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Why the Change4Life campaign is wrong to scapegoat games

By on March 9, 2009

There has been some criticism in the blogosphere (and on PocketGamer) of the campaign launched by MCV against the ill-conceived advertisement put together by three British charities in support of the government’s Change for Life campaign.

The counter-arguments seem to have three main thrusts:

  1. It’s not a government campaign: It’s published by the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK, and doesn’t follow government guidelines.
  2. It doesn’t say that games kill you: the ad simply suggests that kids should be active for an hour a day, and surely we can all agree with that
  3. The games industry is just being neurotic: the ad is showing one sedentary pastime; it could just have easily shown watching television, or surfing the Internet, or reading a book. It’s not really targeting games.

All three of these arguments are wrong, and I intend to set out why.

1. This is not a government campaign

The ad has clearly been run by the three charities “in support of the Change4Life campaign”. Some have argued that the ad breaches the government’s guidelines for its Change4Life partners (4.4Mb). It clearly fails on being “Encouraging” (p25) and “Supportive: … does not look back, or blame, or criticise” (p26).

I reject the argument that it is not a government-supported campaign (or at least the Department of Health deserves opprobrium for this campaign as much as the charities involved) because:

  • If the charities are using the Change4Life campaign to “justify” this nonsensical campaign against the government’s guidelines then the Department of Health should be just as angry as the games industry is.
  • A Department of Health spokesperson did not sound angry when quoted in MCV: “We are not saying that children shouldn’t play computer games or eat treats, but parents and children need to be aware of the benefits of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle. The activities portrayed are examples of poor diet and lack of physical activity.” If it really wasn’t something in the Change4Life approach, surely they would have said so.
  • The government’s own Change4Life TV ad (embedding is disabled, so I can only post  a link) makes the same implications (see 0:35 – 1:00)

To my mind, that initial government ad is just as bad. It may have escaped this current furore by at least having the decency to only spend 1/3 of its times denouncing games (it’s a ninety second ad) but it shows:

  •  a child playing pseudo Space Invaders
  • an animation of fat filling the child’s body
  • a voiceover that says “[they realised] 9 out of 10 kids would grow up to have dangerous amounts of fat build-up in their bodies, which meant they’d be more likely to horrid things like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer and many could have their lives cut short.”
  • a gun turret shooting a pixellated picture of a child in the Space Invader game leading to a klaxon blaring and a flashing “Game Over” sound.

Overall, I think it is very hard to argue that the government is not pushing an anti-videogames agenda in this ill-conceived Change4Life campaign.

2. The ad doesn’t say that games kill you.

Under a slogan “Risk an early death, just do nothing”, a slack-jawed child grips a PlayStation 3 controller. That’s pretty direct. You’d have to be pretty dumb (and assume ad agencies were incompetent) not to draw a direct inference from this ad.

The further point is that the scientific report used to justify the Change4Life campaign identifies many areas that affect obesity. Games isn’t one of them.

3. The games industry is just being neurotic.

The games industry is picked on and scapegoated by the press and the government all the time. It is usually due to misunderstandings and a dangerous misperception by politicians that gamers are young and don’t vote, so they don’t matter. However, the industry has tried very hard to engage with government over the past five years (through ELSPA, TIGA, contributions to the Byron Report and elsewhere) and to see their efforts ignored is frustrating at best.

The campaign also ignores all of the strides made by games to increase activity (Wii, Wii Fit, Dance Revolution, even Guitar Hero and Rock Band), the fact that games are often intellectually more demanding than television and other sedentary pastimes and paints games as out-and-out bad for you.

And most importantly for me, most research shows that for children or teens, playing games is not their major sedentary activity. For example, a 2006 report the Kaiser Family Foundation (US) suggests teens spend on average:

  • 16.3 hours a week watching television
  • 5.4 hours using the computer/Internet
  • 2.8 hours playing videogames

So why don’t these campaigns target television watching or using the Internet.

The answer, I think, lies in the government guidelines referred to earlier: “We are particularly targeting parents with younger children (0-11)”. Elsewhere, they talk about targeting “mums”.

So the campaign had a choice. Target the main forms of sedentary activity for all age groups (television, Internet, even reading) or go for the easy target based on prejudice, bias and lack of understanding. Guess which one they picked.

So I don’t believe that the games industry is being neurotic. It is very sensibly standing up and protesting at being made a scapegoat by an ill-informed and lazy government-backed campaign, because if it doesn’t complain, it will happen again.

And again.

And again.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: