Working in video game retail opens your eyes to a lot of things. You realize that you probably don't agree with a lot of corporate policies. You find that the majority of gaming consumers don't know how to put a disc back in its case. You also see that, despite its good intentions, the ESRB rating system simply does not work when it comes to trying to protect minors from controversial or explicit content. With the recent news that the Supreme Court of the United States is going to review a violent video game law in California that was struck down by the state's 9th Circuit Court, the argument about violent video games has reared its ugly head once again, and it's time for me to throw my hat in the ring on this subject.
Here's a very simple fact: There is not one single entity that is to blame for the controversy that comes with violent video games and the ability for unintended players (minors) to obtain them.
In fact, everyone involved gets a share of the blame from the kids to the parents to the retailers to the gaming industry. It's far too convenient to blame allegedly lazy parents or to point out that not all retailers enforce the ESRB with authority. If we really want to make a concerted effort to make sure that these games are not played by unintended parties, then everyone involved needs to change.
Let's look at the major players and problems here:
Parents: This group takes the brunt of the blame from the gaming community at large, and that's fair to a certain extent. Parents should know what their kids are playing and whether or not the games are suitable and appropriate. Unfortunately, more parents seem to play a more passive role these days and it's not uncommon for them to just buy whatever their children want in order to appease them… despite the game's possible content. This is evident when working in gaming retail; parents are informed of the ESRB rating system more often than not, and the response is a hasty "Sure. Whatever. He just wants the game." I've sold Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to a parent with a 10 year-old after explaining the content descriptors and everything just to hear, "Are you done? How much is it?" A rating system like the ESRB can never work when parents either don't want to be bothered, don't care, or just want to buy something to keep little Jimmy from making a scene because he wants what all of his friends allegedly have. The fact of the matter is that parents absolutely have to be involved in the decisions regarding what games that make their way into their families' consoles, and they cannot be passive and afraid to say "no" to certain games.
Retailers: While the ESRB does have its fair share of problems, it can't work at all if retailers don't uniformly follow the guidelines. For example, I walked into a local Play 'N Trade establishment late last year and saw a minor playing Modern Warfare 2 on an Xbox 360 unit during store hours with no parent in sight. I understand that the bottom line is sales and that minors account for a significant amount of disposable income out there, but there has to be a realization that there's an understanding that not all games are for everyone. One of the things that was interesting about the California law was that there were fines to be levied for selling M-rated games to minors. While the fines were a bit stiff ($1,000 each case), they did serve as a basis for taking the time to make sure that these games were either being sold to adults or that parents at least heard that the game was meant for older gamers. Without consequences, there isn't always as much of a priority on trying to follow the ESRB system. While it's true that selling violent video games to minors is far different than selling guns, alcohol, or cigarettes to the same group, retailers are doing no favors to either parents or publishers by not adhering to the ESRB. It literally takes a few extra minutes to go over the content descriptors and rating with someone, and if they don't have ID, then c'est la vie.
Kids: Kids don't understand limits. Having to be this tall to ride a ride or this old to go on a certain trip just infuriates kids today. When it comes to violent video games and the kids, parents, and lawyers that have used them as a defense against various crimes… kids also forget that they're simply not old enough to take responsibility for their own actions and that the gaming industry needs to take steps to protect itself. It's a lot harder for a 26 year-old man who steals cars to try and pin it on growing up playing Grand Theft Auto than it is for a 12 year-old to attempt the same defense. Kids may say that they're old enough to take violent games for what they are, but in today's day and age, using the violent game defense and implicating other outside forces is more prevalent. I understand the griping about the ESRB from kids, but it's not like they don't have the ability to play these games… as long as they can convince their parent(s) to buy them and that they're mature enough to know the difference between reality and a video game.
Gaming Industry: I don't necessarily have a problem with violent or controversial video games. I'll admit that I've played my fair share of these games, and my feelings about them run the gamut from great (Borderlands, BioShock) to indifferent (Grand Theft Auto, Halo) to just awful (Time Killers, BMX XXX). Mature content in games should not be out of bounds, especially since the gaming demographic has extended far beyond tweenagers and teenagers as adults make up a healthy portion of the community. Having said that, I cannot help but to wonder sometimes whether game developers and publishers try to push the envelope needlessly far at times. Are decapitations really necessary? What purpose do sexual intercourse minigames really have? Isn't it arguable that mass killings in an airport are a bit too real, considering the terrorism scares that we've seen since 9/11? These things don't need to be included in the games we play; they're added for shock value and buzz. Kids hear that you can run over police officers with a car in a game, and it sounds funny to them… so they don't understand the big deal when that big black and white "M" is plastered on the game case and they're told that they cannot buy it. The question, to me, isn't whether violent video games should be made or not; instead, I wonder where the line is between making a violent game and just going over the top just to create publicity and inflated demand.
Plenty of time and opportunities have gone by for everyone to stop pointing fingers and instead accept some responsibility, but nobody has made a consistent effort. Parents are still largely uneducated about gaming and tend to remain passive. Retailers continue to be inconsistent when it comes to honoring the ESRB rating guidelines. Kids still play what they want to play because they think—and know—that they can. The gaming industry continues to push the content envelope, hoping to find the next thing that will incite discussion and publicity that may equate into the next surprising blockbuster. Now the Supreme Court is going to step in and look closely at the regulation that we think we don't need. What we, as a gaming community, refuse to acknowledge is that we've collectively brought this upon ourselves.
Perhaps the Court will determine that, like all others passed and struck down before California's, this law is unconstitutional and infringes upon the First Amendment. Then again, perhaps a surprise may be in the offing and regulation may be the only way to save us from ourselves. The Court review is expected to begin in October, and every member of the gaming community should watch the proceedings with great interest.
— by Peter Skerritt
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