In the past week we’ve seen the release of one of the most anticipated games of all time, Grand Theft Auto V. With its release comes news articles such as this one, in which a GameStop employee speaks of his frustration with disinterested parents who buy the game for their underage kids without any real understanding of what exactly it is they’re buying, and despite the fact that it’s clearly labelled ‘M’ for ‘Mature’ content. If that isn’t enough to get the message across, perhaps the big red ‘18’ in the corner should do the trick. Yet it seems not. Here is a quote from the article, and as a former (albeit brief) Game employee myself, not to mention gamer from an early age, I can testify to its accuracy in many typical cases:
“When I recite the phrases from the ESRB ratings box on the back cover of an M-rated game and it just goes right over your head I feel the need to be more specific. So I mention things like a game having a first-person view of half-naked strippers or that the game has a mission that forces you to torture another human being.
In response, I often hear things like, “Oh, it’s for my older son” or “All his friends already have it.”
Then I wonder to myself how often the youngest child watches the “older son” playing and if “all his friends” were to jump off a cliff… I don’t tell you these things because I don’t like your parenting style. It is because, when I look at little Timmy there in my store, I can’t help but picture him as the little boy sitting across the table from my daughter in her first grade class.”
This challenges an assumption made by many parents (although it’s not limited to them) that because ‘it’s a game’, it’s only a harmless, fun little thing that everyone of a certain age (i.e. the school-going age) plays, and that their child will be horrendously bullied if they do not also have it. Not to mention the fact that they will shout about how much they hate you on the way home if you do not comply with their wishes, and because you may like to think you’re a great parent and rely on your kid’s gratification for that, you’d rather just give them what they want and let them enjoy themselves. Isn’t that what love is, after all?
No. That is not love. Love is precisely not giving ignorant people what they want, but rather what they need – and accepting the consequences on yourself for that. A child comes into this world not knowing anything. What it does know, it relies on its parents to teach it. You may think that’s what school is for, but school only teaches facts, ground knowledge that takes them through life into a future job. At school they also learn as much, if not more, from their friends – facts about human interaction; things like manners, conversation, values and even self-worth. It is here where a parent finds their greatest competition. If they’re up to the task it will not be much of a contest. The problem is that many parents, from what I see around me in today’s society, aren’t willing to even turn up to the fight. They see the raising of their children as someone else’s occupation (this is what the teachers are paid for, after all), and consider having a job of their own and being able to put dinner in front of their kid as the very definition of ‘good parenting’ in a time when some cannot afford to do even that. Actually hanging out, spending time together? That would be too boring for parents who have ‘lives of their own’, and want more than just being able to call themselves a parent. Besides, we all need a break every once in a while too, right?
Video games have progressed at an extremely fast rate in the past thirty years, and are only now beginning to slow down a little in their progress as an entertainment medium. What was once considered a mindless toy to be played by teenage boys with no prospects down at the arcade in the late 1970s has now become one of the most profitable past-times on the planet: current game sales continue to eclipse films and books combined. Since its release, Grand Theft Auto V itself has made more money in sales (over $1 billion in its first three days – and that figure is rising by the minute) than any other entertainment product in history, putting every Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ to shame.
This means that people of all ages, at all stages of maturity and intelligence, are now exposed to the world of video games like never before, and more than that: they enjoy it. It is an industry the average parent can no longer afford to label ‘for kids’ and not think twice about buying a product for their child that may be grossly inappropriate for their maturity level.
That’s not to say all children that are underage aren’t at that level of maturity, of course. I myself wasn’t much older than 10 years old when I got my first taste of Silent Hill, a game that I believe has positively benefitted my personal development and fostered a love of atmospheric storytelling. So what I am not doing is telling anyone else what to do. Parents may also, in trying to do the right thing without exception, be refusing their child something that they may actually be able to handle. But for every one of me, there will be another two who won’t reach that maturity until much later. This is why the ESRB ratings exist. The people who make them aren’t doing it on a whim, and aren’t trying to ruin your kid’s life by withholding a certain game from them. In many cases, they may be saving it.
Bear in mind as well that my case does not necessarily translate well to 2013. My attitude towards a 1999 horror game, no matter how much of a masterpiece it may have been considered at the time, is very different to what my 10 year old reaction would be to, say, The Last of Us, with its state of the art graphics and (much, much) more realistic characterisation and storyline. Silent Hill, for all its plaudits, was considerably more blocky and more obviously a game than many modern horror titles. At the time I nonetheless had utmost respect for its capacity to scare; kids who are spoilt on Call of Duty would look at it now and laugh. That desensitisation is precisely the problem caused by a lack of attention to what they’re playing. In this case, I would say the advance in realism in modern games makes it more necessary than ever to follow the ratings system, which, like the games it rates, has improved in its accuracy over recent years.
But hey, I’m not a parent. You could say I don’t know what I’m talking about and therefore you don’t have to listen to me, and you might be right. I’m not writing this for that reason. I’m writing what I think about what I see, and if we all waited until we feel we’re ‘qualified’ to give parents a bit of help, I think we’d be missing the point. This post is not for the satisfaction or disdain of parents at all; they are not the victim here. It is our kids I’m concerned about. It is them I’d try to help.
Fair enough, you may say, but what about when actual grown-ups are influenced to do things like steal a car and bash it into other cars like they can do in Grand Theft Auto V? Age ratings aren’t going to stop them. Well, we have a word for those people too: idiots. I personally am just thankful if indeed GTA V helps smoke them out, because something else would have taken the credit otherwise.