In Real Life

Breaking Down The Absurd Anatomy Of A Video Game Scare Piece

Yesterday, Katie Couric did an hour-long exposé on the dangers of violent, addictive video games.

While at times it attempted to be sympathetic and contained actual moments of pathos, it was essentially a maudlin, fear-mongering and clichéd piece of television meant to provide easy answers and scapegoats to very real, complicated problems.

Here’s the whole thing in a nutshell.

Two Stories

Katie brings out two legitimately tragic stories. One of Daniel Petric, the teen who murdered his mother and shot his father in 2007 after they took away his copy of Halo 3, and Quinn Pitcock, the ex-Indianapolis Colts draft pick that gave up his career in the NFL after falling into a bout of depression and compulsive game playing.

In the case of Daniel, Katie interviews his father and sends a correspondent to prison to interview Daniel himself.

“The more I thought about it, the more I became angry. I just became very, very angry,” Daniel’s father, Mark, reflects. You can feel his anger, his loss, and more importantly you can also feel his confusion. He’s a pastor and a good father. How did he go wrong?

Both stories, divorced of the structure of the show and taken on their own merit, are compelling and tragic. Mark goes on to talk about how he has forgiven his son. Quinn talks about how he took his life back. Both stories raise issues of depression, escapism and how people manage their time. Both stories could have become springboards for serious, adult discussions on parenting, mental health and compulsive behaviour.

Unfortunately, we got this instead:

Steering the Narrative

You’re probably familiar with the formula. “He/she was a good kid/student/athlete/spouse. He/she loved sports/school. Then something changed. But now he/she is repentant and here to spread the word.” That’s been the cautionary tale narrative since Go Ask Alice — only the subject material has really changed.

What’s so fascinating about that framework here is how many times the narrative is purposefully forced. Both Daniel and Quinn suffered from depression, but that fact is barely mentioned compared to the games themselves. There is little discussion as to the root cause of their depression. Practically no time is spent discussing the gun that Daniel’s father had in the home, Daniel’s school life or the fact that Quinn also suffered from other addictions (online poker and internet auctions). At all times, the goal is simple — maintain the narrative, and keep it simple.

Spooky, Scary Music and B-Roll of Angry Hands

Katie’s video editors use every trite, played out editing trick in the book — Spooky, pensive music, flash edits, oddly framed shots of gameplay obliquely showing a gun and (my favourite) B-roll of angry, moodily lit hands holding game controllers shot through vaseline.

They even show a flash of the box of Halo 3: ODST (a game that came out well after Daniel Petric was sentenced) and get one of their younger producers to give a brief, two dimensional explanation of ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty’.

If the goal of this piece was to help people with video game addiction, it fails to do so on a massive level. Not only that, it fails to even understand the games its purporting to expose on a very basic level.

I Want You to Get Mad

Then, of course, there are the ‘experts’. There are always experts. In this case, it was Forensic Psychologist Michael Welner and Coleen Moore, a councilor from the Illinois Institute for Addiction. At one particular moment, Katie speculates that maybe video games cause a release of dopamine and suggests that, maybe, more research is needed. Welner smugly smiles and says, “Well, sometimes research isn’t needed,” going on to say that Quinn’s case speaks for itself and that game makers must be held responsible and regulated like the tobacco lobby.

They also trot out Jim Steyer from Common Sense Media who scoffs at the Supreme Court’s claim that video games are protected speech, claiming that the science in this case is as black and white as climate change.

This is the actual endgame. Not compassion, not harm reduction, but blame.

Why We Should Care

The natural response to something like this is to ignore it in the hopes that it will go away — I know I’ve had that response. But the real tragedy here is that so much of this could have been good. I really do feel for Quinn Pitcock and Mark Petric. Depression and addiction are real, crippling issues for so many people, and to diminish the cause by simply looking at the symptom is blatantly irresponsible.

These kind of scare stories — with their spooky clichéd music, dramatic editing and one sided thinking — will only go away if we demand something better. We need, as gamers, to expect to be treated like adults by the mainstream media, even at its lowest common denominator.

We need to demand basic, competent research and an adult discourse. Because if we don’t, we’re going to be ignoring this stuff for the rest of our lives.