Fifth Estate Top GunLast weekend, the popular CBC television program The Fifth Estate, aired an episode called ‘Top Gun’, which dealt with the death of Brandon Crisp; a 15 year old boy who ran away from home after getting into an argument with his parents about the amount of time and effort he spent playing the XBox360 title Call of Duty 4. Brandon fell out of a tree and crushed his chest upon impact.

The program interviewed the parents, a behavioural counsellor, Brandon’s friends, professional video game players from Major League Gaming, and a spokeswoman for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in Canada. I reviewed the episode three times and decided to write a letter to CBC television.

Here is what I wrote:

The Fifth Estate is well known for shining a spotlight on important issues that Canadians need to know about. However, I feel the level of investigation and research for this episode was shallow, resulting in a program that made Brandon’s family appear to be victims of the video game industry. Important questions were not asked of both parties, and you didn’t provide constructive information for viewers so they could educate themselves.

Canadians need to understand these facts about the commercial video game industry in North America:

The commercial video game industry is extremely competitive like any other entertainment industry. Hardware manufacturers and software publishers are publicly traded companies that must deliver products every quarter and show a profit to shareholders.

The commercial video game industry is a hit driven business. It is generally accepted that 15% of the titles generate 85% of the revenues.

Video game consoles like the Playstation 3 and Xbox360 are not toys. These devices are essentially supercomputer technologies designed for high end immersive game experiences. They use multiple central processors, advanced graphic processors, memory management, sound synthesizers, and broadband internet capacity.

Blockbuster commercial ‘AAA’ video game titles like Call of Duty 4 shown on your program cost upwards of $100 million USD to develop, employing 100 or more staff over three to four years. There is tremendous financial risk.

Commercial game developers in North America are largely adult males in their 20’s and 30’s. Many of them are hardcore gamers who enjoy hyper-realistic visual details requiring dexterity and skill.

The commercial video game industry loathes external criticism coming from those who don’t understand the medium. There is still an attitude of ‘if you don’t play video games, then you can’t understand what we do’.

The commercial video game industry is going through ‘puberty’. The industry doesn’t want to lose its edgy, youthful exuberance, but at the same time, it wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate form of entertainment. In other words, it presently has problems accepting responsibility for its actions and how the games it produces influence society. Think of it as a ‘virtual Peter Pan complex’.

At the 2008 Vancouver International Game Summit, a well known game developer Jason Rubin (creator of the Crash Bandicoot series for the Sony Playstation) publicly stated that the video game industry has done a terrible job at public awareness and this situation must change if it’s to be taken seriously.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is a trade organization created in the 1990’s by the commercial video game industry in North America to represent its commercial interests. Public awareness and education by the ESA in Canada is low on their list of priorities. As your program showed, the ESA spokeswoman was evasive when asked questions about industry responsibility and public awareness efforts in Canada.

The game rating system used by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is just one of many ratings system used around the world to rate video games. The ESRB system was created back in the mid 1990’s after a US Senate investigation into video game violence in 1993. One of the highlights of the hearings was watching Nintendo and Sega executives accuse each other of creating more violent games (Nintendo released Mortal Kombat and Sega released Night Trap).

During the episode, I was surprised that these questions were not asked, nor appear to be researched, by the Fifth Estate:

You never asked Brandon’s parents about where they bought the Xbox360 or why they bought their son a Mature rated game (ages 17 and up). Gillian Findlay made a point about asking the ESA and Major League Gaming representatives why children are playing ‘M’ rated games. Why didn’t you ask Brandon’s parents?

You didn’t ask Brandon’s parents how they decided on buying an Xbox360 and what research they did before buying it.

You didn’t ask Brandon’s parents if they read the manual about using the parental control features on the Xbox360 to control Brandon’s playing time or the types of game he could play. Were they aware of these features?

You never discussed the parental control features of the Xbox360. Did your staff researchers actually try using an Xbox360 and investigating the parental controls?

You never asked Brandon’s parents about why they let their son play with the Xbox 360 alone in his bedroom. I would recommend you look at two Canadian research studies Kid’s Take on Media (2003), and Young Canadians in a Wired World (2005), available at . It is widely reported among educators and technology professionals that personal computers and video game consoles should be in open places where parents can see what is happening. You never discussed this subject.

To subscribe to the Xbox LIVE online game play service, you must register with a valid credit card. Brandon would obviously need to get parental approval. Why didn’t you ask Brandon’s parents about why they let him register with their credit card? Did they know what was available on Xbox LIVE?

In your discussion with the counsellor about game addiction, you cited a research study that identified one out of twelve game players as being ‘addicted’. You failed to identify the source of the study, when and where it was done, who did it, and if it was peer reviewed in a professional academic journal. As a graduate student, it’s burned into your brain that when citing academic research, you must meet these standards. The study you stated on television is meaningless because you didn’t back it up with verifiable information to prove your claim.

Gillian Findlay made a point of mentioning ‘survey after survey’ pointing towards video game violence. Again, she failed to identify the source of these surveys, when and where they were done, who did them, and if they were peer reviewed. It’s poor journalism to vaguely mention academic research and not back it up with information that can be verified by the viewers.

In your discussion with the counsellor about ‘game addiction’, Gillian Findlay didn’t provide a definition of what constitutes ‘game addiction’ and how it would be the same or different from the traditional clinical definition of addiction.

In your discussion with the counselor about ‘game addiction’, Gillian Findlay never discussed constructive solutions that Brandon’s parents might have used with their son and his video game playing habits.

Gillian Findlay never asked Brandon’s parents if they tried to place him in sports activities other than hockey. The program was vague about the connection between Brandon being pulled out of hockey and being given an Xbox360 as a substitute activity. How was this supposed to make up for not playing hockey?

Canada is a world leader in game design and development. I really think the CBC ought to do a documentary on the growth and influence of the Canadian video game industry in the world today. It’s not all hot, sweaty, grunting, adolescent male gamers hunched over Xbox360 controllers. Really, it’s not.

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