With mature video games being partly blamed for US school shootings, Tracy King asks if current age ratings for games are fit for purpose
Sometimes PEGI double checks, but broadly it’s a selfreport system
The school shooting in Florida, which left 17 dead, has been blamed on violent video games by at least one politician, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. He said, ‘there are video games that, yes, are listed for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows it, and there’s nothing to prevent the child from playing them.’
I’ve often covered the evidence for games causing violence, so I’d like to focus instead on the other part of Bevin’s complaint, that kids are playing games ‘listed for mature audiences’. The shooter is 19, but presumably Bevin thinks he was playing mature games his whole life, creating a monster. That theory isn’t backed by evidence, but it’s worth looking at whether age ratings for games are necessary and if the system is fit for purpose. Kids aren’t adults. That’s their main thing. Some kids are fine while others get upset, but parents need a way to filter entertainment. In the UK, as of 2012, the sole rater of games is PEGI, administered by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE).
One of the biggest features of the PEGI system is also one of its flaws. Because PEGI recognised that it can’t play every bit of every game, publishers fill in a questionnaire about their games’ content. Sometimes PEGI double checks, but broadly it’s a self-report system, so the publisher has to make very subjective choices.
For example, an earlier version of the questionnaire says that a game is a 12 if it contains the N-word. The latest version instead says racist depictions ‘likely to cause hate’ are an 18. This is partly because racial hate is a crime, but it demonstrates the changing subjectivity of content and harm. It’s obvious to everyone (even PewDiePie) that racial slurs and kids don’t mix, but it took PEGI a while to get there, and now it’s publishers that decide which side of the line their games fall. This subjectivity concerns me. In some European countries, blasphemy is also a crime, and blasphemous content is therefore also cause for an 18 certificate. Female breasts (age rated 12) are referred to as ‘boobs’ in the questionnaire, but in France, boobs have a different cultural effect than in the UK. The word ‘bloody’ used to be more sweary than now. One age rating doesn’t fit all.
A well as being subjective (and subject to cultural biases of ISFE committee members), according to several surveys, the majority of parents don’t actually bother to check the age rating of games anyway. Instead of age ratings, I’d argue for informing buyers about the type of content in games, and letting parents, rather than PEGI or the law, decide. PEGI recognises that an age rating alone isn’t enough, and does tag content by type (violence, sex, gambling and so on) with accompanying graphics, but they’re badly designed and there’s even less awareness of them than age ratings. They’re also subjective – a ‘ bad language’ tag doesn’t tell a parent anything useful (Stardew Valley has swearing, alcoholism and suicide themes, but is PEGI rated 7+ and is 10+ in the USA).
I know ‘trigger warnings’ are unpopular with those who don’t need them, but well curated content warnings with a colourful, well-designed signpost system are far more sensible than age ratings, and would help parents choose games based on their kids’ maturity rather than an arbitrary age limit. In the meantime, parents are going to continue to ignore age ratings, and society will struggle to have a meaningful debate about the impact of games.