It happens once in a while. In fact, it recently did, and the probability that it will happen again is rather high. Someone goes postal, kills or injures people, and in the aftermath the media start to look for scapegoats. Oh, the police say he always played Counter Strike! Oh, his friends say he liked GTA! He must have been a truly deranged individual, so let’s blame video games (that we don’t understand) for perverting our youth. Our poor children! Your evil games turn them into gun fanatics, drug addicts and antisocial Satan-worshippers!
At this point in the story, someone usually demands tough legislation to take care of the “problem”. Ban violent games. Heck, ban games altogether. But I want to tell you something: the games are not the problem. The problem is you, the parents.
Let me illustrate this with a true tale, as witnessed in one of Switzerland’s largest electronics stores a few years ago. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had just been released to much fanfare. As I walk down an aisle lined with stacks of CD-R spindles and backup tapes, my eyes meet the hand of a middle-aged lady, and it’s clutching something that looks like a game box. Sure enough, she’s carrying a copy of GTA: SA. Just as I finish wondering whether she plans to play that herself (and age is irrelevant for a gamer), I hear someone call from the other aisle. A boy perhaps eleven years old walks over, and the lady asks him “Here! Is it this one you want?”. She points at GTA. “Yes, mom, that’s the one!” replies a voice that is clearly pre-puberty. “Good then, let’s pay and go home.”
GTA: San Andreas is rated 18+. It’s not a game for children. It’s violent. It has bad language. Perhaps it is worth pointing out: you shouldn’t be buying your eleven year old child a game that is clearly marked as unsuitable for minors.
This is certainly not an isolated case. My officemate’s children were 12 and 15, respectively. What did they get as present from their father? GTA: Vice City. Can you guess? The game is rated 18+!
Now, how do you know that a game is not suitable for children? Obviously, many or most current parents grew up without video games, or in an era where the most violent scene on screen was an overweight Italian man jumping onto mean-tempered ambulatory fungi. But they don’t need to understand or play the games in order to judge them, because there are organizations that pre-judge every single title for them!
Especially PEGI, the Pan European Game Information system, makes it ludicrously easy to decide. Every game has an age rating right on the very front of the packaging, clearly visible in a rather self-conscious font. On the back, the rating is repeated along with symbols representing actual game content parents might find unsuitable for their kids. It’s split into “bad language”, “discrimination”, “drugs”, “fear”, “gambling”, “sex” and “violence”. Quite a sensible selection. The convenient scapegoat you’re always using (hint: violence) also makes an appearance and thus can be avoided conveniently and completely. I have used the official PEGI symbols to illustrate this article. I hope you agree that they’re easy enough to understand. If not, check out the PEGI website, the URL of which is also printed on every single game box.
The PEGI system is voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any games without PEGI symbols in almost four years — and PEGI was only established in 2003 to begin with. The ESRB system is also voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any North American titles without ratings in years. The game industry is doing more than enough. There is no need for yet more expensive legislation, there is no need to place the burden of parenting on the state instead of into your own hands where it belongs.
Parents, don’t cry out for someone to protect your children. The tools for that are already here, and they are free. But it is you who has to use them. Stop pointing fingers and face your responsibilities.
Update 1, 2007-02-16
First of all, thank you for the very valuable comments here and on Digg. I hope to go through them soon and pick out a few opinions that didn’t have space in the original article.
In this update, however, I would like to point out a very creepy thing. Only two days after this article went up, GameStop has purchased a full-page advertisement in USA Today entitled “Respect the Ratings”, essentially saying the same thing we say, just with the spooky waxlike head of Steve Morgan tacked in the lower left corner. Their wording is more politically correct, of course, the important bit being “We share your responsibility.”
Next to GameStop’s campaign, the ESRB are providing a new website at RespectTheRatings.com. Essentially, this is a rewrite of content that has been available for years at esrb.com, but the new site has a simplified layout and is targeted specifically at parents. The site prominently says “Making the Right Choice Means Looking on the Box” — I greatly enjoy the fact that all of us seem to agree on where the problem is.
As several commenters have pointed out, GameStop has introduced very strict measures to make sure the responsibility lies with the parents alone. Similar reports from other stores are trickling in as well. The industry is regulating itself, and it makes sure to let you know. I think this might be even better than legislation. The law might “only” be able to fine someone or send them to jail if they sell the wrong stuff to a minor without a parent’s consent, but the minutiae of your work contract can be a wholly more painful weapon. Like a morning star, or a flail, perhaps.
PEGI symbols are © PEGI, used with permission.