Violent games and movies: can we talk about parents?

Movie and videogame violence is a common scapegoat for real-world crime. But what about the role parents play in all this, Simon wonders...

Just before we get going, it’s worth making something straight from the start. This is a piece that deliberately isn’t being written or timed in response to some of the horrendous tragedies that have taken place over the past year or two, for which games and movies have got the blame. This isn’t a knee-jerk reactive article. It’s deliberately running in slightly calmer times, as that seems to be the right point to have some kind of rounded debate about the issues I want to talk about.

Basically, I want to chat about the proverbial elephant in the room.

I’ve just finished reading David Kushner’s book Jacked, about the life and times of the Grand Theft Auto series, and the controversies that have surrounded the games. It’s not quite at the level of Kushner’s excellent Masters Of Doom (a must-read book for videogame fans), but it’s just as immaculately researched, and Kushner tries hard to present a balanced argument, even if you don’t always get the impression he buys it.

In the case of Grand Theft Auto, he cites a series of cases where shootings took place, or incidents happened, and a Grand Theft Auto game got the blame. He follows those stories up, and notes that, long after the media has lost interest, generally a piece of evidence comes up that suggests that such crimes are nothing to do with videogames at all. By then though, the tabloid press and rolling news channels have whipped politicians up into some kind of action, successful or otherwise, and then turned their attentions elsewhere.

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That’s not to say that there’s not some argument about the influence of games somewhere along the way: it’d be naive to suggest that popular culture doesn’t resonate somewhere along the lines. But it’s where violent games and movies fall in the line of blame that’s worth taking a look at.

In the UK, I distinctly remember one of the most bizarre articles on the subject I’d ever read a good few years ago. Somewhat inevitably, it appeared in the Daily Mail, who asked erstwhile daytime TV presenter and word spewer Anne Diamond to give her verdict on modern day videogames.

I don’t know how long Anne Diamond has spent in the company of videogames, but upon re-reading the article, I’m led to conclude ‘not a lot’. It’s a bit like asking me to comment on the fashions of various celebrities. I could try and bluff it, but you’d quickly realise I knew next to nothing of one designer to the next.  

The article in question is still available on the Daily Mail’s pretty poisonous website. I don’t like giving them links on Den Of Geek, but it seems as I’m quoting one the paper’s key arguments to be the right thing to do here. You can find Anne Diamond’s words – written back in 2008, to be clear – right here

Diamond’s conclusions about violent videogames include a damning indictment of modern day classic Resident Evil 4 (“this kind of violence can only be bad for you”), and her somewhat stroppy thoughts on Clive Barker’s Jericho (“I stopped playing when I was set on fire and something splattered blood all over my visor”). However, elsewhere in the article, Diamond – almost by accident – stumbles on the point I want to make.

Talking about the pretty much forgotten about Scarface videogame, she declares that “it’s disturbing that so many teenagers presumably have access to this mindless garbage over and over again”. The illustration to the right of her words clearly shows an 18 certificate on the box.

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I keep hearing the argument that violent games are ending up in the hands of the young. Yet in the UK at least, there’s a system in place. Certificates or PEGI ratings are given out, which retailers are supposed to enforce. It’s a thankless task of course, and it was a badge of honour for most of us to play or watch something underage. But still, how can you put the blame at the door of a game or movie maker, when the age restriction that’s clearly marked on their product isn’t being enforced?

Let’s look at another example. Moving over to movies, back in December, the National Rifle Association of America held a press conference. In it, the organisation’s vice president, Wayne LaPierre, waved the finger of blame for recent horrific violent incidents at the door of the movie industry. This was at a point when calls were at their loudest to introduce more gun control in the US. The NRA, clearly versed well in the tactical game of distraction, thus came out on the offensive. Bizarrely, the NRA’s views seemed to have some impact. But then it was Scott Weinberg on Twitter (@scotteweinberg) who put his finger on this: if videogame companies want less hassle from the US government, they should fund the legislature to the extent the NRA does. Spend millions funding politicians and political parties, and you might just get a bit more of a hearing. There might just be something in that.

Back to LaPierre, though. Instead of suggesting guns had a pivotal part to play in all of this, he instead cited films such as Natural Born Killers and American Psycho as part of the problem, although if you go back through time, movies such as The Dark Knight and Child’s Play 3 have been drawn into the debate over the years. Basically, something terrible happens, and there just happens to be a movie or game title that fits the identity of a necessary scapegoat. It’s an argument that always leaves me to wonder this: would the tragedy or horrific event concerned have happened if the game or film being cited hadn’t existed? It’s an easy question for me to ask, being detached from many of the incidents that have happened. But surely it’s one of the key questions that has to be considered.

That said, it’s not just more extreme groups like the NRA who ask whether it’s films and games that have to shoulder the blame. Back in 2008, a less extreme man, Sir Richard Attenborough, suggested that movies were responsible for the growth in knife crime.

Could he be right? If there’s a general acceptance, as there has been for some time, that it was the movies that glamourised smoking to a degree, could it also be glamourising violence? There’s a good, grown-up debate to be had about that, although sadly, it rarely happens when it actually needs to. In the rush for people to punt out press statements and make sweeping generalisations, the real issues tend to get touched on only by accident.

As a result, the problem here is that you can predict how such arguments will pan out, be they about games or movies, well before they reach their conclusions. Those who watch movies and play games a lot defend their corner, segments of the press and certain politicians claim they’re corrupting our youth, and nothing ever appears to be usefully resolved. Occasionally, a politician gets involved – Keith Vaz MP has form in the UK – but I’m always left feeling that no real important issues have been addressed.

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But then, the mainstream media, and politicians, seem scared to talk about one of the rarely-voiced key issues in the debate: the state of modern parenting.

I’m a parent. I don’t claim to be a good one, but to make my position clear, I have far more trouble with my children watching Home Alone 2, where Macaulay Culkin lobs a house brick from the top of a building without consequence, than a film where they can see what real life damage a bullet does to a human being. That said, I’m hardly sitting my youngest in front of Platoon. But I do think if you want youngsters to appreciate what damage violence can do, there’s a case for showing them. It’s a pity that there’s not more material targeting children that deals with this responsibly. Frankenweenie showed that a PG-rated movie could talk about death and loss, and still be family friendly. Films such as that are golden for that reason, I’d argue.

The ratings system and I, somewhat inevitably, don’t always agree. However, I do accept that there’s such a system in place that gives me the information I need to make a reasonably informed decision about what my children watch and play. The guidelines are there, and they’re there for a reason, whether you agree with them or not.

Going back to parenting, then. Here are some questions then, that I’d love the mainstream media to tackle. I read the occasional report about young teenagers playing something like Grand Theft Auto IV or Call Of Duty: Black Ops II. The blame, it’s usually implied, should lie at the door of the developer or publisher concerned. But why? If you’re a parent of a young child, and you let them play clearly-labelled adult games without exploring what it is they’re sat in front of, surely that’s where the problem lies? That, or with the shop that sold the game in the first place? Why doesn’t that issue get dragged onto a daytime talk show, or newspaper front page?

Are we supposed to live in a world where games, films and television shows for grown ups are banned because people can’t police and look after their children properly? I accept that children are resourceful, and I accept that when a parent says no, it doesn’t always follow that the child complies. 16 year olds sneaking into 18 rated films will always happen (assuming 18 rated films aren’t extinct anytime soon).

However, I’m talking about children younger than that. I’ve seen under 10s playing Call Of Duty. That’s not Call Of Duty‘s fault. I’ve known of similarly-aged children watching adult-rated horror films, and duly being scared to bits. Again, you can hardly blame the film for that. 

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It seems to me that the wrong questions are being asked. Does anyone really want a world where anything vaguely offensive or challenging is restricted, at the whim of a media storm? We’re already in an era of Die Hard and Terminator films for 12 year olds.

Instead, can there be some acceptance of the truth: that the world has bad parents in it. Can that issue be addressed, rather than looking for convenient scapegoats? That way, a non-knee jerk debate could actually take place about the influence of games and movies, and whether the current advisory and rating systems are working. Questions such as how to ensure age inappropriate material doesn’t end up in the wrong hands could be properly investigated. The irony is that movie industries, media outlets, game developers and politicians might just actually all be on the same side.

Most importantly of all, surely it’s time that the smokescreen protecting parents be dissipated. No parent is perfect, and it’s a really tough job at times. The vast majority of parents are wonderful. Yet let’s not pretend there’s not a sizeable minority that aren’t. And let’s not pretend that those people aren’t a bigger problem that the games and movies that are taking some of the heat off them.

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