Every year, all forms of media look forward to huge, “blockbuster” releases. Big, action-packed movies premiere in the summer, television shows start new seasons in the spring and fall and by the end of the year, blogs are buzzing with lists of the year’s best albums. Video games are no different – each year brings big, new releases to be hyped up, and by the end of it, the year’s best are debated. But it also brings something more serious, and just as debated: whether or not violence in video games affects young players.
It seem like every year a new game that features mature themes is released, which the media finds a way to turn into some kind of brainwashing tool, used to turn children into mindless killers. In fact, in the past few years, Fox News has ran stories attacking games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Mass Effect – both games geared toward, and rated for, mature audiences (17 and up on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board ratings system used in America).
The news stations referred to Mass Effect as a “rape simulator” simply because it gave players the choice to pursue relationships between characters, some that could lead to romantic developments and in turn feature scenes of romance no different (though arguably much tamer) than those found in film. However, a few weeks after the story aired, Fox News admitted that its claims of rape and violence within the game were overblown. Still, every news story that airs with similar statements is born out of the misinformed notion that video games are only for children.
Ever since video games have evolved beyond the days of simply scoring points and flashing blocks of light on a television screen, the themes and actions taking place within the games have grown, and contrary to popular belief, gamers have grown up, too.
According to market research group NPD, the average age of a gamer is 32 years old, meaning the majority of gamers are legally able to smoke, vote, serve in the military, get marriage, have sex, own a house and a car, and drink alcohol. These are all things considered part of the “adult” experience in our society, because it takes a certain amount of judgment and maturity in order to approach them. It should come as no surprise then, that the games these adults are playing are much different than games made for children.
Technological advances have allowed for new and varied experiences, stories, and expressions to be possible within the game worlds that players interact with. Players can assume roles such as a crime detective in games like Heavy Rain or L.A. Noir; a sword-swinging warrior in The Witcher or the upcoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; or as a space marine defending humanity across the galaxy in Halo.
All these games offer different experiences, but they barely scratch the surface of what is out there. Familiar names like Mario, Zelda and Sonic are still relevant today, and titles within those franchises are some of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. The point here is that video games are just as – if not more – diverse as any other media around, offering a wide range of genres, stories and content. And no, just because a game was released that features nudity or warfare doesn’t mean little Timmy will get his hands on it.
A recent study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission between October 2010 and January of this year showed that of all the major entertainment industries – movies, music, television, etc. – video games were the best and most consistent when it came to keeping mature content away from underage audiences. The FTC recruited minors age 13-16 and had them go to retailers, unaccompanied by their parents, in an attempt to purchase M-rated games, R-rated DVDs, tickets to R-rated movies and CDs labeled with parental advisory warnings.
The video game retailers were best at refusing to sell mature content to minors. Only 13 percent of the shoppers were sold games not suitable for children, whereas 33 percent were allowed to buy tickets to R-rated movies, 38 percent were sold R-rated DVDs and 68 percent of minors were sold CDs with the warning labels. If children can’t buy these games, how are they playing them? The answer is actually pretty simple.
The ESRB system and retailers are doing their part, creating a simple and easy to use system of ratings and content warning specifically designed at keeping questionable content out of the hands of minors. The blame should fall on parents buying their children these games. Parents should educate themselves on the ESRB ratings system (the easy-to-use ESRB.org website gives simple guides to the each rating, content descriptor and even the ratings of recently released games and the ability to search for the rating and content of older games). But, for the sake of argument, say one of those children in the 13 percent sold a mature game were to play it; do the claims that violent video games are harmful for kids hold any water?
When it comes to whether or not mature content harms children, the science is still up in the air, but there are definite trends. Last year, a study from Yale University’s School of Medicine showed that “gaming does not appear to be dangerous to kids,” and continues to say, “We found virtually no association between gaming and negative health behaviors, particularly in boys.”
This study took a look at the playing habits of 4,000 gamers. In males, the study seems to indicate that playing video games is just as normal for boys as playing sports. It even showed that boys who played games were less likely to smoke or drink, had healthy behaviors, and even had higher grade point averages.
For girls, the study showed evidence that those who played video games tended to be more aggressive than girls who did not, though the author of the study says, “This finding may suggest not that gaming leads to aggression but that more aggressive girls are attracted to gaming.” Further, of the 4,000 studied, only 3 percent of the female gamers, and 5.8 percent of males showed signs of addictive gaming. These individuals were also more prone to smoke or drink, stating that addictive gaming habits are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
With so much fervor over video games these days, it’s easy to paint the hobby in a negative light. While it’s true that video games and gamers have grown up, that doesn’t mean gaming is now exclusive to adults. As reported by Chris Pareira on the gaming news website 1up.com, the ESRB rated 1,638 games over the course of 2010. Of that number, only 5 percent of games (about 82 titles) were rated for mature audiences, meaning ages 17 and up. Fifty-five percent were rated Everyone, 18 percent were rated for children 10 and up and 21 percent for teenagers 13 and up (the last 1 percent were rated “early childhood,” usually designated for educational games geared toward very young children).
This means that 95 percent of all video games released last year were suitable enough for children at least 13 years old to play. Furthermore, the ESRB did not give out a single Adults Only rating, the highest on its scale. Retailers will not carry titles rated AO, so game developers work to keep their games within the appropriate standards to reach at least the 17+ rating.
So what this all comes down to is that games are no longer “toys.” Gaming has grown into a serious hobby, evident in the numerous gaming news outlets, video game critics, professional competitive gaming leagues, video-game oriented degrees, and enormous and wide-reaching subculture. Just like movies and music, video game content is geared toward specific audiences, some of which is not suitable for younger players. With the proper knowledge, gaming can be a fun experience for people of all backgrounds and ages – not something to be afraid of or shelter children from.
This piece was written by Brendan and originally ran in Oregon State University’s newspaper The Daily Barometer.