If you let your child play inappropriate videogames, you could be reported for neglect. That’s the message coming from the Nantwich Education Partnership according to the BBC. As someone who has sold games for a living since 2008 and been writing about them for just as long, it’s hard not to be a little bit conflicted about this well intentioned piece of news.
A part of me thinks it’s a step in the right direction and the reason for that is my time in sales. I worked at a chain who sell games from 2008 to 2010 and I recently joined again last year. Any retail job has a long list of problems, but my biggest issue throughout all the hours spent behind tills and on the shop floor was ignorant parents.
The parents who would come in and buy whatever their depressingly young child would hand them. Regardless of the content of the game – there have been more than a few occasions I’ve made sure a parent knows the ickiest details of what their child wants to play to try and ward them off buying it- most of the time that kid will get their game. It’s not illegal, as current law only bars sales staff selling to the child. As long as the parent buys it, it’s fair game. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)
And that’s infuriating. Whenever I try and make small talk – “Is this for you?” – the majority would act as if I just asked them for their internet search history. Sorry for thinking that the 18 rated game you’re buying might have been for the adult in the house. The other is that the people likely to be loudly complaining about age rated games are the most ignorant of games in general.
Let’s take this BBC Newcastle show from the 30th March. Full disclosure, I listened from 2 hours and twenty minutes in purely to hear IGN’s and Regular Features Gav Murphy. But even that brief snippet had some of the tiredest and well worn cliches trotted out. Co-host Gilly Hope constantly accuses her guest that he sits locked up in a darkened room to play videogames all day. Great, so not only are you unable to be polite, but you’re aggressively inept at looking at an industry that has been adult centric for the best part of twenty years, possibly more.
Now Gilly probably isn’t buying games, but the amount of people who share her position in the debate and still buy games is much higher than you would want to think. This is all anecdotal evidence from my time working, but the usual excuse tends to be “My kids will play them anyway, so I might as well buy them.” If you hold that attitude, you are the problem, not the game.
With all that considered, it’s still depressing thinking that games are still a cultural scapegoat. Would a teacher being willing to report a parent if they let their children watch Saving Private Ryan or Silence Of The Lambs? I’m sure some would and some wouldn’t, but it would be much murkier because of the cultural status that is afforded to films. Games clearly don’t command that respect because the mainstream perception is that they’re still for kids. Gav said it on the radio show and this Guardian piece eloquently argues it: games are not just for kids.
This is why I feel conflicted about that original story, because I do sympathise with parents who cite the lack of mainstream games for kids on Playstation and Xbox. There’s Rayman: Legends, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Minecraft, maybe a racing game or FIFA, but a huge gap in the market exists on those two consoles where young teenagers have very little to choose from.
When I had my PS1, there was a wealth of games aimed directly at pre-teens – the monopoly Crash Bandicoot and Spyro had on my childhood’s free time probably explains my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – as there was plenty of games on PS2 that were aimed at teens. Burnout, Simpsons Hit ‘n’ Run, Jak 2 all took kid friendly premises and gave them just enough edge to appeal to teens without scaring parents.
Games for younger teens do exist, but they’re harder to find and rarer to come across. Marketing has very much shifted towards targeting adult gamers and people outside of the gaming world haven’t noticed that. That’s not to give lazy parents an excuse to ignore what they’re buying their children, it should be a reminder to pay attention and engage with them.
Is giving your child an 18 rated game neglectful? I think it could be. A lot will depend on the emotional maturity of your child and that’s something only a parent can know. Having said that, Elaine Halligan makes an interesting counterpoint when speaking to The Guardian: “I absolutely get why they [the headteachers] are doing it – it’s because children do need to be protected from technology. But to get the social services involved is an absolute disaster, because it starts telling parents that we don’t trust you to be responsible for your children.”
While I don’t think this is the intention, it is vital that this warning doesn’t become draconian. While many cite Call of Duty in the “too violent” category, earlier entries were rated 15 and 16+ for a reason – not to lure in children to the series – but because the content was no different than that seen in war films.
Still, the most important thing is that this debate shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat videogames with. Games are lightyears ahead of the hoary cliches some mainstream media sources – cough BBC Newcastle cough – still like to trot out. It’s up for parents to understand the reality of what their children play.