When Dr Tanya Byron was charged with investigating the effects of video games on minors – among other things – she took the first steps on a journey that ended up with today, the legal requirement of retailers to uphold PEGI ratings (12, 16 and 18 – the 3 and 7 ratings are still just guidelines, and not legally enforceable, yet). It’s been many years in the making, but finally there is some clarity on video gaming ratings. Up until this point some games had BBFC ratings while some had PEGI ratings, both or neither. The whole rating situation was distracting and confusing to some. How could *this* game have a rating, when *that* one doesn’t? Well, those days are passed, and we are now looking at the possibility of retailers being hit with a £5000 fine if they are caught selling age-inappropriate titles to minors. But will it actually have any real impact? The short answer is no, but it is a step in the right direction.
You see much like the world of films on home media it is near impossible to put into effect a law that stops minors getting their hands on age-inappropriate materials. If a parent has these items in their home and allows their children to use/play them then no amount of retail level laws will amount to anything BUT a universal rating system does make it clearer to some as to what content is, or isn’t suitable.
Now many will argue that regardless of ratings put onto games, the sheer level of peer pressure drawn from the wide-spread usage of mature titles (mostly talking Call of Duty here) undermines parental authority, and that no parent wants their child to be the only one who doesn’t take part in a massively popular activity. Which is clearly a hugely damaging situation to be getting into. Matthew Wright (the podgy-faced nubbin off of Channel 5) once commented in a section of his show that was looking at the purchasing of violent video games for minors:
“I wouldn’t buy a fifteen or sixteen year old an 18 certificate film, but I would have far less problem with a game.”
Now this is coming straight from the mouth of one of British television’s most notorious critics of gaming, in a segment of a show that saw his three guests all declare that parental responsibility is the most important issue at hand. Wright argued that the 18 cert on a game had less gravitas than that on a movie, and in one foul swoop isolated the biggest issue at hand. Many parents and guardians don’t play games – although more do so nowadays – while they do watch films, and as such have a deeper rooted understanding of why those ratings have importance. For many parents the games that they played on early systems often didn’t deal with mature themes, partly due to the restrictions of the platforms at the time and partly due to the simplicity of the newly born industry. As a media industry video games have exploded in popularity as well as diversity, and that diversity brought with it a new generation of game developers. The canvas was there for artists to create upon, and while some created fun, brightly coloured ‘games’ others were working on darker, gritty mature titles for a mature audience. Now it would be remiss of anyone to make claims that this creative industry should be castrated to save a few children from ‘impurity’ and the industry led push for a singular rating in the UK is proof that:
a) The gaming industry is being fair and responsible
b) That parents need clearer instruction and education when it comes to games
Which is both fair and just.
Dealing with that latter part a push has been made on website www.askaboutgames.com to help support parents in making the right choices when dealing with video games and minors.
Now as a parent I cannot say that my three children have only ever played games suited to their ages, but they have only ever played games appropriate to their maturity and comprehension of the world as a whole. Now before I disappear up my own arse in a cloud of pretentiousness I must explain that I genuinely feel that anything of artistic merit should be enjoyed by anyone with the right mind for that kind of work. My eldest son is eleven and while there is no way I would let him loose on the Gears of War series, I have played through – previously played – sections to show off a neat visual effect or gameplay device. The Halo series appeals to his love of sci-fi and action, but again while the game is at heart a sci-fi shooter, it has storyline details that would perhaps be lost on him, thus meaning that he was only playing a ‘shooter’. As such I don’t see the benefit of being relaxed about the ratings. Call of Duty is right off limits, as are obvious titles such as Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire, the latter of which is often a bone of contention at my workplace when kids hand their parents the latest game from ‘the Grand Theft Auto people’ and then the parent hands it to me without even reading the case, let alone the rating. In three separate situations I attempted to open a conversation with the parent to explain the theme and tone of the title, and in two of the situations I was told to ‘Fuck off and get the game!’ Hardly the best way to keep the reigns in hand eh?
My youngest is the only child to have played a Grand Theft Auto titles (the iOS remake of GTA III if you are interested) and that was purely as an experiment. While my son – then aged three – played the game he tried to stay on the road, stopped at traffic lights and got a little upset when he hit another car and careered into a pedestrian. He loves driving around a huge open city, and realistically there are very few games that offer that experience without the over-arching themes of violence and crime. Notable exceptions include Planet 51 and Simpsons: Hit and Run, but neither of which is on the iPad. I played the game with him, but didn’t give any indication of the choice to be a criminal and for the best part of two months he’s barely committed any crimes other than crashing and destroying vehicles, usually while trying to jump over rivers. I found it profound that without a preconceived notion of what is possible, he didn’t feel led by the game at all. Now obviously this is aided by his lack of reading ability, and the fact that I’ve hidden the existence of ‘missions’ from him, but in the wider world he’s well adjusted and enjoying the freedom of the city.
And therein lies the key to this whole situation, games are on the whole, designed to be enjoyed. Some shock, some scare and others pose questions answerable only after pondering and discussion, but there are a lot of great games that are suited to kids, and the majority are rated appropriately. But there might be some games that you can play, as an adult, that you’d want to share. Then you, as a parent have to make that decision. Just as one kid might be fine to walk home from school, while another may wander off, kids have differing understandings of the world, and a curious mind is best nurtured at home, rather than finding that they’ve played something at a friend’s house.
The whole friend’s house issue is another bone of contention as some parents see no harm in violent video games and will allow a group of friends to play on an inappropriately aged title without checking with the other parents first. For me it is no different to showing an eighteen rate film, offering cigarettes around or letting them watch a porn movie. All are given rating restrictions – for the right or wrong reasons, I’m not debating that here – and not many parents would be as relaxed with those products, and therein lies the core of the issue. Until those responsible for minors understand the reasons for the ratings, understand the issues that can arise with on-line gaming and more, no amount of colour-coded age ratings will make a blind bit of difference. They have been affective in my workplace in terms of being more noticeable, but there are just as many adults who will blind buy a game just because junior wants it. It’s great that retailers are being held accountable for the sale of inappropriate items to minors, but I would like to see some deterrent also being levelled at parents. Instead it seems to be a case of ‘educate’ over ‘penalise’ and that can work, but I doubt that many parents would read a website to learn about a game prior to purchase. I’d like to see stores given more rights to refuse sale to adults on the grounds – just as we can with alcohol, tobacco and knives – that it is clearly intended for a minor.
I feel morally incorrect when selling a game to an adult when I know it’s for their kid, but it’s their responsibility ultimately, no matter what I offer in way of advice. Parents and guardians have never had better access to information and advice, and I can only hope that it will help them in the ways that it is intended.
I’ll leave this article for you to take in, and I’d love to have a discussion about it in the comments section if you feel so inclined.
One last thing. This morning Ian Livingstone and Dr Tanya Byron appeared on Sky News this morning only to be broadsided by a smug Eamonn Holmes. Have a look for yourself as sensible suggestions are mocked: