Yesterday, several of my friends emailed me links to the video clip above, a "Fox and Friends" segment that aired a few days ago. In their accompanying emails, each person voiced similar sentiments of pissed-off frustration.
"Sigh," I thought. "Let's see how Fox News is portraying video games this week." I transcribed the discussion, as well as my own reactions to what the guys on screen were saying. Let's walk through it, shall we?
We begin with a voiceover from what sounds like an attractive, trustworthy host:
Host Voice-Over: The "Green Police" trying to reach your kids at home on the video game systems! In the Sim Cities Societies games, kids have to build environmentally friendly towns or face a fine. That sounds like a good lesson.
Me: Hmm, other than that first bit, that was a surprisingly sensible, if partisan, introduction. Note the text at the bottom of the screen: "Video Games are Going Green!" On any other news channel this whole segment might just be a short anecdote about a game that's teaching something different to students. Let's see where they're going with this.
Host Voice-Over: ...but is this promoting education or just a liberal agenda with what they actually have to purchase?"
Me: OK, so: warning bells. What could this piece actually be about? What does he mean when he brings up what kids have to purchase? Also, why is he talking about Sim City Societies, which came out in 2007? The gameplay onscreen is from Call of Duty and Flower. Everything that is going on right now is setting off my fail-alert.
Here we cut to a shot of our Eyebrowsy Fox News Host and his guest.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: Joining us now is Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack. Nice to see you this morning, T.J.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: And you, Buddy.
Me: Heh, I wonder if the host's name is actually "Buddy" or if T.J. just couldn't remember it. (Checks Google. Nope, his name is Clayton Morris.)
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: So let's get into some specifics. You know, that sounds like a good lesson to be learned: "Be environmentally friendly." We wouldn't want people polluting.
(Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack appears to agree with this.)
But it's where you get into the specifics of the game that it gets a little grayer, not green.
Me: Nice one, Eyebrowsy Fox News Host! Grey and not green! Because this is a grey area. Well, maybe that means we'll get some nuance here; perhaps this will be an interesting look into the ways that video games can convey specific political and social messages.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: Yeah, and when you use fear, you know? I think right off the top, any time I see some social cause that somebody's profiting off of, right away, credibility to me is in question. And yeah, I think, you know, the scare tactics, the guilt involved, you know?
Me: Whoa, horsey. For starters: "Any time I see some social cause that somebody's profiting off of, right away, credibility is in question" That sentence is a fairly hilarious accidental indictment of Fox News. But that aside, who exactly is fear-mongering? What game are you guys talking about? Is that a clip of Sim City Societies that they're showing while you're talking about scare-tactics and guilt? Perhaps some explanation is warranted here.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: Let's be specific.
Me: Yes, let's!
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: In this game, Sim City Societies, players choose alternative energy options like wind and solar and stuff, for city infrastructure, and soy farms and stuff, instead of nuclear power.
Me: Right, those are options in Sim City.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: Right, because (in a mocking tone) "Nuclear power will make us all glow at night," where meanwhile, it's arguably the safest form of energy out there.
Me: Wait, do the nuclear power plants in Sim City Societies make people glow at night? I do not believe that is in the game. Maybe these guys should be talking about Fallout instead.
And more to the point, while I'm sure that Nuclear power is for the most part safe, I'm not sure I'd say it's safer than wind or solar power. I mean… a nuclear reactor just sort of isn't safer than a windmill, ya know? At least he's pronouncing "Nuclear" correctly.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: Actually, take the other one, there's one out there where you're in charge of the (makes mocking face) "World Environmental Organisation" and it's called (incredulously) Fate of the World.
Me: Oh yeah, Fate of the World! That game is super cool, it came out not too long ago. Also I think the World Environmental Organization is actually a thing.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack:(Mockingly So here, Timmy, you're five. Play "Fate of the World" and it will all be on your shoulders, son.
Me: Woah, wait! That game is not for kids. Fate of the World is a super-difficult, multilayered sim. I remember our reviewer back at Paste got his ass kicked over and over, and only after hugely adapting and reading a bunch of books (real-life books, not strategy guides) was he able to eek out survival. When did we start assuming these games were for kids, let alone five year olds?
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: Here's what the game designers have to say about this. This is Ian Roberts, he's a game designer and he's defending these games. He says: "Video games are about real world issues, and they're important much like films. They let us experience things we could never could and help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us."
Me: Oh yeah, Ian is cool! He worked on Fate of the World. Wonder why they didn't make a bigger deal out of that. Well, that is a nice, simple quote. Fairly self-evident... maybe he should have said something about how games aren't necessarily for kids… well, let's see what Eyebrowsy Fox News Host has to say.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: That sounds like a fine defence...
Me: It is a fine defense! Maybe he'll stop there.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: ...but at the end of the day...
Me: Damn it.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: ...parents don't really know what's in these video games, so they send them to play Sim City and they're learning these lessons that might not be something the parents want their kids to learn.
Me: Why are you choosing Sim City to exemplify your line of thinking? Do you know any kids, any at all? I can tell you, most of them do not go home and play Sim City. They go home and play Minecraft and work on their Kill/Death Ratio in Call of Duty: Black Ops. But you're telling us that we should be concerned about the ones who do choose Sim City. Wow.
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: Exactly! And again, I go back to the fear. There's actually one here, it's called "Mcdonald's The Game", and it tells a kid 'Listen, there's a whole lot more to the story than your hamburger. You have to think about deforestation, the slaughter... (laughingly... the word "slaughter" is right there on the front page of "McDonald's: The Game." And, "evil corporations."
Me: Wait, there's a "McDonald's: the Game?" (Goes to Google.)
Hey look, there totally is! It's a commentary game made by Molleindustria, the same group that made Leaky World. Leaky World was a political statement prompted by the Wikileaks fiasco, a playable version of Julian Assange's essay "Conspiracy as Governance".
So... first of all, "McDonald's: The Game" has a point: There is indeed a lot more to a McDonald's hamburger than just the meat and the bun. But more importantly, it is fundamentally different than the other games in this discussion... it's about as comparable to Sim City Societies as Assange's own "Conspiracy as Governance" is to All The President's Men.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: But are people taking this too far by saying that this is liberal fear-mongering or indoctrination somehow? That's what some critics on the right are saying about these games.
Me: Aah, the old classic: "Some critics" are saying this thing that actually, I am saying.> By "some critics", do you maybe mean... you?
"Some video game bloggers have described this Fox News segment as a bit crap."
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: Yeah, you know… (gives the impression of actually thinking about this) I think so, because again, this comes back to a theme, you know: let kids be kids. It's one thing where Sesame Street would teach you not to litter, and teach you how to say hello and please and thank you, but they do it through nice charming fuzzy little puppets. These guys [meaning game designers] actually have kids freaking out with sweaty palms, worried that they're gonna kill a bunch of virtual polar bears.
Both men laugh about the idea of "Virtual Polar Bears."
Me: Oh, Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack. Who are these kids you're talking about? Are they your kids? The kids of a friend? Why are you even talking about Sesame Street? Haven't we established that these games aren't even designed as children's entertainment? If I were a kid and played Fate of the World, I'd probably be freaked out too, but only because I was unused to losing so hard at a video game.
(Side note: as McCormack talks about kids freaking out, the screen beside him is showing some footage of Flower, a.k.a. the most soothing, non freak-me-out video game I've ever played.)
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: It's funny, because I can see both sides of this debate...
Me: That's funny, because I've been watching for a couple minutes now and I've only seen one.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: ...I see all sides of this, because some people were writing me this morning to say, "This is better, perhaps, than teaching the kids how to play war games, so..."
Radio Host and Parent T.J. McCormack: (Out of nowhere) It's also boring! These are not games! (Sarcastically) It's a game because it teaches kids how to do a tag sale.
Eyebrowsy Fox News Host: (With great sarcasm) T.J., what's boring about building pipelines? I don't get it.
(Both men have a good laugh at their super-hilarious awesomeness, and the ridiculousness of trying to use a video game to teach anyone anything, ever. The segment ends.)
Me: I need a drink.