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Playing The Blame Game

The recently released Byron report was commissioned by the UK government after rising concerns about the impact of games on children. The report is calling for movie style age classifications and seeks to make it illegal to sell unsuitable games to children. Now, maybe this does need more re-enforcement but I was under the impression that this system already exists, so what exactly is the report saying that’s new?

Well, Byron claims parents are confused about age ratings on games and that many think that the partially voluntary PEGI system currently in place provides an age rating as an indicator of difficulty rather than suitability. This problem is born out of many parents seeing games as toys rather than interactive entertainment – so, for example, a board game may carry a 12+ rating meaning a child below that age will struggle to understand the game.

Parents are applying that same logic to videogames when what they should be doing is viewing the age rating on a game the same way they would view an age rating on a film. Byron’s solution is to make the film and game systems identical and governed by the same body, the BBFC.

Of course none of this will make a difference unless retailers refuse to sell games to underage kids and parents start to take an interest in what their kids are playing, using their own judgement about whether the game is suitable or not. Ultimately, game developers cannot be held responsible when the game they made for adults falls into the hands of an underage player. It’s good to see the Byron report tackle this topic from a sensible starting point, especially when you contrast it to some of the outrages featured in the mainstream media.

Part of the reason this report was commissioned was because of the stabbing of a youth in Leicester by a kid who was said to be obsessed with the Rockstar game Manhunt. This led to the mother of the victim calling for violent video games to be banned and her view has been backed by many other loud voices.

Now I don’t agree that violent video games should be banned. I think we already went through this argument with so called “video nasties”. This argument might lead to a world where game developers or filmmakers could only make products that are suitable for children. Surely the real answer is to make sure that these adult products aren’t available to children – which takes us back to retailers, law enforcement and parental attention and guidance.

There is another side to this debate; the kind of arguments we see from people like lawyer Jack Thompson who has been repeatedly blaming videogames for violent incidents. He calls Grand Theft Auto a ‘murder simulator’ and says "Murder simulators are not constitutionally protected speech. They’re not even speech. They’re dangerous physical appliances that teach a kid how to kill efficiently and to love it."

Thompson has brought various lawsuits to bear against the games industry, mainly Take Two the owners of Rockstar and the GTA series. Legally speaking he hasn’t had any success but Thompson has certainly stirred up the debate and generated lots of free publicity for the games he hates so much. He is currently undergoing a potentially career threatening bar trial which he’ll hopefully lose.

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Simon Hill

The central theme for the majority of people trying to ban violent video games is the idea that playing a violent game causes a person to be violent in real life (There is no RL, only AFK – Ed). There have been studies which show this to be true and there have also been studies which show it to be false. Personally, I’d argue that violent media does not turn people into murderers, though it may give some already psychopathic people ideas about how to carry out their murderous rage - but it doesn’t make them psychopathic.

Comments like that of Conservative MP Julian Brazier, who is trying to get Manhunt 2 banned (again), really annoy me. He says “We’ve got to recognise that there’s a strong link between what people watch and what they do”. What gets me is that he applies this logic to videogames but not to news footage of our troops around the world engaging in real violence.

The hypocrisy is even more apparent in the actions of US Democrat Eliot Spitzer, who expressed outrage at the simulated prostitution in GTA and then got caught out by the New York Times as a regular patron of high-priced call girls.

Far too often the people blaming games for creating violent behaviour have never even played the games that they are criticising; they base their opinions on second hand knowledge and let ignorance undermine their arguments.

Despite the obvious similarities to the failed moral crusades against music and movies, the campaign against violent games continues and has gained significant ground in some places. In Australia for instance any game that exceeds their MA15+ rating is refused classification and automatically banned. The Australian Family Association is claiming that kids with existing mental health problems are turned into lethal killers by violent video games. Germany too has strict rules about which videogames can be released, though they tend to apply restrictions rather than outright ban. In Greece in July 2002 the government banned electronic games altogether, though this was really an attempt to curtail internet gambling and was restricted to Internet Cafes by December 2003. South Korea meanwhile doesn’t allow blood in any games.

There have certainly been some morally questionable games released over the years, but how far is too far? I’d love to know how people feel about this so please post a comment; have you come across any videogames that you think deserve to be banned outright? Do you think game developers have a moral obligation?