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8th July 2021

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Publishers must stop marketing adult games to kids

Police action is going too far - but the industry does nothing to help embattled parents

The debate over violent games and censorship wound down some years ago, as it always inevitably would; as a generation raised on games grew into adulthood and it became increasingly undeniable that this medium was enjoyed significantly if not primarily by adults, the "won't someone think of the children" hand-wringing subsided and the threats of censorship fell away. Just as "video nasties", rap music, comics and even - in the far-distant past - novels and ballroom dancing had once been condemned as the harbingers of the downfall of society for a few short years, only to take their place in the broader pantheon of entertainment and creativity once all the fuss died down. Such backlashes are really nothing to do with violence, or sex, or the protection of innocent minds; they are, at their most fundamental, a way for an older generation to say "look, these younger people are doing a thing I don't understand, and therefore I hate it and want it stopped."

So, videogames won. Now we can all play as Trevor Philips and embark on murderous, sexually violent rampages across Los Santos; can enjoy the spine-ripping finishers of new Mortal Kombat games with a hint of golden nostalgia on the side; can even, should we so desire, play something so morally bleak and devoid of human empathy as Hatred, an unironic attempt to create something that lives down to the "murder simulator" epithet which the right-wing media used to love to throw at games. Hatred is controversial, of course, but its most vocal and intelligent opponents don't say "ban this filth"; rather they say, of the developer, "what the hell is wrong with you?" Nobody seeks to censor; nobody seeks to say, "you can't make this". Like many people, I find Hatred disgusting and devoid of redeeming factors, and its petulant, infantile developers to be beyond contempt - but their right to make the game I equally consider to be sacrosanct. That's what "winning" looks like; no censorship, but plenty of debate.

"The reality is that some of the industry's biggest publishers are still proving themselves to be flat-out, inveterate liars by turning around and licensing the creation of children's toys based on those same games"

The thing is, winning the censorship debate doesn't absolve everyone of all responsibility. It doesn't make this into a free-for-all, not least because there are people out there who genuinely do have to "think of the children" - parents, for one. Teachers, to think of another. It was a group of teachers in England who recently reignited discussion around this topic, when they sent letters to the parents of children at their schools (a group of schools in Cheshire; I believe that those involved are all primary schools, so we're talking about children under the age of 12 here) stating that they had been advised to contact the police and social services if they had evidence of children playing inappropriate games.

My instinct here is to recoil in horror. This is a clear example of overreach; while I absolutely believe that ratings are important and that parents should be given all the tools possible to help them control the games and media their young children access, I also think that parents are entitled to make informed decisions that run contrary to the ratings. One can be a perfectly good parent and still find that a 15- or 18-rated movie is perfectly fine for your younger teen; the same applies to game ratings. There absolutely has to be leeway for parents to make informed choices based on their knowledge of their own children, without busybody schools trying to involve social workers or accusing them of "neglect".

Sadly, there's a lot of evidence stacked up against my instinctive reaction in this case. There are the retail workers who can all tell the same story; refusing to sell GTA or CoD to a child of 8 or 9 results in an angry tirade a few minutes later when the child fetches their parent. In some cases, it's incredibly clear that the parent has no idea what's actually in these games - I know a few store workers who report absolute shock from parents upon being told exactly what's in the game they're buying for their pre-teen. Most, though, will simply do their job quietly and sell the game, even if it's apparent that it's being bought for such a young child; Amazon, of course, doesn't even have a way of checking that. These aren't parents making informed decisions; they're parents absolutely blinded by their own ignorance, certain that the age rating on the box can't mean it's all that bad, because after all, it's "only a game".

Then there are the even tougher stories - those of friends and acquaintances who have children of their own in that age bracket, who have introduced them to games through Nintendo and Skylanders and Minecraft, and who are now at their wits' end because the children have lost interest in those things far, far earlier than they ought and are demanding instead to be given access to Call of Duty, GTA and their ilk. Why? Because their friends play them. Because they're the talk of the school yard. Because no matter how good you are at parenting your child and keeping them on the straight and narrow with the games they play, as soon as they go to a friend's house, they're outside your control - and if their parents are of the "it can't be so bad, it's only a game" variety, you're screwed.

In essence, this is a bit like the "herd immunity" concept upon which vaccination relies so heavily - and which is now being threatened by the appearance of another class of (much more dangerous) ignorant parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, oblivious to or uncaring of the risks this creates for the other children around them. If the vast majority of parents are exercising good judgement with regard to the games they let their children play, then that creates a web of support among them; it means that the expectation among children is that Minecraft and Pokemon are just what they play, and that's fine. This isn't what seems to be happening, though; it's fairly clear that a majority of parents are not doing this, because those parents who actually attempt to do so find themselves stymied at every turn by the fact that so many children are playing sexually and graphically violent games at a young age that denying them access is a source of enormous stress and upset, not to mention ultimately being pretty much impossible, since they'll just play a friend's copy.

It's not just peer pressure and the poor choices of ignorant parents making life tough for parents who are trying to make informed decisions about games, though - because there's another source from which kids get the idea that they should be playing adult games, and it is, unfortunately, the game publishers themselves. The final, damning piece of evidence that convinces me that my knee-jerk reaction against the letter sent by the Cheshire schools needs more thought is the reality of walking into just about any large toy store. There, you'll find toys quite clearly aimed at young children - shelved alongside toys from franchises that are exclusively child-focused - and yet based on games that you're meant to be 15 or 18 to play. After years and years of claiming with big, innocent, "who me?" expressions that they did not market their adult games to children, the reality is that some of the industry's biggest publishers are still proving themselves to be flat-out, inveterate liars by turning around and licensing the creation of children's toys based on those same games. Don't try and fob this off with the claim that the toys based on Call of Duty are for "adults who collect toys", either, because you'd have to be a pretty damned uniquely creepy adult collector to want Call of Duty branded child-sized clothes and school rucksacks in your collection.

"What could be wrong with young Jim playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare after he gets home from primary school, given that he wore a t-shirt with its logo all day?"

Publishers know perfectly well what this does; it not only markets these adult game franchises to small children, it also normalises in the minds of parents the idea that these franchises are child-appropriate. Sure, the ESRB and PEGI do some eduction and outreach work to try to get parents informed about what the ratings actually mean, but the publishers themselves deliberately and maliciously undermine those efforts with these toy licensing and merchandising deals. How could Gears of War possibly be inappropriate for little Timmy, when he's already got the t-shirt and the toy construction kit based on it? What could be wrong with young Jim playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare after he gets home from primary school, given that he wore a t-shirt with its logo all day? These things wouldn't exist if the games themselves weren't child appropriate; that's the message, and it's heard loud and clear.

So yes, perhaps the schools of Cheshire are actually doing the right thing in this case - as much as the sheer authoritarian tone of the letter turns my stomach. Perhaps those parents who, through ignorance, or laziness, or simply through being misled by the deeply underhanded and immoral actions of some of this industry's biggest publishers, are making poor, uninformed choices about their kids' access to adult videogames actually need a threat of this magnitude to make them sit up and take notice. It's not for the sake of the school; although no doubt, primary teachers would rather hear a little less vocabulary picked up from Trevor Philips or foul-mouthed multiplayer CoD sessions in the playground. It's not even, in some ways, for the sake of the children, though this is who it's all about in the end, and this is who will benefit (kicking and screaming with each step).

It is, ultimately, for the good, informed parents who have spent the time to educate themselves about games and tried to make reasonable decisions - and who have been undermined and rendered impotent at every step by the ignorance of others and the malice of game publishers. Parents have a right to make reasonable choices for their children, at least up to a certain age; if this "crackdown" saw a parent allowing their 13-year-old to watch a 15-rated movie facing sanctions of some kind, that would be utterly indefensible, but for the sake of all the other families it impacts, I can certainly bring myself to see the value of threatening tough measures for those who happily let their 8-year-olds spend their evenings in the blood-spattered shoes of Trevor Philips.

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8th July 2021

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Latest comments (18)

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany6 years ago
Makes me remember that Mortal Kombat cartoon in the mid nineties, and that "so-bad-it's-good movie. But it is the "Toxic avenger" cartoon the one that takes the cake. Let's do a kids cartoon out of a Troma Films Gore movie! What can go wrong?

Not to justify or defend this, but this is something that has been going forever. I still have at home some old "Saint Seiya" and "G.I. Joe" action figures around, first is a violent anime, second is kinda a war glorification (although this last is hardly perceived by a kid that doesn't see beyond the "good guys vs bad guys" concept)

Still, this article really keeps me thinking now... certainly there is truth on it that calls for some self-criticism. So where to start?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 2nd April 2015 9:22am

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend6 years ago
Big publishers generally have no morals, so making 18+ games characters (or whatever) into toys, that may or may not be bought by kids is a nothing unusual.

Parents on the other hand are far more difficult to manage, because at its very core the parents have every right to do what they want with their child, right or wrong.

Of course social action can be taken, but anyone here with kids will tell you there is nothing worse than having some childless person telling you how to look after your child.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 2nd April 2015 10:02am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Since there is hardly anything adult about the adult games inferred by the headline, the biggest mistake publishers could do was marketing those games to actual adults. (financially speaking)

Schools trying the establish their culture among their pupils in competition to the culture parents grace their kids with before sending them to said schools is nothing new either. Both parties in this equation should be happy, if they manage to have some influence. Having total control is an utter fantasy.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 2nd April 2015 10:32am

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Show all comments (18)
Phil Elliott Project Lead, Collective; Head of Community (London), Square Enix6 years ago
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments6 years ago
Response from one of the teachers has gone up on eurogamer. Worth reading.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
That was well worth reading Neil. It's incredible to hear that some parents are proud of their 8 year old for playing an 18 game because they thought it was a difficulty rating.
Its a complex issue because sometimes a good parent can see that their child would not be corrupted or frightened by a slightly older rated game. For instance when a version of a game is set in the second world war I personally don't find it anything like as alarming as when the same game is set in the present.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 6 years ago
Thanks for the link. I have to agree with Julian, that line about "I thought the 18 rating was for difficulty" was unbelievable. Almost concussed myself from the facepalm.

Strangely enough, it's that line that kind of torpedoes Rob's whole argument that we've somehow moved past the whole problem of "get off my lawn!" Speaking just from the American side, parents over here haven't been any more aware of or truly cognizant of the ramifications of game ratings since their inception. It's been this thing that people say they want, it's a really neat idea, and then they don't do anything with it when it gets deployed. Remember, it hasn't been that long relatively speaking since the Supreme Court ruled that games get First Amendment protections. And while Leland Yee and Jack Thompson are pretty much out of the game, it's foolish to think there are no lawmakers or other individuals trying to craft bills restricting access to video games below certain ages.

I can understand the teachers' concerns quite well. Kids coming in tired. Kids experiencing unusual shifts in behavior. Kids not getting their homework done, or who are suddenly experiencing dramatic drops in academic performance. This is in their wheelhouse and they have to deal with it. What bothers me is that it appears they went for the nuclear option first. They effectively declared a parent letting their kid play Call of Duty is of the same moral (and possibly legal) equivalence of a parent physically or sexually abusing their child.

In that respect, the teacher interviewed in the Eurogamer article is incorrect about the nature of the letter. It wasn't a blunt instrument. It was a very large firebomb. It has told every parent out there, good and bad, "We don't trust you." It has removed all sense of nuance or thoughtful consideration with regards to making sure the interests of the child are being looked after. If it hasn't totally poisoned the well with regards to parent-teacher cooperation, it's probably not too far off. Worst of all, it has created a climate of fear among the students and their parents. It has laid the groundwork for kids who are already having problems to get even more screwed up. Sure, streams of Five Nights At Freddy's would make anybody a little jumpy, but that's nothing compared to the fear that you're going to get taken away from your folks.

I know my own experiences perhaps skew my thinking a little bit, but my parents actually worked with several of my teachers, forging relationships that lasted well after I left school, so that to me seems like how it should be. That is the ideal that I would expect. At the very least, I'd expect the teachers to be calling up parents of students they had concerns about. 'Course, I'd also be expecting that I'd show a little more backbone to my own kids (when I finally have them) when it comes to their gaming behaviors.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
I can understand the teacher's concerns. It must be hard dealing with the consequences of unsupervised children every day. Unfortunately, when its just one group of teachers it can come across as militancy.
I think part of the problem is the way games are rated. Film censorship seems to be better judged. Its hard to justify to an articulate intelligent 14 year old why he can't play a WW2 game that's rated at 16 while there is worse violence depicted on TV. That leads to parents giving in only to find the next instalment lets them play as a current day terrorist shooting civilians. At this point parents despair as well as feeling totally shafted by the games industry.
I've talked to some games devs who claim they have no responsibility and its all down to the parents. Tellingly, none have had older children of their own or they would realise how impossible it is to monitor everything your child does up to the age of 18.
That said, parents still hold one trump card and that's control of the credit card. If I was in complete agreement with the age limits given to games I would quite happily enter my children's DOBs into their games consoles to have their exposure controlled automatically. I really feel that something along those lines is the only practical solution. Parents often don't have the time to do much more than that.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
I totally agree. The reasons I don't like over-zealous censorship (i.e. age ratings that are too high) is that it causes the whole system to be ignored. This results in minors getting access to inappropriate content because there is no taboo attached to playing such games. 'Everyone does it'. PEGI give a 16 rating for what they regard as realistic looking violence. This is the same line of thinking that wanted Tom & Jerry banned. If PEGI ratings were realistic most people would be shocked and annoyed if they found they weren't adhered to - and that would allow the system to start working.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
This is a very complex topic. I suspect being one of the 10 PEGI committee members is a pretty thankless task. What often happens in these situations is the people responsible find that if they err on the side of caution they 'can't be wrong'. They won't have a parent saying "you gave that game a 16 and yet it frightened my child". The real problem here is that by constantly crying wolf the system ends up being inoperable because everyone ignores it. Its also far easier to prove that smoking or drinking can be detrimental to minors than the particular content in a particular game. Even though the ratings are supposed to be enshrined in UK law I would imagine the police regard it as unenforceable (in a similar way to audio cassettes before).

Now what really worries me is that I feel its imperative that PEGI is seen to work. Consider this scenario. We have proven that VR can provide a much greater sense of presence and engagement. I happen to be working with a company that can provide photo-realistic rendering on mid range hardware. This was always going to happen. So consider a game where you are stood holding a knife and the game requires you to plunge it into a photo-realistic person in front of you. It isn't just children we have to worry about but adults with diminished responsibility. It won't wash for some self-interested game companies to hide behind artistic license and freedom of speech if they choose to abuse this power. Equally, if PEGI decide that a pixelated view of a Panzar tank is a realistic depiction of violence what are they going to do when it really is realistic violence? Exaggerating arguments to make a point causes a debate to recklessly swing from one extreme to the other.

It shouldn't come down to a small group of frustrated teachers to highlight these issues. Given how important electronic entertainment will become to our culture this subject needs very serious attention involving rational and rigorous debate.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Julian Williams on 5th April 2015 9:56am

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
Ha! I have a few stories from working in game retail years ago about kids coming in wanting to buy M-rated games and us turning them away only to have them come back later with a pissed-off parent who demanded to know why we didn't take that birthday or allowance money. Or we'd see countless birthday/holiday gifts list bought in by an uncle/aunt or grandma/grandpa with a GTA game or some violent shooter on it not for kids and me having to ask the age of the kid before telling that adult the game wasn't for that kid at all. Or the parent who bought an M-rated game for their kid and didn't know anything was going on she didn't care for until she heard opera music from behind a closed bedroom door, peeked in and saw her kid shooting up a street full of pedestrians.

Hey, kids will get into these games somehow before they're supposed to. It's not the end of the world when they do, However, they need to be taught that lying to get to their illicit entertainment is never a great thing at the end of the day.

Finally, I'll just leave this here, as this sort of lousy marketing thing has been going on for ages:

I had one of these things and as we all know, the film was CERTAINLY not geared for kids. I still have my Alien movie viewer with a SUPER chopped up two-minute version of the film for kids ages 8 and up. It's hilarious to see how heavily edited it is (and still kind of not for kids at all!)...
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
@John. Agreed. Solid scientific evidence, followed by legal argument resulting in enforceable laws that the majority of people believe in and will therefore insist be adhered to.
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James Podesta Programmer 6 years ago
some people thing global warming is a scam.
some people think vaccination is riskier than non-vaccination.
some people think kids playing violent computer games is no worse than playing cowboys and indians.
at least the first 2 have some science behind them. The only thing they've proven about computer games so far is that kids react more aggressively to stimulus after sessions of violent games.
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Joe Winkler trained retail salesman, Expert6 years ago

I had to bring this up. Especially in the 80s I had Action figures based on R-Rated movies like Robocop and Terminator.
I brought up the link to refer to the micro machines Alien playset ;)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Joe Winkler on 7th April 2015 11:03am

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Jordan Lund Columnist 6 years ago
First off, I don't see anything inappropriate about kids toys based on COD or Assassin's Creed. They are harmless toys that are a kid safe alternative to letting them play a game. They might watch their big brother or dad play and want to play too "Sorry kid, you aren't old enough, here's some toys instead..."

The t-shirt thing is more problematic, but I've never seen child sized merchandise in the wild. But you know what? Kids don't buy shirts with their own money, it's parents who buy it. If the parent doesn't find it inappropriate then it's not my job to 2nd guess. I gave my kid the Duke Nukem shirt from PAX because it was too small for me. Did I let him play the game? Oh, hell no. But the t-shirt was fine.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 6 years ago
If a 15-18 year old has a good sense of context - i.e. they go to school, talk to peers, go outside sometimes, read books, watch varied tv or movies, they're pretty safe. If all your kid does is watch Child's Play movies over and over, or has rewound the strangulation scene in Empire Strikes Back so often the tape is almost burned through, if they visit Necrobabes or Hanging Bitches or PUAHate more often in a day than Comedy Central, if all they do is play Manhunt or CoD or the torture scene in GTA V or even freaking Monopoly, alarm bells should be ringing.

Whether the fixation on a given game is the chicken or the egg, the source or the symptom, obsessive behaviour (even in adults) is always, always a sky-tearing shout of "Something is really F'd up here!"

As the teacher says, "There are some who will just play games rather than anything else. I remember when I was a kid, my parents would worry about how many games I would play. When it's tied together with a lack of attention at home or disruptions at home, and their only form of entertainment is violent games, it can be a problem."

Some kids can be just fine with more mature material. Some, however, are incredibly vulnerable. And it's really only parents and teachers who are in a position to know which is which. If the parents aren't part of the effort, they're letting the side down.

And no matter HOW mature a parent thinks their kids are, raising under 12s on horror films, James Herbert novels (no offence intended, Mr Herbert, it's just that your books are real head-khukri) and violent games is NOT A GOOD THING.

That said, it surely cannot hurt if we games industry folks do whatever we can to make sure that our games are promoted to the right people. Is the bright coloured cel-shading on the cover of GTA boxes considered marketing to underage patrons? (genuine question). At least Rockstar don't have an adorable little cartoon Mafioso named Mr Mobstar promoting the brand a la Joe Camel.

But merchandising such as toys doesn't mean companies are marketing to kids. Ich bin ein nerd and nerds LIKE toys. I have an Eye of Cthulhu plushy that, together with Cuddly Eeyore, PlushTux and sundry rainbow-hued dinosaurs, sneak into my bed at night and somehow arrange themselves around my boyfriend so they're all staring at him when he wakes up in the morning. (He is oddly twitchy.)

Even cartoons aren't just for kids any more. Ask a room of 30-45 year olds who the best Batman is and there will be a fight between the Heath Ledgers (Actor, The Joker, The Dark Knight film) and the Mark Hamills (Voice Actor, The Joker, Batman the Animated Series). (There will also be one smart arse who says "Bruce Wayne" and he will be made to stay in the kitchen the whole night).

People collect things, and "toys" appeal to those who have kept their child's heart alive. Anime fans have their sculptures, Star Wars fans their action figures, and games, too, can expand their art in this sense.

But cracking down on Joe Camel really did reduce the number of kids smoking. The press were especially pivotal in making parents aware and the tabloids can probably help us here - the next time there's a gaming scare, or preferably before, there should be articles out there called "Know your Ratings" that debunk popular myths like "Games are for kids".

Maybe I can get a piece into Woman and Home or similar - something that's all about baking and parenthood. Too often, thoughtful, analytical pieces on games and their impact appear in press that non-gaming parents just don't read.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 6 years ago
@Joe Winkler

I'm amazed that list managed to miss the Harry Potter Vibrating Broomstick!

I also failed at joining the dots on Sting. I could only find 2.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
I hate to tell you, kids don't play with toys anymore. The toys you're talking about are aimed at adult collectors
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