Think of the children…

Once again a negative story involving videogames has emerged in the press. Except the difference this time is that the videogames themselves are the main focus.

Recently a group of schools in Cheshire (turns out it’s near Liverpool) have come to the conclusion that parents who allow their children to play videogames rated 18 are being neglectful. This goes beyond just accusing parents of neglect, as the Headteachers of these schools have also warned that they will report parents to social services for neglect if they continue to allow their children to play such games.

I can’t say I disagree with the initial logic, children shouldn’t be playing games such as Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War (referred to as “Dogs of War”), or even Call of Duty (the series has ramped up its violence since the days when it was just a World War 2 shooter). The heads of these schools rightfully highlight that these games contain unsuitable  levels of violence and sexual content for those under 18. I’m currently going through GTA V again and there is no way anyone under the age of 14 should be anywhere near that game (ages upwards will depend on the case).

However, reporting parents to the police and/or social services? If all the children have done is play the games, then this is going far too overboard. Even if said children repeat lines from the games, there are other procedures in place to deal with children, rather than reporting it to another body, ones that are already overwhelmed by actual cases of neglect.

In the letter written by one of the heads, Mary Hennessy Jones, she also mentions that children are “watching” these games. This likely includes children watching their friends play games whilst at their house, meaning that by preventing all parents in an area from allowing their children to play these games will also prevent other children from being exposed. However presumably this could also include “Let’s Plays”, in which case this is something that is much harder to enforce, because the parents aren’t the ones putting the games into the hands of their children. Yes parents can add filters to their home networks, but these are not 100% secure, these can always be bypassed one way or another (much to the dread of the current British government that wants to enforce such filters on everyone).

Jones later expands on her letter when speaking to the Sunday Times newspaper that ‘[they] are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era… Parents find it helpful to have very clear guidelines.’

The thing is there are actually clear guidelines relating to videogames, they can be found on PEGI’s (the European ratings system that is legally enforceable in the UK) website. Every boxed videogame sold in the UK has a PEGI age rating on the front with further information on the back. The system has worked very well at keeping unsuitable videogames directly out of the hands of children. However the problem with the system, like with any age restricted item, be it film, music (although here I’ve never seen it enforced), alcohol, or cigarettes, there will always be children who get their hands on them; this can often come from the parents.

This is why the Headteachers are attacking parents, because the responsibility does lie with them, and unfortunately many are not listening to the clear advice that is available. When I first read about this story I did wonder why they weren’t mentioning film or tv, as they both also contain content inappropriate for children and also carry age ratings. But I think the reason is because many of the current generation of parents grew up when videogames were still primarily made up of visible pixels. Or for those who are younger may have just bypassed the evolution that has taken place in the medium. At present it is only the parents who have continued to play videogames who truly understand the variety of content that is present in videogames, and so know what games their children can and can’t play.

Parents are understandably upset and angry in response to the plans by the Cheshire school, claiming it is a step too far. But with the government putting more pressure on teachers to report any concerns they might have, and punished with the possibility of five years in prison if they fail to report allegations of neglect or abuse; they have been put into a catch-22 situation.

Ultimately though, teachers shouldn’t have to report parents who let their children play 18 rated games, as it can be up to parents to decide when they think their children are old enough to engage with these games. But there needs to be a greater understanding from parents what these age ratings actually mean. This is not down to a lack of effort by the games industry, the onus lies with the parents, although maybe teachers could help point this out though.

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