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.