A couple of weeks ago, I was at a friend’s house for a Halloween braai. It was a big affair – their neighbourhood group organises a big trick-or-treat event and awards prizes for best dressed children and most inventive house. Wandering the streets was the usual array of devils and Draculas, zombies and ghouls, and my friend’s kid – who came as Ezio from Assassin’s Creed II.
The costume was good, complete with daggers and wrist blades and waist sash. The problem was, the child is under 10.
“Ah, Ezio,” remarked another friend, “My son loves that. We play it together, when he gets stuck I help him. The horse level is my favourite, riding along and slashing necks, it’s great.”
Now I’m no prude when it comes to games: I’ve spent most of my adult life not just playing games but reporting on the games industry in all its various forms.
I worked for PC Gamer on and off for more than a decade. I’ve slaughtered every conceivable fantasy and sci-fi bad guy in pixelated form and my favourite character in GTAV was Trevor.
But I was still a bit shocked. A part of me that I’m not especially proud of wanted to rage about the wrongness of letting a pre-teen play the throat-slitting, slow-mo disembowelling hero Ezio.
For someone who’s very liberal about most things, I have always had strong feelings about age ratings and appropriate content in games. Since the British government tried to ban Carmageddon back in the day through to stuff like GTA: San Andreas faux-shocking Hot Coffee mode, I’ve always felt that the best way to fight the ever present pen of the censor for mature gamers to be, well, mature.
My line has always been that games have to have absolute creative freedom and be allowed to treat any theme in any manner they wish, no matter how distasteful – I’ll defend the right of truly offensive games to get made although I’ll never desire to play or promote them (or link to them here, but Super Columbine Massacre RPG, I’m looking at you).
Mainly, though, I see comedically ultraviolent games as much the same thing as The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy: it’s just Tom and Jerry or Wile E Coyote with more blood, drugs and swearing. For the same reason, I don’t believe that there’s any evidence to suggest playing violent games as children makes people violent than growing up on Looney Tunes cartoons did.
But the flipside is that I do feel that there’s an element of responsibility that gamers must shoulder to go with it. Perhaps I am prudish after all, or just going through typical mid-life, middle class parental issues, but I find my gut telling me that adult-themed games are just as inappropriate for young children as adult-themed content in films.
It’s fine for an eight-year-old to watch Goofy get hit in the face by a rake, but it’s not fine for the same child to watch Vincent D’Onofrio smash a man’s head to pulp in Daredevil.
Call me a moralising old toad, but I do think that an important part of parenting is to do your best to drip feed ever more mature themes into a child’s brain at a rate they can digest and understand them: even if you can’t control their exposure outside the home, you have to try.
Whether that’s judging the right time to tell them about sex or letting them play Fallout – it’s not that worry about my daughter suffering long term harm from watching me play or playing violent games and that she’ll turn into a killer, it’s the short term issues about feeling disturbed or confused that I want to protect her from.
We can’t have it both ways – we can’t say we want games to be taken seriously as a medium and then ignore their content because, well, they’re games.
I think GamerGate is awful not just because it’s sexist and reactionary, but because it encourages us to infantilise games: a medium which is growing faster than any other and which we must understand and treat as seriously as we do TV, cinema or radio.
I’m semi-obsessed with the idea of “news games”, and how the way for newsrooms to compete with Candy Crush for attention may be to start introducing more interactive ways of reporting headlines.
My arguments against the censors who say “think of the children” to push through draconian laws that deny freedom of speech and artistic expression – which is exactly what the South African government is currently doing, by the way, with its proposals to lock down content that could be “harmful to children” – has always been that games are already age restricted already. Educate parents that the box sticker means something, and the argument for censorship falls away.
And yet among my middle class, well educated friends, Halloween was not an isolated incident. I’ve seen people who object to their sons playing with toy guns let them boot up Call of Duty. People who are pacifists, who would never let their kids watch horror movies, ignore the sticker on the games box because… it’s PlayStation, isn’t it? And all their friends are playing it so how bad can it be?
I’ve always felt that my generation – the one that grew up playing games and should innately understand the medium better than our forebears – would know what’s appropriate and what’s not intuitively. Our parents could be forgiven for their ignorance: we have no excuse not to know better.
Of course, in my typically English, middle class way I say nothing to their faces about it. I value their friendship too much to appear to suggest their parenting skills aren’t up to scratch – because that would be social suicide. Instead I silently disapprove and internally agonise because I naively hoped we’d be the generation that knew better. And I feel guilty, that somehow I’ve failed to communicate what I feel – and I think many of my games journalist friends feel – is a really important issue.
And then I write a blog about it and worry that perhaps I am in the wrong. That I’m being judgemental or that – as a friend pointed out on Twitter – if adults try to stop kids playing violent games, they’ll find a way of playing them in secret anyway, just like we did at that age. Perhaps my dinner party peers do intuitively know what’s best for their kids, and playing violent games doesn’t have an effect any way, so who cares?
We grew up on Doom and Quake and swashbuckling on-screen heroes and we turned out OK, didn’t we?