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Edge #182, December 2007
ITV boss Michael Grade isn't exactly known for holding back with an opinion. Indeed, he comes across as the sort of bloke who automatically assumes he's right about everything. What makes him particularly irritating is that more often than not he is right.
By the time Grade - then at the BBC - inherited Doctor Who it was scraping along with the lowest ratings in the series' history. Budgets had been slashed to the point where whole episodes were being set in a local park, and the best actor they could afford was a man off of Jigsaw.
The show's reputation was in the space toilet, and Grade felt he had to act. He took a razor blade to almost a quarter of a century of BBC tradition, and cut the malignant Time Lord from the schedules. In the face of an overwhelming media outcry Grade held firm, and refused to recommission the series.
As I write this, Grade has just addressed an audience of television industry bigwigs at a Royal Television Society conference. Speaking in response to a speech from John Riccitiello - chief executive of EA - Grade weighed in on the current debate about videogame violence.
Indeed, Grade laughed in the face of Riccitiello's ludicrous assertion that games are unfairly demonised by the media. Riccitiello argued that games are no more violent than many films or TV shows. Grade wasted little time in kicking the kneecaps off of Riccitiello's claim, describing videogames as existing in a "moral vacuum".
Grade's position was that TV had a far stronger moral standpoint than videogames, because it's able to contextualise its content within a dramatic narrative. Riccitiello was subsequently forced to concede that games' ability to tell stories within a strong moral framework was still in its infancy. You don't say, Johnny-Boy?
You have to feel for the EA boss; he really doesn't have a bloody leg-stump to stand on when it comes to defending the content of violent videogames. Frankly, when it comes to the most extreme videogames, they're pretty much indefensible. I'm not saying Manhunt 2 deserved to be banned in the UK, but videogame violence simply isn't the same thing as TV and movie violence. There's a universe of difference between being an active, firstperson participant in acts of virtual violence to watching violent acts carried out within the context of a story.
It's an argument as old as the industry itself, but nobody ever seems to come up with a very good justification for why games have to be violent in the first place. Since that first shot was fired in SpaceWar, games have portrayed abstract violent behaviour in a way that lets the player define his or her own moral framework.
I strongly suspect that John Riccitiello knows this, but also knows which side his bread is buttered. Lose the violence from all videogames, and chances are you lose a big wedge of profits. And with them your job.
Let's face it, many games exist purely to let us indulge the darker areas of our psyches. Admittedly, plenty of games feature acts of violence with you in the role of the good guy - Heroic Cop versus Drug Dealers, or Brave American versus Evil Arabs - but there are an increasing number of games where that moral line isn't so much as blurred as eviscerated with a rusty screwdriver.
I have a friend who has played through all of the Grand Theft Auto games without killing a single civilian (he also refused to harvest any of the Little Sisters in BioShock - a game that attempts to guilt trip you into making the positive moral choice, but doesn't force you to), but I strongly suspect he's in the minority.
I don't mind admitting that I enjoy going on the occasional pretend gun rampage. I don't think I've suffered from exposure to such games, but then I'm not some screwed-up American teen with access to his daddy's gun closet. I can put down the joypad, and walk away safe in the knowledge that it hasn't done me any harm (short of making me want to slaughter the occasional cat, or smother my parents).
Rather than getting on the defensive every time some Tory toff or TV bigwig starts aiming their hammer blows at the forehead of our industry, isn't it about time we all grew up a bit, and said 'fair enough'? Instead of denying that violent games are a bad thing, let's just embrace it in a responsible fashion, and move on.
We all know that videogames aren't to blame for all of society's ills - of course it seems churlish to target popular culture at all when our own leaders seem gripped with a sort of bloodlust these days - but sooner or later we're going to have to accept that videogames are a scapegoat, and probably always will be.
They're never going to leave us alone, so let's work with the legislators to keep these games on the market, but out of the hands of kids. Admittedly, we all know they won't stay out of the hands of kids, but showing a bit more willing might get them off our backs.
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.