On an average day I scour the Internet, visiting my favorite games websites in search of news, gossip, hearsay and sometimes even fact. This week I followed a link to the CBC News website and the Marketplace page – Canada’s Investigative Consumer Program. And what did I find there? Well it all began with the story of a woman, no, a"gasp, single mother, who enjoys playing EverQuest once her children are in bed. Nothing strange there you may think, but Canada’s Investigative Consumer journalists thought differently, and in the name of Canadian consumers they dug deep into the dark underbelly of the gaming world.
Tracy, the mother in question plays around four hours a day, reports the horrified journalist, Wendy Mesley. Wendy’s concern doesn’t stop there; she’s got enough worry about for the 400,000 EverQuest players in North America. "Even when the computer is off, the game goes on. It never ends," says Wendy, in an ever so slightly dramatic tone.
Wendy moves onto the tragic story of Liz Woolley, who apparently "watched her 21-year-old son Shawn disappear into an online world." Shawn was diagnosed with depression and Liz blames the game he played avidly. The game in question is EverQuest. Shawn became more and more withdrawn, excluding everything including his family and spent every moment playing online. Eventually, Liz visited Shawn at his apartment and found him sitting in front of his PC with the rifle he’d used to shoot himself.
Liz blames EverQuest for Shawn’s death and she holds Sony Online, the game’s owners, responsible. She claims that Sony is responsible for a game that is so powerful that it becomes addictive. Ever-thorough, Wendy goes on to highlight "alarming" Sony marketing material – "let Sony feed your online addiction" and there’s more – "online games for hours of addicting game play" whilst "maintaining highly addictive immersive and persistent gaming environments."
In Wendy’s eyes this is proof positive that Sony has masterminded the creation of a game designed to breed a generation of game addicts. Er"Wend, look at the marketing hype for any game and you’ll find exactly the same phrases, or any product for that matter. Everything from Pringles to Crunchy Nut Cornflakes gets marketed as addictive to make them appealing. Somehow, I don’t think Kellogg’s have some evil plan to have us all addicted to delicious flakes of golden corn.
Shawn’s story is a very sad one, but the fact remains that he obviously had issues. To claim that EverQuest caused his depression is convenient and perhaps Liz Woolley is trying not to face up to whatever Shawn’s real problems were. I don’t have an issue with Liz; after all she’s just a mother desperately trying to understand why her son was driven to take his own life. My problem lies with the kind of journalism that sets out like a lynch mob, braying for blood in the name of the consumer.
Right from the start of the article, Wendy was making judgments about her subject. All we know about Tracy is that "she’s alone – a single mom""er and this is relevant, why? Wendy describes Tracy as "beleaguered," until she becomes a dragon-slayer in EverQuest. The real picture might be that Tracy’s really happy and that she’s got three great kids, but Wendy’s only given us a description of the dark side of the moon, so I guess we’ll never know.
Then there’s Shawn’s story, which is clearly a tragedy, but I can’t help feeling that Wendy’s role in the whole thing was just to fan the flames. I mean can she honestly think that a game is capable of causing clinical depression and suicide? I think this is taking a very simplistic view of depression. Playing games has thrown me into blind rages. I’ve been known to shout, curse and chuck a controller or two, but games have never left me depressed, and the same can be said for the countless gamers I know – even the ones who play online.
I’m sure online gaming is an unhealthy passtime when it’s used as a substitute for or a way to deal with the world outside, but then the same can be said of soap operas and alcohol. By the end of the article I wasn’t even sure what Wendy was trying to say. Did she want Sony to stop making EverQuest or stand up and say "at the core of our development strategy for EverQuest was the sole intention to turn whoever played it into an addict?" Only Wendy herself knows the answer to these questions. If you ask me, it’s another case of games being easy to demonize – sadly.
I guess we’re still waiting for the day a journalist like Wendy presents a balanced argument