Discussing age ratings in video games is a minefield and tends to attract a huge array of opinions by both the informed and uninformed. I think it’s fair to say that the ratings systems of video games has languished behind their rapid development into realism and certainly in the United Kingdom, ratings and censorship often feel at odds with the majority of gamers and common sense.
Though I don’t want to dwell on censorship per se, I found myself in a discussion with several friends and acquaintances over the weekend as to when or if I would expose my children to video games and more specifically, massively multiplayer games. I should clarify that the majority of said individuals don’t actually play video games. They find my career choice interesting and although supportive, I get a sense they see it as faddish: as if earning a living through anything other than a 9-5 is odd. I attribute much of that to their lack of experience and understanding of the industry and I happily shrug it off. If I were to pick the brain of any of them as to what games they do or don't know, they’d easily throw out names such as Mario, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft but wouldn't be able to tell you much more besides the eye watering costs of the games themselves.
So when we arrived at the discussion of censorship, age ratings and exposing our children to this medium, I felt like a lone sheep surrounded by wolves. As an individual who has played video games since I was 4 or 5 years old and having had my first foray into massively multiplayer games at the age of 11, there isn’t much I haven’t seen online. While it isn’t for me to judge or begin to understand the psychological impact of games on adolescents or young children (there are too few long term studies) my personal experience is simple: it never did me any harm.
When it comes to MMOG’s however and this is where censorship ties in, they tend to be relatively low in age requirements with World of Warcraft, as one example, requiring the individual to be 13 or over. Interestingly, that 13 year old wouldn’t be able to create an account or pay for a subscription but with parental involvement the game is deemed suitable for them. This is where my concerns for the ratings systems of massively multiplayer games really begins to creep in.
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The internet is a scary place and although I’ve only encountered a handful of moments in MMOG’s that have made my skin crawl, there have been several. Coming across a group of players role playing underage sex between each other in a quiet corner of Azeroth (stupidly in public chat, not party) or having an individual in my previous guild attempt to start a sexual relationship with a young member that required police intervention (it transpired she was only thirteen), often made me question as to why the genre wasn’t better policed or required a higher age rating. Fortunately in both these examples the developers were quick to take action against the perpetrators but that doesn’t stop the continued barrage of abusive or inappropriate discussions taking place in public chat channels.
As a recent example, I felt compelled to report an individual in the Elder Scrolls Online for continually referring to others in the advice channel as having Downs Syndrome. I’m not easily offended but I wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour in a public place, they likely wouldn’t say it and no one needs to hear or read such rubbish while trying to enjoy a video game. Ten minutes after reporting him I’d received a response from the GM’s and they’d dealt swiftly with the player. Sadly it wasn’t an isolated incident and isn’t game specific: it’s genre wide.
Even yesterday while playing WildStar, Battleground chat was littered with players trading abuse at one another while the /advice chat has reached saturation point for the number of individuals who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a keyboard. Although World of Warcraft and WildStar are peddling Teen ratings (more than appropriate if you extract the players) it’s entirely inappropriate based on the human interaction the games require. You could play an MMOG without ever speaking to anyone by leaving all chat channels and refusing all grouping but the ability to police this, even as a responsible parent, is incredibly slim.
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The ESRB ratings system in the United Kingdom defines a Teen rating as: "Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language", and yet it completely overlooks the humans that players interact with. Assessing exposure to violence, themes and humor is all well and good but there’s often nothing more cruel or vile than human behaviour. I’m sure my old guild mate as an active father playing video games alongside his daughter never envisaged a predatory paedophile would try to meet her in real life.
Perhaps these examples paint an unsavoury picture of the genre considering there are plenty of other online games which are just as putrid (MOBA’s or First Person Shooters are notoriously rude and abusive) but there’s inherently more exposure to inappropriate behaviour in massively multiplayer games due to the open and communicative nature of the game.
Despite all this, I’d never seek to hang up my adventurer boots simply because those who do spoil the play and enjoyment of others make up a minority and while they might be vocal, the ignore button and /report work wonders. To return back to the original question though, of whether I’d expose my own children to the genre, I think it’s inevitable but I’ll only know when to based on my childs maturity and sensibilities. With a daughter who’s almost three already showing a keen interest and a son soon to arrive, I’ll have to cross that bridge when they’re both older and as a parent do my best to protect them without preventing them from playing.
What are your thoughts on age ratings in massively multiplayer games? Do you think children as young as 13 should play them? Let us know!