Despite the recent negative climate in the gaming industry, we really do live in a golden age of video games. There are extensive backlogs of games that can not only serve as inspiration and nostalgia, but current games that have the quality (and budgets) that make Hollywood look “cute” by comparison. The flipside of that growth and history is that generation Y (me and my ilk) who grew up with the advent of video games expect them to have matured with us.
While we grew up throwing glowing pixels and turtle shells at mushroom people, now we have near-photo realistic military weapons, and the HDTVs to really punch home how much blood we just released from our enemies. This puts us in an interesting situation with generation Z and their eventual interest in video games. How do we know which games to introduce to our kids, and when?
It’s extremely difficult to separate the cartoon-like violence from actual violence in video games. Even assuming you’re doing your job as a parent, keeping the Call of Duty: Extreme Blood Edition away from your 5-year old, is Zelda throwing a sword at a flying pig violence or cartoon? The entire medium is a gray area of appropriateness, as much as the ESRB tries to police it with a rating system that everyone ignores. In order to get a handle of how appropriate they are for your child, games needs to be broken down into their components. The ESRB can only help so much before parents need to step in and be educated on what their kids are potentially about to play.
First off, the concepts of “dying” and “extra lives” are inescapably intrinsic to video games. At the most basic level, video games present a goal and an obstacle. If you fail at obtaining the goal, you “die” even if your character isn’t a person that was ever alive. Using Tetris as an example, if your board fills up and you get a “Game Over” message, it wouldn’t be out of line to say “Darn, I died.” Of course no one really died; you didn’t even have an avatar that could have been in peril, yet the concept of life and death just fits. This just illustrates that characters dying doesn’t necessarily make a video game inappropriate for younger children. It’s how they die, and how accurately this is represented.
Most modern single-player AAA titles will bank their quality among other things on graphics and art design. Bioshock and its sequel have a beautiful art-deco design, which is the backdrop for horrible atrocities justified by the plot. People die in pretty horrific fashions, and thanks to bleeding edge computing, it looks real enough to be disturbing. This facet of video games is probably one of the easier to gauge, since the movie industry has already plowed the field. Whereas movies and TV don’t have “gameplay” to compare, they do focus on visuals just like the gaming industry, and we can learn from their mistakes.
Do you cover your child’s eyes if a murderer claims a victim in a movie? (For younger children, I hope the answer is yes!) Then perhaps letting them play Call of Duty isn’t quite in the cards just yet. The same litmus test can be applied to most all visuals, whether it be killing aliens or shooting robots. Children suck up everything they see and hear like a sponge. When you feel they are old enough to watch what is defined as a PG-13 movie, then they’re old enough for a rated T for Teen video game.
Ah, but I mentioned that children suck up what they hear as well as see. You can have a game with cartoony violence but have an audio track that is a little more adult. Take the indie game Bastion for example. The graphics are on the “colorful lightshow explosions” end of the spectrum, but part of the core gameplay is a human actor playing the narrator. He’s basically talking non-stop, and what he says matters to the game so you can’t just mute it. Say there’s a game such as this where the graphics are child-appropriate, the violence is cartoon-like, but the voice actors continually make crass comments and curse. This would slip by the mindful eye of a parent only looking at the visuals.
Another side to the audio aspect is something I’ve seen at grocery stores. A child far too young to be playing first person shooters was making noises of gun fire and screams. I knew his father was an avid gamer, and it’s not too hard to imagine that while the child plays in one room, Battlefield 4 is blaring in the other. Even though the visual component is completely taken out of the equation, the sound design from these games is getting so realistic that they are potentially becoming inappropriate for younger children.
The final thing to consider when determining when a child is ready to become a gamer is story. It’s tempting to say “Back in my day, the only plot we needed was there were dots to be eaten and ghosts to run away from.” Some games still work like that, but now we have the option for games with stories so emotional and complex, just being exposed to them is tricky.
(Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)
For example, Bioshock Infinite has a plot that involves selling one’s own daughter to get out of gambling debt, a madman created from a southern baptism, and quantum string theory. That’s a far cry from your princess being in another castle. A more innocuous game like Braid has you playing a simple side-scroller with time-travel elements, trying to rescue your girlfriend. Only at the end do you find that you’re actually the bad guy, and she’s been running away from you the entire game. This is deep stuff, and while I can’t necessarily make blanket statements on what concepts your child can handle, we as parents need to be on standby to discuss these issues. Like a book club, if you give your child a game with a plot you know might be a bit heavy for them, talk it out after they finish it. See if some of the ethical choices that the game made them make sit well in their minds.
In summary, it’s not easy to weed out the video games that are inappropriate for young children. Avoiding violence isn’t the cakewalk that it once was. We must consider graphics, visuals, audio and story all as aspects of what makes a game appropriate. It’s a brave new world.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Tracking Devices: Because Why Hold Hands?