Should Gaming Age Ratings Be Enforced?

By John Walker on March 9th, 2009 at 12:30 pm.

They should have mental age ratings too.

The New Zealand government’s Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, has suggested that parents who buy games for under-age children should be prosecuted. Describing the policy as “shock value”, he told New Zealand’s The Dominion Post (reported by Stuff.co.nz), “It would send out a message that the enforcement agency means business.”

Any time government officials start trying to get involved in videogaming matters, the response is quick and angry. “Get off our lawn!” cry out the gaming community, afraid of the vote winning moves in response to rumours and ignorance. But here’s a thought. Maybe Hastings is right.

While the job title “Chief Censor” may be a sinister one, and while my understanding of the New Zealand government comes from Flight of the Conchords’ recent NZ prime ministerial visit, it’s important to realise that Hastings is not calling for either the censoring of games, nor for a ban on their sales. He’s suggesting that the laws already in place be enforced.

As reported by Stuff.co.nz, Hastings explained that people do not take gaming age certificates seriously. “They might think the offence is silly, but it ain’t”. He suggests up to three months in prison, or a $NZ10,000 (£3,500) fine.

“That’s what the law says, but . . . you’re not going to have police officers in every bedroom… There would certainly be some shock value to prosecuting a parent who gives their under-18 child access to a restricted game.”

Of course there remains an enormous gap in people’s knowledge as to what adverse effects playing adult videogames has on children. The NZ politician makes some spurious claims of unmentioned studies that prove the damage caused, but still focuses his argument on enforcing the restrictions already in place, rather than imprisoning developers. Perhaps this is somewhat spoiled by the country’s banning Manhunt, but maybe this new angle could be progress. (Hastings is also suggesting that all games, not just those with objectionable content, be required to receive certification from classification boards, as with films.)

I’d argue that enforcing age ratings on games is perhaps essential, and not because I’m worried about seven year olds playing GTA IV. I’m worried about 31 year olds not being able to play GTA IV.

Obviously the effect on the young shouldn’t be crassly dismissed. The suggestion that graphic violence will do permanent harm to children is one I want to see some evidence for. (Although I realise this is deeply problematic, as deliberately showing potentially harmful footage to children might run into a small problem of ethics.) But my common sense says that kids get scared, and scary stuff doesn’t need to be a part of kids’ lives. I’m not concerned that your child getting hold of Manhunt is going to turn him into a serial killer. It isn’t. But I would be worried that he’d have horrible nightmares, or a generally unhappy time. And that seems worth caring about.

But the selfish motivation to enforce ratings is to protect my gaming. And more importantly, respecting adults and choice. Some games are designed for only adults to play, and in a society where those games are accessible to all ages, it makes it massively more likely that adult gaming will be increasingly censored. In fact, in a world where all games can be played by all children, they probably should be censored. I don’t want that world. I want to be able to play games with violence and swearing if I choose to. (And as it happens, I generally don’t choose to. But I want to be able to choose.)

Parents are not informed about games, and this is primarily because most attempts to inform them come from hellraising ignoramuses trying to score a headline. Hastings told the Dominion Post, “For the first time in history, kids are more savvy with technology than parents … parents need to get up to speed on the digital divide. They need to look at what their kids are playing and doing.” But I’d suggest that even awareness isn’t enough. I remember working in EB when I was 19, when parents – with their young children – would bring the latest 18 certificate game to the counter. I’d say to them, “Is this for your kid?” They’d say it was. I’d point out the 18 on the box, and they’d tell me they didn’t care. They’re an adult, and the only thing I wasn’t allowed to do was sell the game to someone under the age on the box.

So why are people reacting with shock to the story? Well, perhaps it’s a matter of balance. Obviously any suggestions of restrictions or censorship are going to anger many. But perhaps the big mistake Hastings is making is the proposition of jail time. This is enormously counter-intuitive. If he believes a parent is being neglectful when buying such games, then how putting them in prison is supposed to improve this is not clear. Clearly the threat of it might have an impact, but I cannot see how enforcing it could ever help anyone. And taking all of a family’s money isn’t likely to help anyone either. I’d argue for more imaginative penalties, proportional to the individual. Consequence is fine, debilitation perhaps not.

Or is this an invasion by the state into how people raise their families? Should parents be free to let their children play whichever games they choose? Are age ratings unenforceable without ghastly phrases like “nanny state” rearing their heads? Indeed, how could the law be enforced if it were in place? Short of the police raiding homes and checking for copies of Saints Row 2, it’s hard to imagine what could be done. Is the threat of a penalty, even if it’s unenforceable, enough to protect children from adult games, or indeed protect adult games from children? Let us know what you think.

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231 Comments »

  1. Dolphan says:

    That would be tyranny.

  2. Matt Kemp says:

    Not to mention less enforceable than censorship.

  3. The Sombrero Kid says:

    in empire there’s a quote from ben franklin which i agree with quite a bit, it says ‘democracy is 2 wolves and 1 sheep deciding what to have for dinner’ it’s appropriate here.

  4. Gap Gen says:

    “But if a parent brings them, I don’t see what the big deal is. It ought to be up to the parent to decide how to raise their kids. It’s nobody else’s business.”

    I disagree. Parents have a responsibility to their children to raise them well, and if it is determined that exposure to violence harms children and that parents are willingly doing this, then they should be appropriately punished. As a reductio-ad-absurdum, if parents are entirely responsible for their children, then it follows that the state should not provide compulsory schooling, since these provide competing influences on the child.

  5. The Sombrero Kid says:

    ohh and a tyrannical equivalent would be 1 wolf telling 100 sheep and 10 rhinos what they’re all having for dinner

  6. phil says:

    Nice to see everyone engaged, my two cents;

    1.) The law is unenforceable and an easy cop out from proactively promoting responsible parenting through targeted community based support (which is proven to work); irresponsible parents will continue to allow their offspring to play 18 games, if through omission rather than commission, and the stiffer penalties will just produce some imprisoned scapegoats, and let’s face it, custodial sentence seriously mess with a person’s life chances, possible further ‘damaging’ the child.

    2.) What’s considered harmful content to minors is about as subjective as who should win the Eurovision song contest, in America (and the UK + English speaking world in general) comic violence is generally fine, sexual material is not, promoting democracy fine, jihad, not so much. In Germany, Japan and Iran, standards are a little different, stricter in places, looser in others. Where as most everyone would agree Fallout 3 and Manhunt should be an 18, what about Dreamfall, Left Behind or the frankly astonishing array of Japan’s girlfriend sims?

  7. Theory says:

    I seem to remember everyone getting quite upset at the idea in America that games be treated differently from films. How quickly opinions change!

  8. The Sombrero Kid says:

    @Theory
    when was the last time you heard of someone getting a custodial sentence for selling a DVD to a minor?

  9. JonFitt says:

    I think it’s a lovely idea that parents should be able to decide what’s right for their kids, but sadly there is nothing magically enhancing about getting knocked up, and some people are crap at parenting just like people are crap at everything else.

    When going to see Watchmen on Friday, I sat in front of a 20-something chap who thought it was a good night out for his 4 and 9-year-old girls. Being an R-rated film here it only requires a parent’s permission. Yay for parent’s choice.

  10. Alaric says:

    Thank you! Tyranny was the word I was looking for.

    As to those who are saying that parents have a responsibility to their children to raise them well, yes it is true. Now define well, will you?

    No two people can agree on what is right. Your standards and morals may (and probably will) seem utterly ridiculous to me. Obviously the opposite is true as well. So who gets to decide what the proper way of raising children is?

  11. qrter says:

    Gordon Freeman?

  12. phil says:

    @Alaric

    No two people can agree, but a country can have a decent stab at it – then fix what it get wrong later, like always.

  13. The Sombrero Kid says:

    the upbringing debate is really about ‘brainwashing’, the question isn’t one of rights it’s one of preference, would you prefer a uniform level of brainwashing across the population or a more dynamic interesting but inevitably unfair level of obedience for people.

  14. Larington says:

    I’m not convinced it’ll make any difference though. If you drive the parents away from buying the higher ratings games for youngsters, it’ll probably drive the children to the torrent networks and other filesharing methods, where the risks will be far harder to track by the parents as much as the enforcers.
    The forbidden cookie jar principle at work… Except that on filesharing networks you don’t have a finite number of cookies that causes a child to get easily caught.

  15. Matt Kemp says:

    The Sombrero Kid: the upbringing debate is really about ‘brainwashing’, the question isn’t one of rights it’s one of preference, would you prefer a uniform level of brainwashing across the population or a more dynamic interesting but inevitably unfair level of obedience for people.

    Wait, what? Can you explain this differently?

  16. Okami says:

    In early 20th century germany, the rise of youth crime and the detoriation of morals were blamed on novels and other works of fiction. It was argued that young men who read not-true stories would somehow think that these stories were real and..

    I think you can imagine the arguments. German writer Kurt Tucholsky argued, that it were not novels or other forms of entertainment that led to a rise of crime and violence and a degration of morals among the young men of the working classes, but lack of education and perspective.

    It’s funny how things haven’t changed in a hundred years. Then, as now, the lower classes suffer from lack of education and lack of perspective and this is the main reason for kids that turn to crime and violence. And while it may be convenient to blame parents, parents these days often just don’t have the time to look after their kids.

    We need free day care for kids, free health care, jobs that actually pay the rent, so that parents don’t have to take on 2 jobs to support their family, we need schools and universities that actually raise children to be critical thinkers and educated human beeings instead of just churning out more stupid workforce to work for a small elite that does nothing but get the world into ever greater deals of trouble.

    Stop blaming video games and start blaming the whole fucking system!

  17. Dolphan says:

    Or, y’know, giving kids as much awareness of possible of the fact that people disagree and that they can make up their own minds, while giving them access to different viewpoints and as much information as necessary when they get to the age where they need to decide who they are for themselves. Minimising the brainwashing.

  18. Xercies says:

    I’m going to say this, whats the difference between someone who is 17 or someone who is 18. The 17 person can’t play an 18 game because politicians like the one in this one won’t let them too. What really happens in that year that lets them play an 18 game and you see how stupid the government forcing parents to not buy there kids a game.

    My parents looked after me, they let me watch a 15 when I was 13 because they thought i could handle it. Yes I watched some things i wasn’t meant to(I watched the Matrix when I was 9 oh god that face bit) but they were there to speak to me about it. Also I watched a horror film when I was 13 it was rather tame one but i couldn’t handle it, guess what? I rarely watch horror films now because I have learned from the experience.

    The parents should decide whether there kid can play GTA4 or not, the same as they decide whether children are able to watch movies or not. Yes its good that underage people are not allowed to buy them. But jailing parents because of something they did that might have been actually thought of is stupid.

  19. phil says:

    Nurturing a child shouldn’t be about brainwashing – conditioning certainly, but brainwashing is more an Ipcress file/Camp X-ray style exercise in changing a person’s operating system, rather than helping write that operating system.

  20. Tei says:

    I suppose chosing videogames for your pre-teen childrens is part of parenting. I doubt the governement will make a better job at parenting than yourself. And of course, the governement can do a better job than some people, but thats are rare cases.

    So my reply is: No, sould not be enforced.

  21. Alaric says:

    Phil, I respectfully disagree with that claim. Increasing the number of incompetent people required to reach a decision does not automatically translate into a better quality decision.

  22. Gap Gen says:

    I’m actually surprised at the level of vitriol towards the idea of enforcing age ratings. Last time I remember this being debated, a lot of people liked the idea of parents being made responsible for their children, rather than allowing them to blame videogames for screwing up their kids in the tabloid press.

  23. Alaric says:

    Okami, that’s a great historical parallel!

    I completely agree with you, except for the part where you want free things to be handed out to people. Free is not really free, it’s just me paying for some guy’s stuff, which I find disagreeable.

    In principle though, yes it would be very nice if everyone had an awesome job and lots of money.

  24. Hypocee says:

    Any enforcement measures need to stay on the retail side, period. The ratings boards’ jobs are so impossible that there are always going to be massive grey areas in any singular linear rating. This game or movie or book (imagine!) is Teen rated because there’s an alcoholic character in it, but you let your 11-year-old touch it so off to jail? That’s not justice. If a parent’s consistently exposing underage kids to disturbing media, that may be child neglect or child endangerment or whatever it’s called by your local government, but it has nothing to do with the purchase or sale of the media themselves. Ratings by themselves are a tool to give parents (back) some control over their kids’ access to media. Enforce the hell out of that, please, but not one step farther.

  25. Matthew says:

    To people making R-rated movie analogies: You realize there are no laws against kids buying R-rated movie tickets, right? Theaters can legally do it; they’ll get backlash from the MPAA, though, who lean on distributors to pull theaters that don’t obey their rules. And it works.

    That’s the point, though–they’re industry rules, not laws. Until you get into actual porn age limits are all industry self-discipline.

  26. Hypocee says:

    In the UK there are laws against selling DVDs outside their classification. Therefore, at least there, the analogy holds.

  27. Nick says:

    It would be somewhat hypocritical for me to be in favour of this having played and watched many game and films well below the age ratings in my time.

    So.. eh.. I’ll just agree with Meat Circus as usual.

  28. Not Bernard says:

    Kids’ll still get their hands on it. The only way forward is to educate the parents, or as has been mentioned, wait until the current generation has their own children. I don’t believe blanket bans on certain age group work with just about anything.

  29. The Sombrero Kid says:

    @phil
    Call it what you like it’s indoctrination it’s the scale and uniformity of indoctrination that people disagree on

  30. Serenegoose says:

    I disagree with the entire concept of age ratings, and think that it’s just another example of patronising young people who, I remember for myself, get nothing more than pissed off at being considered completely incapable of making their own choices, even up to the age of 17. (18 rated films and games ahoy). The infantilisation of children does nothing but coddle and oppress them for no other reason than so some overbearing adults can sleep easy knowing they’re ‘protecting the children’. From what, only they know.

    It also affects people who are poor. Real life example time! I wanted to buy Fallout 3, and I’m 22. Without photo ID, I would not have been able to purchase it. I’m not aware of any photo ID, universally available, that is free. Were it not for the fact that I had a railcard, I’d have been a victim of censorship too, and I’m a legal adult.

    I’m also unaware of books that have graphic representations of violence being subject to censorship, which is a pretty unlevel playing field. What is it about the specific visual that OBLIGES the young viewer to become ‘corrupted’ and believe that violence is just peachy? and what mysticism is it that 18 exact orbits around the sun will cure you of being affected by any malicious desires caused by these clearly supernatural artifacts? Surely we’d concede that there are plenty of people who have completed this ritual who we consider immature, and plenty of people who have not who we would consider mature, and that how many times you’ve spun around a star would have little impact on this, and a lot more on how you’d been brought up, or how you’d self-developed in the cases of largely absentee parents.

    On the other hand, if you accept that censorship helps ANYBODY except the government oppress people, I’ve got a rock that keeps away dragons, if you’re interested.

    Is it that important for you to have a fuss free game of GTAIV that you’re perfectly willing to collaborate in the oppression of anybody that’s under 18 to get it?

  31. Gap Gen says:

    Like I said, is there anyone here who knows about child psychology and whether age ratings genuinely are important for child development?

  32. Alaric says:

    Plenty of people claim to know one way or the other. Unfortunately there is no agreement among experts.

  33. The Sombrero Kid says:

    In this case empirical evidence of growing up should be enough to convince you, I’m less responsable now than when I was pre 18 and that’s true for most men at least I know

    Middle aged men are notoriously ‘not themselves’ why don’t censors target them because they can vote mostly see my comment about democracy above :)

  34. Optimaximal says:

    I’m going to say this, whats the difference between someone who is 17 or someone who is 18. The 17 person can’t play an 18 game because politicians like the one in this one won’t let them too. What really happens in that year that lets them play an 18 game and you see how stupid the government forcing parents to not buy there kids a game.

    What is the difference between a person who buys a lottery ticket before the Saturday night cut off and a person who misses it by mere seconds? Nothing, but that late person still won’t get a ticket.
    For laws & rules to even function, there has to be definite right/wrong yes/no situations – a cut-off, if you will…

    Once you start playing devils advocate with debates like this, you muddy the waters and it all becomes workable.

  35. Ian says:

    I wish I was as angry and oppressed as Serenegoose.

  36. Nighthood says:

    As a quick observation (someone might have said it already, too many comments), I am 16 but I have the ability to buy games with any rating over the internet, as I own a debit card. There is also a bank account, Halifax I think, that allows you to get a debit card at 12 or something close to that. Most online shops just assume that if they have a card they must be over 18, but that is not always the case.

  37. Gap Gen says:

    Well, it’s not a question of responsibility of the individual but the effect of violent media on developing minds. If exposure to violent media can make children more predisposed to violence, then censorship is a good idea. I don’t know whether the same applies to adults to a great degree (or indeed if it applies to children enough to warrant censorship).

    Society is always partly paternalistic, banning some drugs and certain violent media to people of all ages, and the limits are generally set by popular compromise rather than any absolutist rationale (so in the West we generally allow bikinis on billboards despite the wishes of conservative Muslims, but not full nudity). In many ways, the ban on drugs is harmful as it causes crime and doesn’t reduce the incidence of drug use, but removing the ban in favour of strict regulation isn’t an idea many politicians would fully support for fear of being ostracised.

  38. Hanako says:

    If kids playing uber-violent games without any moral context turn out as hyper-violent happy-slapping street corner thugs that are going to make my life hell, then YES send the cops round their house and fine the fuck out of their parents for knowingly buying them inappropriate games.

    No, cliff – you send the cops round their house and punish the children for being violent happy-slapping street thugs.

    Considering how screwed up the UK is, with our overcrowded prisons and desperate attempts to avoid prosecuting ‘anti-social behavior’, why do some people want to add more offenses for people who haven’t even done anything wrong as opposed to punishing the people who ARE doing something wrong?

    Playing a game should not be a crime. Allowing someone else to play a game should not be a crime. Strapping someone down and forcing them to play against their will should be a crime, and if you can find me a parent who’s intentionally Clockwork Orangeing their kids, I’ll be all for prosecuting them.

  39. phil says:

    @Alaric – from up trend a bit – how are you judging whether people are ‘competent’ enough to take part in the decision making process of a society, via voting say? To quote winne “democracy is the very worst form of government, asides from all the others.”

    @Sombrero – No, indoctrination and brainwashing is something else, a shutting down of thought, nurturing is more a general process.

    Unless you were a wild child raised by a pack of wolves, you were socialised and nurtured by a human social group that imprinted it’s morality and ethics onto you, even if you reject them totally, they’re still there, helping to make you, you, even if it’s by that very act of rejection.

  40. Tei says:

    I have played hiper-violents games as kid. And I am not hyperviolent. Say, I have played at trown rocks at friends, and “cops vs thiefs” and stuff like that.

    So, please stop all histeria. All childrens play violent games, If your children don’t play violent games, your childrens is not normal, most probably has a real problem that stop him to doing that.

  41. Serenegoose says:

    I had a big, angry response for you just there Ian, but I’ve managed to slim it down a bit:

    ‘Someone’s gotta be. :)’

  42. Hanako says:

    If exposure to violent media can make children more predisposed to violence, then censorship is a good idea.

    It’s extraordinarily hard to test that in a scientific fashion – approaching impossibility. The best most research can do is correlations, which I would hope that all people bright enough to use a computer are also bright enough to realise DO NOT MEAN ‘CAUSE’.

    I can spin a bunch of theories that sound reasonable, but it’s not science. For example: I have a strong suspicion that the regular portrayal of mild, could-happen-in-the-real-world violence is far more damaging to society than over-the-top action-movie/game violence. By that, I mean “dramatic” conflicts in television and movies where someone insults or aggravates someone else, and the insulted party responds by throwing a punch. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen TV/movies show consequences for this sort of behavior. In fact, they usually do their best to imply that you’re “not a real man” if you don’t respond to insults or threats against your wife/child with violence.

    I suspect this is far more likely to make viewers think that “my feelings are hurt, so I hit people” is reasonable than a game about beheading people with a magic sword is to make kids think they need to run through their school with a broadsword. But I can’t prove it with real science any more than the “OH NO VIDEO GAMES!” side can.

  43. Gap Gen says:

    Hanako: So crime has no relation to environment or upbringing? Sounds controversial. You cite the wish to reduce prison populations, but if you don’t tackle the root causes of crime, how do you expect to do that?

  44. Butler` says:

    I have a ‘friend’ (who himself is a loon) who let his nephew of 5 watch him play GTA3 regularly.

    I don’t know a lot, but I know one thing: that aint right, and shouldn’t be in anyone’s book.

  45. Nighthood says:

    Oh, also, one of the first games I ever played was Soldier of Fortune 1, with the gore on high. I would regard myself as normal.

  46. Hanako says:

    So crime has no relation to environment or upbringing? Sounds controversial. You cite the wish to reduce prison populations, but if you don’t tackle the root causes of crime, how do you expect to do that?

    … Since when is a parent letting their kid watch Star Wars at the age of 9 a root cause of crime?

    For that matter, since when did tackling the root cause of crime mean “lock up anyone who is/does anything that might someday contribute to an actual crime taking place”? Are you going to arrest everyone below the poverty line? We all know poverty is linked to crime. Hey, if you lock up all parents before they HAVE children, then you’ll prevent any future criminals from being born!

  47. cliffski says:

    “Can I also point out that, once again, Cliffski is being a complete loon?”

    Wow meatcircus, your brain REALLY cant cope with people disagreeing with you can it?

    Tough.

  48. cliffski says:

    To everyone who thinks violent imagery does not affect you… riddle me this:

    Does imagery in adverts affect your behaviour?

    if the answer is yes, explain why ads affect you and games don’t. (given that are interactive)

    If the answer is no, why is advertising a multi-billion dollar industry, given that you assert it doesn’t work?

  49. redcoat says:

    sounds idiotic. we don’t need more people criminalized and especially not for such trivial things. we don’t need more nanny state and laws. great to see them wasting time with this with all the other troubles going on in the world. adding more stupid laws to the books won’t stop it happening anyway. this goes beyond the basic rule of law and order and into interfering with private life. i think half the people here and those who say “they should make a law” for every problem would be all too happy to sell off the last of our freedoms and then lie down and wait for big brother’s jackboots to begin stamping on their faces.

  50. Alaric says:

    Phil, that is my point exactly! How do you decide who is competent enough to make these calls and who is not? Everyone seems to think they know whats best for everyone else.

    I say, anything goes unless it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it (whatever “it” is) causes harm to others.