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.