On Violence in Videogames (and ratings, and the ESRB, etc)

How do kids consume M-rated games, and how much responsibility should parents take?

On Violent Video Games

Cross-posted here

I get it, I really do. Parents are concerned, and they should be. It has been — like the movie industry — largely self-regulated. However, they are protected as art and under the first amendment. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t restrictions on the first amendment.

Firstly, the ESRB is not that informative when it comes to games. M and T are too broad a rating — like the semi-meaningless PG rating in movies (it tends to jump from G to PG-13), there’s a lot of vagueries. And like the MPAA rating system, being regulated by industry giants tends to make more hoops for a little player to get through. That said, since they do include some blurbs of what content may be objectionable, I would recommend a parent play through the content themselves or watch a Let’s Play on youtube. Which your kids are doing anyway.

Secondly — in one such conversation, a parent brought up the difficulty in putting all of this on the parents. A parent — especially in dual-income households — can only control so much. Even only buying games T and below doesn’t mean that they’re not going to get M rated games — either they pirate them or trade them at school. Hell, I’m asking a parent to devote even more time, above.

This was true in my childhood, too. Only then, we downloaded Doom from BBSes and snuck them onto the library computers (Sorry Athenian). We traded many a 3.5" disk of shareware demos and pirated content, full of violent video games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D as well as kiddie adventure titles. We went to the arcades to play Mortal Kombat, dazzled by the video-sequences and b-movie blood effects. My Genesis port of MK was more popular than my friend’s Nintendo port because of the color of the blood. The teen angst of hardcore goth metal would blear in our eardrums as we got the next idSoft title.

And it wasn’t just video games. There were VHSes of R-rated b-horror movies traded on the grounds in Middle School.

And then we grew up.

And this is my point.

Entertainment companies are sort of doing what they’re doing with a wink and a nod. Like Camel cigarettes, they say it’s not for kids, but Freedy, Jason, and Duke Nukem are meant for the adolescent kid. Like Tim Bradstreet art on the Hot Topic T-shirt, it was there to be a suburban white kid’s definition of subversive, and therefore cool. And look — Freddy got a couple of reboots, Chucky’s back, and Duke Nukem had a highly anticipated and failed game (but not in the retail market), and Doom made a nostalgic comeback. We are the products of that time,

Hell, they advertised Deadspace as that game your Mom doesn’t want you to play (the game was M rated). Gun companies advertise on M-rated realistic military shooters while taking no responsibility for online behavior (and the many youtube recordings of pre-adolescents screaming into their mic as their team loses)

As much as the games industry is claiming it is taking responsibility for itself, it stunts its own maturity with what it rates as “M”. Games — those pretentious games that I tout — games as varied as That Dragon, Cancer, Papers, Please, and This War of Mine — “maturity” is relegated to violence and sex. Because this is what — reflecting our society — we want to protect our children from.

Now I have a niece, and I’m careful what media I consume around my niece, and take great care in what she reads (my sister assigned me as her cultural guide). She’s 2. I’m training her to be pretentious and ask questions about the media she enjoys. But allow her to enjoy it. I don’t know what will be around when she’s on that schoolyard, and all of the cool kids are watching and playing and verbing X, Y, and Z. Of course, I’m going to take an interest in that sort of thing.

But yes — to blame parents when the games industry is actively courting children for M-rated games (see the advertising for Grand Theft Auto, and Dead Space above), with their sophomoric imitations of stories from other media, really just transfers responsibility.

Now — the plural of anecdote is not data. Though many studies have shown no strong correlation between violent media (including games) and violent behavior, save for the fact that violent people are attracted to violent media. And some of us grow out of that.

The responsibility of the first amendment also includes being held accountable to what you say and do. Maybe not legally, but parents can have a legitimate complaint if they don’t see maturity in the M rating.

Games — like all in the Entertainment Industry — are profit-driven. They make what makes money. They make what people want to see. Violent media will make money — especially here — because we — as a society — are excited by it. There’s drama inherent in violent conflict. Problems seem more easily solved with a punch or a shot from a gun. Our culture reflects our society. Our capitalist culture reflects what we literally value.

The best one can hope for is that parents transfer their morals to their kids, and get them to think about what they consume. Sure — it may seem uncool — but we all grow up.

Some of us, anyway.

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