Change4Life ad campaign causes controversy: are gamers about to die?

Are all gamers going to die or something? The UK government’s new Change4Life advert could certainly leave you with that impression…

Change4Life Ad Campaign

Here’s what’s happened so far. UK gaming trade magazine MCV has complained to the Advertising Standards Agency. Sony has threatened legal action. Sega, Konami, Codemasters and ELSPA have lined up to criticise it. And there’s a general feeling of inaccuracy about the whole thing.

The cause of all this unrest? A new advertising campaign by the UK Government’s Department of Health, aimed at tackling the ‘obesity epidemic’. And the Government right now must be rubbing its hands with glee, given the furore that the latest ad has caused. It features a small boy holding a gamepad, under the headline “Risk an early death. Do nothing”. And the gaming world has promptly, it seems, gone bananas.

The inference of the advert is clear, that if we all sit and play games all the time, perhaps eating pizza and – why not? – swilling a bit of Coke, we’ll all get really fat and die really early (although there’s no sign of said food and drink in the ad, which would have made it a bit more in keeping with what the Government is saying it’s fighting). It carefully ignores the more active games that have been coming through over the past year or two, and the fact that the leading games console – the Nintendo Wii – actively encourages you to get off you backside. Plus it’s a fairly cheap and easy target. Would the Department of Health have got such a reaction if it was a picture of a kid reading Harry Potter? Or someone sat writing an article for a website?

Probably not. But that’s the problem that gaming is faced with. Because, clearly, there are people who are glued to games machines and not getting exercise and such like, just as there are people who sit around and watch soap operas. But in moderation, what’s the problem? Is it right to tarnish the whole games arena with one easy ad?

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No. Gaming is, among the many passive pursuits that society offers us, one that at least demands some interaction, some brain activity and some attention. Can you say the same of the output of a TV channel on any given night? But that doesn’t play so well on an advert, sadly, and the mass tabloid media just loves the image of a gamer sat on their backside looking like a zombie. If it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth, then so be it.

It’s the age-old gaming problem. People who don’t really understand gaming, or who take a snapshot view of an 11-year old playing Grand Theft Auto IV and then getting a bit crabby, are happy to clutch at the stereotypes. Look what it’s doing to our kids! Look what it’s doing to the world!

And the sad thing is that, while the ad campaign is clearly over the top, perhaps there is a debate in the midst of all of this that is worth having. Yet instead of engaging with and researchin gaming, the creators of the ad have gone at it with the subtlety of a welly to the knackers, and come up with something that’s not that accurate or fair at all. Kids are unhealthy, and games have a part to play. So does the fact that the media keeps telling us not to walk the streets, and the world is full of bad people wanting to kidnap our kids. Is it any wonder that parents feel some security in having their children playing a few rounds of Street Fighter?

There are big, complicated issues here, that the Government is right to want to tackle. But when it takes such a cack-handed and incendiary approach to it, then it doesn’t really help. Sure, shock tactics in advertising are nothing new, and they do work. But here, it’s just reinforcing a two dimensional view of gaming, and not helping the parents and kids who it seems to be trying to shock into life. When’s the next advert coming out with a pile of Pizza Hut boxes, or empty drink cans? Our bet: it’s not.

The Department of Health responded to MCV by arguing that the Government “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.”

With thanks to MCV, you can click the image of the advert on this site, and see it here. And take a look too at the work being done by MCV on the matter, here.

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And do leave your own thoughts in the comments box…