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.