Today’s Guardian front page story (and doesn’t it look pretty now?!) tells us that
A legally enforceable cinema-style classification system is to be introduced for video games in an effort to keep children from playing damaging games unsuitable for their age, the Guardian has learned. Under the proposals, it would be illegal for shops to sell classified games to a child below the recommended age.
At present only games showing sex or “gross” violence to humans or animals require age limits. That leaves up to 90% of games on the market , many of which portray weapons, martial arts and extreme combat, free from statutory labelling.
Now, whilst it is true that the requirement for age ratings to be followed only applies currently to those games referred to the BBFC, there has for a while been a system of indsutry-wide voluntary ratings, first under ELSPA and then PEGI. The problem, as ever, is not so much with the industry, which did everything you could reasonably expect it to without being particularly firmly regulated. The problem comes in the shops selling the games and the people buying them. Whilst most shops, certainly chains, had some kind of policy not to sell games to people under these ages, on the whole it wasn’t exactly ruthlessly applied.
So to be honest, despite it probably being in some sense illiberal, I am all for this. For one thing, if we can’t trust parents to exercise their own control over children in the field of video sales (which are all covered by the BBFC), then why should we for video games. If anything, there is more of a case for intervention here, since most parents don’t play games, and certainly aren’t likely to play a game through before giving it to their children like they might a film.
Another reason I would be wholeheartedly in favour of this is that it just might drag the games industry into a more mature place. There will always be violence in all artistic depictions of events, as the film industry of today shows. But by making itself one of the major avenues for boys (and, to a much lesser extent, girls) to get their hands on the kind of material they wouldn’t be able to get near (hopefully) in any other medium, the games industry has given itself an image problem. From the outside, it is seen as churning out games full of rather adolescent crap for the sake of it (and not without reason – it does produce a disproportionate amount of this kind of output).
From the inside, many games consumers have got themselves into such a skewed mindset that anything not full of guns and violence is seen as in some way childish and immature. Frankly, companies like Nintendo, which produce an output with some kind of balance of subject matter, deserve to be lauded for their maturity, but they receive precious little of this, and when they do, it often comes from parents, giving them an even worse image.
Gaming still has a problem being taken seriously as an artform in the sense that television and film are. To some extent, this will be the case until the generation which grew up with games supplants its forbears, and the average Mail or Telegraph reader has personal experience of playing games and knows it didn’t turn them into either a gun wielding vigilante or an acrobatic plumber, according to taste. But until such time, a step in the right direction might be brought about by this move. My logic for saying so runs something like this:
A large section of the audience for the kind of adolescent drivel which is released is probably underage. If they cannot buy it (and of course, this will not be absolutely the case, parents will still buy things they shouldn’t, just as irresponsible parents will buy their children DVDs they shouldn’t have), this market will be significantly diminished, rewarding those games companies which have staked their business model on expanding the idea of who their typical customer is (like Nintendo), and punish those who have relentlessly pursued a pretty cynical agenda of pandering (like Sony and EA).
On the other hand, this might see an increase in (ugh) sports games.