Before going any further into this site-wide discussion, let's take a moment to reaffirm exactly
what it is that we're talking about here.
, ostensibly the topic at hand, like it or not, is absolutely everywhere, in some form or another, woven deep within the fabric of most any culture you'd care to name. Sometimes its shadow is forcibly and oppressively cast over us (here in the USA, for instance, mere days ago debris-loaded bombs were set off amidst the spectators at the Boston marathon), but most any time the word "violence" crops up on the likes of a video game site a specific brand
of violence is on tap, one which we all too willingly gulp down into ourselves. “Artificial” violence, “imitation” violence, spun liberally from whole cloth, and deliberately, painstakingly tweaked to force-feed the maximum degree of gut-wrenching adrenaline without "directly" harming anyone.
Even more to the point, though, discussions of violence in our little corner of the digital realm, and frequently a considerable distance beyond it, almost exclusively focus upon one particular recipient
of said violence. “The establishment”, or whatever you’d care to label it, volleys precious few complaints at the fact that R-rated movies tend to draw the highest degree of praise from critics, that news stories are routinely assigned priority based on the ever-profitable principle of "it bleeds, it leads", or, yes, that M-rated video games almost inevitably receive the lion’s share of both coverage and sales figures across the board. The presence, prevalence, and veritable worship of violence within society at large
is seldom what gets anyone talking. When it comes to how many murders, real or fictional, that the average joe witnesses on a daily basis, most average joes couldn't care less, and even the not-so-average ones seem content to yawn in disinterest.
As the (not always evenly-applied) refrain goes, it’s not anyone’s business to determine what grown-ups
do with their time.
Bottom line: if someone is talking about violence, it's almost always got something
to do with its exposure to children
, and children only
. Our immature offspring - our most valuable investment and our present’s only link to our future - are the ones who truly
matter whenever the topic comes up.
Or so it might seem, until you're on the far side of a Gamestop sales counter.
In case you’re not already aware, yes, I work part-time one or two nights a week at a Gamestop across the parking lot from my full-time job (please forward all “you are an unthinking pawn of the evil empire” emails to the usual address). As a regular old cash register grunt I don’t deal very much with the “technical” side of the business, and thus spend most of my working time face to face with walk-in customers. Notwithstanding the notable perk of having similar-minded employees around to discuss video games with (and yes, at this particular store they are indeed “real” gamers), by and large it’s vanilla retail work, much like any other.
One recurring thing about this job, however, has stuck with me.
Again, in case you weren’t already aware, Gamestop has a rather strict policy on the books when it comes to enforcement of the ESRB’s content ratings: if you are not “obviously” 17 years of age or higher and cannot verify your age with a photo ID, you simply will not be allowed to purchase an M-rated game in-store. If you’re a frequent under-age customer who insists
that your folks have given you permission to pick up game XYZ, just like they did
two weeks ago for ABC, that won’t cut it. If your mom calls in on her cell phone to say “okay”, or pulls the car up outside the door and waves approval through the open window, no dice. If any customer is going to buy a Mature title “by the book”, he or she is going to have to physically stroll up to the counter, listen to the cashier rattle off the list of objectionable content found on the box, and give an affirmative response in person.
Moreover, no employee can ever say that he “forgot” to go through the required routine, as a warning pops up on the register’s screen every time an M game’s barcode is scanned, not to mention that security cameras are always watching; beyond that, if I ever decided to, eh, let it go just this once
and management got wind of it, I would be instantly fired, no questions asked. If any of my superiors happened to be anywhere in the vicinity at the time and didn’t stop me (or were merely labeled as having not trained me well enough), they’d be right out there on the street with me (with a few choice words to share, I’m sure).
Offhand I don’t know what the policies of competing video game stores or other entertainment retailers might be, but say what you will about Gamestop (and yes, there is plenty to say) they have a pretty thorough means in place of ensuring that no child will get ahold of an M-rated video game from their store without the explicit consent of a parent. If nothing else, the company wants no part of the scathing criticism constantly heaped upon the video game industry by advocacy groups, politicians, and those very same parents, whose willingness to open their wallets is a big part of what keeps them in business. The latter’s will, when you get right down to it, is always the deciding factor, and it’s an especially important decision to make, because unlike even a youngster escorted by a guardian into one of those R-rated movies, a child and a video game will almost certainly end up left completely alone and unsupervised with each other in short order.
At this point I ought to note that I’ve only been a Gamestop employee for a relatively short time compared to my colleagues, but even with my limited experience I often wonder exactly when so many parents’ much-ballyhooed oversight of their offspring devolved into such a shockingly cheap commodity.
You’ve all heard the stories from somebody else you know who works at a store like mine: the clueless/negligent/shouldn’t-have-been-allowed-to-breed parent who doesn’t so much as blink whilst forking out for the latest Grand Theft Auto
as a birthday present for their soon-to-be six-year-old. There will always be people like this, of course, though we always hold out the hope that at least some of them are guilty only of occasional questionable choices made out of ignorance, as opposed to across-the-board, willfully negligent parenting. The more hours I log in behind that counter, however, the more “oh, I’m just helpless
” eye rolls I see, the more “he’s already played it at a friend’s house” I hear, the more unchallenged, bratty outbursts I witness, the more “Go play at the demo unit for awhile while I go shopping” I eavesdrop upon (one of my fellow employees has branded Gamestop “The Child Abandonment Capital of the World”) and the more I find myself regurgitating the following conversation at the tail end of yet another uneasy transaction:
“Ma’am, in case you’re ever curious about exactly what a game has in it…you’ve seen the little age rating box on the cover, right?”
“And you’ve seen that under it there’s a quick blurb describing the basic sort of content that’s in the game, right?”
“Well, right near there you can see this website listed, esrb.org: that’s the website of the board that rates these things. If you go there and type in the name of a game you want more info on, a page will come up for it, and you’ll also see a more detailed write-up on specific things you’ll see in the game.”
“And failing that, there’s at least one official website or YouTube video up for just about any game you can name these days, so just Googling around will probably help to some degree. Basically, the information IS out there if you’re willing to look for it.”
“Great, thanks again!”
How many of them ever follow up on my advice, I’ll never know.
Now, to be fair, as a bachelor with no children I’m more than willing to concur that raising a kid right is nowhere as easy as it looks from a safe distance. I can still remember the plethora of dirty tricks
that I myself used as a kid to get what I wanted out of my long-suffering parents, and as a former substitute teacher I’m all too jaded a witness to how a youngster’s time away from his or her parents can so effectively undermine anything and everything the latter have worked so hard to instill. Moreover, even as a longtime gamer who regularly keeps up with industry news, staring down those walls upon walls of cover art can still be intimidating, a reminder of how many titles I’d still have trouble explaining to a customer; I can only imagine how vast and unfriendly a wasteland it must embody to some poor grandmother or uncle trying to track down a vaguely-worded request (“well, he said it has a car in it…does that help?”).
Then, of course, comes the game industry itself, which, despite its considerable efforts to get on good terms with concerned parents, still isn’t nearly as adept as when it comes to its favorite pastime: shooting itself in the foot. Let’s check back in on Gamestop, which is loath to patch up a considerable semi-loophole in its own “zero-tolerance” M-rating policy; while the store doesn’t allow minors to pick up
Mature games, it happily invites them to put down the five bucks necessary to reserve
one that isn’t out yet. Sure, the store still requires an adult’s presence to claim the title once it comes out, and he or she is free to cancel the order on the spot, but this situation is still a more difficult one for parents to stand firm in the face of (“It’s MY money! I was looking forward to this! I already told all my friends I’d play it with them online!”
), as opposed to the standard-issue “Can I get this?” out of the blue. And this is to speak nothing of the publishers’ increasingly shameless advertising departments, which regularly flout
the PR department’s insistence that nobody would EVER try to lure the kiddies towards anything inappropriate.
So yes, shielding your children’s eyes and ears from things you’d rather they not see or hear (or play) is a downright Herculean task, and can almost never be accomplished to the extent you’d hoped, especially when buttressed with the temptation of something that can grant you a bit of much-needed quiet time as the magic of the TV screen does its job. I get this, and would never criticize any parent for raising a less-than-perfect kid (if that were the criteria, after all, my own folks would rate the very sternest of talking-tos), especially when it comes to the topic of video games, a medium whose unique and powerful allure I know all too well from a very young age. I probably also ought to note that I am about as far across the spectrum as you can get from the “just let the market do whatever it wants, and if it makes money then nobody has any right to criticize it” laissez-faire mindset, which places any and all blame for a product’s ill effects (and before anyone asks, no, I don’t
believe that video games inherently make people kill people in real life) squarely upon the consumer; sorry, but you can’t call a perennially overburdened, undercompensated public and a castrated-with-a-rusty-spoon regulatory structure a fair match for nigh-limitless and anonymous corporate dollars spent exclusively in the name of infiltration, influence and obfuscation.
In the face of all this I have naught but the utmost respect for those parents who are still willing to put their foot down and declare that they, not their child, is the one who, after considering all sides of a problem, has the final say in decisions made within their family. It’s not just me, either; I recall one recent incident during which my Assistant Manager uttered the phrase “You can use adult toys as weapons”
in response to a parent’s innocent query, and all of us in the store watched with all-too-rare satisfaction as the proverbial hammer was brought down (that said, I, like the afore-linked Herr Sterling, always find it odd how sexual content invariably seems to raise a much bigger red flag with parents than violence, but that’s another issue). And yes, I understand that not every kid’s tolerance for “adult” content is the same, and that some
room for leniency is most always needed. Most of all, I completely understand that raising your
kid is, when push comes to shove, your
business, not mine.
That all being said, every copy of Saint’s Row
that I watch waltz out the door in the clutches of an elementary or middle schooler - and there are many - still wears on me, and makes me feel like I am indeed the one showing the most interest in the child in front of me.
Every time I have “The ESRB.org Conversation”, I wonder, despite all of the outrage, all of the bellyaching, all of the impeccably-dramatized concern for their kids’ moral welfare, how many parents, tired and stressed after a long day, are so much as willing to forego an episode or two of American Idol
(or heck, just DVR it!) in favor of doing a bit of old-fashioned research into their kid’s hobbies and interests – or, heaven forbid, actually talking to them about it openly and face-to-face.
Every mordant chuckle, accompanied by a sarcastic(?) comment of “All the good stuff, huh?” uttered by an accompanying adult in response to my required reading of a game’s mature content, makes me wonder where in heaven’s name the gatekeepers of our children’s young lives have gone to. Granted, I’m citing material based largely off of my own limited experience here, but considering that, to wit, an old back issue of Game Informer published a reader letter lamenting the exact same problem a full ten years ago suggests to me that the evident disconnect between the usual rhetoric (“I’d do anything to make sure my child grows up in a safe, nurturing environment”) and the usual action (“Oh, I know it’s awful, but at this point I’ve just given up”) reaches a good long ways, both backwards and forwards, beyond my evening shift.
As far as the causes of and/or solutions to the situation go, those are issues that I’m quite frankly ill-equipped to address. I will readily submit for your approval, however, that before anything at all can be done in this area we as a society need to honestly reassess what manner of ingredients we’re trying to stir into something swallowable. We gamers constantly hear what pervasive and corruptive threats violent video games are to our children, are harangued with lawsuits and legislation in the name of protecting them from that very threat, and proceed to waste our breaths for months and years on end, debating whether or not the charges contain any merit on their faces. All the while we manage to all but completely ignore the biggest, loudest, smelliest elephant in the room: for all the bluster about how diabolically awful violent video games are, on an individual, personal level very few parents seem willing to take much meaningful action to keep them out of their living rooms.
Something is missing here, or has been outright stolen away from under our noses; until we stop pretending that the problem with the gate is that it’s locked too tightly, as opposed to swinging freely upon rusty hinges, heaven only knows what might pass through it.