Violence for children: The failure of games age ratings
8th Feb 2013 | 10:56
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Winning the playground
CVG's investigation into age ratings, published across these pages, exposes considerable failings in curbing the extent in which young people play mature-rated content. Particularly at retail, there are glaring loopholes.
Yet there is one statistic that the UK games industry falls back on whenever violent game content is discussed: It is said that a tiny five per cent of all games purchased are 18-rated.
The claim was popularised in 2008 upon the publication of Dr Tanya Byron's government commissioned review. Since then, it has been routinely thrown up by the games industry when violent games are scrutinised. Indeed, CVG was again given the number on several occasions during its investigation.
But from reading official GFK Chart-Track data, CVG can reveal that about a fifth of all games sold at retail in 2011 were rated 18. That is more than three times the rate in 2007. The graph below demonstrates the significant increase in mature-rated game sales in the UK across the past five years, and a slight increase in overall releases.
Where does the oft-quoted five per cent figure come from? CVG was told by Livingstone that the number is reached when all App Store games are factored in. But the source of the original statistic - the Entertainment Retailers Association - said that was not the case, though it did not explain how it calculated its figure.
The graph above is not intended to suggest that the increase in adult games sales is inherently objectionable. Video games, as with any mature and culturally relevant entertainment medium, provide a broad church of content that can appeal to different people and tastes. It is a sector which empowers its creators with freedom to portray stories and express themselves however they wish.
The purpose of publishing this new data is to question whether the games industry should still brand mature content as a negligible issue.
In July, CVG asked Jo Twist, the chief executive of UKIE, whether the trade association should examine how many people play 18-rated games under-age. She replied: "I think we'd rather focus on the whole landscape of games. 18-rated games are a small part of all games released in the year."
In September, CVG put the same question to Dan Hewitt of the equivalent North America trade association, the ESA. He said the group will not look into the matter "because of the numerous variables involved with obtaining that data and the necessary costs, the information gained would be questionable at best and wouldn't justify the time and expense".
The ESA says on its website that a third of US gamers are under the age of 18.
Considering the lack of publicly available data, CVG requested information from numerous triple-A games studios, and most were unwilling to discuss the matter openly. Many said there is no way to determine the data accurately, others said the issue was too sensitive. One developer at a key Ubisoft studio said he was ready to offer "player age statistics" - allegedly put together by a major European retailer - but he eventually declined for what was described as "legal reasons".
A former Activision publishing employee said that, even internally, the matter is rarely discussed.
"It's unspoken. Everyone knows that kids are playing it [Call of Duty]. The people at Activision I worked with, senior people, would only make off-hand references to it. It's not something that's on the meeting agenda."
The person revealed his own theory on why the matter was rarely discussed at Activision: "If you're producing a piece of content, as soon as you publish research on who's playing that product, you are highlighting the fact that you are aware that this is happening," he said.
"That's a position that's really dangerous."
Meanwhile, two other development sources each provided their estimates on how prevalent under-age gaming has become. Again, the numbers could not be verified, despite the fact that both had arrived at roughly the same figure.
A former senior EA development executive said that, for one particular Battlefield game, "maybe 50 per cent of players were under age".
The person went on to claim: "The 'official' demographic data we got at EA was totally unrepresentative, because many young players are lying on their registration forms."
Also providing information was Christofer Sundberg, the founder of Just Cause 2 studio Avalanche, and a father of three. He said it is very difficult to amass any accurate statistics.
"We gather quite a lot of metrics from our players, but I've never seen any metrics about the age of our players," he said.
"Many game accounts are created by parents with a credit card and used by their kids. I am quite confident that at least half of our players are in the group under the age rating."
While there is a significant lack of official data, a general impression can be provided by Facebook. Most major games usually have a Facebook fan page, and some of these offer public data on the average age-range of a game's fan base.
The results, though speculative, suggest that the most popular fan demographics of
Such statistics may not surprise everyone. CVG recently contacted its followers on Twitter (those that were under 18) to discuss the matter openly. Their anecdotal views, published across this article, are not assumed to be as useful as empirical evidence, but instead helpful reference-points considering the lack of industry information.
The most obvious result was that all of the survey respondents were happy to discuss the numerous ways, and ease, in which they play adult-rated games. Aylsa, a 17 year-old student from Newcastle and proud new owner of Borderlands 2 (18), says the issue is "much more common than people realise".
Given how fashionable adult games are within younger demographics, it begs the question of whether marketing and publishing groups share some responsibility for cultivating school-ground crazes.
But one former Electronic Arts marketing executive, who did not wish to be named, said publishers will advertise and help certify their games in a wholly responsible and ethical manner.
"There's this general wisdom that publishers want their games to get as low an age rating as possible, so they can sell it to as many people as possible, but that's simply not true," he said.
"Age ratings are more misunderstood and complicated than that. Every game has a marketing budget, and what you try to do is be as efficient as possible with that budget. If you start pitching to an under-age or an over-age audience you begin to lose efficiency.
"Let's not forget, marketing results in higher sales. If you can't market your game properly to the right audience, it's not going to sell as well as it should."
The former EA employee explained that not only would it be morally negligent to try to artificially lower age ratings, but it could also affect the company's bottom-line.
"I know it looks like you're widening your demographic by going for as low an age rating as possible, but you're not," he claimed.
"What you're actually doing is risking lost sales. For your target market of a teen game, showing them a game with a 3+ rating might suddenly make it less credible to them.
"Now clearly, if you are trying to make a game for twelve year-olds and it ends up being rated 18, that's a massive problem. Likewise, having it rated 3+ is also a marketing issue. But I've never heard of any publisher try to get an age rating down artificially. You would eventually be caught out if you did."
Though he was "absolutely 100 per cent proud" of the way the publishing industry adheres to age ratings, he said the whole enterprise "cannot be perfectly efficient".
"The whole publishing and development industries want a ratings system that works. We do everything that's possible. The problem is that, after taking so much care when it comes to certification and marketing, the whole thing goes out the window as soon as a retailer sells a game to people under age.
"The industry can get everything right, but if age ratings are not enforced at point-of-purchase, then everything is screwed."
The tangled Web
As part of CVG's investigation into age rating laws, a gamer under the age of 18 (given the name "Gavin") was invited in to the newsroom to purchase several adult-rated games online by using his own debit card. Gavin's card is, of course, fixed with his personal details such as date of birth.
Just by using a debit card, Gavin was able to purchase Manhunt 2 - previously banned in the UK for its violent content - from Amazon, as well as Kane and Lynch from HMV's online store, along with MadWorld from Zavvi.
Footage of the results can be found below.
(The games were mailed direct to CVG and confiscated)
CVG contacted the Department for Culture to clarify whether this constituted a criminal offence in the UK. Though the government department did not comment specifically on this case, its statement read:
"Section 11 of the Video Recordings Act creates an offence of supplying a video recording [such as a game] in breach of the age restriction on the classification certificate to a person who has not attained the age specified.
"You would normally expect the individual shop owner or a store manager to be first in line for prosecution. It would be up to the prosecuting authorities [Trading Standards] to take a view as to who should be prosecuted depending on the facts and circumstances of the case."
UKIE chief executive Jo Twist also referred the matter to Trading Standards.
"We can't comment on specific retailer practices. What we can say is that it is the Trading Standards' responsibility to enforce how retailers safeguard and check how people buy products," she said.
After being briefed on the matter, Paul Miloseski-Reid, a principal Trading Standards officer, supplied CVG with a damning report of online retail practices. The document condemns the lack of precautions that internet retailers take to safeguard minors, as well as the apparent culture of negligence with regards to age ratings law.
Miloseski-Reid said he also checked the website of GAME and was "disappointed to find that it does not appear to verify the age of purchasers".
"I managed to get as far as the payment screen on Game.co.uk to order the 18-rated game Borderlands 2 to merely be presented with a 'please select your age' drop down. GAME accepts payment by debit card, which is available to children as young as 13."
His conclusion was that such loopholes are not legal.
"Should a minor make a purchase from these sites, the businesses would not have a due diligence defence to protect them from prosecution," he said.
HMV, Zavvi and Amazon each declined to comment.
A statement from GAME reads:
"Our website requires all customers purchasing age restricted items to confirm their age in order to complete the purchase, thus complying with guidelines. Age-restricted products are clearly labelled throughout the site.
"In line with the PEGI system, all store staff have been trained to request ID for all purchases on games rated 12, 16 or 18 where there is doubt of a customer's age. We require 100 per cent compliance from store teams and run refresher PEGI training for all store staff every three months.
"As the leading videogames retailer in the UK, we take our responsibility very seriously doing everything we can to advise parents on the suitability of games and ensure they are aware of the age ratings, in order to make an informed decision about what is suitable for their child."
Mail-order shopping has become a significantly prosperous business segment for the games industry. The Entertainment Retailers Association has revealed to CVG that 28 per cent of all boxed games were sold through home delivery sites, such as Amazon, in the UK last year.
Kim Bayley at the ERA added: "There are obviously other issues with things like pre-paid cards, which have no age restrictions on them, as well as gift cards. If a minor is given a gift certificate as a present, there are no checks on their age or identity".
The ease in which young people can purchase even the most controversial 18-rated games online was expressed with indifference by CVG's questionnaire respondents. The gamers' collective responses depict a sub-culture of consumers who readily buy games online with little resistance.
Aylsa, 17, from Newcastle:
"It's impossible to buy 18 rated games as I'm always ID'd. However since there's no restrictions on buying 18-rated games online, then it's pretty simple for me to use a debit card connected to my accounts to buy games from online stores, Amazon being most common. It's pretty much the same with everyone else at my college."
Ryan, 16, Welwyn Garden City:
"...online is extremely easy as there's no age identification, all I have to do is set my age to 21 and I'm sorted. In stores however is a lot harder due to almost everywhere requiring identification for a purchase."
Tom Rowbotham, 15, Aberdeen:
"While it's getting more difficult to buy 18 games on the high street, Amazon and Steam have made it far easier to buy 18 games, as there are no age checks. With Steam you have to fiddle around with putting in your date of birth, but it uses PayPal, so I can buy things without anyone noticing."
Adam Allcroft, 17, Sheffield:
"It's easy to get 18-rated games. Just fake your age on online websites and you've got them. On places such as Amazon and Play.com you only have to edit your personal information. No problem whatsoever. No checks either."
Solutions sought for an industry in flux
As a result of this investigation, Trading Standards has said it will now engage with retailers to discuss the severity of online loopholes.
Considering the ease in which young people can buy games online, clearly there is an argument for automatic age verification checks on debit cards. But Kim Bayley of the Entertainment Retailers Association explains why this is not currently possible.
"The banks don't make debit card information available to the retailers," she said.
"Whilst there is a long-term aim to work with the banks, the banks don't make that info available to the retailers concerned. That is the desired, long-term solution to this, but not one that can be implemented today."
Miloseski-Reid at Trading Standards says that deeper reform is necessary, and that retailers "must employ systems to verify the age of the purchaser if they are to have a due diligence defence against prosecution".
He added: "There have been concerns for a number of years that many internet retailers, which include some of the national high street chains, are not taking enough precautions, if any at all, to prevent children purchasing age-restricted products from their websites. The problem appears to be widespread.
"As the consumer is not physically present during internet purchases, it would seem sensible to begin the transaction with the assumption that the purchaser is underage, until they are reasonably satisfied otherwise."
Enforcement is not something that Jo Twist at UKIE believes is the ideal solution. Her organisation tries to help educate parents on age ratings - and in turn tackle the public image issues that the industry faces.
"Self-regulation is important. We should equip people with information in helping them make informed choices for themselves. I think that's the key. What we're trying to do is help get parents ask the questions that they may not normally ask."
UKIE has established the website AskAboutGames.com, a widely praised online help centre that gives parents clear advice on age ratings.
"With AskAboutGames.com, we have people up to the age of grandmothers who ask us about certain games. I think the website is doing a fantastic job in making sure parents are comfortable asking questions."
The confusion from the parents' side, however, seems to be so pervasive that softer solutions may not be enough. According to the former EA marketing executive, his own research suggested that many parents "misunderstand game age ratings as guides for how difficult a game is".
He said that some of the blame lies with parents themselves, who are "getting away with too much permissiveness".
"That's not necessarily because they don't care - it's because they don't understand," he said.
"The solution is taking an interest. I mean, I work in games and I didn't really know what Moshi Monsters was, but my kids couldn't stop talking about them. So I took a look for myself, and now I completely get what it is and I completely understand why they love it. All I had to do was go on Wikipedia to find out. It only takes five seconds."
Developer Christofer Sundberg, who has helped create several popular 18-rated games, says the whole industry needs to remind itself of its own responsibilities.
"As a father of three and sometimes quite ignorant how easily kids are affected, the responsibility on us as parents to show that we want to be involved is huge," he said.
"Our children are affected by everything ranging from what t-shirts kids wear to news on the TV and from the image of young girls communicated by the fashion industry to games. Retailers and online services such as Steam have a responsibility not to sell games with an 18-rating to our kids, but parents have a even bigger responsibility to be involved and especially not pay for games that they don't want their kids to play."
A tectonic shift of power is being transferred from high street retail to the booming online outlets. Currently, a third of boxed games are sold via the web, and that's not factoring in the soaring sales of digitally distributed goods. But although the online retail method is more affordable and convenient than the high street approach, it is generally less vigilant in protecting under-age gamers from restricted content.
As the web moves closer to becoming the predominant force in games retail, its responsibilities in addressing the 'dangers' of under-age gaming will become more evident.
Since the games business makes billions of dollars each year from online shopping, it must acknowledge that its responsibility extends to the households of the people who collectively fund the enterprise. It cannot dismiss a problem even if it is hard to spot, difficult to analyse and a challenge to reform.
The issue of violence and children is one that self-generates when each 18-rated blockbuster lands on store shelves and materialises online. Another Grand Theft Auto, now months away from release, will flare-up the debate again.
As America prepares for another deeply divisive debate on gun laws, Joe Biden has asked the games industry to ponder how it can prevent itself from being such an easy target within the national debate. That in itself, on balance, should be considered a shining endorsement.
And yet - while the industry is (for now) clean of any scientific proof that games brainwash youngsters - even the most obvious problem of minors' access to adult content is being ignored. Everyone can, and still is, looking the other way.