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Are video games harmful to children?

Well, there’s a can of worms right there. Depending on who you listen to, you’ll get wildly varying and well-documented opinions. In one corner, there’s the school-of-thought that promotes hand-eye co-ordination, problem-solving skills, creativity, team-building, perseverance and cross-curricular learning. In the other, there’s childhood obesity, social exclusion, temper tantrums and extreme violence.

As ever, it’s not merely an argument about black or white, left or right, yay or nay. Like all arguments it requires a little more context than that. As with all creative mediums, that context is: age-appropriateness.

You see, I don’t actually hold any particularly strong feelings on whether or not games are harmful to children, much in the same way as I don’t worry about books, film, theatre or television being harmful to children. But can age-inappropriate content be harmful? Now that I do believe.

Would you let your ten-year-old son watch an 18-rated porn movie, horror film or overtly graphic documentary? Would you encourage him, or her, to read 50 Shades of Grey or Mein Kampf? Would you take them on a field-trip to the Volksbühne theatre in Germany, widely known for its on-stage nudity, sex and graphic violence?

I very much doubt that you would.

But would you let them play COD or GTA? Now that’s a entirely different question altogether, isn’t it?

Blah

Humans cannot escape their enduring love affair with violence, real or fictional

On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed harassed parents bundle a copy of an 18-rated game into the shopping trolley as a wide-eyed young boy of no more that ten or twelve years of age looks-on, eagerly. Had he asked for a copy of Saw VI from the film collection only three feet away, the outcome would have been entirely different.

Games aren’t harmful to children; negligence is.

Cast your minds back to 2009 and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The infamous ‘No Russian’ level is perhaps one of gaming’s most contentious moments, more so than any GTA title ever has been. Putting the player in the shoes of a terrorist and offering them the opportunity to gun-down innocent civilians was a truly shocking experience – even for a hardened gamer such as myself. The anti-games lobby reacted predictably but there was deeper, more profound meaning to be found. The developers wanted to shock people, not just for the sake of it, but to actively remind them of the atrocity that is terrorism. Remember than many of these developer had friends and families fighting the War on Terror and had grown tired of the public’s apparently blasé attitude towards it.

‘No Russian’ was a slap around the face; a bucket of water over the head; an unwelcome reminder of the horrors of the real world.

But that’s an adult message designed for an adult audience, not some pre-pubescent teen who’s only interested in how many civvies they can gun down.

I believe that age-ratings are there for a bloody good reason and that parents have a responsibility to pay a bit more attention to them. I’m not suggesting that they’re a cast-iron curtain and that, say, an eight-year-old shouldn’t watch a 12-rated film with their parents – so long as they have gauged it first and made a judgement call. Neither am I saying that a fifteen-year-old isn’t capable of processing an 18-rated game. It depends on the child, the parents, the context and the piece of entertainment. The key factor in all of this is having the information and, more importantly, the will to make an informed choice.

But how am I supposed to make an informed choice when a game has three age ratings stamped on it?

The game in question (not that it’s the only offender) is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was awarded a BBFC 12, USK 16 and PEGI 18. Or to quote from the respective guidance: anything from “moderate physical and psychological threat” to “gross violence…that would make the viewer feel a sense of revulsion”.

How on earth am I, as a parent, supposed to make an accurate judgement-call on the suitability of that game for my child?

Flick through your film or game collections and you’ll find a whole range of titles that feature differing ratings, but very few that conflict as much as XCOM’s. It spans a whole three ‘steps’. What would your reaction be if the next Pixar film that you bought had PG, 12 & 15 on it? Or U, PG and 12? With such varying degrees of assessment, it makes the whole process seem rather meaningless.

XCOM Disc

This is useful to me, how?

XCOM, it seems, is somewhat of a relic of the past and perhaps shouldn’t even have been pressed with the labels such as they are. Last summer, only a few months before the game’s launch, the BBFC relinquished their role of classifying games in the UK to make way for the pan-European PEGI system. A move based on a recommendation by the 2008 Byron Review, said relinquishment was designed to remove the confusion that having two systems produced. XCOM, it seems, should only have been released with a PEGI rating on its cover. My box shipped with a BBFC rating but the disc itself features both – in addition to the German equivalent.

Printing mistakes notwithstanding: the wildly different assessments point to real flaws.

The BBFC system is considered to be somewhat of a ‘Rolls Royce’ method of classification. Experienced and well-trained individuals personally assess each creative work, awarding a rating based upon years of experience, sound public awareness and relative simplicity. PEGI, on the other hand, requires publishers to fill-out a self-assessment form. Should even so much as one box in the 18-rated category be ticked, the game gets an 18. Hence the apparent mismatch.

It’s a system that has produced some bizarre inconsistencies in both the film and games industries – albeit at different ends of the scale. XCOM and the mighty Mass Effect were both given a 12 by the BBFC but an 18 by PEGI. Harsh. On the other hand, certain films seem to go in totally the opposite direction. George Clooney’s rather sublime Up In The Air received a 15 by the BBFC (a fair assessment, in my opinion) yet was rated the equivalent of a U by the German and Danish boards.

Go figure.

A rare display of consensus on the left; the results of smoking crack on the right.

A rare display of consensus, on the left; an official brain-fart, on the right

There are indeed some historical anomalies, such as Jaws, which, when rated for DVD, was only eligible for either a PG or a 15 as 12 hadn’t been invented then. Perhaps strangely, the BBFC elected for a PG – although the DVD in my collection also features a 15-rating from the Irish board, just to confuse matters. But games are classified in a world that enjoys the full range of ratings and has seen, arguably, the full force of brutality that the modern film and games industries are capable of.

So why the continued school-boy errors?

On one hand, you could argue that the apparently stricter PEGI approach to classifying games may have created a more healthy, protectionist climate. Surely it’s better to err on the side of caution? The thing is that we know that many parents largely ignore age-ratings on games with many misconceptions still surrounding the PEGI system. Indeed, many parents mistake it for a difficulty-rating, not age-rating. Perhaps such parents are purchasing COD with a misguided sense of pride?

Arguably more worrying, however, is the sense that as parents become used to PEGI and its apparently draconian assessments, it may undermine further their confidence in a system that black-marks seemingly moderate examples of violence. How are parents supposed to appreciate the indeterminate shades of grey, if even the relatively moderate XCOM ranks as an 18? If parents play XCOM and gauge it as being perfectly suitable for a younger audience, why shouldn’t all PEGI 18s be fair game?

Seems a bit more inappropriate than a game pad...

Seems a bit more inappropriate than a game pad, yet I don’t recall ever seeing an age-rating on an arcade machine?

Anecdotally: the top-ten games chart in my local Tesco features nine-out-of-ten, 18-rated PEGI games. Nine! Conversely, the top-ten films chart just a few feet away, features but a single 18-rated title. That’s a hell of a difference. Yes, games do tend to be a touch more violent, on average, than films – but surely the picture isn’t that skewed? Perhaps it has much more to do with the fact that games are governed by the inexperienced, tick-list PEGI system and films by the distinguished, personal-touch, context-sensitive BBFC system?

It sounds like I’m almost arguing against strict age-ratings; I’m not. I’m arguing for realistic, culture-specific age-ratings that provide a truly meaningful framework for parents who are keen to make the right decision. My worry is that the current, pan-European system has elected for a play-it-safe-one-size-fits-all approach that will, in the long run, have entirely the opposite effect.

In short: how can we expect parents to care more about the meaning, consistency and impact of age-ratings if the industry itself doesn’t lead by example?

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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6 Comments

  1. lukemartinvoxel Thanks for the link, I’ll pass it on to colleagues.

  2. Great article, Mr Martin! The maount of times, I have seen adults allow under-18’s to be bought an 18-rated computer game “because all of their friends had played it” staggers me. Even when you tell these parents (God alone knows how these people are capable of bringing up anyone or thing, if this is what they do with 18-rated games) that the content isn’t suitable for under-18’s, or that the content deals with terrorism, violence, torture, or very strong language, the adults concerned just nod, and then want you to let them pay for the game.

  3. Enjoyed this. Well informed.

  4. Martin, I think you answered some of your own questions here – the discrepancies between different classification boards ratings (such as the Danish, etc. noted above) take into account cultural factors – for example Germany are stricter on violent conduct, yet permit sexual content more freely than other regions of Europe.
    The problem with the PEGI system is that because each country has its own unique identity and cultural standpoint – what may offend in one country, may be passed off as insignificant in another – thus the PEGI system fails because it attempts to tar each region with the same brush. Evidently, this doesn’t work. It would be akin to having a pan-European film classification.
    The PEGI system is confusing and Tania Byron’s recommendation is highly flawed. The BBFC system should have remained as it was instantly recognisable by UK society. Introducing the PEGi system simply unravels all the hard work the BBFC has done to implement their rating system into modern culture.
    What a waste of everyone’s time.

    • @NeilRamjee Couldn’t agree more – culture is such a huge factor and one that’s so easy to take for granted as it surrounds and permeates us. The moment you get a ‘one size fits all’ approach is when you notice something is amiss. Perhaps the BBFC may one day get games back under their wing. The whole thing seems like terrible timing, really, what with games reaching critical mass over the last generation and the graphic content being near life-like with advances in technology. It’s just too valuable a medium to be left out in the cold in this respect and only provides more fuel for the anti-games brigade. Not that they need much encouragement!

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