So, the President of the United States has decided to take some steps, or at least look like he’s about to take some steps, to address the violence in American media, most notably video games, in order to address the epidemic of gun violence in recent years. Ignoring the fact that this is stupid, it also is a good reminder that a lot of people, especially older parents, aren’t super familiar with video games, as well as they way they’re rated. So, I thought I’d take a second to talk about just that.
Hyperrealistic Violence Is Not The Norm
So, some video games are violent. Trying to argue against that is stupid, plenty of video games are violent. However, not all_of them are. In fact, when you look at the top 10 selling video games of 2017 (according to Forbes), three feature violence against realistic human enemies (Call of Duty: WWII, Grand Theft Auto V, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands) . Three feature nonrealistic violence against fantasy enemies (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Destiny 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront II) , and four feature either no violence or minor cartoon violence (NBA 2K18, Madden NFL 18, Super Mario Odyssey, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe).
If you pivot over to the top 10 rated games of 2017, according to Metacritic, which aggregates the scores from assorted sources, the number of games with realistic violence drops to….zero. Literally none. Pretending that all video games are this horrible bloodbath is hilariously untrue. One of the breakout successes in gaming in 2016 was a game about farming, and every kid under the age of 13 right now is obsessed with a game about building stuff. It is perfectly possible to spend years playing some extremely good video games without ever killing a human being in any of them.
Video games are becoming increasingly varied in their subject matter as the years go on, although, admittedly, there are still a decent number of games out there about shooting guys. Call of Duty, the most prominent series about shooting guys, has been suffering declining sales for the last few years, however. So, the market isn’t quite as obsessed with shooting guys as your local congressman or a violent game montage on Facebook might suggest.
If you want some solid recommendations for squeaky-clean games, try:
- Stardew Valley is a game about inheriting your grandfather’s farm out in the countryside, and growing crops and expanding your farm while getting to know the people in the small town you now live in.
- Splatoon 2 (pictured above) is technically a shooter, but takes place in a hyperstylized worlds of squid…kids? The objective of the game is not to kill your opponents, but rather to paint the multiplayer map in your team’s color of ink, although “splatting” your opponents with ink is a critical part of gameplay.
- Civilization VI is a large-scale strategy game where players control an entire civilization as it grows throughout the ages.
Not All Video Games Are For Kids
Despite stereotypes about video games, the simple fact is that the target demographic for most games is not kids. We can look at the demographics data provided by the Entertainment Software Administration, the self-governing body which monitors and polices the games industry, and see some interesting details.
- The average age of someone who plays video games is 35. The average woman gamer is 37, the average man 33
- Only 18% of men who play video games are under the age of 18. This number drops to 11% for women.
While there is certainly a market of games which are targeted for kids, pretending that most people playing video games are children is incorrect.
Anyone who’s bought a video game probably knows about the ESRB rating system. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a branch of the aforementioned ESA, is responsible for rating video games which are sold in some (but not all) online storefronts, as well as most retail stores. In case you are unfamiliar, here are all of their ratings:
We’re going to actually ignore the AO rating for the moment. It’s reserved for extreme violence and lukewarm sexual content (we’ll get to that later), and few retail stores and many online stores will outright refuse to sell AO games, so there aren’t that many. When you look at the aforementioned ESA demographics report, you’ll see that 88% of all games rated by the ESRB are rated E, E10+, or T, with only 11% being rated M.
The ESRB’s rating system definitely works, at least to some degree. In the ESA report, 85% of parents said they understood the ESRB rating system. 90% of parents are present when their child purchases a video game. However, as a parent, there are some things worth noting about the ESRB that aren’t exactly common knowledge:
- The ESRB was created in the 90s, during our last big video game moral panic. Much like the MPAA which rates and polices movies, the ESRB is not a government agency, but instead is composed of members of the industry itself. While one of its key goals is to inform the general public as to the content of video games, another of its key goals was to get the US government off of the games industry’s butt.
- The ESRB, much like American media in general, tends to look at sexual content much more harshly than violence. This video describes it much better than I can, but long story short, violent games tend to get lower age ratings in the US than outside of it, while games with even softcore sexual content tend to get rated much higher.
- The ESRB doesn’t rate all games. With the advent of the Internet and online marketplaces such as Steam, the largest online game marketplace which does not require ESRB ratings, it’s fairly easy to release unrated games. Also, since getting an AO rating is essentially a sales death sentence in most marketplaces, the games that would get it usually just don’t bother and aren’t sold in those markets.
- The ESRB doesn’t actually play through the entirety of the games they rate. As they themselves state in their rating process, developers send in a filled-out questionnaire along with a video reel of relevant material, which is reviewed and rated by the board. This means that, hypothetically, a developer could just not disclose the more objectionable parts of their game to get a lighter rating. While there have been accusations of people doing so, I can’t find any reported instances from reliable sources.
The ESRB rating range is also fairly limited. Members of the industry most frequently complain about the very wide spectrum of content covered by the M rating, between what are often called “hard” Ms versus “soft” Ms.
For instance, Halo: The Master Chief Collection has an M rating. In it, heavily armored soldiers attack very colorful, non-realistic enemies with fantastical weaponry, with little gore and no dismemberment. There are occasional instances of blood when human NPCs die, but it’s not an emphasis and the player character is never instructed nor incentivized to attack other humans. That’s an M.
Another game that got the same M rating is Dead By Daylight. In this multiplayer game, a team of four “survivor” characters, most of whom are teens to young adults, must elude a fifth player who plays a serial killer. The killer character is attempting to kill or otherwise incapacitate the four survivors, with means including but not limited to: knives, axes, cudgels, bonesaws, chainsaws, bear traps, and impaling them on giant meat hooks. All of this is depicted with large amounts of blood and gore. Oh, and the killers from Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Saw are all available as playable characters. Same rating as Halo.
Then there’s House Party. Besides being kind of a garbage game, House Party is a game in which the player is at an adult house party, at which they can perform a variety of explicit sexual acts, including the fact that there are literally buttons exclusively for unzipping one’s pants and pleasuring yourself. House Party, as a PC only release, doesn’t have an ESRB rating, and its Steam page can be accessed through an easily-bypassed age gate. (Also, and I really cannot stress this enough, this game sucks)
The point I’m trying to make is that while ESRB ratings can be useful, and are an alright way to roughly guesstimate the content of a game, there are problems with this system, and if you want your kids to only be playing games appropriate to them, looking at the big letter in the corner cannot be where you stop.
If you’re a parent whose kid plays video games, just looking at the ESRB rating on the box isn’t going to cut it, since it might not even be there, and if it is it might be underrepresenting some element of the game. The only way to accurately understand what is in a game is to actually do some research yourself.
Ideally, you yourself as a parent would play the game yourself in order to get a sense for the content, but not all parents are into video games, and (presumably) you have less time to play video games than your child, so you’d be forgiven for not doing so.
Luckily for you, the Internet has nothing if not a glut of people who make their livings playing, recording, and talking about video games. If you want to get a decent idea of what is in a video game before buying it for your kid, there are a variety of ways to do it.
Some websites, such as Common Sense Media, do in-depth reviews of media, including games, in order to try and give parents a better idea of what’s exactly in the content their kids are consuming. One nice thing they do is break down exactly where objectionable content is in games. However, as is the case with any group that attempts to rate the family-friendliness of media, their ratings are subject to their moral compass. Their age rating of a game will increase with the presence of same-sex relationships, the presence of smoking or alcohol (regardless of who is smoking or drinking), or consumerist behavior, which may not line up with what actually concerns you. So, rely on the write-ups more than the final age rating.
It’s also worth stating that there are a lot of people who upload videos of themselves playing any given game to YouTube, and you’d be hard pressed to find a game for which a YouTube search of “<game title here> gameplay” won’t bring up > 100,000 results. If you wanna see what a game is like moment to moment, search for exactly that, and watch some of the videos of people playing it. A lot of these videos have commentary, some with extremely insightful commentary, but most with just people screaming. While most of these videos are meant to entertain, a subset of them put themselves forward as consumer resources, designed to give a detailed impression of the games they are playing. These are probably going to be your best bet for figuring out how appropriate a game is.
Here are some sources for information with regards to games that I’d give my personal seal of approval:
- Giant Bomb is probably the most entertainment-focused thing I’ll recommend. While their videos themselves are not kid friendly, their “Quick Looks” are designed to be small encapsulations of what a given game’s experience is like, with an emphasis on providing an entertaining overview of a game to inform consumers. Giant Bomb is staffed by a number of veterans of games journalism, who can provide valuable insights into the game they’re playing. It can get “inside baseball” at times, but they’re still a good way to get a quick snapshot of what a game is.
- TotalBiscuit, real name John Bain, is a YouTuber who specializes in PC games, meaning he covers a lot of those games that slip by the ESRB. Again, his videos themselves are not kid-friendly, but he does provide lengthy videos about games, with an emphasis on consumer advocacy and helping people make informed purchases. This heavily leans more towards trying to power consumers to be informed buyers, but it’s still a good place to find substantial gameplay clips of PC games.
- If you search “<game title here> let’s play no commentary” on YouTube, you’ll often find people playing through video games without any commentary on their own. If you find the input of the players distracting or obnoxious, finding one of these will let you see the game exactly how it is with no outside distractions. Rabid Retrospect Games is a channel that does a lot of commentary-free playthroughs of modern games.
If you want your kid to avoid the (fictional) scars caused by being exposed by inappropriate video games, as a parent, your options basically boil down to two. The first is to do nothing, and just let them get whatever, and then get mad at some scapegoat when it turns out they’re playing some ultraviolent murderfest. The second option is to take an active role in your kid’s engagement with video games. Figure out what the games they’re playing actually are, and decide for yourself whether or not it’s appropriate for your family.
Actually, better yet, actually sit with your kid while they play games every once in a while. You don’t need to be cheering them on or rooting for them (actually, if anything that’d probably mortify them). Hell, do some work on your laptop or do a crossword or something. Watching your kid play video games will, however, let you see how your child reacts to a game, which is infinitely more valuable to you as a parent than knowing what’s in a game.
After all, every kid is different. Plenty of kids can start to watch violent and scary movies and playing violent games from a young age without any significant effect. I (hopefully) was one of them. Other kids might take certain “mature” content in a way that is worth dealing with as a parent. The only way you’re going to know is if you actually observe them for yourselves. If you see a reaction or behavior from them while they’re playing a game, something maybe concerning or even just kinda weird, then you as a parent can hop in and talk about it with them. And, if your kid is one of the ones who can see a dude get exploded into a hundred pieces without significant behavioral or emotional damage, as many are, then you’re “only” spending some quality time with your kids.
Oh, one last thing. If your kids are one of the ones that scream obscenities in online games, get them to stop that. We have enough of those. We don’t need your kids doing it too.