Violence for children: The failure of games age ratings

It was supposed to be a majestic moment when the planets aligned perfectly and, for a rare and precious few minutes, a national news broadcaster would finally discuss video games in a manner that wasn't critical, cavalier or cynical.

In July, games industry veteran Ian Livingstone was invited onto Sky News to discuss a new UK law that makes it illegal for retailers to sell any game to someone under age.

Though one might instinctually think that games publishers would oppose tighter regulations on the goods they shift, the driving campaigner for the reform was, in fact, British games industry association UKIE.

"You're sitting there, like all film companies do, saying 'oh we do our bit"

Livingstone, who sits on the UKIE board, agreed to appear on Sky News because he wanted to show that the industry takes an excessively responsible approach to age ratings (the biggest games publishers had already, for many years prior, voluntarily submitted their games for age certification). A new government-endorsed PEGI law, he figured, would only enhance the sector's image as a responsible entertainment purveyor.

But the plan was doomed. Sky News anchor Eamonn Holmes launched a surprise attack on the new PEGI policy, and in a loud moment of impassioned doubt, he said Livingstone was "sitting here talking about something that is going to have absolutely no effect".

Describing Livingstone to another guest, Holmes added: "He's going to sit there, like the film companies do, and say 'oh well we do our bit'."

There was more.

"You know and I know, and I know also as a parent, I definitely know," Holmes began, "that these age ratings are not adhered to. And the reason why is because, no matter what is said, if your ten year old wants this game, he will say 'ugh, but dad, everyone in class has this game'.

"And parents are buying it. They are allowing kids to see these things."

Over the years, Livingstone has inherited a sort of informal role as Britain's games industry ambassador. The creative soul Peter Molyneux might be first in line for a knighthood, but at the very heart of the British games establishment there are few people more respected than the Eidos Life President.

But being a highly regarded figure within a commonly belittled industry tends to randomise Livingstone's engagements. Sometimes he's asked to sign his autograph on a Fighting Fantasy book, other times he is chairing a debate at a key industry event, but on that July morning he was reduced again to reasoning with suspicious and cynical news reporters.

"Joe Biden said upfront that he didn't think evidence showed a link between video games and real life violence"

The whole issue is a PR one - that's at least what Vice President Joe Biden was quoted as saying when he summoned a group of games businessmen in January to discuss the links (or lack thereof) between violent content, children and video games.

Though Biden voiced some reservation on offering any cast-iron conclusions, he made his personal views clear.

"We know this is a complex problem," Biden told the gathering.

"I want you to know you have not been singled out," he assured.

According to researcher Cheryl Olson, who had attended the meeting, "Biden said upfront that he didn't think the evidence showed a link between violent video games and real life violence".

"And he said even if the research were to show a link, it would be a tiny influence compared to the influence of the other factors he was looking at."

The preface to that White House meeting remains a deeply sensitive issue for the American public. It may have been an unprecedented moment for the games industry to conference with someone who is a heartbeat away from becoming the next President, but the event seemed trivial when compared to the incident that triggered it.

Sandy Hook

In December, twenty year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot his mother in her bed, before driving her car to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, whereupon he killed twenty schoolchildren and six adults on site. He was carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle equipped with high-capacity magazines holding hundreds of bullets.

Scenes of murder of children as young as six had rocked a nation that over the years had become hardened by its own astounding levels of gun crime (in 2011 there were 8,583 murders caused by firearms in the US).

Sandy Hook stirred a voice within America that calls for root-and-branch reform to gun ownership laws. But others say it is time to seriously debate the impact that entertainment media has on young and developing minds - and that includes, however insignificant it may seem by contrast, a legitimate discussion on violent games content.

Joe Biden extends his assurances to EA chief executive John Riccitiello

Unfortunately, the violent games debate that followed Sandy Hook had quickly descended into gut-reaction quotes, provocative news reports (it is alleged that Adam Lanza played video games) and a pugnacious us-and-them mentality from both sides of the divide. A scientific link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour may be entirely up in the air, but it appears that the loudest commentators have already made up their minds on the matter.

Biden, who likely wants to keep the national focus on gun control and not games legislation, appeared to suggest that it was the games industry's responsibility to engage with its critics.

"I think [Biden's] message was that the industry needs to think of some things to improve its image," Olsen said.

"He said that even though you had the Supreme Court ruling go your way [a landmark judgement in 2011 declaring that video games qualify for first amendment protection]... just because you have that on your side doesn't mean you have public opinion on your side."

And yet for all the attempts the industry can take to enhance its image and tip-toe away from the news media's spotlight, there are internal problems it must face head-on - abundantly obvious issues that have been ignored for years partly because of their complexity, and partly because there is no commercial interest in solving them.

On Sky News, Holmes may have casually condemned Livingstone without any research to back his claims, but on a fundamental level his hunch was correct. At the heart of this issue lies an undeniable and most unpleasant fact: Young people play violent video games, and they do it all the time.

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