Why are age ratings on videogames so often ignored?

Why is it that the idea of a child seeing an adult rated movie is bad, but games are not seen as a problem?

The games industry often suffers attacks from the media, taking the blame for various horrible incidents that happen out in the world. As soon as a youth perpetrates some kind of heinous act, it seems that there’s no shortage of blame to be slapped onto videogames. GTA, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Mass Effect and many others have been blamed for everything from murders and drunk driving, to bullying and even rickets (yes, really). Even the harmless sandboxer, Minecraft, has been a scapegoat for school-related violence.

Games are an easy target for this kind of social blame, and they’re just the latest in a long line of hobbies, interests and media to take the flak. Movies, music, comics, books, they’ve all had their fair share of whipping boy duty, and after games it’ll be the next big thing to ingrain itself into culture. However, the blaming of games for various nasty events isn’t actually what we’re here for, at least, not directly. Instead, we’re looking at age ratings, and the lack of care most people show in these on games.

You need to be this tall…

The idea of age ratings on media is nothing new, it’s been around on both movies and music for a long time. Everyone is perfectly familiar with the various age ratings on movies, whichever country’s rating system it may be. Most parents wouldn’t take their children to see an 18+ or R-rated movie (and cinemas wouldn’t, in theory, allow it anyway), and even at home many parents carefully police their kids’ viewing habits. A lot of parents will also be careful not to let their younger children listen to music with ‘explicit lyrics’ warnings.

However, when it comes to games, this level of awareness and restriction isn’t practised anywhere near as much. In fact, many of these same parents happily let their children play the likes of Call of Duty and GTA, and often don’t consider this to be a problem, even when they’d never let their children watch an 18 rated movie. Why is this?

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Why is it that the idea of a child seeing an adult rated movie is bad, but games are not seen as a problem? And, with so many games taking the blame for crimes, why do many parents still not pay attention?

New age media

Perhaps the major issue here is that of awareness, and the general trend of new media being misunderstood mainly by an older generation. An older generation that should be helping children develop their own moral standing, and ability to differentiate between real life and fantasy. Usually, when a new form of entertainment or social movement emerges it’s the younger generation that embraces it, as older generations are usually more prone to sticking with what they know and love.

Take music, for example. Rock and roll was once condemned as the devil’s music by the ‘establishment’, only to be embraced by the younger generation, as was punk, metal, rap, and so on. Even classical music, such as the works of Mozart, was deemed too different for the older generation of the time. Simply put, anything new and different often hits roadblocks with those who need to help shape the next generation, dismissing, and in turn, totally misunderstanding it and breeding ignorance. Instead of embracing it themselves, and actually understanding the media, misinformation and ill-informed decisions are formed, leading to widespread unfair treatment. This often manifests these days in poorly researched and unfair news stories and tabloid coverage.

This misunderstanding takes different forms, the blaming of it for various incidents is just one, and the ignorance of it is another. Simply not caring about the impact any new media can have because it doesn’t interest you is one of the prevailing trends, and it’s one of the major reasons games that boast an older age rating are being given to younger children. Basically put, there’s a subset of parents who simply don’t understand or care about games, and so they don’t buy, or provide them with much thought other than it’s what their children wanted.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not attacking such parents, or labelling them as bad, I’m simply postulating that this is the way society in general thinks, and always has done. I myself have done the same, and as a child I was allowed to play and watch pretty much anything I liked. On the whole, this is fine, and most people, young or old, are easily able to separate fantasy from reality, right from wrong. But some people are not. At the very least, things like graphic violence and bad language can upset, or shape a person to some small degree, and if so, it obviously needs to be monitored.

Sadly, this isn’t the case much of the time, and anyone with any experience of games like Call of Duty, Halo, GTA Online and the myriad of other online titles aimed at the older market will know that under-age players are competing en masse. What’s worse, there’s often a worrying amount of cursing and bullying going on between these immature players.

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Why is this relevant here? Well, would these kids be using such foul language if parents were present? Generally not. Whether or not such games promote the use of such language in this case is irrelevant, it’s the fact that children actually get to play the games in the first place that’s the issue, and that parents choose to ignore game ratings only leads to potential problems.

So, because some choose not to understand or show an interest in the media, ratings are ignored. Ratings systems on more understood media, such as movies, are recognised by parents, and taken more seriously. They’ve grown up with movies, and are more aware of the content, and potential problems caused by it.

Rated and gated

The age ratings on games is there as an informative aid, to help show at a glance if a game is suitable for younger ages, or not. So, even if a parent isn’t familiar with gaming at all, they can still make an informed choice. GTA V, for example, has its adult rating clearly marked, and these labels often include details of the nature of the adult content, such as violence, sex, and drugs.

The information is there, but for some reason, many parents chose to ignore it. In fact, according to an anonymous game retailer who wrote an article over at Kotaku, around 10% of his own GTA V sales were to parents of small children “who could barely see over the counter.”

In his same article, he also states a couple of the excuses he’s heard from parents buying an adult game for a child, including the purchase of a game for an older child who was not present, or the fact that the child’s friends have all already got the game. Clearly, there’s a lot of parental pressure to buy the game, especially if their child’s friends have all got the same title, and the parents don’t want their boy or girl to feel left out. Peer-pressure affects parents too.

This is hardly an excuse, though. Sure, children do apply a lot of pressure on parents, we all know that. Even if you don’t have children, you were a child once, and we’ve all mithered and nagged our parents for things, saying “all my friends have it,” or “I’ll be picked on if I don’t have it,” and so on. It’s hard to say no, but it’s good parenting to do so. And, if you’re then going to blame child-related crime and other horrible acts on gaming, and you truly believe this to be true, where do you think it begins? With that game purchase you allowed, all for an easy life.

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Of course, the debate on whether games are responsible for such violence is another matter entirely, and most children, including those allowed to play games like GTA V, are perfectly normal, law abiding people. Still, even if you firmly disagree that games are responsible for such problems, the age ratings are there for a reason. Simply put, younger children shouldn’t really be seeing the kinds of things that happen in adult games.

On a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that the approach to game sales changes wildly in actual practise. Chain stores like Game will often refuse to sell games to under-age customers, as it’s a company rule. A select few independent stores, on the other hand, are often far less controlling, having to fight for every sale they get. This often leads to games finding their way into the hands of a younger audience. This is not a sweeping statement, though, I’m certainly not saying all indie stores are untrustworthy. Of course not, but it does happen.

Then there’s the Internet and on-demand game services. This is a whole new avenue that’s easily exploited, and by fudging numbers and registration details, any child can access all sorts of adult gaming content, from purchases on Amazon, to playing the latest games via Steam. All of this is possible without an adult being involved, as long as money can be accessed, such as from a Birthday, pocket money, etc. Whilst this isn’t as easy to do, some children have their own Steam accounts, and it’s easy to create a wish list on Amazon that can be casually sifted through by adults, who will quickly buy an item on the list for the next Birthday or Christmas. Grandma won’t know what Saints Row IV is, will she?

Pixel perfect

Now, there’s another reason many parents choose to ignore age ratings, and it’s also tied to a general lack of information and experience. For many parents, games are nothing more than cute little animals or aliens going pew pew pew, and even fighting games feature totally unrealistic characters and violence that extends to some highly pixellated blood at the most. After all, that’s what you played when you were into games, right? That may be true, but games have come a very long way in a short time, and it’s amazing to see how many parents don’t realise that, or simply choose to ignore it.

There’s a reason official ratings boards slap age ratings on games, just as they do with movies. Games are now bordering on photo realistic, and more and more games are choosing real world settings as their theme. Many things you see happen in games now are very lifelike, and easily copied, such as sex, drugs and violence, and so they need a rating, as children shouldn’t see such content. Again, you wouldn’t take a small child to see a Tarantino flick, so why would you let them play GTA, which is much the same, only with the player in control of the action?

For arguments’ sake, though, what if you do let your kids watch adult movies? Many parents do, safe in the knowledge that their children are mature and level-headed enough, but most would sit and watch with their kids regardless, just to be safe. When it comes to gaming, however, few would sit there and watch their children play games. Movies may be considered important to keep tabs on, but games are not as noteworthy, it seems.

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If you believe this to be true, and that games aren’t that much of a problem, consider this. Games have now soundly overtaken Hollywood productions in terms of highest single-day gross sales. GTA V and the Call of Duty series easily dwarf big-budget blockbusters like Harry Potter, Avengers and Twilight, with Rockstar’s GTA V making over $800 million in 24 hours, compared to Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2‘s $94 million in the same timeframe. That’s quite a difference. Even the production costs of games are approaching that of a major motion picture. GTA V cost around $265 million to develop, which approaches the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which cost $338 million to make.

Make no mistake, games are big business. They can make more money than movies, and in terms of players, they’re often well in excess of any movie’s audience. Gaming is a serious thing, and should be taken just as, if not more earnestly than movies or TV.

Be informed

Ultimately, like any other concerns there are out there for parents, games are one to be taken seriously. Seriously enough that they have age ratings, which are there to help with purchasing decisions. Although actual knowledge of games and their content is by far the best way to ensure children are playing the right games for them. Age ratings are a good guide and, like them or not, surely should be paid attention to at the very least.

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