Or are they?
The videogames industry seems to be regularly under attack by tabloid newspapers and scaremongers who want to use tenuous links to gaming as the driving force behind recent murders, such as the Sandy Hook shooting in the United States. Whilst games can expose young individuals to certain themes, they are not as accessible as TV programmes and movies broadcast via radio waves to the screen in your living rooms, or perhaps owning weapons.. Yet, it’s the age restricted games that seem to be targeted as being the cause of society’s problems. Responsibility seems to have been shrugged off by parents who want to cover their failure to control their offspring, and certain organisations, such as the National Rifle Association in the United States use the gaming industry as a scapegoat to try and convince the public that guns don’t kill people, but instead that games do, as a way of shifting the problems they influence in society to an organisation that has very little influence on whether someone can shoot a real gun or not.
I recently replied to an article C&VG published then tweeted about, Violence for Children: The Failure of Games Age Ratings responding mainly to Eamonn Holmes comment that C&VG quoted as:
“You know and I know, and I know also as a parent, I definitely know,” Holmes began, “that these age ratings are not adhered to. And the reason why is because, no matter what is said, if your ten year old wants this game, he will say ‘ugh, but dad, everyone in class has this game’.
“And parents are buying it. They are allowing kids to see these things.”
My problem with this wasn’t the truth in what he was saying, but that it was implied that it is the fault of the games industry that parents are giving in to the children that they are responsible for. Every kid tries that trick. “Well Mark’s parents let him play it,” is used as a way to try and make out it is normal for children to play games containing unsuitable content. If parents fall for that trick every time it’s used, then that isn’t the gaming industry’s fault. That is a parenting issue.
There are multiple parties that are responsible for influencing children. But in this case, the two main parties are the gaming industry, and most importantly, parents. The gaming industry is obviously trying to entice sales, and it needs to ensure it does so responsibly. Games rated for mature audiences are meant to be attractive. If they weren’t, mature gamers wouldn’t purchase them which would be counter-productive for the industry. It is parents who have the responsibility to raise their young , and have the power to restrict unsuitable content from them. That is the main role of a parent, after all.
What the gaming industry does need to do, however, is make sure information about their games is out there for the parents to read; For the guidance to be clear and concise; And for retailers to abide by the age rating systems in place.
In the UK, the games industry used to volunteer their software to be age-rated by the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA). This system rated games based on their content and publishers would display the ratings on the game packaging. As this was voluntary, it was not enforceable, but some retailers made it their policy to abide by these ratings despite the difficulties involved. Some mature content was rated by British Board of Film Classification which is the standard for film and television in the UK. This was enforceable and was a little clearer for parents.
These systems were in place when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released for Playstation 2. I was an employee of GAME at the time and was under strict instruction to ask for ID if any customer wishing to purchase this game appeared to be under 18. When it appeared that an adult may be purchasing the game for a younger person, we made it clear to the purchaser the general themes the game contained, and some customers did actually put the game back on the shelf, despite the then pleas from the child that their friends’ parents let them play it. There were obviously a minority who were clearly underage, who had clearly grown some soft fluff under their noses to try and make themselves seem older, and tried to make out that I as the seller ‘were one of the guys’ or a ‘mate’ of theirs to try to coerce me into selling the game to them. They had, in some cases, already been turned down by other local GAME stores, or other competitors in the region, but in their desperation to get hold of the game, they still pleaded. But, in fairness to the UK’s biggest specialist retailer in gaming, they were rather strict in this matter.
Following some incidents that the UK press tried to blame on videogames (despite the UK press giving away videogames as an incentive to buy the papers), the industry and government decided to put into place a new system that would be responsible for providing enforceable age ratings on games. The Video Standards Council adopted the then newly established and originally voluntary Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system that gives clear ratings in the UK that are now enforceable. Age ratings are placed on the front and back of the game’s packaging. Also included on the back are the reasons for any mature ratings, such as references to sex, bad language or discrimination to name a few. This allows purchasers to make an informed decision as to the suitability of the game, whether for themselves or the third party they are purchasing the game for. Importantly, as this is enforceable, if sold to anyone underage, the retailer can face financial penalties.
Where there is more of an issue at the moment is the system currently in place in the United States of America. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), as far as I understand, is similar to that which we used to have in the UK. A self-regulated voluntary system that provides similar ratings to the UK PEGI system (granted, ESRB have been around for a lot longer). It would certainly be unusual for a game to avoid being rated by ESRB, but my understanding is that it is not enforceable. That being the case, it would be a lot easier for someone in the United States to purchase games that are not suitable for them. As the ESRB system appears to be the favoured system in the US, it may be logical for the United States to make it enforceable as a simple measure of building trust in the industry again. A part of me can’t help but think the NRA may still try to blame the games industry, or shift the blame elsewhere, rather than look at their own issues.
Serious work does need to be made regarding internet purchases where there are many loopholes currently in place that allow underage purchases. This clearly is something the games industry and retailers need to work together to improve upon to improve the image to the doomsayers.
As for parents, well what can I say? They are ultimately responsible for their children and need to act it. There is certainly a culture of lazy parents who cannot be bothered when it comes to the games they are allowing their children to own and play. And when issues appear in the media, they are then quick to blame the industry. But what do they suggest the games industry does? Remove it’s right to produce products through heavy censorship? What next, censor TV, movies, radio, the internet? For those of us fortunate enough to live in a free society, this attitude could become a huge threat to our freedom of choice. The systems are in place to allow us to choose the content we, or our families access. Remove that choice and we may as well live in the dark ages, be ruled by a tyrant monarch, and give up the right to think for ourselves.
Common sense should prevail. You probably wouldn’t let your son or daughter read an unregulated product like Fifty Shades of Grey. You probably wouldn’t let your son or daughter smoke or drink alcohol, just because the other kids do. You probably wouldn’t let your son or daughter travel abroad on their own, or would make an informed choice based on their age and abilities. So why should games be any different?
As for the aforementioned lazy parent culture, there are two possibilities:
1. The parents that fit this category will not read this.
2. The parents that fit this category will be making a lame attempt to find some information about how games are bad and will be pretty offended by this article for the reason that it goes against that train of thought.
If the latter applies, then I would like to point out that I am a parent myself. I will be making the decisions as to what content my child has access to. I will make informed decisions rather than let my child choose for me. I will take an interest in his interests.
I would also like to point out that there are many MANY games out there that don’t have any mature themes at all. It isn’t the games industry that is the cause of society’s failings. Just like it wasn’t TV and movies before it. Just like it wasn’t literature before that.
My blog is in no way affiliated with any of these companies. All opinions expressed are my own.