Saturday, 22 May 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr Pacman...

Well, it's now Pacman's 30th birthday. It's been three decades since Pacman was first released in Japan, and the yellow circle, the hungriest entertainment icon since Shaggy from Scooby Doo, is now into his fourth. If he's anything like me, he's got some problems ahead. One thing that really hit me when I hit 30 was the slowing down of the metabolism. It was simply not possible to eat as much as I used to without either taking more exercise or putting on loads of weight. When you consider that all Pacman does is either eat or run around a maze, I can see trouble ahead. He can't really eat any less, because that's kind of the point of the game, and he can't exercise much more because he's running around all over the place already.

So why not build his changing life into the game? How about a Pacman game where he puts on weight as the game progresses, kind of like Snake but getting wider rather than longer? A game where he gets stuck in the maze occasionally because he's got too fat? You would be able to lose weight by running around the maze and not eating anything, of course, and this would become part of the strategy. After a good eating binge, you have to use the energy it gives you to run around and get thin enough to deal with the next load of food. It would be irresponsible to suggest that anyone can maintain the food / exercise ratio of their twenties into their thirties. I wish someone had told me.

And speaking of irresponsibility and gaming, TV garden gnome Alan Titchmarsh has now waded into the debate on kids becoming dead-eyed killers because they play too many videogames. No, Alan, you fool, kids are being allowed to play the wrong kind of videogame. Why do people think that all games are suitable for everyone? Why do they think that games are just there for kids? They wouldn't believe it for any other entertainment medium.

If you let your 12 year old watch a movie with an 18 rating, they will probably be exposed to violence, language, sex scenes, drug use or a load of other things that just aren't suitable for their maturity level. Most parents, I'm sure, would look at the age rating on a movie and tell their kids they couldn't watch it. But because games are considered to be something made exclusively for kids, they don't use the same standards when deciding what they can play on their xBox or PS3. This is ridiculous.

I have read that that the average age of a gamer is 34. Most games are therefore targeted at an adult audience. 18 rated games are based on the same kind of storylines as 18 rated movies. Grand Theft Auto Vice City was largely based on Scarface, GTA IV on Eastern Promises, the Resident Evil franchise on films like Dawn of the Dead. They are not in any way intended for children. Yes, children like playing videogames too, the same way kids like playing with water pistols. But you wouldn't give a child a real gun because it's kind of like a water pistol, and you shouldn't buy them buy them Condemned 2 because they like the Harry Potter games and both games are about exploring a big scary looking house and getting into occasional fights with people. There are no similarities with how the combat plays out. Or how scary the house is.

But to be fair, it's not just the fault of the parents. I am an avid reader of the PS3 magazine. It sits by the side of my toilet, and by the end of the month, I will probably have read the reviews section many times. So I've noticed a pattern. Since I've been reading the magazine (about 3 years) every game that has got the 10 / 10 rating (or even 9 / 10 rating) has had an 18 rating, except the occasional piece of cute genius (Little Big Planet), some other novelty appeal (Guitar Hero) or has been an annual update of a sports game franchise (Fifa 10). It seems impossible to be taken seriously by the gaming industry without the realism only possible with an 18 certificate. If it's going to be good, it really needs people to swear convincingly, have drugs or murder as storylines, show injuries realistically, and basically, do everything that films do so well. For the same reasons: we want to be entertained, and there has to be at least the essence of realism for that work. It doesn't matter if the game is set in the real world or not, it has to be convincing. If we stab a unicorn, even if it has green and purple blood, it still has to gush like real blood from its wounds. If we're dealing with a gangster, there's an excellent chance he will be selling drugs, or running brothels, maybe doing some people smuggling. These are all parts of that gangster's character, all things that we need to see so we can know him better, become more immersed in the story, make the victory sweeter when we finally find a Stinger missile and blow his helicopter out of the sky.

This does give a game with a less than 18 rating something of a disadvantage, of course. Personally I would never get as excited by the chaste, harmless thrills of a Harry Potter game, where no-one dies, just faints. Clearly the kids share my opinion and somehow get their hands on the 18 games they crave. Whose fault is this really? Probably the parents who don't investigate what their kids are getting into and don't know about the automatic age lock feature, that prevents (say) any games over a 15 rating from being played. And is it all bad anyway? My kids learnt how to read a map from playing videogames. They had no idea what all the North stuff was before, and the maps in most games rotate to suit your direction, so they give it all in context and they learnt without knowing it. There was something on the news not long ago that 1 in 5 ten year olds couldn't tell a cow from a pig, but I bet they can all tell an Uzi from an AK47.

But I guess the big question is this: can kids actually be harmed by playing videogames outside their age range? I guess they might get into trouble at school for swearing more often, depending on which games they play, but as for a killing spree, I'd have to ask how? Where would he get his guns and ammo from? This is not America, where apparently you can get a free gun for opening a bank account (according to 'Bowling for Columbine', Michael Moore's documentary on gun availability). A 12 year old hitting people with a cricket bat would be a mercifully brief killing spree.

Personally, I've found the opposite to be true. When I was working, it was liberating at the end of a stressful day to boot up Quake or something and just shoot stuff. It was a completely harmless way of relieving stress, and far more diplomatic than arguing with the people who caused the stress in the first place.

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