There’s a weird serendipity to the launch in the same month of Grand Theft Auto 5 and the cinema release of In Real Life, Beeban Kidron’s documentary about teenage online addiction (now that’s a tough choice for a Friday night). I can’t comment on either as I’ve only just emerged from ninety days solid on Battlefield 4. But I wasn’t actually playing the game – even more worrying, I was writing a novel based on the game.
While I'm not a seasoned gamer, one of the perks of writing Battlefield 4 was a sneak preview of the game. My own experience of months of Battlefield 4 immersion has been a wholly positive one and I’ve come out the other side no more of a menace to society than I was to begin with.
The Battlefield world is admittedly addictive, but it is the level of engagement that is compelling, not the violence. Hours whizz by as you become master of your own universe in the mother of all battles. Your involvement goes a step beyond the largely passive experience of reading a novel or watching a film. Is there any reason to believe that this new ability to engage with a narrative in a way that was simply not possible in the past, is a bad thing?
In Baroness Kidron’s hell-in-handcart world I should be beyond help, pumped and ready to do a drive-by shooting if not the full-on high school attack. Other than immersing myself in Battlefield 4 I’ve done very little else for the past few months except occasionally cook my teenage children breakfast and take them to buy school uniform. As it happens neither of them are big game players though several of their best friends are. Although I garner some brownie points with them for doing something cool with my waking hours, they are just relieved to see me gainfully employed.
But switching to my concerned parent queuing up to be disgusted persona and prompted by Kidron’s shocking revelations about what too much screen time is doing to our teenagers, I checked out what research has been done in this area.
The results are surprising. First off, a 2002 US Secret Service study of 41 individuals involved in school shootings found that only 12 per cent were attracted to violent video games but 24 per cent of them were attracted to violent books. Sadly there was no statistic for how many were attracted to game-inspired books. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Media and Child Health (yes – they have a whole ‘center’ for this) has found that over 49 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls use violent games such as Grand Theft Auto as an outlet for their anger. And – surprise - the U.S. Surgeon General has found that the strongest risk factors for school shootings centred on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. Okay, this is America where there are more guns in the home than screens, so back to something closer to home.
In my childhood in the 1960s, when television was as about as new as the internet is now, parents were blasted with warnings about the corrosive effect of too many hours in front of 'the box'. In particular, there was concern about the impact of exposure to the glamorised gun violence in The Lone Ranger, Wells Fargo and numerous other bought-in US cowboy and cop shows that padded out the meagre terrestrial schedules. Attention spans were also being damaged by frenetic cartoons like Tom and Jerry – which also trivialised violence, while insidious adverts were creating a generation of undiscerning slaves to the consumer culture.
And it wasn’t just TV that was destroying that Swallows and Amazons sanctity of Childhood. There was the telephone – also a relatively new addition to most family homes in the late Fifties and Sixties. Girls in particular were lambasted for spending hours talking to their friends in the days when local calls weren’t charged by the minute.
Today, my teenage children's lives are unquestionably the richer not only for the variety and quality of television they can choose from, but the freedom they have to roam the web and to communicate with their friends however and whenever. What’s more, instead of merely the passive experience of TV they have an active relationship with their screens.
Of course they can get hooked. When they discover something they like they want a lot of it, just like their parents (forty episode box set of The Killing? Bring it on). And judging by the utter silence they demand from us when we watch films together suggests their attention spans are in rude health.
Peter Grimsdale is the author of Battlefield 4: Countdown To War