I remember, eons ago when I was in high school, that ratings for TV shows (like the MPAA places on movies) were a hot topic of discussion and, soon after that, congress was hauling heavy metal bands into meetings to give testimony about lurid lyrics. Of course, TV eventually adopted its own ratings code and warning labels on metal and rap albums are common these days. Somewhere along the way, I seem to recall Black Sabbath getting blamed for a suicide and Marilyn Manson taking heat in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Maybe we're conditioned to look for targets to blame in the media when something goes wrong in our real worlds.
The Supreme Court ruled last month to support the argument that the content of video games is protected under the First Amendment and that California lawmakers were wrong to restrict the sale of “mature” video games. That’s right: the Supreme Court had to weigh in on the ability of minors to buy games.
My kids – okay, my sons, since my daughter rarely plugs into the X-Box or Wii – are addicted to games, like many of their generation. They buy and trade them, and they play them to the wee hours of the morning. I’ll admit to playing a couple of games myself, but unlike the boys, I tend to “hook in” on a couple of games that I find interesting and distracting. Games aren’t all bad, folks. Some test eye-hand co-ordination. Some test reasoning skills. But let’s be honest: A lot of games are just plain fun, and it can be very cathartic after a frustrating day in the office to sit down in front of the big screen and blow some stuff up.
No doubt, video games have come a long way from popping a quarter into the slot at the local arcade to combat waves of Space Invaders or mutant insect life. Or even to help Mario thwart the giant gorilla. Especially in light of modern graphics and intricate story telling, we can get into a discussion of the impact of stylized video game violence on the developing psyche of your average teenager. I remember similar heady discussions flying back and forth over many forms of entertainment – everything from the Three Stooges to Looney Tunes to the Adam West “Batman” show in the 60’s – and studies of the damage being done to young minds by the constant bombardment of ball-peen hammers to the forehead, Acme rocket sleds derailed into brick walls, and the resolution of any problem being a fistfight laced with “Bang!” “Ka-Pow!” and “Ye-Ouch!” animated overlays. One might argue that, in video games, the player is actually involved in the story, that the player makes those violent moves with a tap of the “A” key, but I think we’re doing a disservice to both the kids who play those games and ourselves as parents if we give into the temptation of vilifying the images produced by the X-Box or Playstation.
Did you know a kid who tied a bedsheet around his neck and jumped off the roof of his garage to imitate Superman? I didn’t, but I heard that sort of thing went on. I’d say that a kid who mistook himself for the Last Son of Krypton and dove out a second floor window had bigger issues to deal with than gravity: Whatever chunk of brain distinguishes fantasy from reality must be pretty under-developed for you to convince yourself that you can fly, and I suspect that any youngster who engaged in that activity was in for a number of misadventures growing up. Now, I do remember a four year old who managed to pull down a section of acoustic tile ceiling in his basement after looping some twine to the framework and jumping from the back of a chair to swing like a pirate from the rigging of a ship. To my mind, that’s not quite as bad, although it displays a lack of understanding concerning Physics and weight ratios, but the basic goal was understandable.
Let’s take a step back for a minute. Are there “adult” images and storylines in today’s video games? Yes, absolutely. Take a test spin in any version of “Grand Theft Auto” (as if the name of the game shouldn’t be warning enough) and you’ll see that you’re being invited, in game play, to commit felonies and evade the police. In “Red Dead Redemption,” the cowboy version of the game from the same studio, you ramble through the untamed west besieged by outlaws, posses, and play both ends against the middle in the Mexican Revolution – and just about every town or outpost you drift through has at least one brothel whose eager employees offer none-too-subtle enticements to get you out of the saddle. Those are just two examples, and not necessarily the most egregious ones. (In fact, your cowboy persona in that game is judged against some of his moral decisions. There’s a morality built into the game. If you go around burning innocent homesteaders out of their cabins, the sheriff will send a posse after you. If you survive that, shopkeepers will overcharge you for basic sundry items or refuse to serve you at all, making the game incrementally more difficult – maybe impossible – to finish.) “Adult” or “mature” games are on the shelves. There’s no denying that. So are adult movies, and as far as I can tell, stores do a pretty good job of keeping either form of entertainment out of the hands of minors. At a major retailer, adult games (and DVDs) are “red flagged” at the register so that the sale can’t ring out without the cashier at least being reminded to check for an ID from the would-be buyer, and I’ve had to buy my share of games for my youngest son at the local specialty store.
Yep. I just admitted that I’ve bought “mature” content games for my son, who has just hit the ripe old age of 14. Irresponsible? I don’t think so. Games get branded with the “mature” tag for any number of reasons. Could be profanity, extreme violence, realistic violence, historical violence, nudity, or any number of catch-alls. I take my responsibility as a parent seriously, and I’ve never been surprised when spot-checking whatever game is in vogue at the moment. I know pretty much what to expect before it lands in my house. And I’ve taken the time – sometimes on the ride home from the store with a particularly nasty game in the bag – to walk through the ethics and morals of the world he’s about to enter in game play…sometimes versus the real world.
There have been some games that I didn’t feel were appropriate for my sons over time. Some movies, too. I censor what they’ve been allowed to see, play and buy over the years. One of them is over 21 now, so he can pretty much do what he wants. If I haven’t given him a set of values after all this time, there’s no fixing him now. For what it’s worth, I don’t know that he ran out when he turned “legal” and grabbed as many pieces of forbidden fruit as he could reach. I can say this: I didn’t depend on lawyers or the Supreme Court to raise my offspring.
Despite the wrangling of Californian law makers, the opinions of child psychologists, the interests of video game designers, the decisions of the Supreme Court, or the profits of X-box retailers, isn’t the core of any discussion concerning children’s entertainment a parental responsibility to know what your kids are up to?