The Big, Fat Question

Linking child obesity with games has caused outrage, but the criticism is fair.

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It's not terribly often that gamers and the industry that sells games find themselves comfortably mounted on the same high horse, but this week the stars seem to have aligned. The recipe for this odd harmony? Take one deeply unpopular British government and have them fund an advertising campaign regarding childhood obesity and its impact on life expectancy, using videogames as your example of a sedentary, "unhealthy" activity.

A flurry of hysterical internet posts, and only marginally less hysterical statements from the industry, has ensued. Gamers and industry, united in their outrage at the vile targeting of a poor, innocent medium, have railed against the Government, accusing the Change4life campaign of ignorance about games, of unfairly targeting the medium ("you wouldn't see them saying this about reading books," goes one popular refrain) and even of Big Brother tactics.

It's hard to say why the campaign has elicited such a strong response. Perhaps it's that gamers are so used to the medium being blamed for things it hasn't done - school shootings, youth violence and so on - that there's now a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism, no matter how valid.

Because have no doubt - the criticism, if it can be characterised as such, which is made by Change4life's campaign is valid, reasonable and eminently sensible.

Britain, like many other first-world countries, is facing a health crisis as a result of childhood obesity. Childhood obesity occurs as a consequence of eating too much high-calorie food (the ad campaign also features children eating cakes, although I've heard remarkably little outcry from Britain's cake companies thus far) and taking part in too many sedentary pursuits, at the expense of exercise, sports and so on. Videogames are one of those sedentary activities. Children who eat too much fatty, sugary food and play videogames all the time instead of going outside and running around will experience life-shortening health problems. That's the message of the advertisement, and it's provable and scientifically supported from start to finish.

"But why," the industry cries, "why are we being singled out, and not television or books?" This, I remind you, is the same industry which has spent the last decade boasting to anyone who'll listen about how incredibly popular its products are, about how the popularity of videogames is hammering the audience figures for television, how revenues from games are outstripping those of music and movies. This is the industry that very publicly chuckles with schadenfreude when television weeps over the "lost generation" who never tune in because they're too busy on their PlayStations and Xboxes. As for books? With desperate campaigns underway in Britain to try to prevent the rise of illiteracy, it seems unlikely that it's books that are making kids obese.

I'm loath to fall back on a "have your cake and eat it" metaphor in an argument about childhood obesity, but it fits the situation all too perfectly. The industry, it seems, is perfectly happy to boast of being one of the most popular, if not the most popular, forms of entertainment for children and young people. When that position, however, places it in the line of fire as part of the health services' long-running campaign to get children to engage in more healthy activities, the industry wants to be able to adopt a hurt expression and point the finger at the "real culprits" in television and, er, book publishing.

You can't have it both ways. If videogames are the most popular form of entertainment for kids (or damned near to being so), then it stands to reason that videogames should be used as an example of the kind of sedentary entertainment which children need to do less of, in favour of more active pastimes. If, on the other hand, videogames are actually deeply unpopular and hardly any children spend a significant amount of time on them, then yes - the industry has been wronged. But in that instance, the industry has also been lying to itself (and everyone else) for the last decade.

Moreover, the criticism in this campaign isn't even directly levelled at videogames. Rather, it is aimed at parents and parenting; the message is, quite clearly, that parents need to do more to control the amount of time their children spend playing games (or eating cakes) and encourage their offspring to go outside and run around more.

The games industry is big on the idea of parental responsibility, having made many grand (and perfectly reasoned) statements on the importance, in a free society, of using age ratings and parental responsibility rather than outright censorship. The reality, however, is that just as there are many parents who ignore age ratings on games (something for which the industry supports education campaigns), there are also many who treat games consoles as cheap babysitters, allowing their children to play for hours and hours on end without regard for any health impact (something for which the industry considers education campaigns to be deeply unfair and an absolute outrage).

(As a side note, it's worth observing that running ad campaigns attempting to educate parents about health risks their children face is not "Big Brother", nor is it anything which Orwell's 1984 predicted. For reference - millions of CCTV cameras, interlinked databases of information on citizens, ID cards, lengthy detention without charge, widespread retention of communications data, the unchecked expansion of police powers - these fall under the broad category of "Big Brother". Running ads which tell parents that if their kids play games all day and don't get any exercise, they'll become obese and unhealthy? Not "Big Brother".)

So desperate are gamers and industry spokespeople to deride this campaign, they have even turned to conspiracy theories to explain how such an evil thing could come to pass - suggesting that games were chosen as a target because the real evildoers, television and fast food companies, are involved in funding Government health initiatives.

Of course, it's entirely true that TV firms and food companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestle have been involved in Government health initiatives. Indeed, the Government has been criticised on many occasions for allowing sessions on health, particularly children's health, at its party conferences to be sponsored by companies who sell junk food to children.

However, if they're buying freedom from criticism by doing so, they're not exactly getting great value for money. The new Change4life campaign hasn't just popped into existence after decades of silence on childhood health. As long as 20 years ago, schools were showing videos and distributing pamphlets to children and parents alike warning of the dangers of watching too much television and not getting enough exercise. In the past five years, fast food companies have faced increasingly tight regulations on their advertising and labelling, along with hard-hitting campaigns to encourage people not to eat their products. (Recent TV ads have shown several pints of gloopy, disgusting saturated fats being poured down a sink to illustrate our monthly intake of fat from food.)

That videogames are now in the firing line (in fact, I'd argue that parents' irresponsible treatment of videogames as a surrogate babysitter is what's in the firing line) is simply a sign of the times. For decades, we have pointed to television and fast food as the culprits of childhood ill-health. As the childhood obesity issue continues to grow, absorbing more and more of the NHS' funding with each passing year, videogames have joined television as one of the nation's favourite sedentary pastimes. No campaign has claimed that videogames are inherently unhealthy or bad, but equally, it takes remarkable ignorance to deny that many children play too many games and don't get enough exercise.

All things in moderation; although moderation, sadly, is one virtue which the industry and its adherents seem to have lacked in their reaction to this issue. I can only hope that such shrill pronouncements have not done any permanent damage to the industry's relationship with health campaigners, to whom videogames firms should be an ally, not an enemy - even if that means taking a certain degree of deserved criticism on the chin.

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