Last Friday, the CBS News Magazine 48 Hours broadcast a story about Everquest as part of a show about addiction. This broadcast showed such a serious lack of journalistic integrity and left so many questions unanswered that I feel compelled to respond. Clearly, in this case true journalism was set aside, and CBS instead came up with what they thought was a juicy premise and then manufactured the facts to fit, purposefully ignoring the multitude of other facts that repudiated their predetermined storyline. In doing so, they insulted and belittled the hundreds of thousands of us who play and enjoy online games and have no difficulty integrating our hobby into our regular daily lives. (I’m including the DAoC site in this editorial because there is no doubt that had they focused on that game, their premise would have remained the same). The title of their show was “Addiction”, so let me start with the word itself. All too often our media adopts a viable scientific or medical term and warps it far beyond its original meaning to the point where the term loses all actual meaning. Addiction is one of those terms. I am sorry, but Everquest is not addictive. Neither is eating, working, having sex, or any of the myriad other activities our press loves to call addictive. To call Everquest addictive is an insult to the many people out there who are struggling to overcome the many serious and valid debilitating addictions in our world. An addictive substance is something you need, not want, and no matter how you look at it, nobody needs to play Everquest.
Playing Everquest is definitely a lot of fun, and some may prefer playing it to doing any of the other activities life may offer, even to the point of ignoring things society deems important. This is not an addiction, but rather a lack of self control. A man sweating with the anguish of withdrawal from his normal dose of heroin is addicted and in need to help to kick his habit. His body needs that heroin. A man who plays Everquest to the point where he ignores his family, job and life is simply out of control. He may want to keep playing the game, but he does not need it. There is a difference. CBS’s premise that this is some sort of evil game that sucks the mind out of its players and causes them to lose control of their lives is simply ridiculous. If someone loses control of his life, it is likely that he would have found some other way to do it even if he did not find Everquest. It makes for a juicy headline, but really is tabloid journalism at its worst.
Even more tabloid journalism was the presentation itself. Is there any doubt that 48 Hours interviewed hundreds of people and kept rejecting person after person for being too normal or because the game did not have any negative impact on their lives before picking their eventual subjects? Even the player they eventually did decide to film hardly supported their premise, although they used every trick in their book to make it seem that he did. It’s obvious they had no intention of presenting an unbiased article and routinely rejected anything that contradicted the story they wanted to make. They instead wanted to shock the viewer and make him believe that there are hundreds of thousands of mentally unstable gaming addicts playing this online video game who are probably just steps away from killing themselves and who knows how many others. Obviously the CBS motto is to never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The player they finally chose to interview was a doctor who played Everquest about 20 hours a week. He seemed to be a fairly normal person with a normal family life. They obviously chose him because his wife complained that she wished that he spent less time playing Everquest and more time with his family. The implication was clear that this was an otherwise good and normal man hopelessly corrupted by this evil game. Funny, but I saw something else. Here is a man who manages to hold down a high pressure job, is a loving husband, properly raises his children and provides for his family. Yet CBS wants to excoriate him for stealing 20 hours a week of private time for himself, because he does it playing a video game and, quite frankly, they think that’s weird. They showed him sitting there fighting something in the game and then zoomed in to the reporter so that she could arch her eyebrows and look properly horrified that anyone would be silly enough to waste his time on something like that. “Look”, she said, “he even has trouble looking away from the screen when I’m talking to him”. Oh if only he hadn’t met this evil game, he would surely be the perfect husband and father.
Let me add something up here. CBS sports is a very profitable part of their network. Watching two Sunday NFL games takes a good 7 hours. A single college game on Saturday is another 3 ½ hours and there are games on all day long. Add in a couple baseball, basketball or hockey games during the week and you can easily add up to 20 hours watching sports on TV for just your average sports fan. A dedicated sports fan would of course go much higher than that. I’m guessing if that was his hobby, 48 Hours would have never come knocking at his door. “Man ignores family to watch football” does not make as tantalizing a headline as “Man becomes addicted to evil video game”. I don’t see CBS urging their sports division to put a warning label at the bottom of every football game warning that watching sports can be addictive and cause you to spend time away from your family.
His wife should be glad he is not going out to the bars every night with his friends like many other men and women and that he instead found a way to blow off steam that keeps him at home and available when she needs him and that comes at a relatively small cost. She was never asked, but would any of us be surprised to find out that the wife who is complaining so much about her husband’s game playing spends far more than 20 hours a week watching television or shopping. I would think just about anyone spends at least 20 hours a week on personal projects and hobbies. Playing golf, sports, television, reading, and shopping are a few obvious examples of activities people spend long hours at, but there are plenty of others. Of course that wouldn’t fit into CBS’s concept for the show, so those facts simply got ignored. Besides, they want to make him look weird, not normal, and pointing that out would simply remind people that this isn’t really all that odd after all. He’s playing a video game, so there must be something wrong with him. This is after all a tabloid and not a real news show.
48 Hours also interviewed Ben Stein about his son’s Everquest playing. I guess this was to show that even pseudo-celebrities like him are not immune to this scourge. (If they wanted to interview a celebrity, why not a real one who actually plays Everquest like Curt Schilling? – Oh yeah, Curt would have told them they were full of it and blown a hole in their whole false and demeaning premise). Am I the only one struck by Mr. Stein’s method of stopping his son from playing EQ? He sent him off to a boarding school where, according to Mr. Stein, they did not allow games like that to be played. After a stint of time away from Everquest, and not coincidentally away from his parents, he was suddenly cured. (and I’m glad we were spared the manufactured scenes of his son lying in bed at the boarding house, body shaking and sweating profusely, and mewing pitifully about “just one more orc, please just one more”). Well, Ben, why didn’t you just not allow those games at your house? If your son is playing video games to what you consider an excess, maybe you should just put your foot down and pull the plug on his computer. If he instead spent his time downloading online porn, would you have let him do that for a while until you finally threw up your hands and sent him off to a porn-free school somewhere? Who is the problem here? The teenager who plays a game to excess, or for that matter does anything to excess, or the parent who allows it? Sorry Ben, but don’t blame the manufacturer of a game for your bad parenting.
Finally, there is poor Mrs. Woolley. It must be terrible to lose a son, and we all feel sympathy for her. But eventually she is going to have to face up to the fact that Everquest did not have anything to do with it. Shawn was a troubled and mentally disturbed child and had been so for all of his life. Something was bound to set him off eventually. Maybe it was indeed something that happened to him in the game. Everquest is after all populated with real people, and the inability to interact with people seemed to be at the root of his mental illness. It really could have been just about anything that brought about his suicide. The unfortunate fact in life is that sometimes bad things happen and there’s not much we can do about it. Blaming Everquest for her son’s death probably makes Mrs. Woolley feel better and gives her an outlet for her grief, and you know what? I really have no problem with that. Let her deal with her grief in whatever manner she wishes.
What is wrong is for a news outlet like CBS to exploit her grief for the sake of their ratings. And make no mistake that this is pure exploitation on their part. “Satanic Video game convinces man to commit suicide” was just too good a headline for them to resist. The tabloid journalists who make up the 48 Hours staff must have truly started salivating when they thought that one up. So they hauled their cameras into that poor woman’s living room and helped feed her delusion so that they could broadcast it to the rest of the world and sell a lot of commercials. Frankly, this part makes me sicker than any other part of their story. Manufacturing facts to make up a false story you hope will bring big ratings makes you a poor journalist, but exploiting a mother’s suffering and grief from the death of her son for those ratings makes you a poor human being. The journalists who made their trek to the Woolley residence to get their juicy video game murder story were simply parasites feeding on that poor woman’s grief and delusions. I’d like to think that Susan Spencer, the journalist who did this story, has a little more trouble sleeping a night because of her actions, but unfortunately I doubt it bothers her in the least.
It is sad to see that the network of the great Walter Cronkite has sunk to such depths. I had always thought journalism was about facts first and story second. Yet CBS managed to do an entire story on the supposedly addictive and evil nature of this game without displaying a single fact to prove it and by ignoring the many facts that disprove it. In the end they made fun of something they know nothing about, exploited something that should be pitied instead, and succeeded in nothing more than insulting the hundreds of thousands of people who consider playing Everquest and other video games a normal, healthy and enjoyable part of their lives. For what it’s worth, they also lost my respect and viewer ship.
If you wish to contact CBS about this show, here is the contact information:
524 West 57th St.
New York, NY 10019
PHONE: (212) 975-3247