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The hating game

Opinion: Why did The Sunday Times give GTA IV to kids, asks Tim Ingham...

The glossy lead page of today's Sunday Times Magazine carries a face-on image of a 14-year-old, Ben, playing the 18-rated GTA IV.

The newspaper likes to think the arresting picture - all inky hair, felonious eyebrows and emotion-less concentration - tells us something about 'what online addiction is doing to our kids'.

It doesn't. What it does tell us, however, is how desperate some pockets of our national press have become to vilify video games in an age when public understanding and appreciation of the medium is at an all-time high.

So desperate, in fact, they'll endorse minors interacting with brutal adult material for the sole purpose of... well, actually, I still can't put my joypad-tapping finger on what exactly the reader reaction is supposed to be. Other than uniform outrage, that is.

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How in all of Liberty City is it deemed not only okay but actually cover-worthy by The Sunday Times editors to subject kids to violent games in this way?

If they were running a piece on underage drinking, would they snap an adolescent supping Jack Daniel's in their photo studio? Or for an expose of pornography habits, stick a tweeanger in front of Debbie Does Dallas and record the hilarity that ensues?

Of course not - that would be morally abominable, right? But games? No worries. They're a toy, after all.

Perhaps the Sunday Times wants to frighten Middle England's parents into thinking the video games industry is spoon-feeding their offspring mind-warping filth; that the UK's youth is becoming malignant, joyless and addled by this nefarious plaything.

Heck, with the darkened backdrop and gloomy stare, little Ben looks like he's even transformed into somewhat of a threatening chav. The horror!

But, really, who's the irresponsible one here? The industry which robustly regulates all of its material - and which signs up to potential custodial punishment for any retailer caught selling adult material to kids? Or the honourable broadsheet which sanctions young people being exposed to severe adult media?

If there's one message parents should take away from the image, it's got nothing to do with 'online addiction' - it's 'don't trust The Sunday Times to take pictures of your children'.

In fact, the image comes from UK photographer Robbie Cooper's new exhibition, Immersion. The newspaper also carries Cooper's face-on pictures of 10, 11, and 12-year-olds getting stuck into Rockstar's latest violent escapade - as well as an engrossed Alex Kinch, 12, taking on the blood-splattered Call Of Duty 4.

Now, I'm no connoisseur of the art of the life still-photo - and Newsnight Review may well see things another way. But this doesn't appear 'daring' to me; rather foolish and needlessly close to harmful.

In Cooper's defence, the images form part of a wider work profiling our obsession with the digital screen - which also features plenty of images of adults (and babies) viewing TV programmes, websites and movies.

Except, these non-gaming pictures aren't printed in The Sunday Times. It makes no mention of them.

The paper takes what it needs from Cooper's work to support its unsettlingly one-sided anti-games 'expose' and tacks them on. Bizarrely, the cover story the pics are awkwardly married to - an investigation into teenagers getting hooked on PC MMORPGs - has very little to do with GTA IV or CoD4.

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