Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Keith Vaz & the Harmful Effects of Gaming

Keith Vaz MP has made a request to debate the harmful effects of video games, in Parliament. His request is shown under parliamentary record here states:

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Could we have a debate next week about the harmful effects of violent video games? Last week, the University of Indiana published research that showed that regularly playing those games resulted in physical changes in the brain. At a time when parents are thinking of purchasing video games for Christmas, does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it is important to hold a debate on this matter? This is not about censorship—it is about protecting our children.

Over the course of the last few years, Mr Vaz has had concerns with violent video games. He expressed concerns over the death of a schoolboy in 2004. He requested an investigation between the video games and violence, stating the family of the victim felt that their son's killer was heavily influenced by the game, Manhunt. The game that was found at the scene belonged to the victim and the investigation was dismissed.

In 2005, Mr Vaz raised concerns over the yet to be released Rockstar game, Bully. This was after he had seen a screenshot of the game, depicting three school boys fighting. Raising this with the leader of the House of Commons. "Does the leader of the house share my concern at the decision of Rockstar Games to publish a new game called Bully in which players use their on-screen persona to kick and punch other schoolchildren?". The game received a 15 age rating from the BBFC and Rockstar decided to change name initially from Bully to Canis Canem Edit (latin for dog eat dog).

More recently, Mr Vaz has spoken out about Modern Warfare 3. A game which contains a scene of a
terrorist bombing on the London Underground. Mr Vaz raised a motion in the commons that stated:

"That this house is deeply concerned about the recently released video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, in which players engage in gratuitous acts of violence against members of the public; notes in particular the harrowing scenes in which a London Underground train is bombed by terrorists, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tragic events of 7 July 2005; further notes that there is increasing evidence of a link between perpetrators of violent crime and violent video games users; and calls on the British Board of Film Classification to take further precautions when allowing a game to be sold."

As a gamer it is very easy for me to quickly rush in and defend gaming with a terminal intensity that would actually probably lie in favour to what Mr Vaz is trying to point out. The truth of it is though, Keith Vaz has a point.

Mortal Kombat - Then

Now hold on, before you all run off in disgust at the very idea of a MP being right. Mr Vaz believes that there is a direct link between these video games and the increase in civil unrest within the younger community and that this is partly down to the government and the governing bodies not doing enough to stop these games from getting into the hands of the public. 

Mortal Kombat - Now
Firstly, Pop culture has been to blame for the fall of society since the invention of the "Teenager" in the fifties. Back then, Music was the cause for concern. Rock and Roll had turned our children into thuggish teddy boys and rockers. In the Sixties, free love and drugs was the cause for societies continued subsidence into Hell. The Seventies... well the seventies in general were the source of social sickness. Then we get to the Eighties and the technological marvel that was the VHS. This simple device meant that every child under the age of 18 was immediately able to get hold of such titles as Driller Killer, I spit on your Grave and other "Video Nasties".  These films according to the media were the cause for a rise of violence seen in children. Then in the nineties the attention turned to video games. Mortal Kombat and Doom first brought digitized violence to forefront of The Daily Mail readership and they were appalled. Thankfully, GTA was released and made the whole matter worse as it was then easy to link real life crimes to virtual criminality. GTA was able to teach teenagers to how to steal cars and joy ride. I have still yet to find the car that you can steal by pressing "Enter".

Gears of War 3 - Xbox 360
There have been various discussions and studies over the years into the effects of gaming on the fragile human mind. Well, after years and years of exposure to these violent journeys into the dark recesses of my mind I have the following frightening conclusions. If I don't get to play a video game for about two or three days... I get a bit grumpy. Not the kind of grumpy where I walk down the street setting fire to shops and punching any person that gets in my way. No, I mean the kind of grumpy that you get when you biscuit falls into your tea. I believe this is true for many other people. We are well rounded individuals who understand the importance of Good and Evil, Right and Wrong and more importantly Real and Virtual. I am not saying that content of violent video games doesn't affect every person who plays them, but the vast majority of us manage to play them and stay on the right side of the law. 
MW3 Box - notice the large 18

So that leaves me to question: What are we doing to stop these games getting into the hands of children?. This is where the system fails massively. With the majority of games these using more realistics visuals the need for them to be classified by the BBFC has risen. In fact, looking at most of this years big Christmas releases, they all have a BBFC rating whether it be 15 or 18. Failing that, every game case in the UK is clearly marked on the front and back with a PEGI rating guideline and content advisory panel. Retailers can get slapped with fines for selling rated games to minors. However, this doesn't solve the biggest problem and one I have seen time and time again.
Sonic Generations Box - Spot the Pegi rating

Shoot back to April 2008, the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar's crime opus was seeing its first outing on current generation consoles. Promising new levels of digital realism and with that a promise of new level of violence, drink driving and health recovering prostitutes. So, arriving at my local branch of Game for its midnight launch, I was surprised to see children in the queue. The game was released on a Tuesday, so it was a school night for these kids. At least, they would be turned away when they tried to purchase this 18 rated game. Oh no, wait a minute they had all brought their Mum or Dad to buy it for them. I decided to try and tell one mother in front of me that the game she was queueing for was not really age appropriate for her child. To which I got a verbal ear bashing for daring to tell her what is right for her child. Several other parents in the queue also gave the staff at  the shop grief when they informed them that the game is rated 18 for a reason.

The following year, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released. Midnight on a weekday, kids everywhere with parents in tow. I asked one father if he knew about the rating of the game. He told me that he wasn't worried about it, it's only a game and it's what his son wants to play. His son, in this instance was probably about twelve. Another parent told me "It's not like I am letting watch an 18 film, like Saw". Yes, you are because the game has the same rating from the same board that classified the film, Saw. Several other teenagers were actually turned away for not having sufficient ID on that night, proving that the system can work.

Age rating systems are all in place and work. What is needed is for parents to take an interest in what their child is playing. Like it or not, gaming is going to be a huge part of their lives and they want you to be involved in it. The point of starting this site was to show how my gaming life has changed due to having kids. It is my responsibility to ensure they have a positive experience when gaming. Since turning four, my eldest daughter has shown more interest in playing games with me. We have spent a long time talking about what should would like to play and have spent time looking at games in shops before choosing one we both agree on. So at the moment she is enjoying games like Nintendogs and Cooking Mama. We play together as much as possible and she also talks to me about things she has done when she has played on her own.

It doesn't take much to look at the box before buying a game and reading the guidelines. If it's not suitable for your child, explain to them why and use the symbols on the box so that they can identify what they can or cannot play. All modern consoles have Parental Controls to block the use of rated material to your kids. Its just that many parents do not know how to enable this. For more information on the PEGI system look here. Also, download the Parent's guide to Good gaming from here.

Gaming is growing up and for an adult gamer that is a good thing. It offers me epic adventures with mature story lines and action and thrills on par with a Hollywood blockbuster. I do not want my kids sharing the adventure with me. I want them to play something more suited to them. 

So, parents of the world the choice is yours: You can start to look at the games your kids want before buying them or you can keep on ignoring the problem and allow them to be exposed to violence and mature content not meant for their age.

To Mr Vaz: maybe it is time to debate this in parliament. But rather than looking at what the government is trying to do to stop these games getting into kids hands, maybe you should be looking at educating the public and encouraging them to use the age and content rating system in place. How about something like one of those catchy public service films that contain horrific amounts of violence to get the point of drink driving across? - Something similar to that may persuade these parents to take a look at what their kids are playing... or not as the case may be.

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