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Don’t blame the game: Parents, videogame content, and age ratings

Back in March 2015, BBC News reported that parents of children in 16 Cheshire county schools had been sent a letter saying that head teachers would report them to the authorities if they allowed their children to play videogames that are rated for adults (i.e., games that have an ‘18’ rating). The teachers claimed that popular games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are too violent to be played by those under the age of 18 years. They also stated that such games increased sexualised behaviour and left children vulnerable to sexual grooming. The schools also threatened to report parents who let their children play such games because it was a form of parental neglect. The author of the letter, Mary Hennessy Jones, was quoted as saying that:

“We are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era. It is so easy for children to end up in the wrong place and parents find it helpful to have some very clear guidelines”.

I’m sure the letter to parents was written with the best of intentions but as a parent of three ‘screenagers’ and someone that has spent almost three decades researching the effects of video games on human behaviour, this appears to be a very heavy-handed way to deal with the issue. Although it is illegal for any retailer to sell ‘18’ rated games to minors, it is not illegal for children to play such games, or illegal for parents to allow their children to play such games. Many parents need to be educated about the positives and negatives of playing video games but reporting them to the “authorities” is not the right way forward.

pegi_ratings_system

Back in the early 1990s I was probably the only academic in the UK carrying out scientific research on children’s video game playing. In fact, I was proud of my role in getting age ratings onto all video games in the first place, and for writing the text for educational information leaflets for parents (outlining the effects of excessive playing of such games) sponsored by the National Council for Educational Technology. There are many positive benefits of playing video games (something that I wrote about in a previous article for The Conversation).

I know from first-hand experience that children often play games that are age-inappropriate. Two years ago, my (then) 13-year old son said he was the only boy in his class that did not play or own the Call of Duty video game. This is also borne out by research evidence. One study that I was involved in found that almost two-thirds of children aged 11- to 13-years of age (63%) had played an 18+ video game. Unsurprisingly, boys (76%) were more likely than girls (49%) to have played an 18+ video game. Children were also asked about how often they played 18+ video games. Of the two-thirds who had played them, 8% reported playing them “all the time”, 22% reported playing them “most of the time”, 50% reported playing them “sometimes”, 18% reported playing them “hardly ever”. Again, boys were more likely than girls to play 18+ video games more frequently. Children were asked how they got access to 18+ plus video games. The majority had the games bought for them by family or friends (58%), played them at a friend’s house (35%), swapped them with friends (27%), or bought games themselves (5%). This research certainly appears to suggest that parents and siblings are complicit in the playing of age-inappropriate games.

There is a growing amount of scientific literature that has examined the content of video games designed for adults. For instance, a study led by Dr. Kimberley Thompson and published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine attempted to quantify the depiction of violence, blood, sexual themes, profanity, substances, and gambling in adult (18+) video games and to assess whether the actual game content matched the content descriptor on the packaging. Although content descriptors for violence and blood provided a good indication of content in the 36 games examined, the authors concluded that 81% of the games studied (n=29) lacked content descriptors of other adult content. Other studies carried out by the same research team have found that adult content can be found in lots of games aimed at young children and teenagers.

Another study led by Dr. David Walsh published in Minerva Pediatrica tested the validity of media rating systems (including video games). Results showed that when the entertainment industry rated a product as inappropriate for children, parents also agreed that it was inappropriate. However, parents disagreed with many industry ratings that were designated as containing material as suitable for children. The products rated as appropriate for adolescents by the industry were of the greatest concern to parents.

The issue of children and adolescents playing 18+ games is no different from the debates about children and adolescents watching 18+ films. However, based on anecdotal evidence appears that parents are more likely to adhere to age ratings on films than they are on video games. This is one area that both media researchers and media educators need to inform parents to be more socially responsible in how they monitor their children’s leisure activity. A school sending out a threatening letter to parents is unlikely to change parental behaviour. Education and informed debate is likely to have a much greater effect in protecting our children from the potential harms of video game playing.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

 Further reading

Anderson, C.A., Gentile, D.A., & Dill, K.E. (2012). Prosocial, antisocial and other effects of recreational video games. In D.G. Singer, & J.L. Singer (Eds), Handbook of Children and the Media, Second Edition, (pp. 249-272). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.

Bartlett, C. P., Anderson, C.A. & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40, 377-403.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470-482.

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologists, 68, 57-74.

Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, S. & Hartley, T. (2009).  Multivariate analysis of youth violence and aggression: The influence of family, peers, depression and media violence. Journal of Paediatrics, 155, 904-908.

Gentile, D. A. & Stone, W. (2005). Violent video game effects in children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatrics, 57, 337-358.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Video game violence and aggression: Comments on ‘Video game playing and its relations with aggressive and prosocial behaviour’ by O. Weigman and E.G.M. van Schie. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 147-149.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Age ratings on video games: Are the effective? Education and Health, 28, 65-67.

Griffiths, M.D. & McLean, L. (in press). Content effects: Online and offline games. In P. Roessler (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Media Effects. Chichester: Wiley.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression?  CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

Ivory, J.D., Colwell, J., Elson, M., Ferguson, C.J., Griffiths, M.D., Markey, P.M., Savage, J. & Williams, K.D. (2015). Manufacturing consensus in a divided field and blurring the line between the aggression concept and violent crime. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 222–229.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). The psychological effects of videogames on young people. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 31(1), 119-133.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Violent video games and attitudes towards victims of crime: An empirical study among youth. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(3), 1-16.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.