Don’t Shoot the Messenger

I picked up a copy of The Economist (January 20th – 26th, 2007) whilst I was at the airport. I haven’t read it lately, but I was feeling a bit cut off from world events and this bothered me a bit. I guess travel does that to you. Usually when I buy a copy of The Economist, I rarely read most of its contents. This time, I did. Go me!

Anyway, this week’s edition has a rather balanced view of the debate surrounding the accessibility of M-rated videogames. Unfortunately, you need to be a premium subscriber to access it on the internets. This issue will be removed from newsstands fairly soon, so you won’t be able to purchase it either. If you can buy it, then do so. If you can’t…

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Films are not banned to keep them away from children. The same should apply to video games.

They poison the mind and corrupt the morals of the young, who waste their time sitting on sofas immersed in dangerous fantasy worlds. That, at least, was the charge levelled against novels during the 18th century by critics worried about the impact of a new medium on young people. Today the idea that novels can harm people sounds daft. And that is surely how history will judge modern criticism of video games, which are accused of turning young poeple into violent criminals. This week European justice ministers met to discuss how best to restrict the sale of violent games to children. Some countries, such as Germany, believe the answer is to ban some games altogether. That is going too far.

Grand Theft Coach and Horses

Criticism of games is merely the latest example of a tendency ot demonise new and unfamiliar forms of entertainment. In 1816 waltzing was condemned as a “fatal contagion” that encouraged promiscuity; in 1910 films were denounced as “an evil pure and simple, destructive of social interchange”; in the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll was said to turn young people into “devil worshipper” and comic books were accused of turning children into drug addicts and criminals. In each case the pattern is the same: young people adopt a new form of entertainment, older people are spooked by its unfamiliarity and condemn it; but eventually the young grow up and the new medium becomes accepted — at which point another example appears and the cycle begins again.

The opposition to video games is founded on the mistaken belief that most gamers are children. In fact, two-thirds of gamers are over 18 and the average gamer is around 30. But the assumption that gamers are mostly children leads to a double standard. Violent films are permitted (“Apocalypto”, anyone?) and the notion that some films are unsuitable for children is generally understood. Yet different rules are applied to games.

Aren’t games different because they are interactive? It is true that video games can make people feel excited or aggressive, but so do many sports. There is not evidence that video gaming causes long-term aggression; violent crime in America has fallen as games have become popular. Violent criminals do sometimes turn out to have been gamers. But since so many people play video games (half of all Americans, for a start) it would be strange if some criminals did not.

Games ought to be age-rated, just as films are, and retailers should not sell adult-rated games to children any more than they should sell them adult-rated films. Ratings schemes are already in place, and in some countries restrictions on the sale of adult-rated games to minors have the force of law. But most games for children are bought by parents. Rather than banning some games outright, the best way to keep grown-up games away from children is to educate non-gaming parents that, as with films, notall games are suitable for children.

Oddly enough, Hillary Clinton, one of the politicians who has led the criticism of the gaming industry in America, has recently come round to this view. (Perhaps somone gave her a Nintendo Wii.) Last month she emphasised the need for parents to pay more attention to game ratings and called on the industry, retailers and parents to work together. But this week some European politicians seemed to be moving in the other direction: the Netherlands may follow Germany, for example, in banning some games outright. Not all adults wish to play violent games, just as not all of them enjoy violent movies. But they should be free to do so if they wish.

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