I’ve tried to write this one several times, because it’s a thorny subject, and because so many words have already been written about it (Kieron Gillen wrote a brilliant article about it, for example). I think, though, having discussed this with other people on various forums and in real life, that the problem I have isn’t with Modern Warfare 2 per se: although I don’t want to play it, I have no problem with people including challenging, violent, adult content in games (Mr Gillen’s criticisms aside). What I have a problem with is the fact that there was a problem with this content at all.
I need to unpack that statement a little.
Whenever a game like Modern Warfare 2 or GTA4 or Manhunt or even Mass Effect (with it’s Infamous Disgraceful Alien Lesbian Sex scene) is released, there’s inevitably a furore in the press, along the lines of “Our children are being corrupted by this violent/sexual/other* filth!”, which is immediately followed by the games industry saying “Well, it was rated 18, it’s the parents’ fault for letting the kids play it! Nothing to do with us!” and both sides continue to shout past each other without considering that there may be some value in both points of view.
The thing is, the protestations from the games industry that games aren’t just for kids are perfectly valid. Games aren’t just for kids. But to pretend that kids don’t play games is just as foolish as claiming that only kids play games. And to pretend that only over-18s play 18-rated games is disingeneous at best. Whether video games are actually corrupting our youth or not is open to debate, but the idea that a lot of parents are unhappy about their children playing as terrorists and shooting civilians in the face is indisputable, and parents have a right to be concerned about that.
A little story: When Modern Warfare 2 – a game that received an 18 rating from the BBFC – was released, Sainsburys were selling it for the bargain knock-down price of £26. Naturally, this attracted a lot of customers, and they queued outside the stores from hours before opening in order to ensure they got a copy. As they were queueing, shop staff came out and informed shoppers that if they were buying the game for their children, they’d have to make sure their kids didn’t come in with them as otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to sell them the game.
So, what’s going on here? Sure, any parent who knowingly bought their under-18 child game an 18-rated game is accountable for that. But the attitude of the shop staff was complicit in implying that the 18-rating was merely an inconvenience to their children playing the game, rather than a serious assessment of the game’s suitability for that audience. The fact that the parents didn’t consider the 18-rating something to be concerned about speaks more about the ratings system and public perception of it than it does about both the game and the parents concern about the content their children are exposed to: people – for whatever reason – don’t think that an 18-rating is something to be paid attention to. And so, for the games industry to hide behind that rating and do no more is not going to help matters.
So. I don’t think that games with adult content are a problem in and of themselves. And I also don’t think that parents who are concerned about what their children are playing is a problem either. The problem is that the system for informing people about the content of games and their suitability for particular audiences is broken, and that if the games industry continues to employ a system that isn’t working, they shouldn’t be surprised if people continue to complain about it.
Does that make some kind of sense? I hope so.