The Real Story
Regardless of whether you agree that these are minor quibbles or not though, there’s no getting away from the larger issue; that the way the story is reported is skewing the research in such a way as to create a furore where really none should exist. The research Metro based its story on was also reported in The Times
, the BBC
and the Guardian
It's very instructive to look at the headlines these various publications used. The Times opted for "TV and computer games blamed for return of rickets
", which at least doesn't single games out, but the BBC and the Guardian opted for "Newcastle University experts want Vitamin D put in food
" and "Rickets warning from doctors as vitamin D deficiency widens
The BBC focussed on what the report calls for, while the Guardian offers a more balanced summary. In contrast, the Times and the Metro both put their story under exclamatory headlines that seem to directly link games to an illness that shouldn’t really exist in the UK any more. Oh, and Metro is sure to ram the seriousness of it all home too. Rickets may only affect 100 children a year in the UK, but it’s been linked to all sorts of bad things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. If I ever read about something that isn’t linked to cancer in some way (and which is reliable enough not to be contradicted in a new story a few weeks later) then I’ll die a happy man, I think.
In reality though, the entire notion of gaming being attached to rickets is so gloriously detached from the actual focus of the research as to be utterly ridiculous. Here’s a link to the original press release
that was put out by Newcastle University. Take a good long look at it and you’ll probably notice that what the researchers want isn’t for children to stop playing computer games but for a change in national health policy.
Games are viewed with suspicion just as comics were
Rickets is a well-known and preventable condition. It’s caused by a lack of vitamin D (usually anyway, as there is also a congenital form) and the primary symptom/side effect is weakening of the bones creating a bowing of the legs. All you need to prevent it occurring and to treat it is more vitamin D. So, that’s what the researchers are calling for – that people eat some more vitamin D and that we consider adding it to our foods. There’s no big ‘games are bad, rar-rar’ theme in the research; that’s all been added by the journalists.
In fact, to be completely fair to Professor Pearce, anyone who takes a good look at the context in which he mentions computer games should be able to see that he’s not really singling gaming out as bad. He’s merely using it as a casual example to say that children aren’t running around outside as much anymore. That's exactly what he reaffirmed when I contacted him for an explanation.
"We didn't do any research to link video games to rickets,
" said Prof. Pearce. "Children get rickets around the age of 20 months, so too young to be computer gaming. Vitamin D deficiency is becoming commoner in the UK and one of many factors is the changing sunlight exposure of kids, who prefer to play indoors than out.
"Our intended message is that vitamin drops and food supplementation might be the best way to ensure children don't get rickets, which is an increasingly common disease,
" he finished.
The quote which appears in the press release doesn't explicitly say any of the above though, making it ripe for a newspaper to use in an effort to twist the truth. Metro's article does mention that the researchers are calling for foods in the UK to be fortified with vitamin D (which seems drastic if it will only help 100 people a year), but it does it in a way which makes it seem like a reactionary afterthought. The actual research flies in the face of what the Metro suggests, which the writer would have uncovered had he bothered to ask for an actual quote instead of just stopping at the press release and adding a dash of spin.
This is what lots of people think all games are like
And that’s the problem – that gaming is still viewed as a subculture or fringe activity that needs to be discouraged through outlandish and misleading headlines that are designed more to scare readers into grabbing a free newspaper than actually inform interested parties. Rickets isn’t a nice condition, but at the end of the day it’s not at all caused by computer games like the article insinuates – it’s caused by staying indoors all the time and not eating a healthy, balanced diet. True, some people might be staying indoors because they play computer games, but it’s equally possible that they’re stuck inside working in a tiny cubicle and that’s why they are ill.
Articles written in this way are one of the key things that Goldacre discusses in his book, so if you’re interested in the topic then I’d strongly suggest reading it because it’s impossible for me to lecture on about the topic for much longer without admitting my own bias in all of this. I’m a gamer and a games journalist, so of course I’m going to be incensed by anything that assaults my profession and hobby in such a way. I’m practically brimming with fury as I write!
Bias and anger doesn’t mean I’m totally wrong on the topic though and though I’ve probably emotionalised this entire argument as I’ve written it I do think that the points I make about the research and the way it was reported still stand. It’s bad journalism, of the type I’m desperate to avoid and eager to discourage.
Incidentally, I sent a copy of the Metro’s story to Ben Goldacre to see what he thought of it.