Games and gamers in the media

Do all gamers play Grand Theft Auto? Are they all geeky and nerdy young men?

More than one- third of the UK population plays computer and video games these days.

Over-45s test their wits playing games such as Brain Training, party-goers love the multi-player karaoke game SingStar, and families crowd around Nintendo Wii consoles to try their hand at sports such as baseball, tennis, golf and boxing.

Therapy for stroke patients

Video games even seem to be going down a storm with pensioners in their eighties and nineties. One Birmingham retirement home hit the headlines this autumn when elderly residents ditched their usual gardening, knitting and bridge sessions in favour of playing video games. In the US, the Nintendo Wii is being used as therapy for people who are recovering from strokes.

However, despite the fact that video games have become a mainstream and highly sociable activity, the media perception of games and gamers has changed little over the years. Video games get blamed for everything from violent crime to couch-potato children, while gamers themselves are usually portrayed as geeky loners, nerdy teenagers or creepy characters who live on the fringes of society and have a predilection for violent games.

Hunched over PlayStation

Take Channel 4's award-winning sitcom Spaced, for instance. Lead character Tim Bisley, played by Simon Pegg, is more geeky than creepy but is obsessed with "shoot-'em-up" video games. He spends hours hunched over his PlayStation, eyes glued to the screen, and describes one game he plays compulsively till dawn as "a subtle blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence."

Gavin Ogden, editor of online gaming publication computerandvideogames.com - a keen gamer himself - reckons portrayals of video games in the media are way behind the times. In his view, today's gamers are far more likely to be playing football games like FIFA 08 than exploring the depths of human depravity in games such as Manhunt.

Everyone in my office plays

"The stereotypical media perception of boys in their bedrooms playing violent video games upsets gamers," says Ogden, whose own current favourite is Super Mario Galaxy. "Everyone in my office plays computer and video games but we are certainly not a bunch of overweight, spotty, single men - which is the way gamers are frequently portrayed.

"There are so many different video games out there now that you can play a game and never see a splatter of blood. The media automatically seem to think that all gamers sit in darkened bedrooms bludgeoning people over the head with a pickaxe.

"Gaming is already bigger than the Hollywood movie industry in terms of how much money it takes. Today's games are created by 200 people and cost millions of dollars to make so I'd like to think the media will eventually start taking gaming more seriously and realise that not every video game is violent. Quite the reverse."

Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, agrees that the media are less interested in the positive aspects of video games, such as improved hand-eye co-ordination and quicker reactions.

Gaming has grown up

"I write equally about the positives and negatives of games but basically my position is that the advantages of video games far outweigh the disadvantages," says Professor Griffiths, who regularly plays video games with his three children. "Gaming has definitely grown up - yet as far as the media is concerned, video-game playing is still the domain of spotty 11 to 16-year-old males.

"I wrote the first-ever academic study of online gaming back in 1993 and, even then, it was quite clear from the data that the vast majority of people playing online games were adults. One in five were women and most people were playing for positive social reasons. Video games aren't all about competition or beating someone to a pulp.

Video gamers are targeted in spy recruitment drive

"UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the surveillance arm of British intelligence, targeted UK video gamers in its recent advertising campaign, with the aim of attracting some new recruits.

The ads, which resembled ordinary advertising bill boards, with the words "Careers in British Intelligence" appeared in scenes in games such as Splinter Cell, Need for Speed Carbon and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, when played on computers and British Microsoft Xbox consoles.

GCHQ wants to attract a larger and more diverse pool of recruits and views the gaming community as computer savvy, technologically able and quick thinking. It says that it hopes to "capture the imagination of people with a particular interest in information technology".

The campaign, which started at the end of October and ran for one month, was delivered by in-game ad agency Massive Inc. Microsoft bought the New York-based Massive last year. The company sells virtual billboard space to advertisers, then distributes the ads within the games themselves, over the internet to PCs and Xbox 360 game consoles.