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. dhex says:

    “If we feel that a parent’s right to raise their children is absolute, should we allow parents to school their children however they like? Should we let parents tell their children that evolution is false, or that the Holocaust didn’t happen (Godwin’s Law, sorry)?”

    everyone loves state enforcement until it starts enforcing states they don’t like.

    so, yes to the above.

  2. Dolphan says:

    Alaric – I wasn’t talking about spanking, although that’s a related point. I was talking about beating. Now take a look at what you’ve done. You, personally – not the parent – have made a judgment about what counts as harming a child. The child’s parent disagrees, and you want them to be overruled. Whether you justify that by reference to social agreement or an ad hoc definition of harm, you’re doing exactly what the people you were criticising have been doing. You’re drawing the same line in a different place, and then claiming a difference of principle.

  3. Dolphan says:

    Do people seriously think parents have a right to raise their children how they like? Think about that for a second. That means someone having the right to shape another human being’s development, to exert nearly unparallelled influence over who they are and the ideas and attitudes that they go into adult life with. The idea that anyone can have a moral claim to that kind of power over somebody else seems utterly terrifying to me.

  4. Vanguard says:

    As a gamer and parent of a son who is also a gamer, I believe it is the parent’s right to decide what is and is not suitable for the child.
    Every child is unique and should not be given access to the same media based purely on age. Parents may not always do a good job, but you cannot criminalise a parents right to choose.
    No, I don’t agree that a nine year old should be given access to GTA, but a responsible 16 or 17 year old? Why not? The same applies to films and alcohol. I’d prefer (and intend) that my son’s first encounter with alcohol be in the family home, sensibly, as part of a meal or party. Not two litres of the cheapest cider down the park. I know which I believe to be the most dangerous.
    If the authorities are concerned with young children playing mature rated games, social services can investigate. Is the parent aware of what they are playing? Did they agree to it? Can they justify their decision?
    You cannot remove the right of the parent to choose how to raise their child by criminalising it.

  5. Vanguard says:

    Do people seriously think parents have a right to raise their children how they like? Think about that for a second. That means someone having the right to shape another human being’s development, to exert nearly unparallelled influence over who they are and the ideas and attitudes that they go into adult life with. The idea that anyone can have a moral claim to that kind of power over somebody else seems utterly terrifying to me.

    Yes. Yes I do. I find the concept that someone else, wholly removed from the individuals in question, can dictate how I raise my child to be far more terrifying.
    I also find the concept of every child being raised identically horrifying too. There are many, many parents I would disagree with but I accept their right to choose for their family. That said, as a society we have agreed minimum standards of care for a child and where these are not being met, we have a duty to intervene. A child’s access to GTA is a parental choice, the child’s access to food and water is not.

  6. Brer says:

    Ok, first, full disclosure: I’m an American and so am going to make my points on this issue on general principle. I’m 27, have no children of my own and no plans to have any until such a time as I could be sure of my ability to support them and raise them successfully. I’ve been gaming since I was six or seven, and my first exposure to an explicitly gory video game and a sexually explicit video game was Gabriel Knight when I was 12, though I’d been reading sexually explicit and violent fiction meant for adults (including some horror novels) as early as eight or nine. I won’t be using any of that information in my argument, just laying out any possible personal biases.

    On the issue of “is there a correlation between media and/or video games and violent behavior?” The answer is “So far, there is some evidence for a weak correlation between media violence, including video game violence, and “aggression” as a personality measure”. Some media effects studies, particularly those by American researcher Craig Anderson, have claimed otherwise, but even setting aside the systematic flaws in media effects as a field (for a brief article summarizing those flaws, go here: http://www.theory.org.uk/tenthings.htm) video game violence studies produce extremely small effect sizes and have measured “aggression” only in the most abstract of ways (for example, how long a blast of annoying noise would be played for an opponent in a competitive reflex-based game).

    For a comparison of effect sizes of various “risk factors” for youth violence (at least here in the US) I refer you to this study on youth violence from our Surgeon General: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/images/Table_4-1.gif . You will note that media exposure’s correlation is weak, far below, say, weak social ties, criminal record, gang membership, violent/abusive parents, anti-social parents, and even “being male”. Effect sizes are measures of correlation, BTW, not causation. Oh, and the #1 strongest predictor of violent criminal behaviour after past offenses or diagnosed ASPD? Low socioeconomic status.

    To sum up: There is no substantive evidence for any sort of causal link between violent media consumption (not just video game consumption but any media consumption) and any violent behaviour. The correlation found so far is weak and has only been linked to abstract measures of “aggression” as determined by game-like measures in a clinical environment. This also ignores things like the degree to which a violent or aggressive person may show preference for violent media. Given those facts, I think that making this an area for government intervention is inappropriate at this time.

    Now, here’s a question that has not been raised but should be, and here all I can offer is anecdotal evidence (which I have to admit is weak an unreliable and so should not be taken as conclusive): “does violent media, especially video games, DESENSITIZE someone to real-life violence, causing them to have a weaker emotional response to it?”. Again, AFAIK there’s been no study on this subject although I did design an experiment to test it once. For my part, I’m an Iraq veteran who was in Iraq from late 2003 to late 2004. I was playing violent video games and watching gory movies both before and sense. I do not claim that this is true of everyone, but I can say that for my part even extremely gory films did not in any way deaden my emotional response or “Harden” me to seeing the real thing. And before anyone even tries to bring up various displays of seemingly “inappropriate” behaviour, comments, and jokes on the part of any troops, I’d point out that what you’re seeing in most cases are layers of psychological defense, coping mechanisms, and bravado, not a lack of empathy.

    Anyway, I could extend this post quite and bit and fill it with links (and I can provide links to studies on both sides of this issue if anyone wants them), but given that this is a fairly long-running thread I don’t know that it’s worth the effort right now.

  7. TheSombreroKid says:

    for the record i never condoned and don’t condone parental dicat, i was saying that there is a scale between state socail conditioning and parental/personal social conditioning as well as one of the magnitude of conditioning and that gives us a choice between stanardised values versus a more varied set, with some people above average on social obediance and some people bellow it, this i feel is a matter of individual/social preverance, however in our society young people having been silenced, do not have the power to contribute to the decision making process, without a vote the state is not interested in thier opinion or needs beyond what thier parents want for them, this produces a havey slant against them, this is true for any percentage of the population who are denied the vote or to a lesser degree any demographic who will never have enough political clout to worry an elected official this is why in a democracy lie ours groups like homosexuals rely on political indiferance from the majority to recive fair and sensible treatment, if the hetrosexual population takes offence where it really shouldn’t you get an oppressed population by mass discrimination, potentially genecide is posible in a democracy to be hysterical about it so in conclusion i don’t think parents should get to decide and i don’t think a democratically elected government where children don’t get a say should either.

  8. TheSombreroKid says:

    appologies for the lexical dioreah i just woke up and am very sleepy

  9. TheSombreroKid says:

    appologies for the lexical dioreah i just woke up and am very sleepy
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  10. Andrew Armstrong says:

    Gap Gen, that’s a ridiculous stance to take. It is legal to allow children to drink in your home. Smoking is different – smoking is really really bloody bad for your health, and a growing child could have all sorts of health problems from it. I’d be up for giving them more choice in the matter, but why Cigarettes are not banned but other drugs are is beyond my area of expertise.

    In any case, that point makes no sense. A better comparisons is books, film, TV, music, paintings, sculpture, and other parts of culture, all of which you don’t jail the parent for letting the child experience if the parent thinks it is fine (although as I said, the distributors of those items might need to be told off or fined for selling or allowing access to those materials to the kids themselves since that is without parental oversight).

  11. Cooper says:

    It should be as it is with films, at least in the UK – that the prosecution is directed to those which -sell- the game.

    If parents buy a game for a child, that is their choice. Just as if they let them watch DVDs with 18 ratings.

    What is needed is better education. Parents who might be inclined to worry about what films their children watch may think less about games.

    If this was just a stunt to make it clear to parents that games are not ‘just for kids’ and should be considered alongside other media in regards to age ratings, that’s fine. If it’s a serious attempt to dictate parenting styles, I would be wary.

  12. SomeOne says:

    But what will happen if in a family there are 2 boys, one 14 and one 19, the parents buy a game rated 18+ for the 19 yo, but the 14 yo plays it when the parents are not at home. Should the parents be prosecuted in this case too ? after all, they didn’t buy the game for the younger kid, he just ended up playing when they where not there to check.

    Oh, and another thing, punishment is not as effective as education. Even if you prosecute 1000 parents there will always be a lot more to do the same “mistake”, but if you do a lot of advertising that ratings are there for a reason (and that is to protect the kids) then you should have a better outcome.

  13. Dolphan says:

    Vanguard – there’s a massive difference between saying someone else shouldn’t dictate how you raise your child and saying that parents have a right to do it how they like. You can give perfectly reasonable justifications for the former based on the welfare of the child without invoking anything as morally bizarre as the right to power over another person. The only person with relevant rights here is the child – not the parents, and not anybody else.

  14. perilisk says:

    Parents have a pretty strong instinct to do what’s best for their kids (thanks, evolution!) though of course there are always exceptions, and moreover they sometimes try and fail. It’s not a bad thing to have a sanity check there, to prevent abuse. But generally, if you want what’s best for kids in society, your best bet is parental discretion. All kids are different, have different needs, react differently to the same experiences.

    Censors have loyalties too — not to kids, though (“think of the children” is a rationalization, not a reason). They’re loyal to authorities, who have a vested interest in seeing the world presented in only one way. They’re loyal to corporate/union media interests, thanks to the marvels of regulatory capture, and are likely to give independent works much harsher scrutiny. They’re loyal to noisy, puritanical minorities — the squeaky wheel gets the grease. They’re loyal to idea of protecting society from undesirable thoughts; open minded people aren’t usually drawn to becoming censors, nor can they usually be successful without a display of loyalty to the other groups above.

    Forcing a 5 yr old to play Manhunt is probably abusive. Allowing a 16 yr old to play it is probably not. Fortunately, psychological child abuse is illegal already. Adult gamers with children will be targeted by this law, whether they expose their children to inappropriate content or not. It’s handing a weapon to the Daily Mail crowd to imprison people who disagree with them. It’s fascism.

    The idea that keeping kids away will lead to more “mature” media is particularly bizarre. Surely one of the reasons that works of art that would ordinarily be kept away from minors due to their content are instead put forth as required cultural learning is the “maturity” of their content. It distinguishes art from pornography. Keeping minors in happy happy land teaches them nothing. Ultimately, the point of childhood is not to preserve innocence, it’s to strip it away in a psychologically healthy fashion — to turn children into adults. That requires gradual exposure to adult responsibility and adult media, preferably under the watchful eye of an adulthood mentor (“parent”).

  15. dhex says:

    The idea that anyone can have a moral claim to that kind of power over somebody else seems utterly terrifying to me.

    the state makes that kind of claim all the time.

    and enforces it, too.

  16. Tyshalle says:

    Matt Kemp: “The problem occurs not when the parent replies ‘I know is is M rated, I am allowing my child to play it’, but more ‘I don’t care, just put it through the till’.”

    Again, I get it. There are bad parents in the world. We still shouldn’t penalize the good ones by taking away their right to choose what their kids can handle simply because some people are idiots.

    Anyone who thinks that a kid being raised by a bad, neglectful parent is going to be saved by the state preventing them from playing Fallout 3 is fooling themselves.

    Dolphan: “Tyshalle, it is somebody else’s business how a parent raises their kid. Namely, the child’s. In fact, it’s far more the child’s ‘business’ than the parent’s. And children have no protection whatsoever, in themselves, against the ideas or actions of their parents.”

    The masses, if given control over other people’s children might be able to pull-up a few below-average children. However, let the masses get their hands on the above-average children and they’re only going to pull them down.

    Alaric: “Instead of screwing with good parents and other innocent people, the government should just prevent the undesirables from having children. And from voting.”

    You both should and shouldn’t mean that. In principle it makes sense, however there is no feasible way to apply the principle without it getting way out of hand. The last thing we need is the religious nuts to be in charge of who gets to vote and have children, if you see what I mean.

  17. Vanguard says:

    there’s a massive difference between saying someone else shouldn’t dictate how you raise your child and saying that parents have a right to do it how they like. You can give perfectly reasonable justifications for the former based on the welfare of the child without invoking anything as morally bizarre as the right to power over another person. The only person with relevant rights here is the child – not the parents, and not anybody else.

    Dolphan, the issue here is indeed parental rights. The government is saying that parents cannot be trusted to judge what media is suitable for their child and so the government will decide for them and criminalise them if they disagree.
    Parents should have the right to raise their children as they see fit, as long as the child’s rights are being respected. If a parent is neglecting or abusing a child by exposing them to harmful and unsuitable media we have laws in place to deal with it.

  18. Ghostunit says:

    I’m from New Zealand and if experience has taught me anything, we will soon see stories where the TV news channels will send children into stores to buy GTA – just to show how ‘bad’ the problem is.

  19. Hmm-hmm. says:

    You don’t shouldn’t go buying a video for your children if it’s not suitable for them. Nor a book. Nor a game. Nor, say, alcoholic beverages or cigarettes.

    So it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Especially considering how some people seem to have problems making the right decisions for their children.

  20. PJ says:

    Since somebody mentioned alcohol, I thought I’d just toss this interesting tid-bit into the mix; young children, when their brains are still developing actually have a far higher ability to recover from neurological damage caused by alcohol (and for that matter other drugs too) than do adults. Not that I’m suggesting we give kids Vodka as a substitute for breast milk, but still, interesting.

  21. Terazeal says:

    I absolutely hate people like Hastings, they assume you can’t handle violent content because of how many years you’ve existed. Here’s a thought, let the kids choose their own games so that they can pick stuff that won’t give them nightmares. There are endless variations on an individual no matter what age they are. This individualism extends to the effects of violent media on the person. Restricting someone’s rights based on something so superficial as age is simply wrong.

  22. Ben C says:

    Holy shit, do you people not see the danger in letting the government usurp your responsibility to make decisions and judge for yourselves? Do you really feel the government more capable than you are to decide what’s appropriate for you? Do you actually think the criminal system is going to make poor parents better by taking away time and money from them? Come on! And who are you, anyway, to say that someone must go to jail over a computer game? I don’t suppose you’ve had the pleasure of dealing with the government criminal system – it’s insane, ineffective, and expensive. Get off your damned high horse. Any moron who wants to bring down real, actual violence by those-who-are-allowed-to-have-guns (police) upon those of us who aren’t allowed to defend ourselves are eventually going cause us all to become victims of oppression. I can see freedom flying right out the window, and the worst part is that people don’t seem to see it coming.

    -partly sorry for the rant, but damnit some people are so stupid.

  23. HellTempest says:

    If parents can’t keep their children from emulating the things in video games or their children are scared/act immaturely because of them, then the parents should have to make the choice, not the government.

    What happened to parents parenting?

  24. Klaus says:

    I thought quite a bit about this. I don’t want anyone dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t teach my (eventual?) kids. Everyone has their own opinion on what’s appropriate for children – obviously.

    I don’t actually have a problem with people letting their kids play GTA. That’s the price of freedom. I don’t want anyone encroaching on my ‘rights’, therefore I try very hard not to do it to others. It’s one of my few principles.

    I don’t like childrens programming. Others do. I wouldn’t let my children watch too much of that without interference. Others will love the ‘not sharing is evil’ and ‘dissent of the group is evil’ options they offer.

    “I’m from New Zealand and if experience has taught me anything, we will soon see stories where the TV news channels will send children into stores to buy GTA – just to show how ‘bad’ the problem is.”

    They do this in the United States too. Huzzah!

  25. Serenegoose says:

    I’m 22 years old and was prevented from buying a second hand copy of quake 4 today because I’m not rich enough to afford a passport and not lucky enough to be at university or anywhere else where free ID is given out. This is directly what censorship leads to, and it’s a godsdamn disgrace. Who was being protected here?

  26. Chris says:

    This may in fact be the worst idea ever.

    I am 17, you’re telling me that if my parents buy say…GTAIV for me, they can be fined or spend time in jail? That is horrible.

  27. spacedoubt says:

    I’d suggest that punishment should be more in line with a speeding ticket than a major offence. Jailtime is unrealistic, but fining someone with respect for the age of the minor in question is okay. If that R18 game is going to a 17yr-old, it shouldn’t be punished as though it were given to a 5yr-old. Method of enforcement is another question however….

  28. Some Guy says:

    im 16.5 and was prevented from buying call of duty 4 (16, PECGI rating so not legaly anything) because i only had a photocoppy of my pasport nor the real thing and dont want a citizen card so my details get on 4 databases. Age ratings are needed but some are too harsh and not many people have ID till you can drive that you would carry with you.

  29. bob says:

    My son is 12 he plays 15 games like call of duty WaW and i have no problem with him playing these games, he never seems disturbed about them and plays the only on his xbox360 console and just plays them for fun.
    I think, if you think your child can handle it let them play it

  30. Thatonedude0321 says:

    I don’t care if an 8 year old is playing Modern Warfare 2, but I DO care when they’re playing online. the age limit should remain where it is for the purchase of games, but I want online gameplay to have age restrictions enforced.

    I can’t even begin to express how annoying it is to get home, relax, throw in a game, only to spend the next half hour listening to little kids saying curses they don’t even understand (using them incorrectly) or replying with “your mom” every time you ask them something, or even speak at all. short of muting my entire team -which leads to disaster- there isn’t much I can do about it. is it too hard to ask for an online match in an 17+ game and NOT have someone who is 8 or 9 screaming at you because he didn’t see you shooting him?

    Enforcement isn’t even that hard, have it community-enforced (to prevent children asking their parents to register accounts in their name). i don’t know how PS3 or PC games are done, but on an Xbox 360, it should be as easy as selecting their gamertag, filing an underage complaint, and having it looked into by a Microsoft employee if enough complaints are filed in that category.

  31. Howard Roark says:

    Who is to say what is and isn’t appropriate for someone “underage” ? Human beings are free beings, sovereign masters of their own affairs, and to deny someone the right to choose to consume media that they see fit for themselves is a violation of their sacred liberty.

    In ALL hunter gatherer societies, adulthood starts at puberty. In hunter gatherer societies, children witness maiming and slaughtering of animals, far more brutal than what occurs in most videogames, and turn out perfectly fine.

    When teenagers are already having sex, already commiting violent acts, both things perfectly natural in a hunter-gatherer society, why on Earth would you restrict them from choosing to see these things in media, when they already DO more “extreme things” by censorship standards?