Parental responsibility? Pfft.

The British media gave a lot of time yesterday to a newly published report on the regulation of computer games, the main recommendation of which was to reform the ratings system… again.

Up until 2003 games in Britain (and in Ireland as a result) were given a rating by ELSPA, which is an association of software publishers (it’s in the name!). From April 2003 this was replaced by PEGI, a pan-European rating system (again, it’s in the name) which included age ratings and largely self-explanatory symbols to describe the game’s content.

Neither of these systems had or have any basis in British or Irish law and are merely recommendations – that said the law could be changed to make them enforceable and most big outlets treat them as law anyway (to avoid any bad press, basically). In certain cases games are also rated by the BBFC in Britain and IFCO in Ireland – although this only seems to be the more realistic or gruesome of releases.

This new report, which will probably gain some traction in Ireland too, suggests the introduction of a rating system in gaming that mirrors the one in the movie world – U, PG, 12, 15, 18 etc. etc. This system would be legally enforceable and shops found to be selling games to those under age would be fined heavily.

These recommendations aren’t bad per se – although I don’t see why the report didn’t just recommend making PEGI legally enforceable as the Finish and Austrians have. My problem is with the coverage, which at no point suggested that parental control is the key and that ratings mean nothing without it.

In fact, what I saw was the complete opposite with almost a tone of encouragement to parents who abdicated their responsibility. When the ITV News covered the topic yesterday, for example, they showed two young boys – no more than 12 – playing Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo Wii, a game rated 15s by the BBFC (a rating which is legally enforceable). The shot then cut to their parents who were suggesting that the new recommendations would be pointless and the only way to solve the problem would be to ban violent games outright.

At no point was this logic questioned on-screen and so the mother sat there suggesting mass censorship for the good of her offspring despite the fact that she was happily letting them play a fairly gruesome game. It was bad enough that she said it with a straight face – it was worse that at no point the package did the suggestion of parental responsibility come up.

“I want parents to be empowered,” says Dr. Tanya Byron, who wrote up the report. Well they already are – it’s just that many fail to take advantage of that. This suggestion that parents lack empowerment because it’s so hard to find out what a game is all about is such hogwash – just as it was when those idiot parents complained about the film Bad Santa, which they just assumed was a family movie because it had the word ‘Santa’ in the title.

It all reminded me of my time working in a game retailer while I was in college, a job that made me realise how common this mother’s attitude is. On one occasion that will forever stick in my mind, I was serving customers around the time of the release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. A kid came up to buy it and, as it was rated 18s, I refused him. He came back a minute later with his mother and she asked me what the game was like and if it really was “that bad”.

It was of no benefit to me to lie and pretend it wasn’t violent so I told her – as the name suggests it involved the hijacking of cars, there’s a lot of shooting and killing, you have to commit a multitude of crimes to progress in the game, there are prostitutes you can have sex with and as a result it’s 18s for a very good reason.

When I was finished listing off the things that made the game so appealing and so controversial all at once, she looked to her child and said; “OK – but you can only play it for an hour a day,” and proceeded to pay for it. She was over 18 (she was actually in her 40s I’d say) so I couldn’t refuse her but I got the sincere feeling that this is the kind of woman that would go onto national TV or Radio (Joe Duffy, preferably) and rail against how violent these video games were, and probably suggest that it was the game maker’s fault, or the Government’s fault, or the retailer’s fault for her kid saying “fuck” an awful lot more lately.

Just to be clear on this, I have no problem with violent video games. In fact, I’m playing Resident Evil 4 now and I love it – but from playing it I can see why it’s 15s (at times I think it feels more 18s even) and my mind is fully formed enough to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction. With that said, if a parent decides their under-age kid is able to handle a violent game, so be it – once their willing to take that responsibility and not try to pass the buck as if it’s not their job to parent.

One constant counter-argument is that of peer pressure and kid pressure and from my previous experience I can see just how much there is on parents to give their kids what they want – not least because “all their friends are playing it”. But my reaction to this is simple enough, and perhaps easier to form as I don’t have any children. Grow up and grow a pair.

If your kid came home and told you his friend had a hardcore porn video and he wanted one too, would you rush out and get it or tell him to shut up? It’s an extreme example but the principle’s the same. If you can’t say no to your child for his or her own good then the violence they’re exposed to through a computer is going to be the least of your worries.

These games aren’t for kids, it’s the parents’ job to keep their kids safe and so it’s the parents’ job to keep things that aren’t for them away from them. That seems logical enough to me – but then again maybe I’m missing the point that more games you buy for your child the less actual parenting time that’s required.

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