Video Game Violence, Ratings and Your Children

spec-ops-the-line-violence-headerIt’s just one of those things that we gamers have come to expect. Any time that video games are even tangentially related to a violent crime, the mainstream media will jump on that as a reason for the commission of that crime, regardless of the numerous studies that show no causative relationship between video game violence and real violence.

The latest case of the persecution of video games and gamers comes from Louisiana where an 8-year-old boy shot his grandmother in the head. The East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Department have strongly implied that the boy playing Grand Theft Auto IV led to the shooting.

Before I get too far into this column, let’s take the gun control issue off the table. Would this have happened if the kid didn’t have easy access to a loaded gun? No. In Canada, it wouldn’t have happened if the law was followed. Canadian law requires that guns be stored unloaded and in a locked storage container or in an unsecured place with a trigger lock. That would have prevented the shooting. However, people aren’t focusing on the child having access to a loaded gun so I will forego that issue too.

While many people will rush to question why games are so violent and the effect that violent video games will have on children, they’re ignoring mountains of research that haven’t conclusively determined a causative relationship between the consumption of violent media, including, but not limited to, video games, and increased aggressive behavior. While some studies have determined at most a moderate correlation between consumption of violent media and aggression, they haven’t proved that consumption of violent media causes violent behaviour. And correlation does not equal causation.

Don’t tell that to the local sheriff’s department, though. In their statement regarding the shooting, the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Department said, “Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III ‘Grand Theft Auto IV,’ a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred.”

grand-theft-auto-iv-screenshot-08Basically, rather than question any of the other factors in the shooting, the Sheriff is willing to lay the blame squarely on the video game. What he didn’t do was ask one very important question. Why was an 8-year-old child playing GTA4? It’s certainly not what I, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) or most people would consider to be appropriate for a child of that age. If the video game is the cause of all this, why was the kid allowed to play something that he shouldn’t have?

The problem is that people are unwilling to see faults with themselves. It sounds cold to say considering she’s dead but the kid’s grandmother shouldn’t have allowed her grandson to play a game that’s rated for ages 17 and older and labelled by the ESRB as having “Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs and Alcohol.” All the warning signs were there to say that GTA4 might not be appropriate for a small child but they weren’t heeded.

Since video games are being used as a scapegoat for violence in modern society, it’s time that the games industry got ahead of this and tried educating the public about violence in games. If they’re concerned about violent video games, rather than censor the content of the games, teach parents how to protect their children from content that they don’t believe is appropriate for them. Basically, the public needs to know what’s already in place to keep their kids safe from content that they don’t want them seeing.

I remember that as a kid I had some trouble differentiating between reality and fiction. My parents eventually talked to me about the differences between what’s real and what isn’t, what in fiction I can’t or shouldn’t do in real life and what the consequences would be if I did those things. I seem to recall my Grade 2 teacher having this talk with the class about Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. For example, if you’re going to give a kid a game with guns, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad time to talk to them about gun safety and the consequences of shooting a gun or shooting a person.

Beyond hands-on parenting, parents also have a couple of ways to get between their kids and games that they don’t feel are appropriate. We need to get publishers and the ESRB to start pushing parents to pay attention to the ratings and content advisories on the back of the box. One time at EB Games, I saw a clerk stop a kid (I’d say he was in the 10 to 12-year-old range) from buying the latest CoD game only for his parents to come in from their car and end run the age restriction by buying it for him. The parents either didn’t know or didn’t care that CoD was deemed to be inappropriate for a child that age.

esrb-ratingsMy hypothesis is that parents who know about the ratings system and understand (even vaguely) what it says, are less likely to put violent video games in the hands of kids who they feel couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp the consequences of the fictional violence portrayed and the real-world consequences of recreating what’s on-screen. As such, we need a push from the ESRB, publishers and the retailers to make sure that parents are aware of the ratings and what they mean in order to make an informed decision as to whether a game is appropriate for their kids.

Raising awareness could be as simple as an online advertising campaign directing people to the ESRB website or sending signs or posters to game retailers that show and explain the ratings and content warnings that the ESRB issues. If you bombard buyers with information that allow them to make a better purchasing decision, that can only be a good thing. This should include information about a game’s rating. If people know what the ratings are and what they mean, they only have themselves to blame if they give their kids a violent game. They can’t say that they didn’t know. Though they shouldn’t be saying that now.

That works for protecting your kid but what about games as gifts or games at a friend’s houses. That’s where console manufacturers have to start throwing their weight around.

Each of our current consoles have parental controls. The PS3 has some odd number-based (rather than ESRB rating level based) parental control system that I can’t make heads or tails of. The Xbox 360 has a parental control system that allows you to restrict games by rating and content type. Similarly, the Wii U allows you to block games at certain ratings levels.

xbox-360-parental-controlsThe question is how many parents or legal guardians know that this capability is available to them. I would hazard that it wouldn’t be very many. Rather than constantly hover over your kid while they game, you can just set up the parental controls and prevent them from accessing the content that you feel is inappropriate. It’s a second level of protection for protecting people from inappropriate content beyond a game’s rating.

At the end of the day, the challenge in ending the scapegoating of video games as the cause for the downfall of society is getting people to accept that there is more that they can do. Blaming video games is easy to do. Asking the hard questions like if there’s anything that you could do to prevent violence is the sort of thing people don’t do.

Rather than just jumping to censoring games or gun control, we can use the tools that are already in place in order to get ahead of the problems that people have with violent games. It’s just a matter of telling people that tools like ratings and parental controls are in place and have been in place for some years to warn people about the content of games and prevent them from playing inappropriate content or fictional games whose real world consequences they can’t grasp.

When the alternative to parents deciding what their kids can or can’t play is the censorship of game content across the board, we have to give this a try. Rather than let those who say games are too violent win and get violence in games censored down to nothing, we need to show them that there are ways to warn and guard against people being exposed to violence in games if they don’t want to or shouldn’t see that violence.

If we use the tools that are already at our disposal, we can solve everyone’s problems with violent games. It’s just a matter of making sure they know that those tools are there.

References:
CNN – 8-year-old shoots, kills elderly caregiver after playing video game
ESRB – Grand Theft Auto IV
ESRB – Ratings Guide

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr and RSS.

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