Video games have often been blamed for many of society's ills, and only this week has the news broken that a Canadian family intends to take Epic Games to court over the addictive nature of Fortnite, which, they claim, has "ruined" the lives of their children. The case cites the classification of 'video game addiction' as a disorder by the World Health Organization, and has been followed by the news that UK doctors can now refer younger patients for treatment for the problem. These recent events are a clear sign that while we gamers would like to think we have a reasonably solid grasp of when our hobby is both good and bad for us, the world at large is highly suspicious about the pastime of interactive entertainment.
This is, of course, hardly a new trend. Like all new forms of entertainment – movies, TV, music, the list goes on – video gaming was treated with mistrust and scorn by many when it exploded onto the scene in the 1970s. Games were seen as a means of confining kids to smokey amusement arcades or darkened bedrooms room, and we've all no doubt had an elderly relative complain that we're missing the 'great outdoors' because we're glued to our games consoles. As games have become more and more realistic over the decades, portrayals of violence, sex and other taboo subjects have become a more pressing concern, and we've lost count of the number of times that real-world crime has been blamed on a video game.
It was a disaster that threatened to unpick all of the good work the firm had done over the previous few months
However, in the UK, a turning point in the way video games were perceived by the general public came in early 1993, just as Nintendo was celebrating a bumper Christmas thanks to the success of its SNES system which had launched in the country the previous year. The Daily Mail, which is no stranger to whipping up drama in order to shift a few copies, ran with the front-page headline "NINTENDO FACE HEALTH STORM" on its January 7th issue, pointing out that during the festive period there were several reported cases of children experiences seizures after playing video games. Upon facing yet another case, one doctor interviewed by the newspaper had apparently said: "What shall I write this up as – Nintendo-itis?" The report was clearly quite damaging – not just to Nintendo, but to the industry as a whole (Sega consoles were also cited in the piece).
However, much worse would follow two days later when UK tabloid newspaper The Sun – infamous for its sensationalised headlines – had the ominous words "NINTENDO KILLED MY SON" emblazoned on its cover. By any company's standards this was a PR nightmare, but for the family-friendly Nintendo – which was fighting a war of words with Sega in the UK thanks to the latter's in-your-face guerilla TV advertising campaign – it was a disaster that threatened to unpick all of the good work the firm had done over the previous few months. Christmas 1992 saw Nintendo finally fighting with Sega on even terms after years of struggling to dent its rival's dominance in the UK, and the last thing it needed was bad press.
The son at the centre of this tragic story was 14-year-old Jasminder Bassi, who suffered an epileptic fit and chocked on his own vomit moments after playing Super Mario on his friend's Nintendo system. "My son was fit, strong and healthy, yet he was killed by watching a TV set," said Jasminder's mother Rani at the time. "I have no doubt that it was the Nintendo game that made him suffer the seizure." However, she added that Nintendo was not to blame for her son's death, but pleaded with the games industry to do more to warn parents of the risks of epileptic attacks brought on from playing games.
Within months, the industry in the UK had indeed taken action and warnings have been included on game packaging ever since, warning players that "some people may have seizures or blackouts triggered by light flashes, such as while playing video games, even if they have never had a seizure before," or words to that effect. The warning also states that anyone who has previously had a seizure or other symptom linked to an epileptic condition should consult a doctor before playing a video game.
In 2002, a mother attempted to sue Nintendo after her 30-year old son suffered a seizure after spending around 48 hours a week playing on his N64
Jasminder's case was followed by similar stories, and a series of medical studies were taken out to ascertain the levels of risk involved. Studies published the following year in respected medical journals stated that video games only cause seizures in individuals that are already predisposed to suffering from epilepsy, and that steps can be taken to lessen the risk – such as playing at least 10 feet away from the screen or wearing sunglasses during gameplay.
Despite this – and despite the action taken by the games industry to ensure buyers are aware of the potential danger – we've had similar cases in the years since. In 2002, a mother attempted to sue Nintendo after her 30-year old son suffered a seizure after spending around 48 hours a week playing on his N64, despite knowing that he had a history of seizures. In 2008, The Sun (yes, that paper again) called for Mario Kart: Double Dash!! to be banned after speaking to Aston University's head of clinical neuropsychology, Professor Graham Harding, who claimed that "we need guidelines like those in broadcasting to make sure games with flashing light patterns that have the potential to cause an attack are eliminated."
The industry – and perhaps the general public – is now well aware of the dangers of epileptic attacks, and we'd like to think the average person knows that these seizures can happen thanks to a whole host of different potential triggers – one of which is the flashing images seen on a TV screen. Jasminder's terrible death did at least serve to educate consumers on the risks involved and force the industry to take reasonable steps to ensure that any person with a history of epileptic seizures was made aware of the possible danger before turning on a games console. However, it's impossible to underestimate the shock of seeing that lurid front-page proclamation back in 1993, at a time when Nintendo was only just emerging from Sega's shadow in the UK after years of playing second fiddle to the Master System and Mega Drive.
The Sun's incendiary headline now stands not only as a tragic tribute to a beloved son taken too young but also a reminder of the power of the media – and the importance of self-regulation within the games industry.