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Byron Review: 8/10

The Byron Review has been published, and the results are perhaps surprising. Surprising, if only because it doesn't appear to be a sensationalist response, nor indeed one ignorant of the realities of videogames and modern media. If there's one overall conclusion to be drawn from a lengthy report, it appears to be that parents need to take a greater degree of responsibility. The full report can be read here, with links to shorter versions and other related information here.

The report focuses its real concern on the internet, and this would seem reasonable. However, in the extensive coverage of gaming, Byron's conclusions are that we need to educate parents, and to revise and reinforce the current system. Rather than, say, ban all forms of gaming and imprison any involved on the Sun.

"The voice of better informed parents should then drive industry investment and continued innovation around child safety in video games."

Most pleasantly surprising is Tanya Byron's respect for young people, and her understanding that they are an authority and authors of their own existence. While her conclusions put the emphasis of responsibility on parents, she doesn't treat their offspring as unwitting victims.

"Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim."

It's like she's... on the side of reason.

If I may draw my own inference from one of Byron's comments, it would seem that there's an endemic thinking among parents that age ratings are for other people's kids, and not their special little bundles, about whom they know better.

"Overall parents feel that deciding what games are appropriate has to be their decision because it depends on their child, but that they would welcome clearer and more specific guidance explaining the rationale for the age ratings. In particular, some parents assume that the ratings would be too conservative and hence ignore them. There is a desire for more granularity so that they can decide what to allow on a case by case basis."

This seems like the biggest block there could possibly be for an industry unsure of how to regulate itself. If each parent feels themselves the expert on their own child, then the BBFC/ELSPA could lock the games in a safe marked "EIGHTEEN ONLY", and it would still be handed over to each and every seven year old. Perhaps it's no wonder that Byron targets parents rather than developers/publishers.

When it comes to violence and young people's responses to such content, Byron goes into great depth discussing opposing research methods and the failure of both to provide any helpful evidence. She concludes,

"It would not be accurate to say that there is no evidence of harm but equally it is not appropriate to conclude that there is evidence of no harm. Relatively small and short-term effects of playing violent video games on young children‘s behaviour and attitudes have been demonstrated, but many questions remain about how to interpret this at an individual level or it’s meaning for behaviour and attitudes in the real world. Research has not taken a strong developmental perspective and I believe this is a key factor, as children of different ages have different levels of skill and understanding about the world (e.g. critical evaluation, ability to make judgments) which will impact on how they interpret content, their behaviour and their understanding of the world."

Praise her to the hills, Byron then goes on to recognise that so-called "addiction" in videogames is a very shaky area on which to draw conclusions, but instead uses the far more useful term, "excessive use". Tending to agree with the conclusions found in my own studies into the issue, again the emphasis here is put on parental responsibility, recognising that unmonitored children are likely to do pretty much anything to excess.

The conclusions for reforming the current systems are lengthy and involved, and you should hoof your way over to read them for yourself. To lazily summarise, it comes down to: educate the parents, and clarify the ratings. In the meantime, how has the media responded to the publication?

The theme appears to be to respond to the notion that responsibility lies with parents, by asking parents to write their thoughts. This works quite well when that parent is a sentient human with half a clue what is being discussed, as is shown by this BBC article.

"I suppose the key moment was when he stopped using the household computer in the living room - where we could watch what was going on - and got his own in his room when he was 15. Too early to allow unfettered access? Well I suppose it's a question of trust - and we thought our son was pretty sensible. He is impatient with the idea that he and his fellow gamers can't distinguish between virtual warfare and the real thing - and I think he has a point."

Things take something of a downward tilt when, guess who, the Daily Mail has a go. Hiring Earth's leading authority on gaming, the Mail asked Anne Diamond to sit down and play some of those games so popular with the young people today. Her response, according to the accompanying photograph, was so violent that she brutally stabbed herself with the offending games.

It's not worth it, Anne!

Image copyright Daily Mail.

(This is genuinely the picture they've published - we've not doctored it at all. Nor indeed the following text).

"Just reviewing these games, made my hair stand on end. I have never got into computer games.but my sons all love them. I have to guard constantly that they don't use my ignorance to play games that I wouldn't allow in the house, if only I knew their content. Some of the games were so mindless it would be hard to see them as a destructive influence. But others were sickening in their gratuitous use of violence and bloodthirsty imagery." [sic]

So, well, a mixed response. But overall, I think it's safe for the gaming community to let out a collective sigh of relief, that this Byron Review has tackled the issues intelligently, with a depth of research, and without sentimentality or sensationalism. Next up: how the government applies it. There's a version of the report written for children (you can tell because things are at jaunty angles) as well, which is here. Let us know your thoughts on the report, and the content within, below.

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