ESRB: 10 Years Later (Part 3)

PART 3: Parents Of Today

In recent years, a wave of violent games has left a portion of the gaming world questioning the role of parents in gaming. Namely, when there’s a questionable game released, whose responsibility is it if that game were to have a negative impact on the child’s development? The ESRB is often a convenient scapegoat for these issues – every time an incident happens where video games are to blame, there are groups who call for a complete overhaul of the system. Are these people just trying to get famous by taking an extreme point of view? Or do these people have a point? Is the ESRB doing everything possible to inform parents about gaming content?

“The First Stage Of Information”
Patricia Vance refers to her system as a good starting point for parents who wish to know what their children will be exposed to in the gaming world. However, she also makes it clear that the ratings system is not the be-all and end-all for parental responsibility.

As Ms. Vance puts it, “if parents are really curious, they should go online and read reviews. In the old days, you couldn’t go online and have access to all kinds of information. Now, with the Internet, you can.” As stated earlier, parents don’t have time to go though their children’s gaming magazines. But they certainly can check around online for information.

There are many resources out there for parents who wish to stay informed, and not only on the Web. Parents have to know that they can’t just buy games blindly anymore – it does take a parental commitment to ensure that the games are appropriate. Unfortunately, many parents can’t take advantage of the resources at hand, either because of computer illiteracy or because of the simple issue of time.

The Time Bind
It’s a fact of life that parents don’t have as much time as they used to. In the past, a parent could purchase any title with the knowledge that the game contains material safe for children. Now, that’s no guarantee. It takes an involved parent to make a smart decision about video games and their children, and unfortunately, parents today simply can’t get as involved as they used to.

All a parent could ask for in a video game is something to occupy the child from the time the child gets home from school to the time when the parent gets home from work. However, with so much to know, it’s easy to see why unfortunate situations occur. It’s impossible for a parent to know everything about everything his or her children do, and it would be ludicrous to expect perfection from parents. The ESRB understands this, and does what it can. Ultimately, though, responsibility lies on the purchaser of the game, not the rater of the game.

Online Play
There’s a new revolution in gaming, and it’s known as online play. Online play is difficult to understand unless you’ve experienced it. To put it simply, the game you purchased and play alone is not the same game when you play it online. A few examples of the discrepancies…

– New modes of play are available only through online play.

– Instead of playing against a controlled CPU, online play pits unpredictable players against each other in an unregulated game.

– Online games can often include the presence of profanity from other players who are unable to keep themselves in check.

In a sense, online play is the uncharted waters of the gaming world. At this point in time, it’s a new and fresh adventure, one that people seem willing to try. And it’s one that parents really have no idea about.

Since online play is so new, parents haven’t had the time to understand and evaluate the risks involved. Beyond their comprehension, the nature of the game changes completely. A one-player game of ESPN NFL 2K5 might contain a player getting very involved in the game and muttering comments at the television set. A two-player grudge match online can be a trash-talking curse-fest by the time the game is over. In a worst-case scenario, a child can hear some insults he shouldn’t be hearing for five more years while playing online. And, because dialogue through a headset is only heard by the players wearing them, parents are left in the dark.

The ESRB has taken measures to warn parents about the risks of online play, but because the incendiary content is developed by users and not software developers, it’s not an easy task. Online-enabled games contain a disclaimer stating that the gaming experience may change online, but as Patricia Vance admits, “That’s the most we can do.”

Vance goes on to state “If parents are really concerned… they shouldn’t let their kids play online.” Of course, the vast majority of children chat on AOL Instant Messenger constantly, and some would argue that playing console games online is the next step. After all, nobody’s been scarred for life after a game of Yahoo! Chess. But comparing video games to simple online games is not quite appropriate. The more complex subject matter of many of today’s console games lends itself to a more mature gamer. Parents across the world have to decide how mature they feel that their child is, preferably before the kids log on for the first time.

The Death of Arcades
Older gamers, and even younger gamers, can relate to this situation. Child sees arcade game that he or she would like to play. Child asks Mom for four quarters to play a few games. Mom asks what game the child is going to be playing. Child shows Mom said game with great enthusiasm, which is tempered when Mom is appalled by the game’s content.

“You’re not playing that game… not while I’m around, anyway!”

Who hasn’t heard that line before? Most gamers are sad that it’s a sound they haven’t heard in a long time, and probably will never hear again. Not because of anything happening to Mom, mind you, but because of the sorry state of arcade gaming.

One of the by-products of console gaming over the last 10 years is the disappearance of arcades and the loss of their relevancy. There was once a time where some of the biggest releases of a given year would be arcade games first, then be ported to consoles if they had enough staying power. Street Fighter 2, NBA Jam, and Mortal Kombat all began as arcade titles; in fact, the sequels to each of those games usually appeared in arcades first as well. This worked on three different levels. Game companies were happy because they could now make money off both the arcade version and the console port. Gamers were happy because they could play a game in the arcade and see if the title was worth buying when it eventually was produced for home systems. And parents were happy because they could see what kind of games their children were playing in the arcades – as in, before they were purchased.

The average parent was mortified upon seeing Mortal Kombat for the first time. Many parents softened when they saw their children playing it, as it showed that they could handle the game without any serious mental repercussions. So, when the game was ready for home purchase, a sizable group of parents had no problems with buying it for their children, with the full knowledge that the game possessed no real harm to anybody.

Now, compare this situation to one that we might see today…

Child comes home from a friend’s house and tells Mom all about this great game he or she played at said friend’s house. Mom finds out that the title is Grand Theft Auto 3. This means absolutely nothing to her. She sees the M rating on the box, but assumes that if it was acceptable for the friend and his/her family, then it certainly must be okay for her son/daughter. Mom buys the game for the child, only to be shocked by the sheer brutality and reality of the game. Mom realizes that she has made a mistake; however, Mom cannot un-do this mistake because it would hurt the child’s feelings. Child keeps the game and Mom can’t stop thinking of what must be going on in that game while she’s away at work.

While this is an extreme situation, it might not be far from reality in many American homes. Again, it comes back to time. Parents need to take an active role in the gaming choices of their children, and the ESRB definitely is there to aid in that purpose. But the power of the ESRB only goes so far. Just like the MPAA can’t control a parent who takes his or her child to an R-rated movie, the ESRB is powerless against parents who don’t wish to be informed.

PART 4: Parents of Tomorrow