Monday, April 6, 2015

Age ratings - "Learning to say 'no' is tough but necessary" - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

Third headshot of the day, mummy!

This didn't really start out as a book-related editorial thingy but it will end as one. It was more about this story in the Guardian Newspaper relating to head teachers stepping in to act on something that, let's face it, parents should really be doing themselves.

It seems to boil down to the word "No". Have we, as a nation of parents, become petrified of saying this word to our kids? Try it now, say it out loud. "No!"

There, feel better for that? No? Oh well it was worth a try.

Video games are seemingly still something of a mystery to a huge number of parents who perhaps don't understand that things have moved on a little since Pac-man and Space Invaders, and will inevitably continue moving on as gaming starts falling in love with new frontiers like Virtual Reality.

Today's videogames have age ratings on them for a good reason and that reason is to give parents (some of whom seem to have no wish whatsoever to be involved in what their children get up to once their bedroom door is closed) some guidance and legislation to fall back on.

There have been so many calls to ban violent videogames from parents and politicians, who regularly take developers and publishers to task over the 'dangerous crap they're feeding our kids'. Developers & publishers quite rightly point out that little red circle with an 18 in it is therefor a reason (though some developers and publishers do seem to take it upon themselves to find more and more ways to fuel that outrage, after all, controversy is fantastic for sales!)

Retailers on the front line take great pains to point out that they won't sell adult games to underage kids (but parents still buy them for their kids anyway). I was once on that front line myself, directly interfacing with the general games-buying public around the time the very first Grand Theft Auto game appeared (which looks quite twee in comparison to the latest games in the series when you look at it now). It had an '18' rating on it, and parents would still gleefully come in and buy a copy for little Timmy or Johnny waiting outside, giving staff in my store the finger while mum and dad did their thing, then waving the newly purchased game at us before trolling off to their caves to play it. Working in games retail was probably the worst job I've ever had (and I've had some stinkers - worse even than working on a chicken farm in my teens!)

We see the same old excuses appear again and again from parents who throw their hands up in dismay at how powerless they are to stem the tidal wave of awful, dreadful, foul and detestable games these 'evil folk' make.

"If I don't buy it for him (and in most of the cases I've seen, it's nearly always a 'him' - girls in general seem to have slightly more refined tastes when it comes to games and a great many other things!) "He'll just play it round his mates' house!" or "All his mates have that game, why should he be left out?" oh and as we've already mentioned, "If the companies didn't make violent games, they wouldn't be on sale, and we wouldn't have to / be made to buy them!" (which is a statement with so many issues attached to it that I wouldn't know where to start to unpick THAT one. "Made to buy something?" - What planet are you on?)

Ahem, so how does any of this relate to books? Books don't generally have age ratings on them, though from time to time you'll see a cursory and non-enforced "Caution: Explicit content" stuck to the cover of a book if it's strictly adult in content. There are voluntary measures in place - scant ones - but nothing to stop your 11 year old slipping out to pick up the latest Young Adult (YA) blockbuster. So do all forms of media including books need careful labelling to protect people from themselves?

I watched a Twitter debate on this subject the other day. An entirely different debate to ones I've watched and taken part in where parents are defending their choice to buy little Damien or Tyrion a copy of "Call of Duty: Extra Giblets Edition". Bookish parents seem to radically differ from videogame-intolerant parents in a key way - they actively get involved in what their child is doing, and best of all they mostly already KNOW what books are and aren't suitable for their kids. Quite often they'll even read those books themselves so they're fully clued up.

I believe this weird phenomenon is called "parenting". Alas you can't take exams in it.

OK I'm generalising a lot in this article mainly to get the initial point across. Saying "No" won't cause your world to spontaneously combust. When it comes to games, it might even have the positive effect of forcing Dammers and Tyrie to look elsewhere for their kicks. Maybe even encourage them to pick up a book instead. Bonus!

The debate still continues as to whether books should have age ratings like movies and videogames do. From where I'm sitting, parents and kids who read a lot don't seem to need to be led by the nose as much as parents who are quite happy to see Junior get home from school, disappear into their rooms, and be out of sight / out of earshot / out of mind (and that drags up another contentious parenting issue, what do parents DO while their kids are stuck away for hours playing Grand Theft Auto until the wee small hours?)

Sorry, I probably sound unspeakably smug here so I should describe what we do at home. I'm not as passionate about videogames as I once was but I still play them, and there's absolutely no leeway given on Charlotte playing anything that's not appropriate for her age (she's 7 but even she has friends and classmates who are already playing stuff they shouldn't be, sometimes with older siblings or even parents themselves - completely crazy and probably on the other end of the swingometer when it comes to completely ignoring what your kids get up to. Letting them do it while you balefully watch is probably worse than letting them shutter themselves away, I guess!).

Charlotte loves Minecraft in 'create' mode - has never gone online to play the mindless deathmatch stuff (I really REALLY don't get the appeal of that, not at all!) and doesn't even play the normal game mode with attacking mobs etc. Time on any game or app is strictly limited, and there's an understanding before the games console, tablet or computer even gets switched on that it will be switched off at bedtime or mealtime or when we're about to go out - with no room for debate on the subject. Ooh we're so strict!

We say "no", we weather the tantrums (and there are tantrums - I don't want you to think that Charlotte is a little angel who never loses her temper - hah, far from it!) - and that seems to be the bit some parents are genuinely fearful of.

If things ever escalated at all (and they never will), the games, the console, the whole caboodle would probably end up at the local recycling centre and that'd be that. I'd choose to remove them from our environment entirely if I thought that they'd harm Charlotte's development in any way.

Getting back to books and age ratings though, does anyone genuinely think they're required? How on earth would you enforce any kind of legislation to limit exposure to books, and how would you pick through the infinitely fine-grained nuances of YA to determine what sticker a book should carry on its cover?

It gets trickier as kids turn from tweens to teens, for sure. Thing is, I don't ever recall anyone this century going further than mildly berating an author for writing racy or violent stuff. I can't in recent memory recall a publisher being hauled over the coals for publishing content like that, and I have never once seen a call to ban all violent or explicit books (beyond the legislation that's already in place and probably wildly outdated and unenforceable in a modern digital age).

There is a clear argument that videogames are not books, they're interactive, visual, and that this factor makes a huge difference but does it really? Are we saying that the imagined world you enter when you really get into a good book - a world that (with steering from the author, and perhaps illustrators contributing to certain YA or graphic novels) we create for the larger part in our heads, is any less dark than the imagined world a videogame development team construct within the boundaries of a games console's rendering capabilities?

I welcome further discussion on this topic. Hit the comments below to chime in.