A look inside the classroom provides an interesting insight into the age old debate of violent video games and kids
“Back in my day”. Those four words you never thought you’d find yourself muttering. Those four words that confirm your induction into, and lifetime membership for ‘adulthood’. Back in my day, we played with plastic toy soldiers and cap guns in the era of Schwarzenegger – now kids play online shooters and know the ageing Austrian only as a former politician. Back in my day, we played Snake on Nokia 5110s, when the smaller the phone the better – now they have GTA San Andreas running on ever-increasingly large touch screen devices. Out of all the comparisons we may wish to draw between the 90s and the 2010s, video games are an ultra-reliable yardstick of progress. They’ve always been around, and after years of swatting away accusations of being overly violent and adversely influential, they have now grown to become the biggest and most profitable entertainment medium of them all.
Besides writing about games here on Screen Robot, I recently worked as a Teaching Assistant across a couple of London primary schools with the Year 3 and Year 6 age groups, working with kids aged 7 up to 11. These kids are, for the most part, just like we were when we were younger, albeit in a different decade. They are obsessed with animals, fast cars, football teams and, of course, video games. And it is through chatting to them about the latter I was shocked to discover, that for each child raving about their achievements in Minecraft or great goals they’d scored in the new FIFA, even more would talk about playing GTAV – an 18 certificate title, somehow ending up in the hands of those ten or so years below the threshold.
But given how games have now become a significant part of the public consciousness, should I have been surprised? Each latest game release is huge news, and we see them plastered everywhere, from the sides of buses, to massive billboards, right through to posters on the tube. We now live in a time when Call of Duty and Battlefield have essentially replaced playground Cops and Robbers, in a period where the industry is striving to be seen as a legitimate storytelling medium, yet can’t seem to shake its emphasis on “mature” content, where violent gameplay is almost a given. I asked the kids for their views on games, discovering a situation rather more complicated than simply pointing the finger at relaxed parenting.
A quick show of hands in my Year 6 home room highlights how almost all the children, 20 out of 28, play games on a console or PC of some type, with some having recently acquired an Xbox One or PS4. Half the class tell me that games like Mario or Sonic, are “for babies”. Everybody has heard of GTA, and 12 out of the 20 have it at home. In fact, GTAV is the pride of what is the year’s “cool group”, consisting of five boys, who have set up their very own Rockstar Social Club crew for online interaction.
When asked whether they felt that the game was suitable for them, the boys were quick to insist that they “only play online”, and not the story mode due to the “dirty/rude bits” – i.e. the killing, prostitution and strip clubs. Four out of the five kids tell me that their parents were reluctant to get them the game, but in doing so, they had to agree to stay away from the single player. The other boy in the group isn’t allowed to own the game, but plays under the supervision of his 18 year old cousin, spending his time exclusively flying the fighter jet in the online mode, after mastering the technique of stealing it from the game’s military base.
However, not that all the GTA playing kids stuck solely to the online mode. One younger child in Year 3, a seven year old, spoke of how Michael was his favourite character, whilst Trevor was both “bad” and “rude”. He made special mention of the very first mission for the character, and could barely conceal his glee at the “naughty” cutscene, featuring sex, swearing, and no shortage of violence. Most eye opening of all, was his delight at describing how “cool” Trevor’s interactive torture sequence was, with Rockstar’s attempt at satirising US Military techniques being completely lost on someone not old enough to understand it.
For those children not allowed on GTAV, other games with 15 certificate ratings are permitted instead. One of them tells me that his favourite game series is Assassin’s Creed, purchased for him by his parents, as they are “not too violent because obviously GTAV has dirty stuff and is worse”. In fact, everything apart from GTA is fine, with this “how does it compare to GTA” assessment scale proving quite common. Another child explained that whilst GTAV is out of the question as it “doesn’t help [his] education and there’s dirty dancing in it,” he is allowed to play “monster games like Halo or Gears of War, or Sonic and Scarface [because] they’re not as bad as GTA”. Interestingly, whilst the latest installment was banned, older games in the series, like Vice City and San Andreas, didn’t pose a problem as they were “less violent so [he’s] allowed to play them”. Imagine that- the improvements of the latest GTA game making its predecessors, mired in their own not insignificant early 2000s controversies, seem tame by comparison.
Other kids steered clear of GTAV completely, preferring the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield. One boy described to me his favourite guns in COD. Another spoke of his excitement in getting an Xbox 360 for his upcoming birthday, and that he was particularly looking forward to playing Minecraft and Battlefield 4. I asked him what he thought about war games like Battlefield, to which he replied, “they are fun and not bad because it’s only a game”, whilst making sure to note that real war, was “very bad”. Another child only plays FIFA, and gives off an impression of outrage when I mention GTAV, saying dramatically that “it’s really bad”.
One of the literacy and numeracy teachers voices disappointment whenever he catches the kids talking about 15 or 18 certificate games in class, and emphasises how they shouldn’t be allowed to play them, but acknowledges to me that there’s only so much he can do when, ultimately, the parents allow them access. But then, the issue also runs deeper.
The changing game
So what exactly should we make of this, and should we, the consumers of games, and the industry as a whole, have seen this coming? When GTA is seen as the pinnacle of what children should not be playing, whereas the likes of COD, Battlefield, and Gears of War, are allowed only because they “aren’t GTA”, it not only hints towards a lack of parental understanding of what games now mean or represent as opposed to what they were like when they were younger, but also a new acceptance of what gaming, as a medium for current players, actually is today.
Personally, I love the GTA games and many of the other violent or controversial titles, leaping instantly to their defence whenever they are misrepresented or blamed for real life violence. “But look at us“, we would argue. “Playing these games hasn’t had an effect on our state of mind”. But when the video game landscape is what it is today, and we consider how the most controversial games are beginning to feature interactive torture sequences, as seen in Call of Duty Black Ops and GTAV, which are being accessed by children seven or even younger, the “it’s just a game” defence is at risk of becoming irrelevant. A backdrop where even seemingly innocuous titles, like Uncharted, remembered fondly for its action set pieces and thrill of adventure, charges the player with killing hundreds of people by default. Where murder and swearing is part and parcel of what we have come to expect, but perhaps not what parents are completely aware of.
A quick glance at any sales charts for Nintendo’s output shows that it isn’t just violence that sells. But in the popularity contest of a school environment, my experience shows that, for some kids, Sonic and Mario just aren’t “cool” enough next to the more mature titles. And when all it takes is for one child to have one particular game, whether they ought to be allowed it in the first place or not, it’s enough for others to then want it. Perhaps the industry should engage in a dialogue about the sort of entertainment it is mass producing.
Where to next?
Video games have progressed significantly from an era of basic pixelated graphics, with technology and scope evolving along with its increasingly older target audience, yet at their core, they will always hold an appeal for a younger audience. And after having seen Jack Thompson/Fox News/Daily Mail-style extremism and controversies in the absence of any definitive research that provides a link between violent video games and behaviour, there is room for the industry to advance further. We are now tackling sexism and rape culture in games, but seem averse to any dialogue about violence. In fact, violence rarely even faces any challenge at all. And if developers really wish for games to be seen as a legitimate art form, dismissing any criticism by trusting that they are “only games”, and therefore not harmful, whilst at the same time making a case that they are much more than that, seems inconsistent.
There is obviously the argument that all forms of media can contain inappropriate content, and that it is up to the parents to be responsible for their children. But with the games industry as prevalent and all-conquering as it is, with children always in or around its sights in spite of the age gates there to safeguard them, there should be some form of acknowledgment of its own accountabilities in making parents’ jobs even harder than they were “back in our day”.