention but, as a gamer, I was intrigued for a different reason. Video games are a quick and easy scapegoat in today’s society, we know this. But to say they cause one of the most dangerous diseases in the world is a bold statement.
So, for the first time in my life, I bought a newspaper. I need something to polish my shoes on, after all. Before I do, though, I turn to page 5 for the ‘full story’. Here’s what greets me.
And after reading the full story, here are the necessary amendments to the front page headline:
“SITTING DOWN FOR TOO LONG IS GIVING KIDS CANCER.”
The headline is implying that the TV itself is what is causing the problem, whereas it’s actually the sedentary behaviour of the person watching it. The article advises parents to keep their children active and away from square screens to prevent future health complications like obesity and cancer. It proclaims that even if children exercise the recommended amount, it does not make up for sitting down in front of a computer or TV screen for hours at a time.
The phrase that comes to mind is “No sh*t, Sherlock!”
I assumed this was common knowledge; my parents severely limited my time on the PS2 when I was a youngster and, while I might not be the fittest specimen in the world, I’m not exactly rotund. It’s called ‘being a good parent’ and is not something you should have to go to the tabloids of all things to find out. It should come from common sense.
OK, so it’s a relatively pointless article that throws video games under the bus because they’re an easy target for those defending lazy parenting (it’s been said before but I’ll say it again; video games are not babysitters). It’s not exactly a direct assault on the medium itself. The headline gives the wrong impression but this is something we occasionally see in news within the games industry as well.
So why am I here?
There was a small column story next to the article. Let’s read it together:
“MANIAC HAD EARPLUGS TO BLOCK CRIES.”
Tactful. Now, I’m assuming you remember the horrific school shooting in Connecticut in December last year; an absolutely frightening event that cannot be defended. Stay with me…
“Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza wore earplugs to shut out the screams of young victims when he went on his school shooting rampage. The deranged loner, who slaughtered 20 children and six teachers last month after earlier killing his mum, also fired 150 rounds from his AR-15 assault rifle. But many of the 30-round clips discarded at school in Newtown, Connecticut were only half empty.”
“Police think the Call of Duty fan, 20, was copying what players in first-person shooter video games do – rapidly changing their clips, or topping up, as they fear their bullets will run out. He spent hours playing the game.”
I’m not about to debate what was going through Lanza’s mind during this event; I’m nowhere near qualified for that. In fact, I fear saying anything about it will result in me straying into some very dark territory where I try to defend the actions of a psychopathic killer, just because he’s been posthumously accused of mimicking a video game…which is a relief, because that’s not what had me shaking my head.
Let’s leave aside the fact that this conjecture is based on a hunch rather than evidence. It cannot be a coincidence that these two stories are on the exact same page. In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to say that this little column wouldn’t even have been included if it weren’t for the front page story. And considering how redundant and unnecessary that story is, this is like rubbing salt into a wound that has already healed.
They even go so far as to name drop Call of Duty, quite possibly the most well-known video game franchise on the planet short of Mario. Call of Duty has had to deal with its fair share of flak from the tabloids too, particularly the ‘No Russian’ sequence from Modern Warfare 2, where you can gun down an airport full of civilians.
This in particular got me thinking about how much research the journalists actually do whenever video games are involved in their story. Remember when the original Mass Effect was accused of featuring graphic sexual acts? You know, the ones that didn’t exist? We’ve seen that the news has a habit of blowing something about our favourite games out of proportion amidst cries of “Won’t somebody think of the children?”, but there’s one game I finished recently that had me thinking just that.
That game was Spec Ops: The Line, and if you haven’t played it all the way through, I’m about to spoil some big things for you. Spec Ops: The Line is a rare US-military shooter that emphasises the ‘military’ over the ‘shooter’. I don’t mean in terms of simulation, like Arma, I mean it addresses the emotional and psychological effects of being in the military.
To keep it brief, about halfway through the game you come across an encampment of enemy soldiers and must take them out with a white phosphorus mortar. You then walk through the blazing destruction you’ve just created to find that these soldiers were harbouring civilians that you’ve just burned alive. To repress the regret of murdering innocent people, the main character develops a dissociative disorder that’s revealed at the end of the story. It’s a disturbingly graphic moment and was a major U-turn in my impressions of the game.
Fast forward to near the end where you find a crowd of civilians has lynched one of the members of your squad. To get the crowd to disperse, you must open fire. You can fire into the air rather than into the crowd but the option to murder innocent people out of rage and vengeance is available to you all the same.
Call of Duty and Spec Ops are both rated 18 here in the UK – mature games, unsuitable for children. But while Call of Duty’s claim for maturity is shock value, Spec Ops is undoubtedly the more adult game, so why haven’t the tabloids chewed it up and spat it out? The same parents who buy Call of Duty for their kids could theoretically do the same with Spec Ops – a truly, genuinely controversial game – so why no ruckus?
Simple. It doesn’t have the same market presence that Call of Duty has. It’s not a recognisable brand. Therefore, you can’t make an easy assumption about it without doing some research, without playing the game and getting some context. If you just mention the name ‘Call of Duty’, people will know what you’re talking about and will instantly make assumptions about something they’ve only seen in passing.
I hope my close friends and colleagues will forgive me for bringing Michael Jackson into this discussion, but I’m reminded of one of his lesser known songs, ‘Tabloid Junkie’; a song about media bias and journalism based on rumour (clearly written from personal experience).
The chorus in particular comes to mind:
“Just because you read it in a magazine
Or see it on a TV screen
Don’t make it factual
But everybody wants to read all about it.”
This sums up my opinion perfectly. For me, tabloids fall into the same category as reality TV or Nicki Minaj: entertainment for the impressionable, the gullible and the brain-dead. Video games are the most lucrative form of entertainment in the world and yet a lot of people still don’t see them as more than toys. And ‘trusted’ sources of news like the Mirror are not making it any easier for those of us who do to prove otherwise.