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Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

Yano — Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

Are video games safe for kids?

Posted on 7th November, 2012 | filed under Featured, The Big Debate

Still from Halo computer game

The sniper rifle locks on to the enemy in the distance of the war-torn landscape. I can feel my pulse quicken and I hold my breath as I get ready to shoot. But is this the sort of video-game entertainment our children should be enjoying? Piers Townley looks at how parents can protect their kids from extreme violence on our screens

Chances are you wouldn’t let your 14-year-old – let alone a pre-teen – watch an 18-rated movie, but it’s guaranteed that they’ve played or at least seen moments like this from the globally successful Call Of Duty games, rated 18. ‘The impact of violent imagery in films and games is well known,’ says psychologist Ged Balies. The age-rating system isn’t just there for show.

The latest instalment of Call Of Duty was released at the end of last year, just in time for Christmas, while other big releases include 18-rated Far Cry 3 and 16-rated sci-fi shooter Halo 4 (pictured). Maybe we all need to fire up the consoles and computers once the kids have gone to bed to understand how adult, realistic and addictive games can be.

‘Everyone involved in games publishing for the past 20-odd years has worked hard to make classification clear and especially to inform parents,’ says Codemasters games director Richard Eddy. ‘That goes from a voluntary age-rating scheme adopted by publishers in the 1990s to the PEGI [Pan European Game Information] rating system, which in July made it illegal under UK law to sell 12-, 16- or 18-rated games to anyone under age.’

There are five age classifications for video games. Ratings 3 and 7 are advisory, while 12, 16 and 18 are legally binding so that retailers, distributors and, in theory, consumers are restricted. But gaming is social. The rise of mobiles, tablets, hand-helds and interactive consoles is driving this, and online gaming is now huge, eclipsing films in terms of reach and revenues.

Askaboutgames.com, an excellent website approved by PEGI, takes a hands-on approach to helping parents and gamers understand the ratings. ‘We share real family stories about choosing games, understanding age ratings and the best way to enjoy them together,’ it says.

‘A lot has been done, especially in the past three years, by UKIE, the games industry’s governing body, and the government, in particular about educating parents on the ratings system,’ says Kat Osman, a games industry veteran. ‘But it’s still down to the parents. Some now pay close attention to ratings, as they would for films, but some just don’t pay any attention at all.’

‘My own experience as a father is that more than ever access to top-quality gaming is just a pocket away,’ says Harvey Parker, art director of F1 Race Stars. ‘The fluency children have developed in gaming as a result of saturation is phenomenal. At their best, they create a personal experience that’s hard to beat. I keep an eye on the games my daughter plays by controlling the purse and the time. I feel a parental responsibility to ensure the quality of the games is justifiably high and in some way challenging and/or educational – and that the content is suitable for her age.

‘I know some parents allow their kids to play 18-rated games many years before they should. Yet the same parents wouldn’t dream of allowing their kids to watch an 18-certificate film. There’s still a generation that doesn’t understand gaming or just how incredibly good it can be at what it does. It can create a superbly visceral war zone or a lawless city in which, as an adult, you can do pretty much what you want. But it’s not claiming to be a suitable playground for kids.’

This Christmas and into 2013, there will be an even bigger surge of new titles. ‘Beyond consoles, games for younger players are growing on tablets,’ says Eddy. ‘Parents buy the latest tablets for themselves and hand down older versions. Kids also play online through browser-based titles, initially for free, and certainly big-name titles such as Moshi Monsters offer a safe environment for younger players.’

And before you rush to confiscate your child’s console, consider Balies’ verdict after researching the impact of violent video games: ‘We need to be aware of the effects on both young and old, at home and in schools. The assumption, often seen in the media, that a violent film or video game can act as some sort of on/off switch is both simplistic and mistaken. Violent imagery can of course be a factor, but there are many other complex variables involved, including family background and early life experiences, development of self-image and self-esteem.’

Developmental psychologist Douglas Gentile offers the best advice: ‘Research shows that when parents set limits on children’s media use, it’s a powerful protective factor for children.’

Yano gaming checklist

Always check the age classification of a game and its subsections of content: violence, bad language, fear, etc.
Research the game and, ideally, play it yourself.
Play with your children, talking to them about which games they play on their own and which they play with their friends.
Online games can involve downloading extra content – this needs to be monitored.
Online computer games (also multi-player aspects of console games) involve interacting with other unknown players. Stress the importance of not disclosing personal information.
Many higher-rated games have some sort of parental lock or control for levels of blood, gore and intensity. Use it!

Piers Townley cut his teeth as games journalist more than 15 years ago. He’ll be hibernating this month, glued to the new Call Of Duty and Halo 4. But they’ll be well away from four-year-old Jake’s eyes.

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Are video games safe for kids? was posted on 7th November, 2012 by Piers Townley under Featured, The Big Debate

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Piers Townley

About the author: Piers Townley

When Piers was 10, his dad asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He thought about it for three seconds and then stated categorically that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Thirty one years later and he's been blessed with making journalism a career that has included writing about flying a fighter jet. He's travelled the world writing about ridiculous adventures and interviewing his heroes of cinema, music and popular culture for Loaded, Sorted magazine, teen lifestyle mag Flipside and a host of national publications and international websites. Children never crossed his mind. Then, with a few ‘worthier’ commissions under his belt, including childbirth fatalities in Africa and infant poverty and reportage stories from Nepal and Peru, he found himself in a long-term relationship. Fatherhood came with sheer joy, fear and daily trial by error when Jake was born. Now his younger sister Willow is approaching her second birthday, Jake’s just started school and suddenly his life is complete and full of daily learning. 'Fatherhood is the best experience,' says Piers, 'above and beyond flying the fighter jet.'
  • Jed Novick

    The innocence of childhood is of course under attack. But then again it always has been. The rules of engagement are constantly shifting. From when video enabled uncensored films to be seen by anyone at home to the present where the internet lets anyone see anything. The conversation always comes down to the same thing: Parents have got to parent – and being a parent isn’t just about food and lodgings. It’s about instilling values and a sense of right and wrong. You can’t uninvent games. You can’t uninvent technology. What you can do is put it all in context for your child. And then your child can ignore you in the same way that you ignored your parents and the cycle continues.

    • Piers

      Thanks Jed, the point about not being able to uninvent technology is a crucial consideration, glad you liked the article.

  • Chris Bloxham

    This article really makes the rating system clearer. I will be bearing it in mind when I go Christmas shopping. I hope other parents do the same.

  • Chloewilson2000

    The challenge of choosing what is and isn’t suitable for my children to watch or play on screen terrifies me, particularly when it comes to choosing computer games. That’s probably because I’ve never been big on computer games myself. But, I’m not against them and I know that my children are growing up in a different age of technology, where computer games are likely to play an integral role in their growing up years. My oldest is five and already pretty competent at navigating her way around a computer and it’s not something I want to discourage. So the point made in this article about parents taking the responsibility and setting limits on their child’s media use is really valid. The ratings are there for a reason and parents should ensure they themselves are as educated about what is going on in the computer games their child is playing as their child is. I certainly wouldn’t let my primary-aged child watch a film with a higher rating than a PG, so why would I apply anything other than the same rule to a computer game. In some ways I’m actually quite looking forward to discovering computer games as my children do, so hopefully that means I’ll be able to keep a track on what they’re playing. The whole subject of stressing the importance of not disclosing personal information though on online games is a whole other story in itself…

    • Pierstownley

      Thanks Chloe,
      I really wanted to make the point about online and social gaming and it’s definitely one I think needs highlighting.
      I speak to a lot of friends with children who don’t really grasp how popular this is with young gamers these days.

  • Gary

    Sorry, I may have missed it but there seems no mention of BBFC video game classification. They publish both an age limit similar to films 12, 15, 18 etc but also a list of possible issue topics, so for example Dishonoured a 18 rated game has for example an extended section which says

    “DISHONORED is a fantasy action game in which you play a man who is accused of murdering a kingdom’s beloved Empress. It was rated 18 for strong bloody violence.

    During normal gameplay there is frequent strong bloody violence, including sight of blood spurts when characters are shot with a variety of short and long range weapons. Using stealth allows the player to sneak up on enemies unaware, with sight of a sword plunging into the necks of the victims with accompanying blood sprays, seen from the first-person perspective. A ‘Kill Cam’ is also engaged on occasion with more of a focus on the finishing blow, which may include the decapitation of the victim. When incendiary bolts are used as weapons against enemies, the victims scream and are immolated, while grenades are able to explode enemies into bloody chunks of torsos and limbs. It is also possible to kill innocent characters, including women.

    There are numerous uses of strong language by characters encounter during the game, some of which are aggressive. There is also some milder bad language, including uses of ‘shit’, ‘balls’, ‘whores, ‘ass’ and ‘bastard’.

    One level in the game is set in a brothel and this includes sight of scantily clad women. There is also a sequence in which the player encounters a character sitting in an electric shock device. The character apparently derives some pleasure from the shocks, which the player is able to administer during interrogation.

    No-one younger than 18 may see an 18 rated film in the cinema. No-one younger than 18 may rent or buy an 18 rated game, video or DVD.”

    Pretty much a decent summary without needing to play the game to you then to decide whether it’s advisable or not.

    • AdamCranial

      Unfortunately whilst I was buying my copy of Assassin’s Creed 3 (Rated 18), I saw one parent being handed dishonored by their underage child and adding it to the pile so whilst it is clear on the box and in this case the visuals/artistic style that this is an adult game this is still not actually stopping parents from buying things for their children.

      Having said this I have now also watched a number of games shops refuse to sell games to people because of their age, all the major online sites have constraints on age [to the point of frustration for us grown-ups] so (un)fortunately it can only come down to parental responsibility. The checklist above is an nice list of things to concern yourself with and as a keen game player myself point two ‘Research the game and, ideally, play it yourself.’ seems like a sensible approach.

    • Pierstownley

      Thanks Gary and thanks for the point about the BBFC which does indeed rate games, however I wanted to focus on PEGI because it was pan-European rather than just British classification.
      Your comments demonstrate that as parents considering buying games this Christmas, we really do need to swot up on what they entail terms of gameplay, content, themes and storylines, especially those towards the higher age classifications.


      • Gary

        Yes, Exactly, as you’ve pointed out there’s no need to fear the game but we’ve just got to be careful and do our ‘homework’ and implement some control on what our children play. Otherwise we end up with the reactionary ‘ban the game’ groups dominating the argument.

  • LaraL

    My nephew is 13 and I really don’t like the idea of him playing games for adults, he has plenty of time for all that when he is older.
    I think classification is there for a reason and kids should be kept away from adult games until the time comes … kids should be kids for as long as they possibly can!
    Thanks for this interesting insight.

  • Hayley Atwere

    Really insightful piece, every parents should read it

  • http://twitter.com/iamalisonperry Alison Perry

    Food for thought. Liking the sound of kids sticking to Moshi Monsters – or those Apptivity games look tame (and fun) too.

  • Will

    Had a good conversation with my son (17) about this the other day. Opened my eyes and thoughts a bit. Have to admit to being a bit of a blinkered philistine on this one. Just don’t like all this violence and yet with diligent policing and discussion one starts to see the benefits of this ‘community’. Kids still need to climb trees and get muddy though. Piers – you’re a pretty good example I’d say

    • Pierstownley

      Thanks Will. I think the bottom line is that the games are more violent than most parents realise BUT they’re also much more intelligent, have excellent Hollywood movie-worthy stories and in many cases are highly imaginative – that’s why young gamers (and old ones!) will continue to fuel this exciting experience.


  • Antmcg123

    Isn’t this the age old debate here, I’m going to sound like a right old grandad but didn’t people moan about how violent Tom & Jerry & Bugs Bunny were when we were kids. Also, I remember getting Fright Night out at the video shop and me and a group of mates watched it & we were no where near 18 at the time. I think its almost a right of passage. I’m now a Father of 2 and I will of course deter them for violent programmes, video games etc, but in the back of my mind, I will know its curiosity and isn’t going to send them killing or destroying property. Did it to us ?

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      True, we’re all getting older but children seem to be getting older (and more savvy) as as well.

  • Allie

    I’m almost embarassed to say that sometimes in the evening when my husband is playing Call of Duty, I’ve looked up from whatever I’m reading and 5 minutes later have found myself still watching the action as if it’s an interactive film – which is exactly what it looks like, so fantastic are the graphics, albeit in a ‘film’ you don’t yet know the ending to. However, having also seen games like Grand Theft Auto (where the ‘hero’ can pick up a prostitute in a stolen car, do the deed with her and then beat her up to get his money back) I have to say that I can’t believe any adult would buy games for their children that are rated above their age group. The only disappointment I have in the article above was that it wasn’t longer! Articles such as these addressing the impact of desensitising violence on young people are vital, especially when it would seem from the above that there are still so many parents incapable of making the rights decisions on behalf of their children.

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      Thanks Allie, I think it’s the realism and depth of storyline that can surprise many people not overly familiar with some of the top titles being released at the moment.
      Of course, this is their excellence, their addictiveness and their attraction to young gamers.
      That’s why we should use the rating system as a guideline as with any other media.


  • Charles

    I was tweeted about this website doing the rounds. Great article. It’s so important to take care with our children’s development as I believe it shapes their future happiness and temperament. Computer games in moderation would be my advise and ones that inspire learning and fun. Some games can test the patience of us adults when we play them for too long…

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      Thanks Charles. Most games have a huge potential to inspire, moderation as you say is the key at every stage of their gaming.


  • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

    Here’s a great article by Andy Robertson explaining the latest addition to the Skylanders videogame franchise.
    If there’s someone young in your house hassling for a computer game this Christmas, chances are it could be this.
    I wish I was 10 again!


  • Martin Pashley

    I think the guy from the F1 game mals it-control with the purse strings. But that’s only good for home-who knows what sort of games could be there. On a side note it’s quite refreshing to see that there is some acknowledgment that games can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      The point about them being detrimental or not will raise its head a lot in the media in the coming weeks until Christmas as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, one of the industry’s biggest titles hits the shelves.
      It will generate multimillion pounds of revenue, it will have millions of worldwide fans and many will definitely be under 18 age rating, all eager to get their hands on this graphic, violent (and brilliant) game.

  • Helen

    great article, lots of food for thought

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      Thanks helen.