I was standing in Gamestop today and two kids wearing soccer uniforms, whose heads barely passed my beltline came running through the door and made a beeline to the GTA IV boxes.
The first one exclaimed "San Andreas is the bomb."
The other countered "Vice City kicks its ass."
They grabbed a bunch of games out of the bargain bin and put them on the counter next to me. Just then an industry friend of mine, on the press side, walked up behind me and we started talking.
"Are those your kids?" I asked
"No, I thought they were yours."
"They are talking about GTA"
"San Andreas is the bomb" one of the kids repeated.
We both shook our heads, and the counter kid joined us and added a tsking noise.
I looked at them and said "these are the guys getting us all into trouble." I was wrong, it's not them. It's their parents.
Primarily, I am a parent. Speaking from a completely objective standpoint, my 12 year old son is brilliant, creative, curious, inspiring, fun and an all around great guy. Secondarily, or somewhere around there, I make my living in the game business. Our world was different. We all grew up in a world where not only could you ride your bike alone to the local public school you attended from a very young age, you didn't even wear a helmet. Helmets were only for the "special kids." We drove in cars without airbags or seatbelts. My position in the family car was standing up in the back seat with my chin planted on the front seat in between my parents. That was when I wasn't sitting on my grandpa's lap driving the car. We didn't live in a world of constant fear and my parents didn't worry about permanently damaging me with every move. Life was simple and we all felt secure. Looking at our world through the lens of today's protective measures, it is a wonder any of us are alive. Last season AMC's Mad Men, based in the sixties, showed a little girl running into the room with a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head.
"What are you doing?" Her mother yelled excitedly.
"We're playing astronaut"
"Well you better not have spread my dry cleaning all over the floor"
"Ok mommy" the little girl said as she skipped out of the room with the bag over her head.
Relative to our childhood, my son exists in a well observed bubble. His generation is more padded, covered, insulated, tutored, handheld and protected than any generation in the history of the planet. We are all trying to do the best for our kids, but we may be going too far. When we don't know what to do, we go nuts. This concept, thought not as expansively as I portrayed, was identified in "Safe Children in a Digital World: the report of The Byron Review. A report prepared by a psychologist at the request of the British Prime Minister. The executive summary of the report ends with a quote from a child:
Kids don't need protection, we need guidance. If you protect us you are making us weaker we don't go through all the trial and error necessary to learn what we need to survive on our own. . . don't fight our battles for us just give us assistance when we need it.
From the mouths of babes . . . Of course the appropriate parental action is "What do they know? They are just kids." True that. Let's apply parenting, which at its best is listening followed by thought and exposition, and get another important statement from the report:
Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe - this isn't just about a top-down approach. Children will be children - pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.
These statements are not at all inconsistent. They are merely coming from different perspectives, and can happily coexist. The idea is to give the kids to the tools to learn to protect themselves. The Review further explains in the argument section:
We can use these findings to help us naviate a practical and sensible approach to helping our children manage risks. This is no different to how we think about managing risk for children in the offline world, where decreasing supervision an monitoring occurs with age as we judge our children to be increasing in their competence to identify and manage risks. So, when we teach our children to cross the road safely we do it in stages:
- We hold their hand when they cross the road.
- We teach them to think, lok both ways and then cross.
- When we see that they are starting to understand this, we let them cross walking beside us, without holding on to them.
- Eventually we let them do it alone, maybe watching from a distance at first, but then unsupervised.
- And throughout this, the environment supports them with signs and expected behaviour from others in the community - the green man, zebra crossings, speed limits and other responsible adults.
The purview of the report is the Internet and Video Games. My interest is even more narrow, Video Games.
To establish boundaries and provide tools to cope, parents must first understand the world. My parents could safely monitor my media consumption. There were only four channels, plus the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation), nothing harmful ever came from Canada. There was no Internet. If a comic book came in the house they saw it and later they even knew about the magazines under the bed. They understood the film rating systems, so they were able to decide when it was appropriate for me to go to an R rated movie - The Eiger Sanction, there were boobs. They made decisions based on my level of maturity, or lack thereof. Each decision was tailor made to me, based on the information provided to them. Television regulated based on time of day, movies with clearly defined rating systems and magazines on shelves or behind store counters.
My son's world could not be more different if it were designed by Sid and Marty Kofft. My son is assaulted by media. He consumes his media in a completely different manner than we ever did. Everything in the world is available on demand. 24/7 television is enough to alter the equation and require a shift in the supervision model from full time gatekeeper to, guide and overseer. Throw the Internet and games on top of it, and we don't even have a prayer. When I look at the media I am faced with questions my parents never had to deal with. Like when is it ok for him to play a first person shooter? Stop laughing. If you have a kid, you know what I mean. I remember when Disney released the PC game for their animated feature "Atlantis" the then head of interactive told me she was very excited about the game because it could be viewed as "my first, first person shooter." What a great thing. The world also needs "My first firecracker," "my first M80" and "my first graffiti paint." It really is an issue. Even if he is only shooting robots, when is it ok. Medal of Honor and Call of Duty 1 - 3 are all T's. But he would be using a gun, aiming at very real looking people and killing them. He loves GTA, but man, FPS's are scary. For those of you in the back row, I was joking. He does not play GTA. I don't know whether violent games beget violence in kids. I am inclined to believe they do not, but reports conflict. The Byron Review points out there is evidence of correlation between violent games and aggressive behavior, but not evidence of causation. I don't know whether FPS's or other aggressive games will cause long term harm, or impact my child's intellectual growth. But I do know, as my kid's parent, there are games my kid should not be playing. As a member of the game business. I know which ones they are. If I was not in the game business, I would be scared. I would be so scared I would advocate restrictions on games. The Byron Review hit this one as well:
There is a generational digital divide which means that parents do not necessarily feel equipped to help their children in this space - which can lead to fear and a sense of helplessness. This can be compounded by a risk-averse culture where we are inclined to keep our children 'indoors' despite their development needs to socialise and take risks.
This thought could almost create empathy for Jack Thompson. If I struggle with these issues, what is the rest of the world doing and what can we do to help? We must provide the tools to enable parents to make educated decisions about the games their kids are playing. Some parents try to blame it on the kids, but the kids can't buy M rated games alone. Parents must be present to buy M rated games in over 95% of our retailers, and they are buying them. We have a very effective rating system in the States. The ESRB puts a tag on the box with content descriptors. Stores don't sell M rated games to kids without a parent. The tags are not the be all end all. They do not completely and flawlessly preclude content from entering the wrong hands. They do however provide notice. Enough notice for a parent to read the tag and initiate a discussion with the child and investigate the game. Sound nutty? It shouldn't, it is called parenting. If you see an E on a box, chances are it is ok for your under 13 kid. Read the box, watch them play a bit, and leave them a lone. See a T? Look at the game, look it up on line. Ask your kid what is in the game. Make an educated decision. The only flaw in today's ESRB is a lack of awareness in the public. They are working on it, but most parent's don't know about it. If a game with objectionable content ends up in a kid's hands, I blame the parent. Not the manufacturer, not the publisher, not the ESRB.
I don't buy the "older brother" argument. The older brother got the game from a parent too. I also don't believe violent or inappropriate games are inherently appealing. My son has access to every game and platform known to man, and a few unknown. He, and his friends, consistently play age appropriate games. No big mystery there, the games are designed for them. If they have access to the games, they will play them. If they had access to only M games, they would play those too. But why play them when you have something you like?
The Byron Review took some heat in the gaming press and EA because one of the conclusions calls for government intervention in the rating process and oversight of sales. They should fight against government intervention. Neither Gordon Brown or the Queen know what is best for my kid and don't want them dictating content to my kid. Don't worry though, they are British. Our British cousins live in a country which allows censorship. We already fought that battle. They do not enjoy the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which have repeatedly been extended to video games. When the report addresses regulation, it is a statement made in the ordinary course. In America, it is the very kind of talk which led to a revolution. Don't think the protection is a foregone conclusion, we have some British minded politicians and 18 States have tried to challenge the application of free speech protections to video games. Thank you ESA and ESRB for fighting on our behalf. For today, these statements should be just as easily ignored as all those extra "u's" they put in words, but should not diminish the conclusions. Parents should be parents, and as industry, we must give them the tools to educate, and protect their children.
The Byron Review is the first adult conversation approach I have seen to the issue and it is definitely worth a read. I don't see how anyone can argue with this final pull from the report:
Having considered the evidence I believe we need to move from a discussion about the media 'causing' harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to tehcnology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer.