"To some they're just a bit of fun. To others they're a threat to our well-being..." So began last night's Panorama (a BBC investigative news programme) on the subject of whether games are addictive or not. Not a stellar start, but with last night also hosting the launch of the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, the subject is at least timely.
What followed was fairly predictable.
Opening with raspy Prodigy music and the shocking revelation that game blockbusters now generate long queues at midnight for games like Starcraft, that they sell more than film and music, and that they have lost their "nerdy" image, it declared an immediate "but what of the children?" theme and then proceeded into well-worn territory: South Korean game players, addictive loops in some games, and so on and so forth.
Cue interviews with individual addicts, many shots of hand-wringing parents, eminent psychologists looking serious, and some heroes from the industry piping up that games are the new rock and roll, industry associations talking up the educational benefits of games and explaining how they are much better than so-called 'passive media'. And a sideswipe at UKIE for not having an obvious link about addiction on their website for good measure. And some images of rats obsessively pressing levers for food.
So far, so ordinary.
It was an all-too predictable tale of the TV journalist looking very serious and shooting a piece of serious journalism (tm) while failing to grasp their subject matter. What Panorama, and many people, don't understand is that games create cultures. Just as opera is a culture, modern art is a culture and dance music is a culture, games are a culture.
They're not one single entity, and gamers are not one unified Borg (as the programme infers they are). Instead they are a collection of fans of various game types forming communities, friendships and - like all people do - searching for meaning, connection and some honest-to-goodness entertainment to while away the hours.
Addiction, depression and other mental illnesses are real concerns. Possibly one in 12 people in Britain is an alcoholic, while one third of the population smokes. A quarter of people deal with depression at some point in their lives, and compulsive gambling is an issue that's always being fought all over the world. There's also the mushrooming problem of obesity, as well as drug addictions like heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth and many others.
Video games are no more inherently addictive than films, TV or any other form of entertainment. They are certainly not as addictive as cigarettes or harder drugs, and the cost of engaging in games as a source of addiction is considerably less than the destitution of gambling, or the lifelong medical effects of alcoholism.
The worry seems to be that because games involve both viewing and doing, the resulting immersion is possibly dangerous. The programme talks to Robbie Cooper (creator of a beautiful photography exhibit that captures children's expressions when they play) to illustrate an anecdotal example of a child who doesn't blink when playing (creating a heart-tugging image of a kid crying while playing games) as though that is supposed to constitute significance. However the myth that because a player is picking up a joypad and staring at a screen, the resulting immersion must in some way be vastly more powerful is just that: A myth.
There are many fans of bands such as the Grateful Dead who have spent their lives and many thousands of their dollars following them on tour. There are collectors of comic book memorabilia, old films and classic cars. Why are all of these cultures treated as legitimate ways to spend a life, but games must in some way be "sad", requiring addiction recovery, and so on?
Because games have not yet claimed their place. Lacking an engaged cultural identity, and projecting an introverted image to outsiders, games are all too easy to characterise as a danger, a threat or a distraction that gets out of hand. The problem that we have to solve as an industry and a culture is one of legitimacy.
Like comics and rock and roll before us, the instinct of the older generation to ban sick filth and think of the children is one that we need to actively dismiss by advancing our culture on its own terms. It is everyone's collective responsibility to help look after those individuals who are more prone to addiction than the rest of us, but equally it is our responsibility to stand up and say what we do is valid, worthy, and a great addition to the collective artwork that is humanity.
Anything else is disingenuous.