Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Change4Life Console Game Controversy

Like me you probably get random emails coming into your inbox which are not really junk, but you do wonder how they got on your mailing list. For many years I used to receive emails about safety equipment for children's playgrounds and invitations to conferences about such facilities and I could only think that someone had written down my email address at some event by mistake or the company had got the wrong suffix, the whole thing of @hotmail.com and @hotmail.co.uk and @mail.com and so on. Anyway, on one of my email accounts I get industry news about computer game design. I think this may stem from me contributing to various message boards about computer games. However, the thing that attracted my attention is the hostility coming from gaming companies to the UK government's Change4Life campaign which is aimed at getting children to eat more healthily and exercise more.

The Change4Life campaign up to now has featured television advertisements of a plasticine family stopping watching television and eating fattening foods and getting out and exercising. The Change4Life campaign is being termed a 'movement' and is receiving widespread support from medical bodies and charities such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK who worked with advertising agency The Gate on the project. Many local groups are getting on board and doing initiatives to get people exercising and eating healthier food. With the recession biting, ironically consumption of takeaways and high carbohydrate and fatty foods has risen. In the UK apparently 2 million children aged 2-10 are overweight (25% of girls and 20% of boys in that age group) and 700,000 are clinically obese. Health provision is already having challenges with obesity in adults but clearly if this high level of children is moving in that direction the death rate in the UK will rise in the next few decades. There is also a rise in illnesses associate with overweight, not only heart disease but also Type 2 Diabetes which leads to complications and can result in blindness and amputations as the body decays.

Now we come to the controversy which raises all sorts of questions about how big business seeks to restrict the ability of government to act. The print advert appearing first in women's magazines which has angered games companies the most shows a boy probably about eight or nine years old slumped on a sofa with a games controller in his hand staring blankly at a screen. The slogan says 'Risk an Early Death Just Do Nothing'. I have tried to put a copy of the advertisement on this posting but probably due to copyright sprites it will not upload. You can access it here: http://img7.imageshack.us/img7/4973/change4lifelarge.jpg

MCV an online gaming publication made an official complaint last week to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) about the advertisement claiming it was 'unfair and inaccurate'. They say that the advert implies that to stop children playing such games will improve their health and that is not true and simply damages small businesses. Of course it is not the small businesses who have reacted most harshly it is the very big ones.

Sega said it was 'disappointed and frustrated' by the advertisement. They said: 'Television, radio, cinema, listening to music, computing, video gaming and of course, reading all require a high element of passive participation, but of all these media types it is video gaming that provides the most potential interaction and activity. It seems that an advertisement has been put together by a poorly informed advertising agency.' Of course this is rubbish, the government especially since the era of Thatcher and the spin days of Blair has always known precisely what it is doing with its advertising. The government's media image and its use of things like Directgov website are very precise. Other companies have complained including Atari, Konami,Tiga and Sony plus Future a publisher of games-related magazines. Industry body ELSPA demanded an immediate meeting with the government and then went on to pursue the charities. They feel the campaign has gone against their 'responsible' guidance on the Ask About Games website. Of course, ask a child how often they have visited this website and I will be surprised if you can find one.

Richard Wilson head of Tiga began creating wonderful new excuses and whining: 'This advert is absurd and insulting in equal measure. To imply that playing a video game leads to a premature rendezvous with the Grim Reaper is a non-sequitur of colossal proportions. Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, obesity and involvement in violent crime are forms of behaviour that risk an early death. In contrast, many video games are mentally stimulating, potentially educational and social and some involve physical exercise.' Richard, in the UK far more children and adults will die of obesity than violent crime, I think you are believing some of your gaming scenarios far too much. I think Atari have been more honest when they said: 'At best, the campaign is misleading and at worst, damaging to the industry, its reputation and its potential.' Naturally their profits especially in the recession are what really concern them. These companies only think about children as consumers rather than people who have to live.

Sony has gone one step further and because the child in the picture has a 'Playstation-like controller' they are angered that they were not consulted before the advertisement went ahead. This is just appalling thinking, that a company should be able to stop a government health campaign. Sony are looking into sueing the government over the campaign. I hope they do and I am sure they will lose.

In response the onslaught, the Department of Health has refused to apologise for the campaign, not feeling it was at all misjudged: 'The campaign takes a direct approach, setting out the issue in succinctly and in straightforward language. An unhealthy lifestyle, including poor diet or being inactive, can lead to health problems in later life. If current trends continue, nine in ten people will be overweight or obese by 2050. This can increase your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers."We are not saying that children shouldn't play computer games or eat treats, but parents and children need to be aware of the benefits of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle. The activities portrayed are examples of poor diet and lack of physical activity.' Diabetes UK has been quoted as being surprised by the harsh reaction of games companies and plans to make legal challenges against the campaign.

I am a big fan of computer games and do not want the industry to suffer, but the time has come for the games industry. They are in the position that MacDonalds and other burger chains were in the 1990s and the cigarette companies were in the 1980s when people realised that what these companies were legitimately promoting were actually doing great harm. Burger chains have responded and the menus especially for children are a world away from what they were twenty years ago. The games companies are looking petulant and bullying. Those complaining are multinationals unused to being challenged. If they react in such a hostile way they are likely to egg the government on to stricter measures such as banning sale of games to anyone under 18. In New Zealand parents face a fine of NZ$10,000 or 3 months' imprisonment if their children play games with a higher rating than their age, notably violent '18' certificate games. I am sure we will see something similar. Keith Vaz, MP, was talking to a select committee about this problem in the UK only recently.

Games companies would be sensible to learn from the MacDonalds approach to health challenges. The Wii physical games can be seen as the first 'healthy option' on the games companies menu but they will have to do more. It is interesting that these days you do not get things as you did on 'Stronghold' (2001) a PC castle building game, had a function that after a certain period of game play your advisor would tell you that you had been playing the game for too long and that you should take a break. City-, business- and castle-building games are very easy to lose track of time with when playing. I think all companies should be compelled to introduce a function in all games which effectively has an 'interval' say after 45 minutes of play the screen freezes just where you have reached and will not release for say 30 minutes compelling you to go off and do something else. This can be introduced first for games which appeal most to children and as with the MacDonalds advertisements they should advise children to go and get some exercise. Of course this will generate hostility for parents many of whom use game consules as a way to keep the child quiet and out of their hair. That change, though, is just what Change4Life is about and it is going to upset people, but it may keep them alive. Evidence this week has shown that even if you do not start exercising until you are over 50 years old, it will lengthen your life.

The games companies no doubt have decided to adopt the 'don't blame us' approach and like many industries in the past especially in the face of a Labour government, will use the full weight of the law and their vast funds to try to stop government policy. They may win, some industries have in the past. However, this is not something like releasing control over copper supplies or not nationalising the sugar industry, this is about the health of children and that is a very emotive subject which parents can be made to feel very guilty about in a way no games company can assuage. In addition, this campaign is perceived as something coming from the government or particular charities but the games companies have missed the fact that it is in line with policies already in place especially in schools and leisure facilities. This is the most prominent bit of the iceberg, but there has been a lot going on in the UK regarding children that they seem to have been oblivious to. If they are sensible games companies will be looking at ways to alter their products. As the Department of Health has noted they are not seeking to ban children playing computer games, but the more hostile the industry is, the more likely they will move in that direction. To get through this the games companies need to be clever not aggressive which does them no favours.

P.P. 24/04/2009 - Online games industry journal MCV is lauding the 'shock U-turn' in the Change4Life advertisements as the latest ones say that exercise got through games such as those used with Wii that make the players move and jump around can contribute to the children's daily fitness. The industry feels that its bullying has paid off. Many games companies tried to censor the campaign last month when it rightly said that if children were simply stuck in front of console and computer games they would have an early death. Of course Change4Life has not done a U-turn, it always said that restricted games playing by children was fine, but of course the games industry had to act in its exaggerated outrage arguing the government was seeking to ban console games. In addition, it is not a U-turn because active games such as those provided through Wii remain a small minority of console and computer game playing. The Wii has sold 50 million units across the world since 2006, Playstation 2 has sold 136 million, but of course many are in use by second and third hand owners now. The Wii has sold 4.9 million in the UK and the Playstation 3 has sold 1.9 million since Marh 2007. So passive-activity games consoles still remain predominant. The console games industry cannot be allowed to bully or censor health campaigns and like the fast food industry has done, need to wake up to the harm their products can cause, especially to children.

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