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.


Comments

    I've done a lot of research on video game addiction for psychology at university and one of the things I found in a lot of studies was that video games prove especially attractive for people with underlying psychological disorders and that something like 86% of people who develop video game addiction already had another psychological disorder. This is the sort of fact that you don't hear on mainstream media sites and kinda points to the fact that it isn't the game playing which causes the problem but merely exacerbates it.

    There are real discussions to be had here, but we're not going to be having them with people who produce this garbage or their audience. There's no need to cater to this nonsense by treating them like adults.

    It's either;
    1. Violent video games with you can easily point the finger at because you don't understand them.
    2. An person with a psychological disorder, that often never presents itself until it's either fully developed or manifests in violent behaviour. A disorder that costs society millions of dollars in care by support services that usually doesn't cure the disorder but teach how to manage it. Care that costs people money in the USA, care that isn't a default reaction to seek out because of said costs.

    yeah.... I'll go with games then.

    Last edited 03/05/13 1:21 pm

      Well option 2 is haaaaaaard and it cost moneeeeeeeeeey. Better to just throw blame and hope people don't notice how amazingly unhelpful that's been in the past with previous scapegoating :/

    On one hand, these articles kinda aren't needed on Kotaku. I know some people take some pleasure in tearing down the argument of the opposition, but seriously, why do we need to go into depth on how bad this average, if not sub-par, piece of the same old 'Video Games are evil' argument?

    With the other hand I agree. This is one quite biased piece. Just remember, this show is most definitely some US day show that only stay at home moms would watch. It's most likely to line up with the audience's opinion that try and subvert the opinions of the actual majority population.

    In the end, who cares what some extremely low-ranking TV host has to think about a rising industry they have no idea about?

    +1 for the article, and especially the idea that a really good message and intelligent, adult conversation is masked by sensationalist media.

    Have you considered a Kotaku web series attempting to highlight these ideas in a somewhat unbiased fashion? Take stories from your readers that are relevant to the subject matter as examples for and against the idea that video games influence certain things in life. I for one am a mentally unstable workaholic who plays video games to the detriment of many things and I am sure there are many more of your readers that could present other points of view as actual gamers experiencing these things, perhaps contact some behavioural psychologists and other sciency types that have the evidence both for and against?

    We know that most of the publicity that gaming receives is bad publicity because we, as is kind of the punch line of this article, let it happen and do nothing about it as we believe it will go away. As Stephen T keeps insisting, media reps contact the intermediary like Kotaku for information when they should be talking to the devs themselves, surely Kotaku has something in the way of a rapport with the industry at large and can gather all the information in one location?

    Food for thought.

    The KATIE C show is like a junkie addicted to ratings. It's cable TV junk.

    I caught an ad for it yesterday on Foxtel, which said they had "the first interview with Amanda Knox."

    I though "hmm, maybe I'll check that out."

    The show then proceeded to have a 35 minute interview segment with some random, D-grade, space-cadet TV celebrity; a boring as all hell cooking segment; and then showed a 90-second clip of the Amanda Knox "interview" which was actually airing on another show with Diane Sawyer (on the same network).

    Because of their advertisement, I had that piece of sh.t show on in the background for a whole hour for what ended up to be a 90-second preview for another show.

    So yea... Ratings whores, not to be taken seriously. Ever.

    These 'experts' need to look outside their own country. Both Australia and America have violent video games yet Australia does not have these shootings. The the only intelligent conclusion you can draw from this is that video game are, at the very worst, no more than an element in these kinds of shootings. They cannot be the cause. If they were the sole cause then every culture in the world with video games would experience similar shootings.

      and to that end, we would then be isolating a particular type of person who plays on a leisure computer. If we did, I believe we would find something like depression or social disorder, poor childhood, mistreatment etc lying somewhere at the root of the problem. I will concede that video games probably contribute in some way but to say they put the gun in someones hand and pulled the trigger is claiming that there are millions upon millions of people playing games right now just waiting to snap and go on a shooting spree, which is not the case.

      But what about all the violence in Australia committed with angry hands!!! Obviously video games MUST be banned or ANGRY HANDS will hurt OUR KIDS!!

      Yeah, but according to one of America's senators, we live on Planet X, so...

      Funnily enough, there is a country with roughly the same amount of guns per person, if not more, than America. Also, most of these guns are unregistered and apparently, the government doesn't really worry about it as they want the populace like an armed militia. This country is also a great consumer of video games.

      The USA, even accounting for the greater population, has a faaaaaaaaar higher rate of homicides than this country.

      Of course I guess, when you live in Sweden, you'd be rather chill.

    Videogames have 0% responsibility in these issues.

    Did the murderers also eat ice cream? Maybe Ice cream is to blame?

    There were psychos, murderers, depressives and bipolar people for hundreds of years before videogames came along.

    The games industry doesn't help itself with its hypocritical, self-contradictory approach to some of these things.

    Look at the way they've opposed perfectly reasonable attempts by governments in the US to restrict the sale of mature-rated games to children. You know, like pretty much every other civilized nation on earth does. In Australia the games industry campaigned long and hard for an R rating claiming that it would better protect children from adult content. In the US the industry goes to the supreme court to fight tooth and nail against attempts to do exactly the same thing there.

    Last edited 03/05/13 2:57 pm

    I read somewhere the reason why the media attack video games is because they are in competition with their viewership. It makes logical sense why they would want to make video games taboo.

      its a lost cause......I get the impression the younger people thease days have all their entertainment on the internet....

    It's easier to blame video games than look at the larger problems.

    They had not just one but several guns in the home, meaning that when an unbalanced, sleep deprived teen throws a tantrum a gun was in easy reach, and not only that he knew how to use it. (not from the game but from hunting with his family!) Without a gun, parents might have been hit, or wall punched in...

    We don't know the full background of this story, but if your son gets to the addicted stage where they are playing a game for 72 hour straight, any game... whether inside or outside the home, something went wrong a LOT earlier. Help with addiction to computer games has to start way earlier, and yes I'm speaking as a parent with experience.

    We made mistakes with our eldest that I'd never do again with our younger kids. Which led to him being able to play computer games extensively. Some kids do seem to have addictive personalities, and other issues can lead them to escape in computer games. My oldest step son survived his troubled teen age years, thank goodness, still plays games but in balance with other things in life. Having a girlfriend that hated computer games went a looong way to sorting that out!

    NOTHING is good for you in excess, and combined with lack of sleep, depression, a fractured home life and easy access to deadly weapons....

    He could have as some others reported...an addiction to reading Steven King novels...are we going to ban those?

    As soon as the son mentioned that the family went hunting often and had many guns in the home I'm sorry I just tuned out...

    And just so you know...I'm a cyber safety advocate.. who games...of a sort, has gamer teens, loves computer games, and technology, but doesn't believe in the rubbish around violent video games turning people into mass murderers. Violent video games might be a great training ground for someone who wants to gear up to doing it in RL certainly, but like anything else that can be abused, do we ban it for the majority because a few people use these type of games to do bad things? What about all the people who play these games that can't even kill an ant!

    Don't let kids near guns, and give fair and solid boundaries around computer and gaming from a young age is what I would recommend.

    I'm sorry that this family and others went through this, but what would the outcome have been if the child didn't have easy access to a gun!

    It was said when I was a kid, that I never got my nose out of a book...eventually I would come up for air :)

    EDIT: should have read the article before shooting my mouth off.

    Last edited 03/05/13 3:31 pm

    Bravo.
    Well written, I think that anything that takes a logical retort at the absolute bullshit that programs like this frequently push out into the public is well worth some respect. The insane amount of accusations and straight out fraudulent facts that make up the majority of these 'informative' programs need to be recognised as junk.

    Welner smugly smiles and says, “Well, sometimes research isn’t needed,”

    Really all you need to know. People starting with the conclusion and working backwards.

    O wow, television. Retro!

    I guess people in America still watch this stuff huh?

    It's amazingly unprofessional for these "professionals" to just assume what the problem is without diagnosing or researching the persons issues. Absolute dickheads. The show host is just a brainwashing dickhead who should stop preaching bullshit too.

    The current hysteria about video games reminds me of a similar situation in the 1940s. Has anyone seen the film 'Reefer Madness'? I know we're talking a drug versus a form of entertainment, but the outrageous hyperbole was much the same. Interestingly, when I was a first year uni student in 1986, they had an all night movie marathon for 'O Week'. It consisted of 'Flesh for Frankenstein', 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Reefer Madness', '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'Duck Soup' ( there may have been one or two other movies but I can't remember what they were). I like to think I am a well adjusted member of society, but I've never been able to watch a Marx Brothers movie since then. However, I have viewed the other films again subsequently.

    Hmmm.

    Last edited 03/05/13 8:50 pm

    Video games are just the scapegoat for America's gun control debate, violent video games were hardly talked about until the gun control debate started.

    "oh shit, we need a distraction! Violent video games!"

    I can't get past that "gamer" trying to strangle his controller rather than use it properly

    Last edited 04/05/13 12:48 pm

    why is video games addictive? just take 1 look around the world you live in and there's your answer.

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