Tracy King

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.

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