Learn to be a bully

Observations on video game

Imagine your child at school. His classmates are terrifying other kids with baseball bats. Then they turn on the teachers, insult them and beat them up. Worse, imagine your child was directing the fighting, ordering random acts of violence.

It could be happening right now, thanks to the release of the video game Bully. In the United States, in the wake of the Amish school massacre, the game has unsurprisingly sparked street protests outside companies connected with making it.

One Florida lawyer, Jack Thompson, has attempted to have the game banned, arguing unsuccessfully that it violates the state's public-nuisance laws.

The most prominent critic of such video games has been Hillary Clinton, who last year attacked the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas whose characters have sex. Clinton cited a study showing that these games, rated for those aged over 17, were being bought by boys as young as seven.

Now Bully has arrived in the UK. Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, has raised his concerns in Prime Minister's Questions that the game can be purchased by young children. More than a year ago, having seen an early version showing pupils beating each other, Vaz drew attention to the peril.

The response of the makers, Rockstar, who were also responsible for Grand Theft Auto, has been nonchalant. The "vilification of video games" was like the "backlash against music in the 50s when Elvis shook his hips", they say. But, as a sop to UK parents, they have dropped the Bully title. It is now called Canis Canem Edit (dog eat dog), maybe in the hope that the cerebral title will obscure the nature of the game. Anti-bullying campaigners invited for a preview have been told the game is a comedy.

The Rockstar website defends the game with another tactic. It emphasises that the central character does not act out of a desire to bully. Rather, he is picked on by students and teachers alike, promoting the idea that the player is a victim. Players of the game are urged to take on "the liars, cheats and snobs who are the most popular members of the student body and faculty". The promotion of a victim mentality which justifies acts of violence - "I am bullied, therefore I bully" - is a particularly insidious effect.

Analyses of school massacres show that perpetrators have often regarded themselves as victims taking revenge on their perceived tormentors.

The lawyer Jack Thompson, arguing his case for the banning of this game, called the game a "Columbine simulator" after the notorious high-school massacre when 12 teenagers and a teacher were killed by two students who were repeatedly bullied and became obsessed with shoot-'em-up video games.

Anti-bullying campaigners have made some progress, persuading Currys and PC World not to stock the game. However, the game's 15 rating, set by the British Board of Film Classification, remains and Bully is just about to become available at branches of HMV and Woolworths around the country.

Whether its release will be accompanied by an increase in violent bullying in our schools, only future statistics will reveal.