Penny Arcade did a PTA meeting about games

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Mainstream news might have a love/hate relationship with video games, but one thing we can all agree on is that games have grown up considerably in the last few years. We still have the plethora of fluffy, approachable games to play, as well as modern classics considered ground breaking in their ability to teach, but things sure have gotten gritty and adult!

There’s been some flare up recently over a letter sent out to parents from a school district warning that any signs of kids playing games rated too old for them will be alerted to Social Services. Eurogamer followed up with a great article from one of the teachers in said district, and it put across excellently just how frustrating it is for teachers. I’m no stranger to these stories myself as the rest of my family ended up in the profession at various schools, and some of the parents’/kids’ behaviour was shocking.

Mike Krahulik, the artist that draws Penny Arcade, the online video game related comic strip, received an invite to do a talk to parents and teachers at one of his son’s PTA meetings about parenting and games a few weeks ago. Mike is no stranger to controversy, but when it comes to understanding video games as a parent in the modern world, there aren’t many with more knowledge.

This was an elementary school PTA and this particular meeting (I’m told) had a much better turnout than most. It was advertised as a night discussing kids and games and it seemed like a lot of parents are very interested in the topic. Before I went up to speak a woman came over to talk to my wife. This other Mom mentioned how excited she was to hear me speak because her son wants to play Minecraft on the “game system” and she was concerned about it. I knew at that point my talk was going to be a big help.

I started off by talking about the ESRB. I explained that video games are rated in much the same way that movies are. I talked about each of the ratings and broke down the sorts of things they implied. I also talked about how two games can have the same rating but for very different reasons and that you still needed to pay attention to what your kids are playing. Then I went on to talk about the idea of “online content not rated” and [why] that means.

101, Part One

The school gave Mike a chance to help educate parents about one of the biggest past times their kids are doing, and with the best will in the world, age restrictions, laws and technology can only go so far without the fundamental need for parents to understand and be aware of what their children are doing on their consoles and PCs.

Then and now

Let’s get one thing straight: if you knowingly let your primary school aged child play mature games, it’s neglect.

An argument I keep seeing in comments around the web is “but I played X/Y/Z when I was younger and I’m fine”. I’ll confess, I remember watching The Terminator round a friend’s house when I was about 11. I remember watching a bit of Aliens on TV with my mum. I had to make sure every part of me was tucked into the duvet to stay safe that night.

For a long time, movies have been tightly regulated, with age ratings strongly enforced in cinemas and on TV. But even back in the 80s, cinema had been around for a long time. It was matured, people understood how to make films realistic and accurate, but they also understood the boundaries necessary for children. Back then, ‘adult games’ looked like this, which didn’t look all that different to any other game at the time, all things considered.

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Custer’s Revenge, perhaps the most offensive game anyone could ever think up on an 8-bit console.

And that’s kind of the point. The immersiveness of games in the early days of home consoles was a far cry from what we can achieve. speaking of Far Cry, when games have such high fidelity as the Far Cry 4 screenshot below shows, there’s no room for ambiguity with regards to what’s happening. Modern high-budget games are explicit in showing you action. The violence is relentless and unavoidable. No one is saying it isn’t fun, just that a 10 year old shouldn’t be experiencing it.

Far Cry 4

 

Because, in the last 30 years, there’s been such a dramatic change in video game graphics, so too is there such a change in how we experience it. even looking back at Doom, or Quake, the imagery is cartoon-like: a step up from Tom & Jerry, perhaps, but to a much more obvious than what we see now. It’s much easier to

So, when you’re looking back at games from your childhood and thinking “I played violent games and didn’t get affected”, spare a thought for how far we’ve come, and how the influence of games then and now might have changed. Just think of how far Mortal Kombat has come in 20 years (warning, VERY NSFW). It’s hard to argue the latest in the series isn’t completely aimed at those of us over the age of 18.

For further proof, take a look at upcoming game Hatred, a top down game where you basically play someone that goes on a killing rampage, with no purpose. There’s no fantasy story, no ‘good vs evil’, just something that is tantamount to a Colombine-style massacre… A teenage-angst ridden fantasy filled with dark trenchcoats and death-metal music. But because of modern graphics, there’s no ambiguity.

Ratings are there for a reason

The Pan European Game Information (or PEGI) is the EU-wide system for rating game content. In the UK, the system became legally enforceable in 2012, replacing a need for the BBFC to rate games. This is a good thing. I remember, way back in late 2002, working at a local GAME store right when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was coming out. The hype for the game was huge. Preorders were breaking records. And so, release day came around and even though there was clearly a big fat M (mature) badge on the front, customer after customer bought the game… with hyperactive young kid in tow. Even when I pointed out what you can do in the game, they still bought it. “But it’s just a game, right?”

“Ratings are there for a reason,” I said.

Now, the PEGI rating is very clear, if you go to the website and read up on it. Below you can see how each of the age ratings are broken down. It’s really not that different from film ratings, but even they’re not 100% infallible. I remember watching The Wolverine when it was released in the cinemas. It’s a 12A rating, but you wouldn’t know it, from all the violence and slicey-shooty going on. Hell, one scene has Logan literally pull his own heart out of his chest… for science, or something. The film can get away with it, because there’s no blood shown: a technicality at best. This shows that even with a content rating, loopholes can be found to “get away” with show more than is allowed. But the PEGI system is fair and transparent, and perhaps stricter due to the fact it’s self-regulated.

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PEGI age ratings and what they mean, straight from www.pegi.info

There’s a fairly comprehensive write-up on Kotaku of the process involved with all the various ratings systems. The writer, sums up the PEGI system quite well in the last couple of paragraphs:

Overall, in my estimation, PEGI offers a consistent and transparent way to apply the legislation that controls video game distribution. Some will find these ratings too severe or disagree with the age a particular game has been given. Others will criticise the system for not being robust enough at stopping children playing older rated games.

While there is room for improvement at communicating the depth of information around these ratings to parents, PEGI works with current legislation to enforce a legal age-gate to purchase. More than that though, it provides a context-free yardstick for consumers to make informed decisions about which games are most appropriate for particular players. That, ultimately, is perhaps the most useful thing an age ratings system can offer.

Many countries have their own rating systems, for example, The US and Canada use the ESRB, which ranges from “early childhood (EC)” to “Adults Only (AO)”. It is self-regulated in the US, but Canada has provincial laws by film boards to enforce the limit on sales to minors, giving the ratings more teeth. Funnily enough many of these ratings systems seem to have come out around the same time, in response to titles like Mortal Kombat, which hit home that video games were growing up, if not in game design, then in content.

The reality is that someone needs to be the gatekeeper for expected ratings standards. Parents have different parenting styles (liberal, conservative etc), but there needs to be a way for them to make informed decisions in screening content, and game ratings do a decent job of that. Do we need these to be enshrined in law? That all depends on your political leanings. One could argue that the failure is on educating parents, though.

Games have matured, so should our responsibility

We need game ratings. We also need education, along with action such as letters to parents and ways to use technology to keep children from accessing age restricted material. As a new-ish parent of a curious nine month old baby boy, I’m already starting to face up to the realities of having a child growing up in a mobile and connected world. Coming from a web-based career, I know what happens on the internet more than most. I hope to do my best to do my best to stay on-trend with technology as it further matures. The landscape in 10 years when my son is older will, I’m sure, be radically different to now, but the fundamentals will always be the same: Ignorance is not an excuse as a parent.

It’s 2015. Home Computing has been around for over three decades. The games industry is just as old. That means that all parents of pre-teens will have at least spent their teens or 20s exposed to the Internet and video games. It’s not even like it’s been an underground sub-culture… You can walk into any supermarket or high street and buy nearly any game or console you want. As the distribution model shifts to online, the role of the parent in accessing content like games will become even more critical. We will we be needed to pay for services and games, which gives us the perfect opportunity to learn about what our children are playing, and how they are behaving.

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About Dan Morse

From the Atari 2600 right through to bleeding fast PCs, Dan's played on them all. One thing that's never changed is an unwavering passion for video games. Twitter: @happydan | Steam: happydan | GOG: happydan