A couple of weeks ago I was waiting in line in GAME, a British video game retailer, about to purchase a copy of The Last of Us. In front of me was a young teenager, no older than 14, also holding a copy of the game in his hands, standing alongside his mother. The cashier asked the mother "Is this for your son?"
"Yeah," the mother replied.
"Is your son over 18?"
"Then I'm afraid we can't let you buy it. This game is for 18-year-olds and over."
"Oh," said the mother, noticeably embarrassed. "You didn't tell me that you have to be 18 to play this," she said to her son, though considering the large box with the number '18+' inside of it plastered on the game's front cover, I assumed that this was a little lie she told in order to save face. "But I'm buying it for him, so does that matter?"
The cashier told the mother that she'd check with her manager and, after disappearing behind the staff room door for a handful of seconds, she returned to the till and informed the mother that she'd be able to process the transaction "just this one time." The mother then bought The Last of Us, the youngster went home with a copy of a game he wasn't legally allowed to play, and the PEGI rating system (the European equivalent to the ESRB, but legally enforceable) was once again rendered pointless. So considering the wealth of ways in which underage gamers frequently get around the rating system, is it logical for it to still be enforced by law?
Following the Sandy Hook shootings in the US, the finger of blame was inevitably pointed at violent video games, with Representative Jim Matheson attempting to pass a bill that would make ESRB ratings legally binding. However, data compiled by the ESRB indicated that 85% of parents were already firmly aware of the age classification system of video games, and 70% of those parents do not allow their children to play games that the ESRB indicates they shouldn't be playing.
Retailers are encouraged to refuse to sell Mature-rated games to youngsters, but the onus isn't on them if a 13-year-old picks up a copy of Black Ops II - it is left up to the kid's parents to decide which video games their offspring can/can't play. This is the way it should be.
Ratings systems should be there to inform the parent, but to enforce them by law is pointless censorship.
Due to the UK's stricter laws when it comes to age ratings and video games, the cashier at GAME was required by her employer to bring into question the parenting skills of the mother who was purchasing her son a copy of The Last of Us. But this isn't a conversation that should be happening between parents and retailers – it is a conversation that should be taking place between parents and their children. Ratings put on media products should be guidelines that serve to inform parents of the kind of content their children will be experiencing if they choose to allow them to play a game that is deemed to be unsuitable for their age group.
If that kid in GAME had previously asked his mother if he could have The Last of Us and she agreed that he could, then that means that she either trusts that her son is responsible enough to handle the game's mature themes, that she doesn't care about her son playing an 18+ game, or that she was completely oblivious to the reason why her son had asked her to purchase a video game on his behalf. Regardless of the reasoning, it should not be the retailer's place to speculate on whether or not the parent is doing his/her job properly. Ratings systems should be there to inform the parent, but to enforce them by law is pointless censorship. Which brings us to Australia and the Saints Row 4 debacle.
Yesterday it was revealed that Saints Row 4 would be denied classification in Australia due to an "alien anal probe" featured in the game, that is deemed to exhibit "sexual violence" and will therefore mean that the game will not be released in the country. Below is the full statement given by the Australian Classification Board regarding the matter:
- "The game includes a weapon referred to by the Applicant as an 'Alien Anal Probe'. The Applicant states that this weapon can be 'shoved into enemy's backsides'. The lower half of the weapon resembles a sword hilt and the upper part contains prong-like appendages which circle around what appears to be a large dildo which runs down the centre of the weapon.
- "When using this weapon the player approaches a (clothed) victim from behind and thrusts the weapon between the victim's legs and then lifts them off the ground before pulling a trigger which launches the victim into the air. After the probe has been implicitly inserted into the victim's anus the area around their buttocks becomes pixelated highlighting that the aim of the weapon is to penetrate the victim's anus.
- "The weapon can be used during gameplay on enemy characters or civilians. In the Board's opinion, a weapon designed to penetrate the anus of enemy characters and civilians constitutes a visual depiction of implied sexual violence that is interactive and not justified by context and as such the game should be Refused Classification."
XBLA title State of Decay will also not be released in the country, due to painkillers being used to heal players in the game.
This extremely conservative approach to censorship is thoroughly condescending, prohibiting the public from freely enjoying their hobby due to the implied belief that by doing so, the wellbeing of the country and its citizens is somehow being affected.
The ESRB puts faith in parents making the right decision, whereas PEGI asks for the retailers to assume the role of the parent. However, the ACB simply assumes that gamers of any age group aren't capable of separating reality from fiction, and so any game that oversteps the mark when it comes to their strict classification laws is prohibited from being sold in Australia.
This hostile attitude to video games has been prevalent in Australia for years, but the idea that Saints Row 4's over-the-top, low-brow toilet humour somehow promotes sexual violence to adult gamers is thoroughly ridiculous. Gamers don't need the government parenting them, and parents shouldn't need the government to teach them how to be responsible parents.