"Violent video games are fueling rise in aggressive behavior". A headline from yesterday's Daily Telegraph, although really it could have been any day and any paper over the last decade.
The sheer inevitability of the anti-games tenor of the coverage makes it tempting to dismiss it all out of hand as the usual Middle England-baiting hatchet job. We gamers are a thin-skinned, sensitive bunch – being the reviled, feared and mocked target of a media witch-hunt will do that to you – but we should never forget there's a serious issue behind the manufactured outrage.
The point everyone calling for games to be banned and those making them to have their testicles savaged off by rabid hounds is always pretty sensible in the end: certain entertainment content is clearly unsuitable for young audiences, and kids should be shielded from the nasty stuff until they're old enough to process it properly. Yep, I'm down with that.
Alison Sherratt, ex-president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told the Telegraph she was shocked to find pupils "acting out quite graphic scenes", including “hitting, hurting and thumping for no particular reason”. Prior to the advent of video games, of course, the nation's playgrounds were veritable peace camps of smiling, twinkle-eyed tweenagers, their tiny hearts fit-to-burst with love for one another.
Anyway, it would be easy to laugh off Sherratt as a silly old curtain-twitching fear-monger. But her specific charge – that kids as young as four are acting out scenes from games they ought not to have any business going near – resonates.
It was with a profound sadness, then, that I read the Association of Teachers is now calling for "stringent legislation" to control violent games.
Never mind that there's already a legally-binding and painstakingly observed age ratings system in place (with a new one due to be passed into law this summer). Never mind that High Street retailers such as GAME program their tills so that it's virtually impossible to mistakenly sell an adult game to a minor. And never mind there's not a shred of evidence proving a direct link between video games and real violence. "What do we want? More laws! When do we want them? Now!"
Digesting all of this I was just about ready to put my head in the oven and end it all (If I do ever do that, you can tell the papers it's because of my addiction to Cooking Mama), and then I was suddenly roused to my senses by a sudden beam of common sense bursting through the dark clouds of hand-wringing indignation.
"It's about reminding parents and carers that they have a very real responsibility for their children and that schools can't do it alone," said Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers. Good on you, Mary. Because it's high time we stopped blaming video games and started educating parents.
The games industry's biggest dirty secret, the one no-one dares speak of in public, is that pretty much everyone's children are playing Call of Duty. Now, if you are a parent and you know all about what Call of Duty is like and are happy for your little ones to play it, then that's entirely up to you.
The problem is, there's a lot of parents who really don't fully realise what's on the disc. And the tightest age ratings system in the world is no use if a parent doesn't get it.
It's all well and good sticking "18" on the box, but plenty of parents who would never dream of letting their kids watch an 18-rated movie, wouldn't think twice about buying Manhunt for little Billy because it's "just a game".
It's precisely this confusion that I exploited as a nipper to get my parents to buy me horrifically violent, sex-filled Manga movies. It never occurred to my mother what she was purchasing, because they were "just cartoons". Given the twisted, corrupting influence this stuff is supposed to have, it's a small miracle I haven't developed into a gender-switching tentacle rapist. There's still time, I suppose.
As gamers, we know all this stuff instinctively, which is why it's so boring and frustrating to read the same story repeated again and again every few months. But too many parents see video games as benign virtual babysitters, keeping the kids out of their hair for a few hours, without paying any attention to what they're playing.
The games industry must do more to help raise awareness about the nature of mature content in a minority of video games so everyone knows where they are and can make informed decisions. But the buck stops with the parents.
If you’re comfortable with your child stabbing people in the face in a virtual world, that is and always should be your call, whatever I may think about it. But if you've no idea what they're up to, then what does that say about your parenting?